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Kate Bernheimer: Champion of the Fairy Tale

A fierce believer in the power and possibility of fairy tales, Kate Bernheimer has explored the genre’s history in essays and scholarship, edited anthologies of and about fairy tales, founded a literary journal focused on them (Fairy Tale Review) and written fresh tales of her own — as short stories, novels, and children’s books. It’s an area of focus that challenges her to be both a preservationist and an inventor.

In the eight elegant tales that make up her new book “Horse, Flower, Bird,” Bernheimer takes us places at once strange and utterly familiar — blurring the line between where we are, where we’ve been, and what we imagine. And in the latest anthology under her editorship, “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,” she brings together contemporary fairy tales written by an impressive group, including Francine Prose, Neil Gaiman and Aimee Bender. The Sisterhood recently interviewed Bernheimer, via email.

Eryn Loeb: Over the time you’ve been working within the genre, how has your idea changed of what a fairy tale can be?

Kate Bernheimer: I have been writing fairy tales for as long as I can remember. Not much has changed in terms of my natural attraction to the narrative techniques of fairy tales. My appreciation of them in the traditional stories has deepened, especially of flat and unadorned language, intuitive logic, abstraction and everyday magic. As a reader, my idea of what a fairy tale can be has evolved in an ever-inclusive direction. Like Nabokov, I believe that “all great novels are great fairy tales.”

In the introduction to “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,” you mention seeing the influence fairy tales have had on our broader culture. How and why do you think that’s happened over so many years? And how does the culture at large shape the kind of fairy tales people are writing now?

The past two hundred years of art and literature have been deeply and diversely influenced by fairy tales, and how fairy tales influence each writer is both unique and communal. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great fairy tale proliferation in movies, children’s books, and toys. Their tropes blended perfectly with the suburban setting of my family life; I grew up in little yellow house on a dead-end street next to a 300-acre woods. Very fairy tale-like. It wasn’t until I was an adult reader that I began to fathom the influence of fairy tales on writers I was in love with over the years, from Louisa May Alcott to Bernard Malamud to John Cheever to Anne Frank to Joy Williams.

You’ve written about Jewish and biblical imagery seeming magical to you when you were growing up, and more than one story in “Horse, Flower, Bird” involves explicitly Jewish characters and themes. Clearly, writing fairy tales involves pulling from all sorts of different traditions and influences. But what makes a tradition speak to you enough to want to draw on it in your work?

When I first read Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” I saw for the first time that a girl could be a writer and that it had something to do with survival and with ethics and fighting against evil. I admired her, though her diary remained terrifying and mysterious to me. She was a character in a real fairy tale — fairy tales are brutal. We were shown movies of concentration camps at Sunday School; I had nightmares of bodies shoveled in pits. And I remember my grandmother telling me, “You’d better behave, or the Nazis will get you.” There was no way to avoid this influence in my work. I don’t think you choose your influences so much as they choose you: A few years ago, after adopting my daughter in China, I began to read Chinese ghost stories, and my next novel is absolutely influenced by that tradition.

There’s this idea out there that fairy tales are not sufficiently “literary” to be taken seriously. Where do you think that comes from, and why is it so persistent?

The fairy tale tradition is historically associated with laborers and women and girls, with the nursery setting and children; not much needs to be added to that as one theory about this prejudice. Yet it’s definitely more complicated than that. With their endless variations and multiple authors, fairy tales challenge a culture in love with the false idea of the Heroic Individual Artist. It’s a nonhierarchical literary tradition, in that it freely shares itself with anyone. There are many clichés about what fairy tales are, and this ignorance leads many people to casually dismiss them. Finally, I think fairy tales — where the magical is real, where animals can speak—present difficulties for people taught to rely on binaries.

If, as you write, “A fairy tale is a story with a fairy-tale feel,” where does your work fit in with the kind of stories so many girls grew up hearing as bedtime stories, or with the princess-driven Disney movies that are synonymous with fairy tales for so many people?

I grew up hearing fairy tales in Golden Book versions at bedtime, and my grandfather, whose job it was to promote movie premieres in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s, had a projector in his basement and got to show us “Snow White” and “Cinderella” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” on a big screen down there. So much of the imagery from these storybooks and animated features enters my novels and stories. My fiction is an homage to it. My trilogy of novels (“The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold,” “The Complete Tales of Merry Gold,” and forthcoming this spring, “The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold”) is my ode to childhood reading, to how fairy tales might save us. When I wrote the eight fairy tales that appear in “Horse, Flower, Bird” I was working toward a completely new form of artistic expression, trying to create a new kind of tale that also felt vintage: innocent and childlike, but haunted. I tried to write a picture-less picture book.

Is the kind of fairy tale that involves Prince Charming and “happily ever after” something to fight against? Or can the more complex tales you write coexist with those simpler, shinier stories?

For every popularized story featuring a Prince Charming, there is a story about a powerful girl or woman. These stories haven’t been as widely canonized, and I think that’s as disappointing for our boys as for our girls. There is a long tradition of well-publicized backlash against these cliché versions; I think what we need now is a broader appreciation of this incredible and diverse literary tradition with its violent, complex, and shiny poetics.


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