Generally Horrible Questions: Kathryn Harrison
1. What's the latest book you’ve read that you just can’t stop talking about?
I’m working on a biography of Joan of Arc, so all the books I’ve been reading for the past year have pertained to her, or to her time and place. I’m surrounded by stacks of them: translations of the transcripts of the trials that sent her to the stake and posthumously reversed the guilty sentence; interpretations of what it means to hear and see angels; history books like Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages; cultural anthropologies such as Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe by V. R. Hotchkiss; old standards on religion & mysticism—Frazier’s The Golden Bough, Wm James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by …. books that fascinate me but that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to another reader. [On the contrary, this is a reading list that would make a terrific syllabus for a college course--one we'd like to take.]
2. Your historical novels are incredibly rich in detail. Is it true that The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, and even Enchantments are in some way tied to your grandparents?
Yes, I was lucky to have been raised by grandparents whose very different early lives unfolded in exotic places. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know stories my grandparents told me, stories that will inform my writing forever. It began when I was very young, at bedtime, in the dark, when I was falling asleep, that liminal time, consciousness slipping toward the fantastic, toward dreams. And as an only child, who spent a great deal of time alone, I entered those landscapes when I was awake and daydreaming, there were no other children to distract me, to pull me back into the present world.
3. The Kiss was recently re-issued by Random House. Originally published in 1997, how do you imagine it would be received and reviewed if it were to just be released in 2012?
I think it would play out the same way again: different journalists, reviewers, but the same basic response. What’s different now?
I remember bumping into Molly Haskell about a month into the original publication, and when she asked how I was doing I admitted I felt bewildered by the whole fracas, and that I’d imagined the quality of the writing would have protected me from critics anyway. She just laughed and said, That’s the very thing that’s making them angry—because it’s too well written. It’s a book they’d like to dismiss, but they can’t.
I hadn’t understood that—I’d worked to make it true, but I didn’t see the price of succeeding: anger. Not from everyone of course. It was strange, as a writer, to be told it was a topic that wasn’t for literature. Not for a writer like me to own.
I think it would still be a book they couldn’t dismiss. It would still make people angry. I hope it would.
There is no book I’m ashamed to have read.
5. I have never read ________ and I am so ashamed?
There is no book I am ashamed not to have read. A few I wish I could read in the original language. Especially Japanese novels.
6. Which of your books would make the best movie?
Exposure has been optioned, over and over, and there has been interest in The Seal Wife. Those two strike me as more easily translated into film.
7. What book or author would you recommend for the first-time reader of Russian History?
|Father Grigory Rasputin|
8. Where you able to find or read any of Marina Rasputin’s memoirs?
All of them. Dreadful. Whitewashed portraits of her father. But who could blame her?
Perhaps the courtship of his parents—Alexandra’s cloud. And I had fun with the coronation, the chance to transform an outright disaster/tragedy into a spectacle different from the historical one. In terms of the life she was trying to eclipse, I felt the tsar’s cutting down the trees in the way that he did was one of the more successful metaphors. I felt satisfied (well, almost) with that scene.
|Rasputin's daughter is the woman with the crop.|
I’m happy to blame television for many things, but I don’t think it can kill the imagination, or the spirit, of adventurers. Or even of discriminating viewers. The particulars might change—circuses not being what they used to be, for example—but there will always be extraordinary lives. (And there is great cable TV. A couple of my favorites: Six Feet Under, Twin Peaks—better than most movies.) [If not for Twin Peaks Liz wouldn't talk to logs....]
11. Liz or Gianna?
I have to go with Gianna because she’s not as tall. [Hath not a giantess eyes? Hath not a giantess hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a shrimpy one is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? ...And beside, the correct answer is always Liz.]
12. Perhaps we are mistaken, but is this the first time you’ve ventured into the realm of magical realism?
I think so, yes. Although I can point to antecedents in Poison.
13. Worst job you’ve ever had?
At seventeen, in a nursing home, as glorified candy-striper. Drastically depressing.
|The Romanov Family|
Probably, but I don’t know who. [We nominate Gianna for this role. She would make a great womanizing, prophetic, cult leader--fully worthy of assassination.]
15. Favorite of the “Golden Era” of Russian literature: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, Bulgakov, or Chekhov?
I return to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita more often than to any one book by the others, but I do love Gogol and Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy is a bit too rational for my taste—I prefer the feverish, and the playful, and the impossible. [And we love giant, talking, devil cats!]