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The Plaza of the Mind Interview with Kathryn Harrison.

Kathryn Harrison, author of The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Envy and Poison has left a huge impression on me with two of her earlier works, Exposure and The Kiss. I own several of her volumes and look forward to reading all of them. Ms. Harrison is easily one of the most honest and compelling authors I have ever read.

I sent Ms. Harrison an invitation to participate in a short piece for the Plaza of the Mind and she was generous enough to accept it. What follows is an electronic interview conducted with her over the past couple of weeks. I cannot express how excited I was that she agreed to answer some of my questions. Enjoy!

For a Printer Friendly PDF version click HERE.


[The Plaza of the Mind quotes appear in Bold-type, Ms. Harrison’s in normal-type]

I have to admit, I am a newcomer to your work, having read only Exposure and The Kiss, but I've picked up Poison, The Seal Wife and The Binding Chair and look forward to reading them. Also, at the risk of sounding too self-deprecating, I wonder why you agreed to an interview with an unknown like myself in the first place?

I imagine there are plenty of "known" people with whom I might have an uninteresting dialogue. I guess I didn't apply that standard to the idea of being interviewed by you

I feel that you are somehow able to balance out the true events of your life in a manner that makes them quite matter-of-fact and without apology. Where do you feel that you got that strength?

I spent many years, literally many years, of my life trying to apportion responsibility/blame among myself and the members of my family -- my mother and father particularly -- in an attempt to explain how and why things turned out so disastrously among us. At least that was what I thought I was doing. But it didn't work: I didn't move any closer to understanding what perhaps couldn't be rationally explained, and I realized that my insistence upon judging us all -- even on judging us as fairly as I could -- was a way of refusing to accept what had happened, refusing to accept them, and myself, for who we were.

Ironically, once I gave up (out of exhaustion) judging us, I found I understood everything much more easily. It was a genuine epiphany, and I’ve tried not to lose what I discovered-- that judgment rarely makes human relationships more explicable. When I wrote the kiss, it was in
this spirit -- I wanted to tell the story, nothing more, and had no interest in judging any of us. Once I wasn't invested in judging myself I no longer was a person who felt she had to apologize for herself. This doesn't mean I feel free to behave without consciousness of the results of my actions -- I’m pretty hard on myself as far as what I expect from myself, especially in terms of relationships -- just that it remains clear to me that judging people, including myself, is a
defense against really engaging with them, including myself -- a way for intellect to hold experience at bay.

What type of audience do you find responds to you the most?

I never posit an ideal or likely audience -- I suppose I assume more of my readers are women, and I’m always pleased when I hear from men, which, now that I think of it, I do, perhaps as much as I hear from women. I write because it's the apparatus on which I depend to help me
understand my life. I write because I can't help it and I’m addicted to it. And I’m grateful that other people are interested in reading it, but I don't know who they are. Whenever I think I do, I learn that I’m wrong.

What is the quality of your work that you feel most proud of?

Probably its honesty, and the extent to which it isn't judgmental. I care a great deal about the craft of writing -- the nuts and bolts of putting good sentences together -- and occasionally I’m happy with that part as well. Also, I’m glad that I don't feel there's anything about which I can't write.

Has it been difficult for you to maintain a career as a writer?

Writing is hard work, and in that sense it's been difficult. Balancing out work and family is difficult, but that applies to all kinds of work. But I love writing, and I remain grateful, and a little shocked sometimes, that I’ve been able to make a career of the thing I love.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

The freedom of being able to follow my interests wherever they take me -- that seems like an incredible luxury. The fact that ultimately I report to no one but myself is both a blessing and a curse. I think any other boss would be easier on me than I am on myself.

What is your least favorite aspect?

Trying to make it fit into a workable schedule with anything else.

