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The Fantastic Women of, well, Fantastic Women (Pt. 2)
As the release date of Fantastic Women draws ever closer, we turn our attention to one of the living masters of the fairy tale. Kate Bernheimer was kind enough to talk to us about (capital “f”) Fantastic writing and more specifically her (lower-case “f”) fantastic story that appears in the anthology.
What is “Fantastic Writing”?
Fantastic writing has the affect of being fantastic; it is defined not by any closed set, but by actual encounters–encounters which, I would maintain, paradoxically take place in the past, present, and future all at the same time. As a kind of fantastic literature, and more specifically, fairy tales are open possibility spaces. To read fairy tales feels like becoming, whatever that means depending on the story at hand–becoming child or robot, happy or sad, limbless or weightless or dead.
Is the piece included in Fantastic Women representative of your writing?
I put “Whitework” as the very last story in my collection Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press) in part because it is so representative of my writing, all of which comes through fairy tales. Their settings and objects are isolated and shine; there you are against a dark background, going where it is you will go. The character in “Whitework” is in thrall to stories, and gets lost inside them. She’s very representative of a fairy-tale hero, made of repetition and difference.
What was the inspiration/influence for this story?
“Whitework” is based on the marvelous, very short Poe story called “The Oval Portrait,” and also contains a repetition from a tiny part of an old German fairy-tale novella that is very similar to the Poe. Fairy tales constitute the influence and inspiration for all of my writing. Often readers are turned against the old fairy tales through unfortunate messages about their dangers, that they’re too dark or not dark enough, too feminine or anti-feminist, cliche or unrealistic. Even the critiques about fairy tales celebrate paradox, like the tales themselves. “Whitework,” which takes place in a prison or home, is a celebration of paradox in fairy tales: their menace and bliss.
Can you recommend some reading for those interested in reading more Fantastic work?
The 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder und Hausmarchen approaches next year; I think the collection should be required reading for all former children. There are many great translations; among my favorites are those by Maria Tatar, Jack Zipes, and Ralph Manheim. I would also recommend all of Max Luthi’s books on European folktales; his immensely readable analysis of the fairy-tale form has application to literature from around the world and gives readers (and writers) so many lovely, secretive gifts. Maria Tatar’s Annotated Peter Pan is forthcoming this fall, and that’s one book I simply can’t wait to read.
Kate Bernheimer is the author of three novels, most recently The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, and the story collection Horse, Flower, Bird, which is illustrated by Rikki Ducornet. She also edits fairy-tale anthologies, including My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales.