SO MUCH HAS BEEN said and written about this stunning, prolific author that many of us have strong perceptions of her, be they right or wrong. I tried to bring an open mind, and a sincere desire to know her better to this conversation. It was difficult to leave my feelings of awe, extreme admiration, and a fair amount of hero worship at the door…
– Mary Anne Kolton
MAK: Kathryn, it’s hard to know where to begin with you. I’ve read and loved all of your books and just finished reading most of the interviews you’ve done. You are an iconic, truth-telling writer who has given us much to consider, including your newest book, Enchantments.
After encouraging all of us to rake through the ashes of your personal life in Seeking Rapture: Scenes From a Woman’s Life, The Mother Knot: A Memoir and The Kiss: A Memoir, you leave us wondering: how have you managed to maintain your equilibrium?
KH: I admit I encourage you to look, but I’m the one who does the raking. And I’m doing that for me. I feel I’m unusually fortunate in having a genuinely symbiotic relationship with my work — it exists because of me, and I because of it. Certainly it’s the only means I have to approach anything like balance.
The phrasing of the question makes it sound as if I leave readers struggling to find balance, or maybe I’m just projecting. Because that’s what I want. I want to write well enough to seduce you into watching me unfold the story. And when the story has ended I mean for it to have destroyed your equilibrium.
I love it when people write to tell me what weird and disturbing dreams they’ve had after reading something I’ve written. That response is better even than the praise, because it means that my words slipped past that reader’s defenses and into his or her unconscious.
There are soothing books, books to which I return when I’m tired and want to be diverted from one or another tribulation. I like them — at times I depend on them — but I don’t write them. I don’t intend to, and I wouldn’t know how.
MAK: Almost all the authors I’ve interviewed have had less than ideal childhoods — some bordering on the horrific and appalling. Most of them don’t or can’t write about them. The symbiosis you describe is perhaps one of the reasons your work is deeply seductive.
You were raised by your grandparents? What were you reading as a child?
KH: I was raised by my mother’s British parents, and my grandmother’s conviction that hers was the superior culture meant that most of the books my mother read as a child were British. They remained on the shelves and beckoned all the more for being from another culture — I could get all the American books I wanted from school or the library. And they offered a tangential connection to my seductive and elusive mother.
Most of them had to do with magic. Andrew Lang, especially The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie. E.M. Nesbit. Enid Blyton — both The Enchanted Wood and Wishing Chair series and her Holiday collections of short stories. Most of these concerned naughty children and their comeuppance. A girl whose punishment for pulling the cat’s whiskers was to grow a set herself — that kind of thing. P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, which are a lot scarier than the movie.
I went on to discover C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time. I can see Mrs. Who’s illustration of the ant crossing the thread to illustrate the tesseract. The Phantom Tollbooth. A Cricket in Times Square. The Borrowers. But stories didn’t have to be fantastic. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books over and over. Harriet the Spy. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Black Beauty. The series that begins with The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. Cherry was a precursor for Nancy Drew, whom I also liked.
MAK: The wonderful mists of magic realism. I found Enchantments to be a carefully woven tapestry of Russian history, magic, innocence, and the drumbeat of what is to come.
You also weave strong threads of another compelling father-daughter relationship throughout. The unknowable Rasputin and his child, Masha. This theme appears in so many of your novels. Is this done by design or subconsciously?
Word traveled quickly, more quickly than it would had any other man’s body been dragged from the river…A crowd of people had come running to where we’d stood before, on the frozen river. They came from their homes with bowls and jugs and cast-iron kettles — anything that would hold water…I saw an old woman lugging a chamber pot. Now that would have made Father laugh until he hooted and howled and dried his eyes with the heels of his hands — the idea of a withered crone ladling his ghost into a chamber pot.
KH: Because I’m aware of it, I think of it as more helpless than unconscious. But I don’t have much more control over how a novel unfolds than I do over how a dream plays out while I’m sleeping, so in that sense what I write is certainly steered by my unconscious.
And, on a conscious level, my relationship with my father still torments me — I expect it always will.
MAK: You have said that you read and enjoy Freud’s writings. Does it make a difference that many of Freud’s theories have now been discounted as a basis for psychological thought as we know it?
KH: Well, Freud remains a monolithic figure, the father of psychology, a flawed father, with his blind spots — he was, after all, human — but a thinker of profound influence, his centrality proved by the seemingly endless urge to contradict or disprove his theories.
I think if Jung’s insights are collated with those of Freud, together they offer an unparalleled means of understanding the unconscious, which — post analysis — is not only a personal preoccupation but a means of understanding human action and relationships.
That said, Freud’s lexicon — unconscious, repression, sublimation, libido, transference, id, ego, super-ego, oedipal, neurosis, anxiety, obsession, anal, traumatic hysteria, defense, projection, reaction formation, repetition compulsion (and these are just off the top of my head) — has so permeated our language and our way of approaching the psyche that one reason I set novels in eras that predate his influence is to work in a world in which the unconscious remains hidden and I am not allowed to use any of the terms on the page. But even in that world my thinking is informed by his (and Jung’s and many other of his inheritors) vision.
MAK: I was hypnotized by the lyricism and elegant, passionate prose of your book Exposure: A Novel, but it pained me, and suggests that a reader might want to approach your work carefully. Should readers start with a book like Envy prior to delving into the darker side of your writing?
KH: I don’t know about beginning with Envy: A father and mother try, with limited success, to recover from the drowning death of their young son. Will, the husband, makes a grief-addled foray into a past overshadowed by his doppelganger, a disfigured twin who is an Olympic swimmer, and who, Will discovers, has betrayed him in an insidious and truly malevolent manner.
And then the unrepentant bad girl appears, bent on vengeance. I enjoyed writing that character — how could I not when she sexually manipulates a father-figure and nearly destroys his life? — and I hope she affords the reader amusement in her endless capacity for sexual mayhem. But I don’t know that there’s much else to celebrate. In fact, had I the chance to revise the ending once more, I’d finish on a bleaker note, without any apparent hope for the marriage’s recovery.
Maybe The Seal Wife would be a better starting place? At least it has an ambiguous, Gone With the Wind kind of closure: will Bigelow’s mute lover stay with him, or will she leave again and break his heart once and for all?
I don’t think of Exposure as being particularly dark, at least among my novels. Maybe because the shoplifting is fun? Sexual abuse; life-threatening illness; death; suicide; betrayal; murder: at least two of these advance the plot of each of my novels. But despite my dark preoccupations, I think I can be playful, and in that way provide solace and even pleasure. For a novel that ends in the assassination of an entire family, Enchantments is almost lighthearted. At least it does consistently lift the characters out of their dire predicament, if only by using “magical realism.” I do wish there were a better term for fiction that’s informed by the conventions of folk tales and myths. The kind of stories that unfold around a fire as the night presses in. The kind that require some form of alchemy to spite the darkness.
MAK: Can you tell me how you came about the idea for the Seal Wife? So spare and lovely.
KH: I was fortunate to have been raised by two elderly European Jews, both of whom had lived in far-flung places, and who loved to tell stories. Just as The Binding Chair plundered my grandmother’s history, The Seal Wife was based on the early life of my grandfather, whose wanderlust carried him to Anchorage Alaska in 1917, before the city was a city. He was there at the land auction, lived in the tent city. As a young man (he was 18 in 1917) from very humble circumstances, he had the freedom to travel because of his unusual math abilities — in the age before adding machines, he was just as fast and accurate; it didn’t matter how long the numbers or how many. Wherever he went he found work as a bookkeeper, and I gave that mathematical genius to Bigelow, the character modeled on my grandfather.
