Friday, November 20, 2009

Interview with Kate Bernheimer

Kate Bernheimer is the author of The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold and The Complete Tales of Merry Gold. She is also the founder and editor of the Fairy Tale Review.

The latest issue of Fairy Tale Review, The Aquamarine Issue and previous issues can be found on Amazon.

1) Why do you gravitate towards fairy tales? Why do you think readers gravitate towards fairy tales?

I gravitate toward fairy tales in much the same way that I gravitate toward air. Sensibly, but senselessly, I find them because I need them, never knowing quite why. It is a mystery to me. That is the first part of why. The second part of why is that fairy tales---and here I mean the older versions collected in translated collections---come in a form of book that I love. The reproduction and replication of versions fascinate me; the range of style from awkward to elegant, from sparse to floral, never cease to amaze. I love the most common techniques in fairy tales too: abstraction, everyday magic, depthlessness, intuitive logic. Of course thematically I am drawn to the motif of the underling, the weak, the humble among humans, rising, along with he hedgehogs and mice. Everything small shining. Each piece of dirt speaking. This is not fanciful; it simply is. I love the flatness of fairy tales---to me reading a fairy tale constitutes bliss. In my research, I've found that many readers are drawn to fairy tales because reading fairy tales provoke in them some feeling of consolation and bliss. Senselessly, they make sense. Some adult readers are embarrassed to admit they love fairy tales, or perhaps they've forgotten what fairy tales are---but I noticed that changing around 1995, and believe it is changing still, and readers are now finally acknowledging the beautiful impact that wonder stories have had on their lives as readers and authors.

2) What constitutes a fairy tale in your opinion? Must it always have fantastical elements?

I've gone out on a limb recently, and will continue to do so: I believe that all pieces of writing owe something to fairy tales. From there, one can identify, by careful and intuitive inspection, elements of fairy tales that give stories (or art works in any media) more or less of a fairy-tale feel. Those works that have a fairy-tale feel, an essence, a charge: those are fairy tales. There are more than you'd think; fairy tales sometimes come in very subtle, transparent forms seemingly absent of what you might mean by 'fantastical elements.' I would argue that The Great Gatsby is as much a fairy tale as Coraline. Sometimes the fantastical resides in the syntax. Sometimes it resides in a closet.

3) Can you describe the initial stages of the Fairy Tale Review? How many people were involved? Was it your first literary publication? (whatever you feel necessary to share).

When I founded Fairy Tale Review in 2004, there was precisely one person involved! I had the idea to begin a journal devoted entirely to fairy tales as a literary art form for many, many, many years, around the time I was writing my first novel, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, and was editing my first anthology (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales). At that time I had begun to notice the overpowering influence of fairy tales on contemporary writers, and a surge in the appearance of fairy-tale motifs in poetry, short stories, visual art, film, and prose--the use of enchantment, if you will. I also noticed, both in the media and by word of mouth, that stories or novels based on fairy tales were being disparaged or overlooked critically (or editorially). So I noticed a great influence of tales on a great many wildly talented writers whose books I had read, but also noted a weird, simultaneous rejection of the tradition of fairy tales as a viable, intellectual, artistic form--in the United States. So I felt that there must be some terrific, special works out there seeking a home. I established Fairy Tale Review to give those works a home and to try to help preserve and celebrate fairy tales in a way that might bring their amazing influence more broadly to light; to make it undeniable that fairy tales cannot be ignored or reduced or celebrated in only broad strokes. Though I founded Fairy Tale Review alone, I must acknowledge the early support of my outstanding, founding advisory board: Maria Tatar, Jack Zipes, and Marina Warner. Now the board also includes Lydia Millet and Don Haase. And I have a wonderful contributing (and next issue's guest) editor, Timothy Schaffert, at this time. Fairy tales are that special: a giving tradition, a tradition that invites humility and consolation and luck. (This is not to deny the bruises, the darkness, the very hard knocks---but that's another interview.) I honestly would not have had the courage to begin the journal without the sweetness of the fairy-tale scholars I so admired (had admired for many years) saying yes, yes, we embrace this vision as well; it was truly communal of them to offer their advisement and time. Though starting a literary journal was a massive undertaking---one I am still reeling from daily---the editorship of fairy tales is so intrinsic to their history and to my life as a novelist, I could not imagine my world without the journal at all. I could not imagine not editing fairy tales, just as I try to write them. To edit a fairy tale is to write a fairy tale. To live one. And it's such a generous and communal tradition.

4) What contemporary fairytale comes to mind that has been a favorite of yours? Why is it good in your opinion?

That is a very difficult question to answer. While I could single stories out, I'd rather not, because I am too horizontal in my thinking to do that. I would have to defer to the Table of Contents of each issue of Fairy Tale Review published so far, and say that those fairy tales are clearly among my favorites of the new kinds of fairy tales I have been privileged to receive in the mail for consideration for the journal. (Among many I have not been able to publish there are also many favorites---in fact, in some ways, every submission I receive becomes in its own way a cherished friend, whether it suits my needs for the journal or not, because every submission I receive seems to me to reflect a very intimate and honorable love of the long tradition of fairy tales.) All of these works make undeniably new creatures from old sensations, old skeletons. It is not originality that is sublime; it is the sensation of sublimity itself which comes from becoming (whether out of something old, now, or futuristic---they are collapsed and the same in fairy tales).

