Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison is a self-styled writing addict and the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestselling memoir, The Kiss. The book provides a spare yet incisive account of her incestuous relationship with her father, whom she encountered at age twenty. Among her six books of nonfiction are two additional memoirs, The Road to Santiago and The Mother Knot, a book of essays, Seeking Rapture, a biography, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and a book of true crime, While They Slept: An Inquiry in to the Murder of a Family. Her novels include Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, and Envy. Her seventh novel, Enchantments, forthcoming from Random House on March 6, is narrated by Rasputin’s daughter, who escaped Revolutionary Russia and became a lion tamer.

Harrison’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, O Magazine, and Vogue, among others. She teaches memoir writing in the MFA Program at Hunter College in New York.

The Days of Yore joined Harrison for lunch at a sushi restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Five text tattoos in Aramaic, Latin, and French wrap around the author’s right wrist, but she won’t translate them for anyone. Not even her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison.

Tell me about growing up in California.

I was born in 1961 and grew up on Sunset Boulevard, right smack in the middle of L.A., with my mother’s parents. My mother lived with us until I was about five. After that, it was just me and my grandparents, both of whom were quite old, even for grandparents. My grandfather was born in 1890 and my grandmother in 1899. Both of them had lived in many far-flung places, and they both taught me about them. Not that I thought so at the time—I entered college as a pre-med—but it was probably the perfect beginning for a writer. My grandfather grew up in London, and my grandmother grew up in Shanghai. She came from ridiculous wealth, at least for a little while. In Shanghai, labor was cheap, so she lived in a house with forty servants.

Forty servants?!

And my grandfather had been so poor as a boy that he was sometimes hungry. So there was that spread. He was a tall, elegant, and athletic man who left Europe in the early teens of the last century. A young man with wanderlust. His education was incomplete, but he was a math whiz and could always get work as a bookkeeper. It allowed him to indulge himself. He traveled all the way across Canada and ended up in Alaska, though Alaska wasn’t a state yet.

Then came The Seal Wife.

Exactly. The book was very much inspired by his experience. My grandfather lived in Alaska when it was a tent city. He trapped fur. He did fall in love with a tent singer, in the dark, based on her voice. They married, and then she died in her thirties.

My grandfather married my grandmother when he was fifty-one, and she was forty-two. They never expected to have a child. So my grandfather ended up with a daughter when he was in his fifties. When I came along, my grandfather was seventy-one.

Did you have an early desire to write?

Writing was something I always could do. I was considered an unusually good writer by the time I was in the seventh grade. I read a lot. I was an only child. Toward the end of college, I thought, this is something I might do. I backed into it, in a way. I started doing it before I said I wanted to.

First I thought I was going to be was a veterinarian. Then I thought I was going to be a doctor. I started college pre-med and defected… precipitously. [In high school] I had been one of those really neurotic students. I was valedictorian and the big queen fish in a small pool. Then I went to Stanford, a really competitive school for engineering and medicine. Suddenly, I had these problem sets. I knew I wasn’t going to be the one on the top, and when I took an Art History class I had a vision that school didn’t have to mean calculus and chemistry, it could be sitting in the dark looking at something beautiful and then writing about it, and I thought, it’s a no-brainer. I still wasn’t thinking about writing as a career until I wandered into the English department and took a creative writing workshop. My relationship to writing developed slowly and organically and largely unconsciously.

Even while writing my first novel, I never referred to myself as a writer or it as a novel. It was my “thing.” The “thing” I was working on. The “thing” I did in private when I wasn’t working at my job.

Did you enter an MFA program directly after college?

When I graduated from college, I thought the last thing I wanted to do was to spend two years in writing workshops. They’re hard, and they’re exhausting, and they make you feel vulnerable, and the idea of devoting all of one’s attention to that seemed pretty excruciating. There were three years between college and graduate school.

What did you do in the interim?

Mostly fuck up my life. I was entangled with my father, and my mother was dying, and my grandfather was dying. I had one job—not even a job type job—and I was going back and forth between Los Angeles and New Mexico, where my father was living at the time. For years, I just disappeared into that void. As for why Iowa, I’m old enough now that back then there were really only about three places to apply to [for an MFA] that anybody had ever heard of.

Was Iowa pretty competitive?

Iowa had a serious pecking order and everyone knew where everyone else stood. The top positions were the teaching-writing fellows. The directors and teachers decided the ranking.