In Anchorage, my grandfather knew a woman called Six Mile Mary (she lived 3 miles out of town, so six was the round trip) and he had photographs of her. He took a lot of pictures of Alaska, very beautiful, black and white. He developed them himself. When I saw the one of Six Mile Mary smoking a pipe, I fell in love. I was six, maybe seven, and I knew I’d discovered something important, an independent female power that stood in contrast to all I understood from my mother — her vanity table, the perfumes and cosmetics. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly what held me as a child, but it kept me returning to the image: a woman, all alone, with a pipe in her hand, a dog, a hovel, that was it. She seemed self-contained, silent, content in her isolation. Her life seemed both grand and mysterious. When I began The Seal Wife I had Bigelow marrying the tent singer, as my grandfather had in real life. But I couldn’t keep Six Mile Mary out of the story; she’d had a great impact on me over the years and still lived — and lives — within me. By the second draft she’d taken over, as the silent Aleut woman: the seal wife. And, of course, the novel was also inspired by the fairy tale of the same name.
MAK: How do you answer those who would say you should have written the personal books as novels? That you did not have to expose your family in the way you did, and did so only because someone encouraged you to do it, or because there was more money to be made in disclosing the personal aspect of the stories.
KH: Well, you’re asking about one book, really, aren’t you? The Kiss. Not that I haven’t written other things that are personal, and have invited judgment, just that that book is the real lightening rod. I don’t listen much to “those who would say” whatever they say. I strove for years, and failed, to win my tormented young mother’s love and admiration; then, to keep what I believed was my father’s love, I gave him whatever he demanded. I emerged from my father’s grasp changed: I understood that my desire for love had cost me my integrity, and, as I hadn’t ended my life, I would live it differently. Even if, as my father told me and I believed, no one would ever love me. I knew, at great cost, that what I understood about myself was more important than what anyone else might think or say about me.
I tried writing the story as fiction — Thicker than Water, my first novel — and discovered, too late, that I had betrayed myself again. One of the motivations for writing The Kiss was my increasing discomfort over having presented the story of what happened between me and my father as fiction: I’d done as society dictates a daughter should: I’d said, in essence, “I made it up. It didn’t really happen.” But it did. And that’s an important difference in this case. To me, it was.
As for exposing my family, I didn’t. I exposed myself. No one encouraged me to allow the story to be published as nonfiction — on the contrary, anyone who cared about me tried to warn me what the public response would be like. I guess I’d lived with my history so long I’d lost the ability to imagine other people’s outrage over incest. Which is proper — this is how taboo functions in society: shaming/shunning/exile. I was surprised by the virulence of some of the attacks, and of strangers’ eagerness to judge me on the basis of a book they hadn’t read. But ultimately, none of that matters. The book has many more ardent supporters than enemies.
And I don’t write anything to put in a drawer. Especially not that book; as a human being as well as a writer I had to tell the story as it was, in nonfiction: it had to be heard. So much of what I write — female characters in particular — are about giving a voice to the silenced. Had my father not been able to depend on my keeping his secret, he’d never have been able to manipulate me into sex. But I’d learned what the world taught me: what had happened was unspeakable. And then, later, I learned the cost of keeping such a secret. Of being silenced about what had nearly ended my life. And I knew there was value in having such an account out there — I’d looked for one myself, desperately, when I was involved with my father. The one thing that did surprise me about the publication was some people’s insistence that I should never have spoken up. One review even ended with the words “Shut up.” It was by a woman. I guess her life had been a lot different from mine.
It’s easy to judge a person whose experience you refuse to acknowledge. To say she’s lied, she’s not thinking of her children, she did it for the money. And of course those are all the standard slurs made against a woman who gets out of line: call her a liar, a bad mother, a whore for doing it for the money. As to that, the big advance was a rumor. There was no money involved. My publisher expected a novel for which they’d already paid an advance and agreed to swap in a memoir.
MAK: Is there a new book we should know about?
KH: I am currently working on a biography of Joan of Arc.