In an intimate discussion, the bestselling author talks about her writing, overcoming a psychologically abusive childhood, and her dances on the dark side.

Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison


Ben Evans: I’d like to begin with a quote of yours from an interview you did a few years back: “In fiction and in non-fiction, I’m someone who really wants to vivisect myself, to really just cut it open and to show…” Given that philosophy, how do you as a writer, as someone who I have to believe is an intensely passionate person, go about establishing the right balance of gut-shot honesty and artfulness in your work?

I was never going to allow my sympathy for one or another of them to sway my attempt to reveal the story as honestly as I could.

Kathryn Harrison: Well, I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think there are ways of being artfully honest and artfully dishonest. I’m not sure it’s an either/or. Do you see what I mean?

BE: Oh, that’s what I’m saying – embracing that philosophy of cutting yourself open and wanting to make yourself visible on the page, especially in your memoirs.

KH: I think I see. How do I do it. Is that what you’re saying?

BE: Yes.

KH: I’m sorry. I was making it more complicated than it was. I think it actually provides a level of relief to establish a clinical perspective on oneself, if you know what I mean. I suppose if you tried to come up with an analytical term, it would be that the narrator is the observing ego in a way, and it just allows you… I think writing is a discipline that allows you, or creates for you, a distance between you the observer and you the observed, and that it’s an interesting, and useful, and essential difference.

BE: Do you think you lose an edge, I guess, an advantage as a storyteller, this now concerning your fiction, when you expose so much of yourself and your history in memoir? Is some of the mystery behind you as an author gone?

KH: (laughs) I don’t know, I might be the wrong person to ask about the mystery of me… I think that there’s a temptation to read a book like The Kiss, and because it is so intimate and naked a revelation of part of my life, there’s the tendency for people to believe that they know me through and through, that I’ve exposed my whole self, but that actually is not true. Those were four years out of fifty, and one particular relationship, one particular lens through which to see my family and myself, and, you know, there’s a lot more, but people forget that.

BE: In that respect you’re kind of like, having written The Kiss, like Reggie Jackson – he had this great career but everybody remembers him for the World Series and the three home-runs.

KH: Right. (laughs) That’s not a terrible thing to be.

BE: No. It’s great, because you knocked it out of the park, right?

KH: Well, thank you. That’s very generous.

BE: Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a writer, or constricted, because you had such success with that
book, when entering into different projects?

She was always out of reach. She was twenty-one or twenty-two and young and beautiful and just seemed as if she were covered in fairy dust and always leaving, so I have a keen sense of a decidedly female love object always slipping out of grasp, a fear that there is no possibility of salvation from the misery of being human unless one can reach and obtain and touch that female ideal.

KH: No. I think actually the book was the opposite for me. It was freeing in a way, because the three books that were published before had been well-reviewed, and I had been a meticulous literary novelist… sort of like a goodie-two-shoes A-student, and I think it’s very easy, maybe even – no, I don’t know that it has anything to do with gender – it’s easy to get trapped in the box of, oh, I did this and it was good, I did this and it was good, and say, “What’s the next thing I’m going to do that’s going to be really good?” and that’s not the way to go at it. In this case I wrote a book to which people had wild, intense responses, both negative and positive, that I heard and had to deal with such vitriol that it was kind of like an inoculation. I felt like, “Wow, I don’t have to be careful anymore. Nobody can say anything more shocking or worse than they’ve said so far, so I can really do anything.” That just opens up the world of possibility for a writer, an artist of any kind.

BE: It’s really interesting. When I began these interviews almost three years ago, I’d ask everyone, every author or poet I interviewed, “What role does mortality play in shaping your work?” I’d always try to get them to say that their work was catharsis – and so many authors are reluctant to say that, and I understand why: because at some point, to refer to my earlier question, I think they feel that if it is just this belligerent emotion, then they’re compromising the artistry in the work, and it’s unfiltered. Still, it’s really nice for me to hear you say, “I’m scared of death,” and “This is really my catharsis.” Actually, after three years, you’re the only one to finally establish that and come out and say that.

