Binnie Kirshenbaum is a writer whose work vibrates with a strong voice and strong characters. She has written two short story collections and six novels, including On Mermaid Avenue, Pure Poetry, Hester Among the Ruins and, most recently, The Scenic Route. She has won two Critics Choice Awards and her novels have been named Notable Books of the Year by The Chicago Tribune, NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. Granta has named her one of the Best Young American novelists.
Kirshenbaum earned her BA from Columbia and her MFA from Brooklyn College. She is the Chair of the Writing Program at Columbia University where she also teaches fiction. With her biting wit and keen eye for observing the peculiar workings of the world, she has been called “the younger sister of Philip Roth.”
Where did you grow up?
The suburbs of New York, where I grew up, seemed to be a place that was neither here nor there. It had been denuded of the natural beauty of rural landscape and although NYC was but a 20 minute train ride away but it might as well have been 20 hours. I was a product of my environment: neither a happy nor an unhappy child. However, I did blossom into a spectacularly miserable teenager.
Tell me about Binnie the spectacularly miserable teenager.
I cried a lot. I ate a lot. (I was decidedly plump.) I didn’t have a boyfriend. I failed gym.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you think writer was something one could “be” already then?
I did know that books got written by people. (Treacly cute confession: I asked if Dr. Seuss could be our family physician.) I have considered other professions: naturalist; cat-rescue lady; something in advertising— but the fantasies are fleeting.
You went to college at Columbia University. What was it like to be in New York then, did you start to sniff around the literary scene already as an undergrad?
I was far too naive and timid to sniff around the literary scene. I’m not sure I even knew that there was such a thing or where to find it. In that respect, not much has changed for me. I had a few friends who wanted to be writers. We read each others’ work with absolute subjectivity. I didn’t “belong.” New York was/is a heady place to be a student. There was always a sense of possibility; anything could happen here.
What happened after your college graduation, what was the next step for you?
I went to graduate school; I quit graduate school, and then two years later went back to graduate school. During the time I was a student and for some years afterward, I worked as a waitress. When I got my MFA, I taught Freshman Composition at a small college for a year and a half, but I continued to wait tables because teaching didn’t pay enough for me to support myself.
And while you were doing these jobs, were you writing?
Waitressing was the ideal job. I worked three or four nights a week. There was no take-home work, nothing to think about, and my days were free for writing. I wrote short stories, and then I wrote a novel that I threw in the garbage, which was followed by another novel that I didn’t throw in the garbage. I was shameless and would show early drafts of my work to whomever would look at it. Now, no one sees early drafts.
Would you say that there was a point in time when you started taking your writing more seriously than before, a moment when you decided to commit to it in a new way?
The commitment was always there, but I didn’t always take it seriously. That is to say, I wasn’t very tough on myself. I’m not sure exactly when that changed, but there was a definite shift and I became hypercritical, demanding more and more of myself. Writing became work and not fun. I didn’t enjoy it any less, but it mattered to me more.
Is it because you are hypercritical now that you no longer show anyone drafts? Is that a good or a bad development for you creatively? I mean, do you wish you would show people drafts or does the work develop better without outside scrutiny?
I really don’t know why I stopped. I absolutely believe, I know, that work is improved by having readers for what is in-progress. And yes, I do wish I could show early drafts to friends. (Or better yet, be in a workshop.) It would save me time and spare me grief. Maybe I’ll start again.
When was the first time you were published?
It took me three years of diligently sending stories to magazines before one was accepted. We’re talking about a lot of rejection slips. I was ecstatic at the acceptance, danced around my apartment, I probably didn’t sleep that night. But as is the way with publishing, it was a long time before I saw it in print. When it came out, I couldn’t bear to look at it. I was sure it was dreadful.
You went to get your MFA at Brooklyn College. Why go to graduate school?
I went to graduate school to buy time. As long as I was a student, I wasn’t expected to be a published author. I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate graduate school but I did have some very good teachers and I learned some things regardless.
Why weren’t you mature enough to appreciate graduate school?
I didn’t work hard enough or take advantage of what was available to me. I was more invested in parties than in the classroom.
How did you family feel about you pursuing writing?
My family thought my wanting to be a writer was ridiculous; not that they thought that writers or books were ridiculous but I was considered to be the family fuck-up. Expectations for me were low. As my mother said, “I never dreamed you’d succeed.”
Ouch. They must be pleased now then, to have the family fuck-up be the published professor. Why were you the fuck-up? Does this go back to that spectacularly miserable teenage time?
I think they decided I was a fuck-up when I was born because every family has to have one. And I was careless, always losing things like my eyeglasses or my watch or myself. I had a habit of wandering away. I was inattentive, the sort not to notice the Wet Paint sign. By the time I was a teenager I was a well-established fuck-up. I think they would’ve preferred I remain a fuck-up because no one likes to be wrong.
What was the living like for you in those pre-recognition days?
Another plus to being a waitress— I had dinner at work, and I took food home, too. Yes, taking food home was stealing food. Not to justify theft, but back then if you worked in a restaurant, you took home food, toilet paper, silverware, and the occasional bottle of wine. I never bought much in the way of groceries other than coffee.
I lived in a studio apartment. No roommates. I didn’t worry about money. All my friends were aspiring writers and artists and we weren’t interested in having money. However, I did get married for the health insurance.
Okay, now I’ve heard about green card marriages, but a health insurance marriage? Another very American creature, to be sure. You must tell me more about that.
