Kate Bernheimer is an American fairy-tale writer, scholar, and editor. She has been called “one of the living masters of the fairy tale” (Tin House). Her work includes the story collections Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales and she’s the editor of four anthologies, including the bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Bernheimer’s work as an author, critic, and professor explores the intersections of contemporary fairy tales with multiple disciplines; she constantly pushes her students to think beyond conventional thought and heighten their creativity on fiction prompts. Bernheimer teaches fiction workshops and fairy tale classes at the University of Arizona.
What inspired you to begin to write? Why did you focus on fairy tales?
I fell in love with reading as a young child. I would read anything — fairy-tale books, novels, toothpaste boxes, Mr. Coffee instructions, comic books, detective stories, Hollywood magazines. I began writing fairy tales when I learned how to type, in Kindergarten, first by playing around on my grandfather’s IBM Selectric. Fairy tales were my first love as a reader, so I guess that’s where I began, and I just never stopped.
Your book Horse, Flower, Bird was such a delectable and tangible read. The stories are charming, strange, and even beautiful. I remember reading it in one of my early literature courses and I thought the entire collection was poignant. It’s a fairy tale book, but some consider it as prose poems. Would you agree?
Oh, this is so kind of you to say! These are just the words I would hope for someone to use about that little collection. I consider these short stories to be fairy tales, but contemporary prose poetry, by my reading, borrows a huge amount of techniques from fairy tales so I can absolutely see why some readers might think that. I read a great deal of poetry, too.
Did you read fairy tales as you were coming of age? Did any stand out for you and help shape your work?
I did read fairy tales as a child — I read Golden Book versions, big hardcovers with gold lettering on the spine, scholarly collections like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, tons and tons of them. By osmosis all of them shaped my work, by way of shaping my imagination — its aesthetic grammar.
As an aspiring fiction writer myself, I’ve noticed the difficulties that come along with trying to craft and master our own unique voice. What advice would you give to writers who don’t feel comfortable with their own work or who are afraid to write?
The difficulties you notice are not those of an aspiring fiction writer, but of a fiction writer: so good work! Being afraid to write can be cured one of two ways: by deciding not to write, or by deciding to, and making the time to, write. I would advise choosing one or the other. I don’t know about you, but I am not often comfortable with my own work — unless I am doing it, and then sometimes, the discomfort falls away and I am fully in my imagination and comfortable there, even if I am writing about uncomfortable things. A willingness to be uncomfortable is important — if you don’t know what makes you uncomfortable, how can you respond to it?
What is your writing process like? Is there a specific routine you have to do to be able to write or do you approach the writing process in a whole different manner?
My process is not that mysterious: I decide when in a day I have time to write, and that’s when I do it. That’s the whole routine, in a nutshell. Sometimes I have more time, and sometimes less, sometimes the work goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Have you been currently working on anything?
Tin House has mentioned and named you “one of the living masters of the fairy tale.” What are your thoughts on this?
I consider myself the master of nothing, so I think it is hilarious and also flattering and sort of horrifying all at the very same time. But yes, I have definitely dedicated my life to fairy tales as an artist, and the Tin House quote makes me feel the work has been appreciated, which means a great deal to any artist, as we work so often in solitude without recognition. By “recognition” I mean merely that it makes me feel that the work might mean something to someone which is no guarantee.
Interview conducted by Gabriel A. Jiménez