KH: Come clean? (laughs) Yeah, I’m like that, I guess.

BE: It’s really nice to hear.

KH: I’m the kid in the street saying the emperor has no clothes. Well, have your read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker?

BE: No, I have not.

KH: Oh, well, it’s a book that you, I think, should read.

BE: Have you yourself, having gone through all this crazy, crazy stuff you’ve gone through, have you cobbled together a good philosophy of life and your life and living, now you think?

KH: I think I have. I’ve had the blessing and the curse to have been exposed to quite a number of religious faiths: I was raised by my Jewish grandparents, but my mother and I, we were Christian Scientists until I was ten, and then she became a Catholic, and I followed her, so I was thoroughly Catholicized, and then by the time I gave it up in college, in came my father, who was a Protestant minister, and I married a Quaker, so I’ve see a lot of the pursuit of faith up close, and I’ve probably come to a point in my life – I’m going to be fifty in a couple months – that I’m not just a cafeteria Catholic, I’m just a cafeteria everything. I pick and choose. I’ve chosen from different disciplines and faiths, but there’s a Catholic theologian and archeologist, actually, who was excommunicated for heresy, but one of the things he said was that everything that rises must converge. His name was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and that’s what I believe. There are a lot of paths up as well as a lot of paths down.

BE: To have that kind of black and white, well, not black and white, but definitive moral belief…

KH: Well, the rigidity… But I think it’s because people are scared.

BE: I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. If anything…

KH: A lot of people can’t take that. A lot of people really just don’t want to say, “I’m scared, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if there’s a God,” or if when all is said and done, my life will be meaningless…

BE: There’s a freedom there.

KH: They would really rather subscribe to dogma that tells them a different way with some kind of authority: the Pope, Jesus, Buddha, Allah… You create these huge authority figures. You know it’s all very Freudian, isn’t it?

BE: It is.

KH: Sadly. I mean, not sadly because I actually love Freud, but it is. It’s really all very Freudian.

BE: It goes back to Kant who actually established an objective grounds for morality with the absence of a God, and if that can exist, I just believe in the power of reason. I’m hoping like hell that seventy-two years, when mouth cancer ends up getting me, will not be the end. As I’m sure we all are.

KH: (laughs) Most of us, yeah. Unless you’re sixty-two and have mouth cancer and are just hoping to live ten more years.

BE: That would be bad news bears… So, there’s this beautiful line in The Kiss, and I’ve crammed: I’ve read six of your books since we decided to do this interview.

KH: Oh my god. My apologies.

BE: No, I enjoyed them. But this line from The Kiss kept coming back to me, of your mother, you wrote: “I cannot remember a time that I was not aware of my mother’s fragility. That’s part of what has convinced me of her surpassing worth – the way only the best teacups break easily.” It’s really in stark contrast to your depiction of your mother that, you seem to be and sound like, a pretty strong person. And I guess we’ve already touched on this a little, but how much did the memoirs and writing those empower the strength and resilience you now posses? And when did you choose to write it – I know you had dabbled and you had thought about writing the memoir because your previous three novels dealt with that…

KH: Right.

BE: So how did you decide to write it, and can you just go on a bit about how freeing it was to finally write?

KH: Yes, I think that writing was not something that enabled my strength, but something that was probably an expression of my strength, or having reached a point of strength from which I could write it, and it was never a book I planned to write, I think maybe the opposite was more true. It was a book that I planned not to write. But I was working on a fourth novel, and I had turned in a draft, and it was, as everybody who read it says, my agent and my editor, “Well, you know this is really wonderfully well-written, but these characters are totally unsympathetic and you don’t want to read about them.” And I said okay, and I agreed to have a meeting with my editor in a week, and in that period of time I tried to go through the book and figure out what was wrong with it. I arrived at a meeting having some things written down that I planned to do and she said, “So, Kathryn, what are we going to do here?” and I said, to my surprise, “Well, I don’t even want to write this book,” and she said, “Oh. Well, what do you want to write?” and I said I felt I needed to write a non-fiction account of what happened between me and my father, and she said, “Oh,” because she knew what that meant. She had been my editor from the beginning, and my first novel was one of those palpably autobiographical first novels that were sent off to… for legal reasons I made extra changes so that it was… the identity or the likeness of any family member of mine was completely disguised. She knew that that was more truth than fiction. So she asked me if I felt that I really wanted to do that, or could do it, and I said, “I don’t know, and I don’t want you to tell anybody else in the company that I’m doing it, because I really don’t know if I can do it.” But I wanted to try, and I left the office with my head spinning, thinking, “What did I just do? What did I say?” I was shocked, and I just remember my heart pounding, thinking, “Oh, I must be nuts,” but I was also kind of excited because… because I’m not… there was a corrosive, wearing effect of keeping that part of my life walled off and secret. It was finite – I haven’t been in touch with my father for many, many years – but it was a huge experience and a formative one, in many ways for me, and it wasn’t really possible to wall-off such a large chunk of who I was and how it related to who I became without having these defenses erected within me – period. I knew that for my children – not for my husband, because he knew – that they’d run up against this place in me where I said, “This far and no further.” I didn’t want to be that as a mother. I mean, I knew that was the kind of mother I had, so I guess I made the great over-correction as I made the great over-share. I was also tired of living in a culture that sent me many messages that it wasn’t okay for me to talk about this. One of the things that was really shocking to me when the book came out was how many reviews took the position that this was not something that should be written about. I just thought that was… I was literally flabbergasted to read something like that. I wouldn’t say that this is cocktail party chatter, but I thought this kind of thing is what books were invented for. And, you know… I was glad that I had sort of thrown down the gauntlet and said, “No. I don’t agree. I refuse to keep my mouth shut and say this never happened.”

BE: Ten years from now people will be writing about something that’s faux-pas now and it will be… the same controversy will arise.

KH: Right.

BE: Forever and ever.

KH: The French have an expression for that. “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.”

BE: Well, even after reading six of your books, that is obviously the most poignant to me. I thought it was written just beautifully. Everyone wants to call your writing sparse on the back of every book. Sparse! Beautifully sparse!

KH: (laughs) That’s good. That means that I rigorously edit my own sentences, which is what I intend to do.

BE: If the picture you paint is so expansive, it’s difficult to call the prose itself sparse, for me. The pictures, especially in The Seal Wife that I got of Alaska, I feel like Michener couldn’t have done it better and integrated the emotion in there.

KH: Well, thank you.

BE: But I… I know these questions, so many of them, revolve around having read the memoirs, for me, because so many times as a reader I think I con myself into believing I know an author’s person through their work, but after reading your memoirs, it’s difficult for me to read your fiction and not probe for connections.

KH: Right. I’m sure.

BE: So, on that note, many of the male characters in your novels, notably Will Moreland in Envy and Bigelow in The Seal Wife, seem to be almost hyper-sexual creatures, do you think your image of your father, your relationship with your father, led you to shape your male characters in this way?