My job was not one that came with benefits (health insurance, pension plans; medical or parental leaves, etc.) and I could not afford health insurance on my own. My boyfriend’s job however came with excellent benefits for himself and family. One night I thought I broke my arm. I went to the emergency room and it cost hundreds of dollars just to get through the door. My arm wasn’t broken. Just bruised. They gave me a bag of ice to put on it. A $400 bag of ice. My boyfriend said, “If we were married, you wouldn’t have had to pay a dime.” And I agreed and so we did.
I read in an interview that you said, “All the first big things have happened: I’m not going to fall in love again or move to New York again or publish a first book again or lose my virginity.” Does that mean you experience certain nostalgia for those days of yore?
No. No nostalgia. I’m not big on looking back fondly, although I’m fond of dredging up the underside. That comment was more about looking ahead, wondering if my life were going to flat-line. It turns out that there are other “firsts.”
Is there anything you would like to tell Binnie of that earlier time? Any advice or knowledge that you feel would have benefited you at the time?
Oh, God yes.
Everything I know now would’ve benefited me then, but that’s not how life goes. There’s that cliché, “Youth is wasted on the young;” it’s a cliché because it’s true.
What are some early challenges you faced?
Each new piece of writing presents its own challenges. Writing a fifth book is the same as writing a first one. And there were times when it was a challenge to face the day.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
My thought process went like this: “I’m going to quit writing. I’ll get a job in advertising. I’ll work 9-5 and have weekends off like everybody else. And I can write on the weekends and at night and try getting up early and write before going to work.” There was no giving it up. To quit writing was to make time to write.
Any early triumphs?
I don’t think I had triumphs. I think I had process.
I think that is a great statement. Because that is so much more true, for most of us, I think. The slow, steady work leading to the slow, steady climb, rather than some quick burst of fireworks. There is that Steve Jobs’ quote that has been floating around a lot lately— the idea that you can’t connect the dots going forward, you can only connect them looking back. If you look back now, can you see how those dots connected, became process?
I’m pretty sure I could see the dots connecting all along. Or rather, I knew the dots could connect. Perhaps for me it wasn’t dots connecting as much as climbing a ladder. I had faith in one step at a time.
Any quirky musts you have to have in order to be productive?
I once had a teacher who said, “You should write only when the muse inspires you, but take care that the muse inspires you every day.” It doesn’t always work out that way; the muse is often absent but I try to write five or six days a week.
I work at home. I am a creature of habit: when I hear my husband leave for work, I get out of bed, make coffee, sit at my desk which faces away from the window. No distractions. I don’t want to get dressed to go write. Can’t imagine working in a cafe. I’ve never gone to a writers’ colony. I want my coffee, my desk, and my books. I don’t want to wear shoes while writing. Are these quirky musts?
A lot of writers say they find the act of writing uncomfortable, even painful. Others enjoy the act itself. How do you feel about it? What drives you?
When it’s going well, I more than enjoy it; when it’s not going well, I feel mentally and physically ill. What drives me? Neurosis? Anxiety? Narcissism?
In an interview, you said, “The world seems to understand that men can be funny and dark, but women narrators are supposed to be likable, and my characters are not necessarily nice and/or likable. But they are funny.” Do you find that you have faced specific challenges as a writer because you are a woman?
Growing up in a post-feminist time (post-feminist meaning only that the political activism was more or less over; by law, women got equal pay for equal work, had equal opportunity, etc.) it never occurred to me that to be a woman and a writer was not necessarily the same thing as being a writer. Putting aside all the gender inequities of prizes, awards, and major reviews (and yes, of course there are exceptions, but exceptions are exceptions) and putting aside how books by women are put out into the world, and thus received, as less significant, less serious literature, I’ve come to learn that to write “difficult” characters is a tremendous challenge for women. Men can write characters who are nasty, angry, bitter, twisted, alcoholics, promiscuous, neurotic; in other words—complicated, complex characters rife with human failings. But as a friend of mine put it, “No one wants to spend 300 pages with an hysterical woman.”
That makes me so furious. If you look at MFA programs today, they are packed with women. I know plenty of young women who are writer’s who want to write and do write complicated characters. But we have yet to see the female Alexander Portnoy, and there has yet to be a serious literature class taught called “The Hysterical Female,” though I myself once took a class called “The Hysterical Male,” all about great, much-loved hysterical male characters. Do you think this will change? And what will it take to change it, really?
It makes me more than furious. Maybe it will change but I haven’t really seen much indication of it. Look at how the notion of “Women’s Fiction” has made for the proliferation of book clubs, and there was no male equivalent of Chick Lit. And you wouldn’t believe the letters (emails) I get asking why don’t I write about nice people or telling me that my character wasn’t likable and therefore the books weren’t liked. No one asks Philip Roth why he doesn’t write about nice people.
You are a teacher in a MFA program. How do teaching and writing work in interplay for you?
Having taught freshman Composition, and not loving it, teaching wasn’t something I pursued. When I was first asked to teach at Columbia, I was reluctant to say yes— what if I hated it?— but decided to give it a go for one semester. I didn’t hate it. It is like a life-force, working with students who are wildly intelligent and talented. I’m a better editor of my own work because of it, better able to zero in on what needs fixing, although how to fix it is something else.
Teaching, is self-serving, but I think you have to really love teaching for it to work out that way.
What do you look for in the writers you teach today? Do you see a change in the writing, habits, attitudes etc of the students you see today as compared to when you yourself were an MFA student?
I want my students to be honest in their writing. Not to tell the literal truth, but to be true to their characters and to their own style and voice and nature. I also want my students to be hyper-aware of language, of the words they use, to delight in the words, to care for and to appreciate the tools of writing as much as the end-product.
Students now seem far more savvy, sophisticated, especially about navigating their way in the world.
Any advice for young writers?
Only if they ask.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Marion Ettlinger