Interview with Kate Bernheimer


About the Author: Kate Bernheimer is an author of a trilogy and a collection of stories: Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales. Bernheimer is also the editor of four anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt, was a finalist for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards. She also writes children’s books which have been translated into Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Romanian, Hebrew, and other languages. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona.

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We like to thank Kate Bernheimer for taking the time to talk about her career as a children’s author and how her passion for fairytales came to be.

Laurel Reisch: What made you decide to become an author?

Kate Bernheimer: One of my favorite things to do as a child was to read, and writing stories was a way to live inside of books even more of the time. Stories are imaginary worlds made up of words where I like to be. Becoming an author was a way for me to keep company across borders and time with artists whose ethics and emotions meant so much to me. I did not become an author for attention or fame quite the opposite. It was for quiet, safe company.

LR: Who are your author inspirations?

KB: Oh, there are so many! Beatrix Potter, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Edith Hamilton, The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen . . . too many to name, but pretty much any author whose story seems whispered right to me inspire me, and that can take just about any form and come from anywhere in the world across time.

LR: Where is your favorite place to write?

KB: Like Eudora Welty, I love to write in bed, but when I write in bed, I’m too prone to napping but I love being surrounded by books and messy papers piled up around me — this was something I did as a child, my version of a cozy fort, which goes along with Jerry Griswold’s idea of “Snugness” as one of the great appeals of the places in children’s literature. Mostly, I end up at my kitchen table — probably because it’s such a domestic space, and is featured in lots of fairy tales.  My fairy tales often take place in domestic spaces.

LR: What sparked your interest in fairytales?

KB: I was lucky to find them in the public library in the town where I grew up, and they just made sense to me. My grandfather did some promotional work for Disney, so as a kid, I got to see those movies in his basement movie theatre (this was before DVDs or anything like them so it was unusual). As I began to study fairy tales as literature, on my own in my 20s, my interest in them only got even more passionate. As an author, I love the old fairy tales’ language and style but also their plots — simple, intuitive, stark, and full of adventure. And as a scholar, I love thinking about fairy-tale aesthetics and political history, how the art form is sometimes a true form of resistance to status quo power, in mysterious, poetic, and intellectual ways.

LR: What was your favorite childhood fairytale?

KB: One of the first fairy tales I encountered was “Little Red Riding Hood,” and because I lived in a small town and my childhood house was next to a woods, it became a story I imagined myself in, walking through the woods to school — I don’t remember thinking much about what happened in the story, but it was one of the first stories I encountered where a girl was alone on an adventure, and I think it was that detail that invited me to love it.

LR: Why did you choose the children’s literature genre?

KB: I don’t know if I chose it, or if it chose me.  My fiction is published as “adult literary” and for children, and like Maurice Sendak, the way I think of it is, I don’t write for children, I write. It is other people who have categorized fairy tales as children’s literature; sometimes fairy tales are, and sometimes fairy tales aren’t. I just love the art form.

LR: What was the publishing process like for you?

KB: It’s slow and mysterious! I leave the business details to my brilliant agent, Maria Massie, and do whatever my editors ask me to do the best I can. They know what they’re doing.

LR: What was the best memory from when your first book got published?

KB: My agent sent me a bunch of white tulips to congratulate me on its publication day. I had no idea such a magical thing could happen! To have a book that might be in a library — a “real” book, as I thought of it then — I couldn’t believe my great fortune.

LR: What was the most challenging part during your publishing process?

KB: Worrying whether I had done a good enough job, worked hard enough — the self-doubt.

LR: What are the challenges of being an author?

KB: I am an author because I love to read, which means I’m most happy when I’m not the center of attention. And because I have ended up being on the international lecture and reading circuit as a fairy-tale expert, I have to make lots of public appearances. That’s a challenge, but I’ve taught myself how to do it.

LR: What are the best moments of being an author?

KB: It’s pretty special when a reader contacts me and tells me that a book of mine made them feel less alone and less weird, and less sad (even though my books can be sad). It’s just really special to know that one of my books did for someone else what books did for me — you never expect that as an author, and it really is nice. It is a gift to me when someone tells me that because then I too feel less alone.

LR: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

KB: Read tons, read as much as you can, and keep writing what you want to write, how you want to write it, no matter what anyone says. Don’t let anyone take your love of reading and writing away, or tell you there’s a right or a wrong way to do it. Listen to yourself and to those whose words speak truly to you.

PRR Writer, Laurel Reisch