KH: Well, that’s an interesting question, because it’s turning it around for me. I have considered the type of males that I write about, and I would connect them more with my mother, actually. Perhaps my experience with my father underscored something, but the fact of… I discovered that it was not only possible, I won’t say easy because it never is easy, any of it, but when I discovered it was possible for me to write in a male voice, I just loved it because it gave me a way to linger on my relationship with my mother, in which I really was the unrequited, frustrated lover. She was always out of reach, in contrast to my grandparents with whom I lived, she was twenty or twenty-two and young and beautiful and just seemed as if she were covered in fairy dust and always leaving, so I have a keen sense of a decidedly female love object always slipping out of grasp, fear that there is no possibility of salvation from the misery of being human unless one can reach and obtain and touch that female ideal. I think you see that in Bigelow with the kite and the seal and his pursuit of this woman who won’t speak to him, and in The Binding Chair, the Arthur character and his pursuit of the Chinese woman, and any number of male characters, and they are hyper-sexualized and hyper-sexual because I think this ancient part of myself, this early part of myself was not a particularly sophisticated creature. I think that I was somebody who just wanted my mother, I wanted her. I wanted to posses her. I wanted to somehow break through her surface. I wanted her in a very rudimentary way and it worked out well for drawing in male sexuality, if that makes sense.

BE: You have… It’s crazy. You must psychoanalyze or have psycho-analyzed yourself all the time, and just mind-fucked yourself time and time again.

KH: (laughs)

BE: I’m serious.

KH: The one true onanism: the auto-mind-fuck that never ends.

BE: You know, I’ve had OCD and I’ve struggled with that and panic attacks and what-not, and I can’t imagine going through (what you have), but I suppose we have as much strength as we need it always seems like, until we need to summon it, we don’t know it’s there.

KH: Right, right, and that’s one thing, I actually have been through psychoanalysis, glory be, because I don’t know what I would be without it. Really it just saved my life. Really.

BE: It’s so interesting.

KH: Yeah, there’s such a sort of… well, it allows you to just sort of escape the whole notion of judgment, humans judging other humans, and just begin to perceive them for who they are: creatures of needs and vulnerabilities, and the world just is, I think much richer and with many more levels once you’ve begun to see it through a psychoanalytical eye. But anyway…

BE: And when you can take the ego out of it, you know, it’s really helpful.

KH: Yeah.

BE: I don’t know, but on a lighter note, let’s talk about the mass-murder book you just wrote.

KH: (laughs) It’s no wonder that I’ve been told that there’s a sort of sense out there in the world that I must be a very dark and twisted person, and so people are often surprised to find that this isn’t so, that I’m lighthearted and full of pranks.

BE: Well that’s the catharsis. Pranks! I can see you with pigtails running down the street after breaking Mr. Hooper’s window or something…

KH: Right, right – Pippi Longstockings.

BE: All right, so your most recent book, 2008, was While They Slept, which examines the 1984 case of Oregon teenager Billy Gilley murdering his abusive parents and sister. Talk to me about just the experience of researching and recounting this happening and writing this book. I have to imagine it was difficult.

KH: Yeah, it really was, and in ways that I actually didn’t anticipate. I’m never sorry that I did it, but I entered into it with the sort of pure sense of intellectual curiosity and, of course, identifying with Jody as somebody whose life just sort of cracked open, or cracked into two pieces, and there was then and than there was now, and the two weren’t connected anymore. You were the same person, but something had bisected your life. I heard about her through a friend, who’s also my agent, and we were just chatting on the phone one day, it wasn’t even a business call or anything, and she said, “Oh I just spoke with this young woman today. She was so interesting. You would have found it fascinating,” I said, “Oh, really. What? Why? Who?” and she told me about Jody, who had taken her thesis that she wrote for Georgetown, that creative thesis about her brother, looking at the murders through his eyes. I’m blocking the name of it now, a strange, famous Catholic term… anyway, she was going to see various editors to sell it as a book or a book proposal, and it was ultimately turned down, because everybody thought that it was a very strange idea to tell the story of what happened in her family from her brother’s point of view rather than her own. So that’s sort of interesting from the start – her desire to do it that way – and then I’m somebody who’s sort of a sucker for true crime anyway. I just really love it.

I knew he was a minister or, as somebody put it to me, a man of God, and I was young enough and it was about the right time that I got him really all confused with Martin Luther King and these really sort of sacred, powerful, superhero figures.

BE: Just like the wife in Envy.