We were all dropped down into this weird little bubble, and we all got to know each other, and nobody knew anybody from Iowa. It heightened the amount of attention you paid to the workshop itself. It had this incestuous pressure cooker aspect. Rivalries and affairs and gossip, both careerist and personal. A place where you had to make an effort to protect your privacy.

Did you find it difficult to create in an atmosphere of competition?

I didn’t like it. I don’t know how much of an effect it had on me because I’m an introvert. I’m sort of a loner. I wasn’t the person who was out drinking with people after workshop. I pretty much went home and tried to get work done. During my first semester, my mother died, so I had this huge distraction. It put things in perspective. It conferred a certain immunity. And I became a teaching-writing fellow [laughs] so I wasn’t worried about my place in the pecking order, which I’m sure made a difference, too.

Tell me about meeting your husband.

When I first arrived at Iowa, my life was a complicated mess. My mother was about to die. I had asked to defer, and was told I’d have to reapply, so I had had to make a difficult choice. Jack Leggett, the director, was a very avuncular person—disarming in the best sense—and at our first workshop, he said, “Some of you will even meet your husbands and wives here.” I looked at him, thinking, “As if.” And of course I was the one.

My husband is a hard-driving extrovert, somebody who approaches, as opposed to me, who looks from the sidelines. We were in the graduate lounge, where all the mailboxes were. He asked me out to lunch, and I said, “OK.” And he said, “How about Wednesday?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “Aren’t you going to write it down?” And I thought, “Who is this controlling bastard?” I rolled my eyes. But I wrote it down.

We had lunch, and then we had another date that Friday night. I moved in with him on Monday. Two days earlier, on Saturday, I’d thought to myself, “I’m going to marry this guy.” And then I’d thought, “That’s just exactly the kind of thing that crazy people think.”

Colin never said, “Will you marry me.” We always knew. After a few years, we got married.

Where had you lived before you moved in with him?

Nila Kelso, a farmer’s widow, had a house and she rented out her extra bedrooms to students. I had a weird garret. Colin came over and spent the night once and said, “I’m never going to spend the night here again.” You sat up in bed and bumped your head. I was used to it.

When you lived with him, would you go back to your weird garret and write?

I kept writing in my place and always spent the night at his.

So you basically had an office?

I guess I did. It was a rather odd living situation.

Were other people milling about?

I shared the upstairs with a young woman named Alice. She was an undergraduate who hadn’t declared a major yet and she’d been there for eight years. Alice would stalk on the periphery like a small storm. It was okay. We figured out how to share the space. We had nothing in common. She had come from Iowa, and she thought I was a strange freak from outer space.

Because you were from Los Angeles?

I don’t know. Alice was an odd duck. I remember moving in and strolling past her room. She had maybe three books. They were I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and, you know, Jesus is gonna love you no matter what, and I thought, okay…

You knew all you needed to know.

I, on the other hand, came with a pet rat.

Wow, what color?

White and black. A lab rat. I’d had rats as pets for some time. My first rat, Wilhelmina, really was very smart and kind of a character. I kept her in the bathroom with the door closed and left her cage door opened. I kept my jewelry there, and I had a couple of earrings that she considered hers. If I took them out of her cage, she’d scold and bring them back. She was fun. Although once, I did leave my school uniform skirt hanging on a towel rack where she could get to it, and within eight hours, she had reduced it to a grass skirt.

Tell me about your move to New York in 1987.

My husband had been born here [New York] and had lived on the East Coast all his life. Having discovered New York when I was about fifteen, I was always trying to get back here. So when the time came to leave Iowa, we thought, what the hell, we’ll try to live in New York. So we came out in a wide-eyed dippy way and landed here. I flew to New York, and he set out in a U-Haul.

I stayed with an old friend in Manhattan, and in three days, I had to find an apartment. I went around on this accelerated tour of real estate in the boroughs. Manhattan wasn’t going to work for financial reasons. There were two up-and-coming neighborhoods, Astoria and Park Slope. In Astoria, the only places I saw were upholstered in linoleum. It went from the floor all the way up the wall. I found an apartment in Park Slope that we could actually afford. It seemed livable. There were a couple of restaurants and places to buy food. It’s very different now—somebody actually identified us as the “Park Slope problem.” With a couple of other people, we started the ghetto for writers.

Did you work in publishing?

I worked at Viking Penguin for three years. I began as an editorial assistant for Nan Graham, who is now the editorial director of Scribner, where Colin [her husband] works. Small world, publishing. I loved it. If there’d been thirty-six hours in a day, I probably would have stayed longer, but when I left, my grandmother had just moved in with us, and we’d just had a baby. I had one ancient baby and one new one on my hands. They were both in diapers by then. I just couldn’t do it, so I left the industry. It was the right decision. But it was also a decision that meant I didn’t have a job or an income. I was a full-time writer, which took some getting used to. I had to work.

Had your first book come out at that point?

It had sold.

The book sold after grad school?

My husband was key, in many ways, because when you work in publishing, you can spend an endless amount of time working. You take work home. After I had been doing it for about six months, my husband said, “This is really stupid. You spend all your time working on other people’s writing, but you’re not getting any done yourself. I want you to change that.” So I started getting up at five in the morning. I wrote between five and seven, before I went to work.

Iowa gives out the Michener Fellowship to alumni with a work that the readers believe will be published. They make a bet on you and then they give you a stipend, enough that you can take a few months off from your job and finish it up. As I said, I had this thing that I called my “thing,” and I sent it off, not really expecting much. Then I got it [the fellowship]. That was really validating. So I looked at my “thing” and thought, well, somebody thinks you’re going to be published!

I was very fortunate. I really had such a relatively easy experience because I got the Michener. I didn’t even understand what an outrageous request it was, when I asked Nan [her boss], if I could take some time off to work on my book. She said yes, which was so generous. Afterward, she provided liaison to Binky, Amanda Urban, an agent whom I hadn’t even dreamed of. But a friend of mine had read the manuscript and sent it to a friend of his, an editor, who said, “I think this is a Binky book.” I’m thinking, “Yeah, right.” My husband was working at Harper’s, and Michael Pollan was there at the time. When he and his wife were over for dinner, I mentioned the editor’s comment and sort of shrugged my shoulders, like, “Forget it, I’m not going to send this to Binky.” And Michael Pollan said, “Why not?” And I said, “Because I don’t need extra rejection in my life.” He said, “She’s fast. You’ll have your answer fast.” I thought that was good because publishing often moves at a glacial pace.

So I sent it to her and then she called me up on the phone. I was eight months pregnant. She said, “So! Why don’t you come up to my office and we’ll talk?” I hung up the phone—I was an editorial assistant—and everybody was like, “What’d she say? What’d she say?” Binky is just who a writer wants her to be, a towering figure of authority and terror for every editorial assistant. And I said, “She told me to come to her office.” And everybody said, “That’s great!” I was thinking she was going to dress me down in person for having the audacity to send it to her.

I was in her office on a Thursday and she’s very—she’s wonderful. Very direct and business-like. She said, “So! This is what I think we should do.” She wrote down all these editors’ names, and she said, “We’ll have an auction next week.” On Monday, there was a message on the phone. “It’s Amanda Urban. Give me a call.” I thought she wanted some information for the cover letter, and so I called her, and she said, “So! We have a preemptive offer.” I just stood there with the receiver pressed to my ear. She said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “What do you think I should do?” And she said, “I think you should take it.” Within one week, I had an agent and a publisher, which was certainly not the usual experience. I was really grateful to be spared because I was already wondering how I was going to deal. I’m not built for that kind of stress.

Did you ever get rejected?

By somebody other than my mother? [Laughs.] I didn’t have to deal with much rejection as a writer. I have written a novel and thrown it out, because my editor didn’t like it. Actually, the novel that I threw out was the one I was working on right before I started working on The Kiss. The reason that novel was so bad was because I hated everyone in it. Unconsciously, I felt that those characters were keeping me from writing The Kiss. I went into an editorial meeting for this big plan for revision, and Kate Medina, my editor, looked across her desk at me, and said, “What do you want to do?” I said—unexpectedly—“I don’t want to write this book at all.” She had bought the book, so she just leaned back in the chair, and said, “What do you want to write?” I told her I wanted to write a book about what happened between my father and me, and she said, “Oh…”

When I told her I wanted to write the book about my father and me, we stared at each other for a while. Then she said okay. I didn’t know that I could do it, so I said, “This is what I want to try to do, but I don’t know that I can do it.” I asked her not to tell the rest of the company what I was doing.

The novel that preceded The Kiss had been rejected in that sense—it was bad and we all thought so. It’d been bought, though, so it wasn’t the same sort of thing. I’ve had pieces rejected by The New Yorker. I don’t do a lot of short work, and most of my short work, I sell once it’s done. Given that, the short work can be rejected, but not much.

Must be nice.

My life as a writer has been blessed in many ways. There’s so much heartbreak in this business. My older daughter’s a painter. She’s twenty-two, she’s got a lot of talent, and I imagine she must look at the art world and wonder how she – anyone – can make a living as a painter. A career in the arts is certainly not something you would wish upon your child, because it’s just asking for heartbreak, rejection, frustration, poverty.

This is not a meritocracy. There are a lot of very bad books that do very well. There are a lot of beautiful books that sink like little stones. There are so many opportunities for heartbreak.

Who were your early influences?

Flannery O’Connor, definitely. I’ve always loved Dickens. More and more as I get older… Oh, Faulkner! I’m trying to see my bookshelf and travel through it. J.M. Coetzee. Edith Wharton. Nabokov. Hillary Mantel. Martin Amis. I also like Japanese fiction—Kenzaburo Oe, Shusaku Endo, Ishiguro. Dostoyevsky. Bulgakov. I can point to books I love or writers I loved earlier in my life, but it’s difficult to say who’s a person who’s had impact on your work. Cheever. Updike. Madame Bovary is probably my favorite novel of all time.

That’s a good list.

I was a big fairytale reader, as a kid and still as a grownup. I was always interested in hagiography, stories about saints. I read a lot of theology and psychiatry. I love Jung, because he straddles. I was always somebody who was interested in religion and had a strange religious background. I was thoroughly indoctrinated as a Christian Scientist as a kid, and then my mother converted to Catholicism, so I became Catholic. My father is a protestant minister, or was, and my grandparents were Jews. I always had these different traditions and disciplines, in terms of theology, around me and it probably provoked some questioning. My Sunday school began when I was about three. I took it really seriously. I’ve read the bible a couple of times.

Do you love writing?

I do. Sometimes it’s horrible, but I love it. I love it a lot more than being a writer. Publication is hard for me. I want my work published of course, but I don’t like going out in the world and being that person who is, in some ways, separate from me, because she is someone who lives in the minds of other people. Whereas writing itself offers these transcendent moments… they don’t come along all that often, but when it’s great, it’s transcendently great.

The paradox is that I am most myself and least burdened by self when I’m writing. Hours can vanish. Sometimes hours spent on one sentence, which is not so good, but I do love it. I didn’t begin by loving it. I began in the Flannery O’Connor camp of “I love to have written.” I never thought it was fun. I was always in a crisis of anxiety. There were a couple of people at Iowa who said they loved writing, and I thought, “Wow, really? That’s weird.” I’ve come to love it. But I’ve also become far more addicted to it. It really is this thing that I have to do.

Why do you think you’re addicted to it?

Writing is a way of bringing order to chaos, as illusory as that order might be. It offers an arena in which I get to be the director. Even if it’s nonfiction, I get to choose the order in which the information is revealed and which details I use. As time goes by, you realize there’s not much in life you have control over. It seems to me some wonderful magic trick that I get to do what I love and get paid for it. It’s the way I explain the world to myself. It’s my coping mechanism. It’s the apparatus that allows me to approach the world. Without it, I don’t know what I would do.

What are your writing hours?

For many years, my hours were predicated by my children’s school hours, which meant that I got them out of the house and reported to my post. I’m very much a believer in Flaubert’s advice— to be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. A writer needs the same kind of work ethic as anyone else who wants to get anything done. Just show up for your job every day. I’ve never been one of those people who believed in the romantic notion of scribbling away from twelve midnight until four in the morning after having lived a bohemian life. I’ve always been pretty orderly by nature. So eight until whenever they’d come home.

My older kids are in college now, and it’s still the same. My husband goes to work, my youngest to school, and I to my desk. I prefer the house to be empty or for everyone in it to be asleep when I work. If I’m really working hard, I’ll be at my desk at five, and I’ll work until seven, until I have to start rousing people, then I’ll go back. It ebbs and flows. But I go to my desk whether I’m inspired or not. I just don’t have to get dressed and go to the subway.

How have you managed to balance raising three children and publishing more than a dozen books?

I’m driven. I don’t do a whole lot else besides take care of my family. I have a few friends… who really are family. I’m not someone who’s out at parties much because I’m shy—I don’t really want to be out socializing. Anyway, I’m not much fun to be around if I can’t write. I’m addicted to it. Even if I have only an hour in a day, I’m going to use it.

How do you switch from genre to genre so easily?

One relieves the other. Mary Gordon once said that the difference between fiction and nonfiction was that in fiction you get to change the ending. You get to mete out poetic justice. I’m getting better, but I don’t think that plotting is my strong suit. That’s a problem with fiction because you have to make up the whole thing.

What makes you think that plotting is not your strong suit?

I was somebody who was quite involved with character and details but not always able to lift myself out of the forest to see the trees, to be able to see the movement of the story, which is a problem my husband doesn’t have. His mom is an actress. He grew up cuing her. He had a really clear sense of what a play was. When I would divide pages up into what I thought were chapters, he would look at them and say, “A chapter is like an act in a play. It starts in one place, and by the time you get to the end, something has changed, it’s arrived somewhere else. And then the next chapter starts.” I needed a lot of remedial work.

A good friend of mine is a Tony Award nominator, so she often “needs” theater dates. I see much more theater than I would never be able to afford or would go to on my own. Seeing plays has helped me become a stronger writer. It reinforced the idea that you can’t have unrelieved tragedies. Something has to lighten things up. A good friend of mine read an early draft [of her autobiographical first novel]. Then, when we talked about it, he looked up wearily from the manuscript, and said, “Didn’t you guys ever just go out for ice cream?” meaning didn’t we ever do something normal and lighthearted? The reader can’t just be battered for three hundred pages. That’s not something I automatically understood. When I teach, I call it the Ice Cream Factor.

Fiction does offer freedom, but there’s the working of plotting it. By the time I get to the end of a novel, the idea of having a nonfiction project, like a biography, is really welcome, because the plot’s been done. It turns into a different set of questions. I like that. I like doing both.

Have you faced any other challenges in writing fiction?

I do like writing because it is this whole world that I have the illusion of control over, but one of my challenges, especially in fiction, has been to sit back and relax and let things to unfold without worrying about it. The first time it happened it had seemed really scary—“Wait a minute, you’re not the main character of this book.” But I couldn’t banish them. Now I really love when that happens. The character that just pops out and runs away with the whole show. If you’re willing to sit in the passenger seat, it’s magic. You’re inventing it, and yet it’s pulling you along.

In The Binding Chair, the main character commits suicide toward the end. I remember feeling just grief-stricken. I was thinking, oh my god, I should have seen it coming. I knew she was depressed, I knew she was depressed! She had made that attempt earlier—why didn’t I see it coming?! One would think I’d been planning it, I was after all the one writing the book. But I was blindsided. She drowned herself, and I thought, oh my god, so that’s why she was taking those swimming lessons!

Tell me about writing The Kiss.

Writing The Kiss was not an act of altruism. Not every reader says, “This book saved my life,” but some do, enough that it’s redemptive. It’s a wonderful thing to take some part of your life and turn it into something that actually helps somebody else. But that wasn’t why I wrote it. I was just trying to save myself. I had one way.

When I was involved with my father, I had stepped outside of human society. Sometimes I would look in the mirror, and I would be surprised to see just a girl there. In my mind, I had turned into a monster. But the person I saw wasn’t frightening, she was frightened, and very alone. There was only one way for me to get back over that line, back into human society, and that was to write the book. For many people I will never be back over that line. It’s a taboo broken. I can’t un-break it.

But writing the book freed you.

I had gone through this strange passage in my life that had taken me all the way down. I was always one of those people who was eager to please, and of course it was my father, and I hadn’t seen him in years, and he was a charismatic and manipulative person. And I was incapable of walking away from love or what appeared to be love or what somebody said was love in any form, and that meant that I allowed myself to be dismantled. Finally, I got down to the bottom, where I really was considering killing myself, and then I had to pick up the pieces.

When I put myself back together, there were a few things that I left out, like doing anything so that somebody would love me. I’m not that person anymore. My opinion of myself has been hard won. I know who I am, and I could give a flying fuck if somebody says Kathryn Harrison is a bad person. I just don’t care. I do care what people think about my work.

How did you achieve such a consistent tone?

In the case of that book alone, I had written a lot of it in my head before I ever allowed myself to put it on paper. It was written in a very intensely pressured period of about six or eight months, which is very fast for me. It’s a short book. But I think it has that consistency because I wrote it in a white heat.