In your interview with Stacey Knecht, you mention an exercise where you have to look into your husband's eyes and maintain contact. I have done a similar experiment with my wife, where we needed to stare at each other for five minutes straight without looking away or speaking. It was rather uncomfortable and at the same time enjoyable. This quality somewhat mirrors my experience while reading The Kiss. Any insights?

Well, first, I’m delighted by the analogy. I want my work to be uncomfortable in exactly that way because if I’m succeeding at stripping my subject (myself) naked, at being totally unsparing in my vision, then it will be challenging and disturbing. I think of my work, whether fiction or memoir -- as a kind of emotional or psychic vivisection. It has -- perhaps -- an exhibitionistic aspect, but I think that's in part because I am the only willing and available subject for study. I find people endlessly interesting, their pretenses and defenses less so.

What author has influenced you the most in your work?

Well, I’m not sure I have the perspective to really answer that question, but I can list a few favorites. Madame Bovary by Flaubert is the novel I admire above all others. J.M. Coetzee is my favorite contemporary writer. I love Flannery O'Conner and Primo Levi and Walker Percy and quite a few Japanese novelists -- Oe, Endo, Ibuse, Ishiguro. I love reading Freud.

What kind of music do you listen to?

Not enough. Anything by Bach, especially, lately, the cello suites. Jazz that isn't smooth, Prince, Talking Heads, Ray Charles, James Brown, older girl groups, Beatles, Stones, B.B. King, Eartha Kitt, Elvis Costello, Fatboy Slim, Laverne Baker, Paul Simon. This is all off the top of my head, so I don't know what I’m forgetting and a lot of it -- the louder stuff -- Fatboy slim, Prince -- is music I use when I flog myself at the gym

On your website you offer speaking engagements to book clubs - how often are you able to do this?

It’s usually a phone link, so I can usually say yes, in that it takes only an hour or so and I don't have to go anywhere...

Do you ever do book tours?

If I have to

Are you ever recognized on the street or does being an author afford a level of anonymity?

I am very occasionally recognized. With few exceptions -- Stephen king,
Anne Rice, Jackie Collins -- I don't think writers count as celebrities

What is the oddest interaction you ever had with a member of your reading audience?

Well, I have had a couple of unfortunate and crazy stalkers who have come up to me after readings, one in Denver who corresponded with me for years and finally started making violent threats.

Do you enjoy being interviewed?

Sometimes.

Do you enjoy the social aspects of your work? I imagine glamorous parties
and really good food.


Not much -- I try to avoid writers/publishers en masse, and it's not a very glamorous job, really, unless you think of many hour spent alone at a desk as glamorous.

Do you think that justice could be done to one of your novels if an attempt
was made to turn it into a film?


It really depends on who directs it. Exposure has been under option for years. I never let The Kiss go because I was worried that it would be changed in ways I found unacceptable.

Exposure felt very cinematic to me as I read it. Have you ever felt
tempted to try screenwriting?

No -- still trying to get better at the kind I’m already doing

If you could handpick anyone to direct a film of Exposure who would it be?

Not sure. Brian de Palma? He just popped into my head.

Would have said the man who directed Atlantic City, but I’m forgetting
his name and he's dead.

Which of your novels do you feel the most satisfied with?

Currently, The Seal Wife. But this changes. I’m always more aware of
their flaws than their merits, if they have any.

You said that you feel as though you could write about anything, is there a subject that you have not yet explored that you would like to write about?

I’m working on a book (non fiction) about the two surviving members of a family in which the 18-year-old son killed the parents and one sister. Working with the murderer and his surviving sister. So, murder, I guess. Any taboo and the effects of breaking it

What has been the most helpful thing in dealing with your problems and being
able to express them artistically?