KH: Exactly. It’s almost impossible for it to be too down-market. Lurid is an essential part of it. Anyway, here was this lurid story, which was that one day, this eighteen-year-old kid, shot and killed, or rather bludgeoned his parents and his little sister to death in the middle of the night, and then wanted to run away with his sixteen-year-old sister, and I thought, wow, that really is a story. I asked about it every year or so, not religiously, but just when it popped in my head, because it was an interesting story, and finally one time I asked about it, and my agent just threw her arms up in the air and said, “Jody’s never going to write that book,” and, sort of analogous to what happened with The Kiss, I heard myself say, “I will.” Then we both looked at each other and she said, “Are you being serious?” and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to write that book,” and she said, “Well, I guess I need to put you in touch with Jody,” and we met, and she’s not someone who’s quick to trust. Why would she be? We had a long dinner in Georgetown, in Washington, DC, and then she got back to me, and I told her the reasons why I found her story compelling – as I did. I felt really drawn to it – it was pulling me; I wasn’t going after it – and she talked about her frustration about the fact the she really felt that she was not… she didn’t have the psychological strength to undertake the writing of the book. You know she took a whole year off from work, and every time she really sat down and returned to that world, she just fell to pieces, and she couldn’t do it. She decided it wasn’t worth sacrificing her mental health. But she really did want the story to be told, so once I understood that I wasn’t exploiting her – sort of writer to writer – that I wasn’t taking her material away from her when she wanted to write it, I felt a little more comfortable with the whole idea of writing the book. But it was not… that didn’t mean that it ever became a comfortable book to write because I was feeling…

BE: This might be.. I’m sorry to interrupt.

KH: No, no. Go ahead.

BE: I know this is dangerous ground, but when writing the book, was ever there an impish voice in your head saying, “This could have been me. I could have responded to kind of the psychological abuse that I suffered the way Billy did?”

KH: Oh! Well, I don’t think I could say, “Well, this could be me,” because I didn’t believe that I did have that capacity. I think that… I know that pushed to the end of my particular rope, my tendency is toward self-destruction rather than attacking outward. But that is not to say that there was not vicarious gratification or pleasure that I experienced in Billy beating his father to death. Yeah, is that pretty and politically acceptable? No. But did I feel it? Yeah. So I am somebody who’s in a position in which I am inherently exploiting other people’s lives, you know, the narrative of their life together and apart, because of my own psychic agenda.

BE: Well, I think there’s an empathy there.

KH: Yes, there is empathy, but you know one always… there is definite empathy but that doesn’t mean you can relax and stop holding yourself to a kind of ethical auto-interrogation every once in a while just to make sure that you’re staying on the right track, because after all, these are people whose lives have already been…

BE: Decimated.

KH: …walloped with a completely enormous and unjust amount of pain and you don’t want to add to it at all. You just really have this sense of “Do no harm,” and both Jody and Billy were people who had very clear ideas about who they were, and they saw themselves in one way, and I don’t know that I represented them as they saw themselves. That had to be hard, because I was never going to allow my sympathy for one or another of them to sway my attempt to reveal the story as honestly as I could. I actually found it easier to talk to Billy, because he’s less emotionally defensive than Jody, and you know he’s kind of good at making an emotional connection. You know, leaning forward, and seems relaxed when talking, and cracks jokes, and makes eye contact and stuff like that. He’s easier… you have a sense of somebody who’s allowing themselves to be present with you… so even though Billy did bludgeon his parents to death, I have this sense of sympathy for him, whereas Jody is very defended and does not betray emotion, and, I think, found the project much more debilitating than she expected it to be, and was sometimes highly defensive in a way that I completely understand, yet it made it very difficult for me as a writer.

BE: How do you inhabit that world, and just write this book and then go cook dinner for your family?

KH: Well, I think if I couldn’t just… I think if the demands of family and regular life…

BE: I don’t mean to say that you’re a woman and you’re cooking dinner for your family.