5) How do you process submissions to the Fairy Tale Review? What qualities do you look for in submissions?

I "process" submissions by receiving them in an email account and then egregiously slowly making my way through the submissions one by one. As a sole editor who receives around 2,300 submissions to each issue, I will be the first to admit that I "process' submissions too slowly. As a writer I understand the frustration of waiting and waiting only to hear "Thank you but no thank you." That's why I write really gushy rejections, and I mean every word that I say. I process submissions slowly but kindly, I think. I read every single submission, not looking for any particular quality apart from the inability to stop reading---the sense of becoming---the feeling you are going somewhere new, a little bit familiar but with that uncanny glow. This can come in any style, in any form. Then, when I love something, I have a number of other trusted readers consider the work too. Sometimes, when I have a strong aversion to a particular submission, I also ask other readers to step in; though I have strong intuition, and a strong vision for the journal, I am not very important, not in the end. I'm listening in for the future of fairy tales.

6) What was one of your favorite submissions to the Fairy Tale Review?

I received a submission from a very young person---I think she said she was eleven years old. This was a rhyming poem about a child who did not want to go to sleep at night, and who instead went out in her pink nightgown for some pie, out of which marched mice, crows, and the teeniest, tiniest dolls. At the end of the poem everyone died. However, when I wrote to the author to accept the story, I never heard back, and never could send her a contract, and so I never could publish the work. Are you out there? Are you old enough now to be reading online? Or are you laughing at me as you read this, because you were never eleven, or never existed at all? I loved your poem and I hope you're not dead.

7) Have you noticed any commonalities with submissions to the Fairy Tale Review? for example, do most submissions come from certain part of the country, from a certain age groups. Are there many about hot male vampires? *Just what kind things do you see common in submissions?

A great love of fairy tales---though that love takes, as all love takes, endlessly various form (sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful, always consoling to me, even when disturbing). That love of fairy tales--however twisted or however serene---is the commonality. FTR receives submissions from all over the country and all over the world. I have never made a regional spreadsheet. I have never received any submissions about hot male vampires (or, that I know of, from any hot male vampires).

8) Can you share some of your experiences when you first began submitting your work for publishing?

My image of what it is like to "submit work for publishing" was formed early on, when I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Jo received a letter from a magazine with a check in the envelope, accepting a mystery story. The image of her elation stayed. When I first began submitting my work, I held it in mind, expecting very long waits and not at all counting on any acceptance. So I am still always astonished and grateful when my work is accepted; it suits a fantasy I have that was formed in childhood, about the editor-author relationship: a kind of abstract and ethereal but very intellectually intimate connection that comes rarely but magically. With Ralph Berry of FC2, who published my first two novels, I had this precise experience; my first novel was literally discovered in a dusty old pile in the corner of an office by Brenda Mills, and the two of them contacted me. I submit my work very cautiously and sparingly, usually without much expectation or ego. I'm not of the "more is better" mentality, and I don't send my work out willy-nilly; rejection is too painful for me. I wait a very long time after writing something before I show it to anyone at all.

9) Do you have any advice for writers submitting for the first time?

The only advice I can offer is to practice and remember what you love, which is to think and to read and to write. To hold that closely in mind. Then when the letters come telling you something unhappy---"This isn't a short story at all"---you have that to rely on, that memory of what you love. It will come back after the harm.

10) Can you share a little about how you came about your Pink Horse story for the Significant Objects Project? You must be please with receiving over $100 dollars at bid. Is that the most any author has gotten so far?

Josh Glenn, the kindly editor of the project, sent me a photograph of the Pink Horse to write about for Significant Objects. I fell in love with that strange horse instantly---its strength and its glow. "The Rosebud," the German tale that I based my story on, has always haunted me; I've brought it into two novels so far too, and it's featured prominently in an essay I wrote for The Writer's Notebook (Tin House Books), as a perfect example of a story containing fairy-tale techniques. I needed to revisit the tale again as soon as I saw that horse. I've donated the "winnings" from the story to Wide Horizons for Children (, the adoption agency and humanitarian organization through which we adopted our daughter. I love their work.

11) what are some long term goals for the Fairy Tale Review?

The mission of Fairy Tale Review is to promote an appreciation of fairy tales, old and new, to preserve the tradition for future generations of readers. As such I've established a Fairy-Tale Book Repository, hoping to gather those old, dusty fairy-tale books that often are simply discarded; not the most well-known books, but those random and arcane editions that you sometimes see in boxes at thrift shops. It would be nice to reach more readers. As such, FTR would be meeting its goal of bringing fairy tales---old and new---and their scholars--the respect they deserve, for I believe that fairy tales are the single greatest influence on all forms of contemporary literature, but also the most disparaged influence in certain critical circles. So there is much work to be done.

12) Will you please ask yourself a question and answer it?

That scares me too much.

1 comment:

  1. Kate has a really beautiful mission. I wish she knew some Brazilian Tales. There’s a lot of tales that came from Europe with the immigrants but took new shapes while spreading around (here the tradition at nights was to get children together and tell stories).

    But there’s a lot of tales from native origins too. The Yanomami tribes have a lot of primitive tales about their own origin. They’re so intriguing that reminds me of the “collective unconscious” described by Jung.

    (Beto Palaio)