It’s a hard question to answer because I suspect the recipe for "success" is complicated. The first ingredient would be strength of will, which I have in spades. Too, I’ve seen the same analyst for
nearly 20 years and although it hasn't been the strictly Freudian 3 or 4 times a week, it has been analysis, and I’ve come to it with dedication and it's been invaluable in helping me toward a level of self-awareness that my particular art requires. As for artistry, language: I’ve always loved writing, the solace offered by the chance to articulate. I read a great deal from the time I was very young -- 4? -- and I bring genuine passion to my desk

You touch on video in Exposure, what do you make of the current culture, the fact that entertainment is becoming more and more decentralized and that almost anyone with an internet connection can make his or her voice heard?

Babel? I’m not sure I’ve given it enough thought to answer your question with the seriousness it deserves. As a casual and occasional consumer of internet culture I’ve been struck by the sense that it is "secondary" -- that it is often commenting on the written, published-on-paper word, which is still accorded a sort of validity that internet musings don't have. Sort of like Torah to Midrash; the text and the commentary. It’s a mixed bag -- some of what's out there is brilliant, some is idiotic and vulgar and frankly embarrassing, but I like the democracy of it -- I love the fact of wikipedia. That seems representative of some of the best that the internet has created: truly democratic, bringing together millions of voices, brains, to create a very useful tool for all of us. Reading around the internet is like eavesdropping on a giant brain: some of what you pick up Ii meaningless random synapses firing, some is wonderful.

Did you have any moments during your childhood that you found profoundly
joyful?


Absolutely. We spent a month each summer in La Jolla, California, in a tumble-down cottage on the beach. 60s and 70s, very free, lots of hippies, and I spent completely sublime hours on the beach every day, especially the early morning hours, between 6 and 8, when I was collecting sea shells, many of which I still have. It so represents complete joy -- a joy that was in many respects religious – that I still, at 46, seek out the perfect shell collecting experience.


What interests do you feel dominate your imagination the most?

Religion. Psychoanalysis. Death. Marriage. Raising children. Drowning. Murder. Magic.

Since I can remember I've often felt that when I die it will be from drowning and I have no idea why. Could you explain your interest with drowning?

I’ve written about it a lot, and I imagine I will continue to do so. A few traumatic and dangerous experiences, the seductive quality of the water, especially ocean water, a history of doing really stupid and self-destructive things in the water -- like swimming through boat
channels, etc...

You've stated that you like reading Freud and said that psychoanalysis was
one of your interests. What keeps you returning to Freud?


Well, he's often a wonderfully good writer -- I think the case studies qualify as literature -- and aside from a few blind spots, mostly due to the blinkers of gender bias, I think he is brilliant, a genius, I recognize most of his theory as totally absolutely and profoundly true. He’s changed the world I live in -- the one that comments on human nature, the psyche -- so profoundly that it's challenging to write about people pre-1900, pre the ideas of anxiety, repression, projection, etc.,

What's it like being married to another writer? My wife and I are both in the same field and sometimes it gets rather difficult to leave work where it belongs.

We never leave work where it belongs. We don't know where it belongs -- it's the medium in which we exist

How many attempts did it take you before you were published?

I was very fortunate: got an enviably powerful agent and sold my first novel to random house all within one week. I never had time to get anxious, let alone despairing. And I still work with the same agent and editor.

You seemed quite young when you published your first book, what do you
attribute your success to?


I defer on this one -- too aware of my flaws, the ways in which I hope to evolve and I have no idea what my success is.

You stated that one of the interests that dominates your imagination was death. Are you more concerned with your own eventual death or the death of those around you?

Death as a concept, the utterly impossible unbearable idea that I and all I love will pass away, cease to exist. I recognize this as true -- don't believe in life after death -- and I find it excruciating. I depend on work as a distraction from my overwhelming consciousness of
mortality

What does a day in the life of Kathryn Harrison look like?

I often get up early to write before I have to rouse my kids for school. I have three kids, and work when they are in school. After 3 pm, my workday is pretty much shot. Then there's laundry and going to the market, and soccer-mom-esque obligations. I used to write first drafts
in longhand, but slowly I’ve converted to a word processor.

And now, I’m 9 minutes late to get my kids up, so I’m signing off...


...

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