KH: No, no. That’s fine.

BE: How about eat?

KH: Well I often am a woman cooking for her family, and my husband would prefer that I didn’t do that, so yes, I do cook for my family.

BE: Okay.

KH: And thank God, there’s a reason that I have to just stand up at a certain point, and I just really have to stop working, because otherwise you know I just get very fixated on things, and I think it would be a horrible thing to really just enter that world and only come up for air or a sandwich every once in a while. I think that would be… I found it hard enough to write as I did, you know, with periods of normalcy – laundry, dinner interspersed – you know it was really hard material.

BE: You’re dancing in the dark, Kathryn, and you’re coming up for air.

KH: (laughs)

BE: You’re “dancing on the corpse’s ashes” as the song says. That’s amazing to me. I don’t know if I could get that deep into something. I was really reluctant to read While They Slept because, I don’t know, it’s just something that’s really disturbing to me, and I don’t know how you do it. I think that’s really a testament to what you’ve been able to overcome and come out of in your own life, that you are able take on that subject.

KH: I know there’s also that old saying that “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and I wonder if I’m in the first group.

BE: Well, let’s talk about your next book.

KH: Okay.

BE: Polygamist mass murders a cult…

KH: Not polygamist, although I have to say I really have enjoyed Big Love.

BE: Yeah, that show?

KH: And you know it didn’t really occur to me until maybe after eight episodes that the person in the show that was sort of the sinister, compelling heart of it, Bill, you know the polygamist, really reminds me of my father.

BE: Really?

KH: And not physically, not in the way he looks, just in that sort of patriarchal and parently, misogynistic, I’m-declaring-how-the-world-is stance, and it’s just it’s not so creepy and so strong that I can’t watch it, but it’s definitely creepy enough that I feel I must return to it and study it.

BE: So were you, I mean, I get this from the memoir, but were you so direly in need of affection and acceptance? You know, is that how you kind of got lured into that whole thing, the relationship with your dad?

KH: Yeah, I think so. I think that you know, that if my relationship with my mother had been different, then I wouldn’t have been vulnerable to my father, but two… there were two aspects to my childhood that made me vulnerable to him. One was what I did and did not know about my father. You know I wasn’t… I understood implicitly that there was a tacit rule that we never spoke of my father, so that we never brought him up, and most of the time nobody else did, either. Every once in a while my mother would give me some bits of information about him, and you know I knew he was a minister or, as somebody put it to me, a man of God, and I was young enough and it was about the right time that I got him really all confused with Martin Luther King and these really sort of sacred, powerful, superhero figures, and that idea, coupled with the fact that he abandoned me, perhaps not intentionally, but in the completely, hopelessly egocentric child’s perspective – you know, that if he went away it was because I wasn’t good enough – you can’t escape feeling that way, so there was that, and there was my really anguished relationship with my mother, from whom I was deeply alienated and at whom I was furious in ways that I couldn’t begin to admit at the time, and then in comes my father. You know he is just like… Well, the thing is that I think I had so, so complex and fully fleshed fantasy of who my father was that I almost didn’t see my real father’s personality behind that created image.

BE: It’s amazing how you make it… You kind of convey how it could happen, you know, and you’re able to map yourself emotionally throughout the process and you make it really understandable as to how it did develop.

KH: Yeah, well I think you know that was really the… If I had one agenda in writing it, it was just to make it understandable, because I think that the power of the taboo is such that the mind naturally and normally recoils from the idea of incest, and there’s a really reflexive, knee-jerk response, of “Well, you know, that doesn’t happen, that can’t happen, that can’t happen in a nice family, that can’t happen in somebody who isn’t, you know, retarded or on the wrong side of the tracks,” or whatever, but it… it’s really something that requires examination and understanding in order for it not to happen, and instead the very opposite occurs, in which people flinch away and just refuse to see it.

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot, a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago, a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture. Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.