March 8th, 2011 / 7:50 am

Interview Roundup Part One: Atwood, Abani, Bernheimer, Yoon, Lavender-Smith.

“So a lot of the things in my books are going to be your problems. They’re not my problems because I will be dead. So maybe I’m writing my books for you. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?” – Margaret Atwood, in The National

“It’s also important to say that I don’t write to find answers to anything—that’s just not the way I am, in my fictions and in my life. Questions don’t necessarily mean answers. It is more about seeing. Some kind of glimpse that helps me think about, say, why in peacetime American fighter planes dropped bombs on a Pacific island that was used by fishermen. Who those fishermen were, where they were from, who loved them, who they loved. Or why a man seems to grow more sad with his marriage and his own achievements in life as this island, his home, flourishes around him. These kinds of questions are endless, of course, and I think a part of me could have written about Solla forever. But I can now see the larger canvas of that place and the dark places aren’t so dark anymore.” – Paul Yoon, in The Rumpus

“I truly believe that writing is a continuum—so the different genres and forms are simply stops along the same continuum. Different ideas that need to be expressed sometimes require different forms for the ideas to float better. I don’t write essays as often as I should.” – Chris Abani, at Utne Reader

“I think, as Nabokov did, that ‘all great novels are great fairy tales,’ and then some. If you show me a book – a novel, a story collection, a collection of poems, a series of one-act plays, a screenplay – in any style from mainstream to experimental – I will show you the fairy tales in it.  I can find not only the influence of fairy tales, but how fairy tales have given the narrative shape.” – Kate Bernheimer, in Room 220

“First, it’s hard for me to say that I ‘expect’ a reader to do anything. (Although the book does posit an imaginary reader, a construction which seems to issue from my neuroses.) But I believe there are a number of things a reader might do with entries such as those: she might be compelled to project a narrative from the fragment; she might be compelled to gather these fragments so to project an intellectual persona for their author; or she might be compelled to mine these fragments for clues, for something like the shadows of a narrative that isn’t explicitly presented by the book, a narrative whose protagonist is named Evan Lavender-Smith. Or she might perform some combination of these three operations. Or she might slam the book closed. In any case, part of my intention in constructing a book out of a seemingly haphazard collection of notes was that these notes, by virtue of their accumulation and juxtaposition and patternation, would end up working overtime (not unlike what we might expect of the bits and pieces of a conceptual art). The tenor of that extra work would, ideally, be unnameable, too complex to pin down; just as the tenor of great allegorical writing constantly eludes the grasp of full understanding and interpretation.” – Evan Lavender-Smith, in The Faster Times


  1. lily hoang

      Hi L, Your comment reminds me this argument I once had with Susan Steinberg about constraint. I made the point that constraint is everywhere – from realist commercial to OuLiPo to “experimental” – and she disagreed (obviously), arguing that realist commercial isn’t constrained. BUT, but, what is more constraining than both the market and realism? Surely not writing a novel without the letter “e”! In comparison, Perec’s feat is just as notable.

      I would make the argument that seeing fairy tales in novels – “great” or not, realist or not, commercial or not – is very similar. Fairy tales, originating in oral narratives, are everywhere. Just because many in the West have abandoned oral narratives and magic doesn’t mean that we should deny their originary and generative power.

      Me? I can’t think of a more beautiful fairy tale than Nabokov’s Glory or Proust’s Swann’s Way.

      Furthermore, Bernheimer was simply extending Nabokov’s point. Her response was *generous.*

  2. L.

      I think it is more akin to saying “I can see domestic realism in every story, poem and novel, no matter how fantastical” or “I can see fantasy in every story, poem or novel, no matter how realistic” or “I can show you a romance in every piece of fiction” and so on. One could easily defend those positions too, but the argument tends to be pretty disingenuous and not, to me, very interesting.

  3. L.

      I really do think you can defend those statements too plus many others (“every good story is at heart a comedy!” “every good story is a heart a tragedy!” etc. etc.)

      But at some point, I just wonder what the point of saying “every story is a tragedy and a comedy and a myth and a form of realism and a form of surrealism and a fairy tale and a romance and a fantasy and a….”

  4. lily hoang

      You seem to be saying two things: 1. In yr original comment, “x” is stretch to ridiculousness; 2. “x” becomes trite and disingenuous.

      Well, I think you’re right and wrong. You’re right in saying that “x” can be any number of things, and the examples you cite expose how trite Nabokov’s and Bernheimer’s statements *can* be; however, I would argue that using the lens of the fairy tale (or, in my case, constraint) to examine literature is new. It brings out a new possibility for analysis, whereas looking at lit through the lens of domestic realism etc is – well – boring.

  5. Guestagain

      yes Kate Bernheimer, and Nabokov

  6. L.

      I think I’m saying that by stretching “x” by a kind of silly amount the statements become trite and a bit disingenuous.

      is analyzing a story through the lens of a fairy tale more interesting than the lens of domestic realism? Probably. But here I probably agree with Harold Bloom who said that analyzing Shakespeare through the lens of Marxism (or feminism or new criticism or any other ism) tells you more about Marxism (or feminism, etc.) than it does about Shakespeare.

  7. Kyle Minor

      I’m going to do a full-length interview with Kate Bernheimer sometime in the next month or so, and address a few of these issues. I think it’s a little bit reductive to characterize her entire argument based on an excerpted paragraph from an interview. I don’t think she’s advocating some new critical school to compete with Marx or Judith Butler or Lacan or whatever. She’s talking about a set of preexisting storytelling forms that are so deeply embedded in our cultural understanding of narrative that they tend to wend their way into many things we don’t ordinarily think are kin to the fairy tale. I’m interested in hearing more about what she had to say, and of course she’s already said a few things in the prefatory note to her Penguin contemporary fairy tale anthology, which you can preview for free at if you would like to hear more from the source.

  8. lily hoang

      Thank you, Kyle, for being more articulate and level-headed than me. You are swellest.

  9. lily hoang

      Thank you, Kyle, for being more articulate and level-headed than me. You are swellest.

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