Kate Bernheimer interview: ‘I am more concerned with ethics than morals’

The modern fairy-tale master’s stories contain far more than bread crumbs and wicked witches

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Kate Bernheimer

Kate Bernheimer Photograph: Cybele Knowles


“Books are no different from goats! They enjoy an afternoon out on the lawn,” Kate Bernheimer writes in her new collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales. The author, an impassioned advocate for the relevancy of the fairy-tale genre, fills the whole strange, lovely book with such gems, reinventing traditional, timeless tales for new readers. I spoke with Kate about her latest stories, her writing process and the saddest color in the world.
 
First: Why fairy tales?
I fell in love with reading in the public library where I checked out armloads of fairy tale books. I was drawn over and over again to these adventure stories with their isolated heroes. I read the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Edith Hamilton, Andrew Lang, Madame d’Aulnoy, and countless others. In my work, I focus on the fairy tale techniques such as flatness, abstraction, everyday magic, and intuitive logic. My fiction seeks to highlight these elements and bring them into high relief.
 
And you actually write from source fairy tales—can you talk about that process?

Each story in the book is based on an old fairy tale—a source tale—that I have read in anywhere from 10 to 100 translations before I begin to write my own story. When I begin to write a story, I focus exclusively on one version of the source tale. For each of these nine stories I relied on a specific set of techniques, and I wrote each story as I always write: With a fairy-tale book open on the desk. I follow the old tale sentence by sentence at first, until I lose my way and find myself “elsewhere.”
 
There’s a line in “Babes in the Wood” that struck me as particularly relevant to the collection as a whole: “for [no explanation] was necessary in a world where good and evil work in mysterious ways.” In every story, you do a wonderful job of capturing the senselessness of the universe. Bad things just happen, magical things just happen. No moral lessons.
Thank you so much for saying this about the stories! Because my stories seek to create radical moods about some very bad problems (like child abuse, extinction, self hatred), mainstream ideas of “moral lessons” create problems for the characters. But moral lessons are not an organizing principle of my tales, nor a formal device except as satire now and then. Other authors who find a place for morals in their contemporary tales—good for them! Thank goodness people are doing all sorts of different, misguided, beautiful things with these stories.
 
You know, in the old fairy tales, often a “moral” was tacked on at the end of the story, say if a book was going to be marketed to young readers. And the morals  don’t really suit the stories at all, which makes them super weird—part of why I love the tradition so much. I do play with this, though I am more concerned with ethics than morals.
 
The color pink appears prominently throughout this collection: A pink horse, pink hair, two girls who loved pink. What does the color signify to you?
My fairy tales are non-representational, and I use color very selectively for this reason. I want as little contrast as possible through a book, in order to support the emotional and intellectual essences I want the book to induce. Strict formal restrictions allow me to focus on the ideas and emotions, so I must restrict colors. Pink was the first color I chose for this book. It is a short word that ends on a nice hard consonant and I have always liked it. Pink is a flat word, somehow very exposed. It is a bit of a nervous word, though as a color it can be lovely. Full of contradictions, which was good for the range of emotions of this collection. I think pink is one of the saddest colors in the world, and many American humans are taught not to take anything pink seriously, which is weird.
 
The structure of your tales in quite different from the archetypical rising action–falling action plot. Some are, more simply, vignettes.
I love the idea of the “vignette,” which is associated with the decorative, illustrative, small, and thus with the feminine, and thus easily maligned. I mean, Emily Dickinson wrote vignettes, right? I’m so glad you picked up on that. My interest lies in using the patterns of the old tales repetitively—these skeletal structures of story—as a path toward emotional understanding. So a sensation may be sustained for an entire story, which means that plot is marginalized, intentionally. Like in a still-life or color field painting. Look closely and the plot is definitely there.
 
In addition to the titled stories in the collection, there is this mysterious, marvelous story interspersed through the book, in which the speaker keeps repeating the phrase, “I’m yours.” What is this story?
I don’t know, do you? I think it is a story about how love is totally intransitive when it is real? Actually I have no idea who is speaking. She is speaking from outer space. I do know that.
 
I can tell you with one hundred percent confidence that these pieces are illustrated by the marvelous Tucson artist Catherine Eyde, and people should look at her work in full color—it’s stunning.
 
Do you read your own fairy tales to your children?
I have written three fairy tales that have been published as children’s books (The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book and The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair). My daughter, who is nine, has read those and they’re all dedicated to her.
 
Some people think the Brothers Grimm books are unsuitable for children—and I read her those tales a bunch and Hans Christian Andersen. She likes to tell friends who have read The Hunger Games that she’s read the “real” Little Mermaid, the one where she turns into sea foam and dies at the end. Some of her friends are quite jaded it seems, and don’t even flinch at The Hunger Games, but they break down when they hear about the “real” Little Mermaid.
 
Could you name a few fairy tales that you love and return to again and again?
I read once that Andy Warhol, when asked which punk musicians he liked, answered, “I like them all.” That’s how I am with fairy tales—punk music too.



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