Once I said, “This is what I’m going to do,” I was out on the street, thinking, what the fuck did I just say? I must be nuts. I went home, I sat down, I started working, and I got about three hours of sleep per night for months, because if I stopped, I would never start writing this book again. It was thrilling in a way, that adrenaline rush, but I got up at three or four in the morning, I worked until I had to get my kids ready for school and then went back to my desk. I worked until it was time for me to make dinner or to do the laundry. Once they went to bed, I worked again. My husband didn’t see very much of me. Sometimes, I’d just be waiting for him to fall asleep, because he’d say, “You can’t get by on no sleep.” Then I’d pop out of bed and go to my desk.

It is a rigidly controlled book. It came at a time in my life when I’d been in therapy and analysis for years and just beating at the whole thing. I wanted to know what my culpability was. I literally had this fantasy of a pie graph of all the players involved, and this much is your fault, this much is your fault. I wanted that. I wanted to know exactly how bad I should feel. At some point, God bless my analyst, I hit the wall. I realized that all of this cerebral going around and around and around was not only failing to produce the desired effect, but was preventing me from approaching my own history. There was one moment, where I thought, there’s only one thing I can do with this, and that’s to tell the story. I know how it happened.

My first novel had been so autobiographical. I did not understand how I would feel once it was published as “a novel,” meaning I made this up. More and more, I felt uncomfortable with that for a number of reasons. I knew that I had an interesting piece of family history, and I felt that I had betrayed my history by fictionalizing it. I felt that I had unwittingly obeyed this cultural imperative that says, “This doesn’t happen, or if it does happen, it didn’t happen to you. There might be some ignorant subnormal people, but incest is not something that happens to people like you,” the subtext being “and therefore like me.” More and more, I felt like, yeah, it does happen, and I can tell you just exactly how.

That was the guiding idea of the book, and that’s why it’s very nonjudgmental, and that’s why it pissed people off. I refused to say I’m a victim of anything. I told it in the present tense because, for me, that story will never be over. It was a way to get back to the young woman I was. It does have that shell-shocked aspect. Once I allowed that voice to take over, it was easy to keep it consistent, because that’s who that young woman is: I was so overwhelmed by what had happened at the time that I wasn’t feeling very much. I was sleepwalking through my life.

I thought the nonjudgmental aspect was the most important part.

I did, too. Not only did I understand the limitations of judgment, but I also understood judgment as an impediment. I knew that it was an unhappy story and that it had to be as compressed as possible because there was really only so much that anybody was willing to take, including me, and that my task was to make it understandable. The past that’s dropped in is only what I think is necessary to understanding what happened once I met my father. I needed to have certain scenes from my childhood, with my mother and my grandparents, so that you could see that this girl was a human being as opposed to a monster, and that it still happened. I took responsibility for a lot of it, and many people would say far more than I should. I’m glad I wrote the book when I did because I’m not sure that I have the same clarity anymore.

I had arrived at a window of clarity where I could see us as three people, none of whom meant… well, I think that my father did have some malignant qualities and some questionable motives. I really do think that he had the intention of ruining and destroying the family that he believed had destroyed his life or had tried to when he was a young man. But, you know, three people came together, and they had needs, and they fucked one another over—and betrayed one another.

Was the publication hard on your husband?

The publication was very hard on my husband, because it was public, because he feels that I have no sense of self-protection and that I need a reminder to keep me from shooting my mouth off. I actually think that most people I know do think about what other people think of them, and I used to, too. But I went somewhere else and I came back and I wasn’t the same person. Of course I was the same person, but I had been through this intense and peculiar and hopefully relatively unusual situation that changed me, changed what I thought about myself, what I thought about life. I don’t even know what I knew before all of those lessons. I learned a lot about what people are capable of, how people betray each other.

Did any family members get upset with you for publishing the book?

My mother was dead. My grandparents were dead. I have no siblings or cousins.

What about your father?

I had no interest in exposing my father. The book doesn’t take place anywhere. He doesn’t look like anything. But I realized also that I was telling a story that he certainly wouldn’t have wanted out there. Somebody finally tracked him down, and he didn’t deny it. He said, “She’s a writer. She has a good imagination,” which was not exactly a denial. He did not act in outrage like any normal person would have, had he been wrongly accused. But I have no contact with my father and haven’t since I was twenty-four.

Anybody I lost was not somebody I cared about anyway. Nobody had known it, but the people who were my friends and loved me, just thought, Oh, now we get it. And then they were sad or whatever, but it didn’t really have a huge effect on my personal life. I shared it with my husband’s parents before it was published, because his father was the headmaster of Sidwell Friends, which is where the Obama’s kids go. He had a relatively high-profile public position. I didn’t want them to be blindsided.

