Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Kathryn Harrison

For anyone who's bothered to read more than one post on our little blog here, it should come as no surprise that we're both huge fans of Kathryn Harrison's writing.  Her book The Kiss helped to define the contemporary confessional memoir and established Harrison is one of the premier writers at work today.  With her new novel Enchantments, we took the opportunity to reach out to Harrison and she obliged us with an interview.  Enchantments tells the story of Rasputin's children, who go to live with the Tsar's family after their father is murdered.  The Tsarina Alexandra hopes that they possess some of the healing powers of the Mad Monk in helping her son Alexei--nicknamed Aloysha--cope with his hemophilia.  Though the girls aren't mystics, Marina (nicknamed Masha), the older of the girls, becomes the friend and confidante of Aloysha and tells him stories to distract him from the pain of his disorder and the uncertainty of survival during the Russian Revolution. We asked Harrison about books, Russian history, Rasputin, and her works.  If you like smart, talented writers, you should be reading Kathryn Harrison.

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. 

4. I’ve read _______ and I am so ashamed?
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.

Directors have asked about rights to The Kiss ever since it was published, but I never considered selling that book. Too easy to sensationalize, to destroy the control I exerted over the subject.

7. What book or author would you recommend for the first-time reader of Russian History?
Father Grigory Rasputin
Off the top of my head? Maybe Hoskings’ Russia and the Russians. There’s so much Russian History. One could start closer to our own time, with Pipes’ Concise History of the Russian Revolution. It might be more fun to read Massie’s biographies of Romanov Rulers; he sets the context so well that it’s a form of reading history.

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?  

9. The character of Masha in Enchantments is a Russian version of Scheherazade. Which of her stories to the hemophiliac prince Aloysha is your favorite?
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.
10. Rasputin’s daughter lived an incredible life before and after the revolution. She was a cabaret dancer, a lion tamer who travelled with the Ringling Bros Circus, and even survived a bear attack in Peru. Do people live those kinds of lives anymore? Can we blame cable television…please?
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 UnderTwin 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
14. Do you think there’s a version of a contemporary Rasputin influencing a country’s leader today in the way that the mad monk impacted Romanov Russia?
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!]

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