Tiffany Gibert meets US author Kate Bernheimer and learns how the modern fairy tale master carves out her contemporary niche.
‘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. We spoke with Kate about her latest stories, her writing process and the saddest colour 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 ten 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’.
The colour pink appears prominently throughout this collection: A pink horse, pink hair, two girls who loved pink. What does the colour signify to you?
My fairy tales are non-representational, and I use colour very selectively for this reason. I want as little contrast as possible through a book, in order to support the emotional and intellectual essences Strict formal restrictions allow me to focus on the ideas and emotions, so I must restrict colours. Pink was the first colour 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 colour 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 colours in the world, and many Americans are taught not to take anything pink seriously, which is weird.
In addition to the titled stories in the collection, there is this mysterious, marvellous 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.
Dhs46, available at www.amazon.com. Photograph: Bo.bernheimer © Cybele Knowles