But actually, the thing is, I didn’t sense that anybody was going to flip out. I don’t know if I would have been able to write the book if I thought that people were going to have a hissy. My husband tried to tell me. At the time, I was friends with Andrea Dworkin. An unlikely pair we were. We argued a lot, but she was really smart and a major feminist. I handed her the manuscript before it was even in production. She gave it back to me and was complimentary. Then she said, “Prepare yourself to be dragged through the mud.” I thought, poor Andrea, she’s so paranoid. I would hate to live like that, always expecting bad things to happen.

That’s how far I was from perceiving that any of it would turn out the way it did. That was good. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit there chewing my fingernails.

It wasn’t a book that needed publicizing, so I was excused from doing a lot of what I hate to do—go on book tours. I’m grateful to have a publisher. I’m grateful that they want to send me places. I don’t enjoy it. In the case of this book, it would have been especially gruesome.

Do you hate doing readings?

I actually like it at this point, but this has been my job for about twenty-four years now. I was a disaster in the beginning. I would have this stress-induced dizziness. I would stand in front of a podium and feel like the entire thing was listing to the side. I was so preoccupied by not falling off of the floor. That was a distraction. It took a while just to calm down.

I remember my first reading, because a couple of people from Random House were there. When it was over, they said, “Well, Kathryn, we’ll send you to a media coach.” I was so bad. I kept worrying about going too fast, so I kept going slower and slower and slower… I couldn’t pick my head up and look at people because doing the reading at all relied on my pretending that they weren’t there.

Then when The Kiss came out, they came up with a punch list of questions they thought people would ask me, and then they tried it out. The publicist asked me a question, and I cried, each time, every question. They sent me back to a different media coach to train me not to cry.

How did she train you not to cry?

A lot of it was just practicing, but she was somebody who could help me more professionally than anybody at Random House. They didn’t really know what to do with me.

Then I went on Dateline, and while I didn’t understand this at the time, they hammer at you for hours to get just twenty minutes. They want an entire range of emotions. They have an agenda. They hammered at me until I finally did start to cry, mostly out of exhaustion. One person—who was it? A feminist—wrote, “She’d obviously been coached to cry.” I was thinking, you just can’t win. I had been coached to keep my cool under pressure.

I grew up a lot during that publication, in understanding what the world was like. I am by nature not a worldly person, and I believed that all journalists were honorable people. I never expected to be quoted out of context. I never expected to be slandered. For people to say things that were not true and were never fact-checked. Those sorts of things were not in the realm of my understanding, so I would gasp and say, “How could somebody say that about me?! It’s not true!” Now I’m smarter. I realize how little control I have over people’s responses to what I do.

Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post critic, was the worst and also the most slanderous. He attacked the writing, and I didn’t think that that would happen. Was it the perfect book? No. But as a piece of work, I thought, I will stand behind this and say that this is mine. I hadn’t been worried about the writing, but of course the writing was attacked. That’s my Achilles heel.

I remember feeling disillusioned and unhappy about this. I was talking to the film critic Molly Haskell, who I was by chance at some gathering with in – those days, people who ran into me would say, How are you? One person said, “Turn around, I want to see how many holes there are in your back” —and I said to Molly, “I thought the quality of the work would protect me.” And Molly said something to the effect of, “Are you kidding? That’s why everybody is angry. If it had been a bad book, then nobody would have had to take it seriously.” I left that party a little happier than I had been. I’m sure she has no idea what a favor she did for me.

I care what I think about my work. I care what I think about myself. There are plenty of people out there who say I ought to be burned at the stake, and I just don’t care. It’s been a gift.

Do you have a process?

Let it go.

How do you just let it go?

When my first novel came out, I remember somebody telling me that when Gore Vidal’s books came out, he would leave the country and that he never read his reviews. As a first novelist, I said, “Of course I’ll read all my reviews.” And I still read my reviews, but if it looks like a hatchet job, Binky will say, “Don’t even look at this.” When I got my first negative review ever, I was tearful, like I’d gotten a bad grade. My husband looked across the table—we were at dinner—and he said, “Do you want to play with the big boys?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, take your hits.”

I do want to play with the big boys. I’ll take my hits.

Interview by Kassi Underwood

Photo by Joyce Ravid

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