“The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Kate Bernheimer”

Cate Fricke, whose utterly fantastic story “The Nursemaid” I had the pleasure of illustrating for Lightning Cake, has posted her interview with Kate Bernheimer at the 2013 AWP Conference on her blog. You can read the interview here: “The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Kate Bernheimer.”

It’s a terrific conversation, and reading it excited me. Some of the gems in the interview include a word from Kelly Link, writing for children, writing from childhood, and myths—this last being the subject of the new anthology Kate is editing: xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths.

Excerpt from the interview to whet your appetite:

KB: There are fairy tales that are part of children’s literature, but not all fairy tales are part of children’s literature, depending on how the boundaries of “children’s literature” are being defined, which is not a constant. Too, when it comes to definitions of fairy tales, there are as many definitions as there are desires to have definitions. I don’t think that there is any one definition that has ever really functioned perfectly in any universal way, historically speaking, and that is part of what makes fairy tales so mysterious, engaging, and enduring, for sure. They are a trickster art form. Just as you try to contain the fairy tale, it eludes you, like fairy, right? It’s the fairy way to do that. If there is an operating definition for me, it’s bound up in their evasion of definition as a fixed thing – fairy tales are a becoming, I’ve written. And in my writing I speak of “Fairy tale” as a language, identified in the “fairy way of reading.” For me, it’s less “what is a fairy tale,” that is, how do you identify a fairy tale through a definition, than how does a reader or viewer or author or artist experience a fairy tale as a kind of affect, as a way of becoming in the story. And so you recognize a fairy tale through its techniques, and through its effect on you.

Character Names

I took a class this past spring where we studied first person narrators all semester. One of the books we read that really stuck with me was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (of creepy “The Lottery” fame). The novel is narrated by Merricat, and here’s the opening:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

I love Merricat’s voice, which is chilling and compelling throughout. Anyway, I chose to do the creative option for the final project, accompanied by a brief process paper on how it came about. I’ve been trying to work on it some more–I really rushed it off at the end of the semester–and have pretty much decided to scrap the bulk of it and start over. Some parts I’ll keep as a starting point; I’ve posted some of it here, and as you can see, I drew from Merricat and used her as a springboard.

On the subject of character names, I like names that are “plain” but not too commonly encountered, and sometimes a little old-fashioned or outdated by a generation or two. Definitely can’t name a character after someone I actually know. If I can’t think of a workable name, I write with a bunch of ______ underscores and then find/replace them later.