NOVELIST’S CORNER: BINNIE KIRSHENBAUM
Novelist and short-story writer Binnie Kirshenbaum is a two-time Critics’ Choice Award winner as well as being a Professor at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Her keenly-anticipated and now widely-acclaimed novel RABBITS FOR FOOD portrays a writer named Bunny recovering from a breakdown.
In her Boston Globe review of RABBITS FOR FOOD, novelist Caroline Leavitt calls the book “wickedly astute and hilariously funny.”
Intrigued by the novel as well as by the coverage it was receiving, I thought of questions Binnie Kirshenbaum seemed not yet to have been asked about her latest book. In the interview below, she graciously answers those questions.
RABBITS FOR FOOD had a gestation period of almost ten years. Which aspects of the finished text could you least have anticipated when you first started working on the book?
My other books, all written within a time span of two and four years, brought about surprises throughout the writing process: characters I hadn’t imagined, plot twists I hadn’t planned on, endings that were not the ones I had in mind. With this novel, it was different. The ten years I took to write it were darker than my worst fears. A year and a half into it — and the least awful of it all — was that I got cancer. (I’m fine now.) Then, over the next five years, the three people to whom I was closest all died unexpectedly, as did my beloved cat. They all were far too young, and they were my world. My father also died; we weren’t close, but now I was officially an orphan with no family. There were long stretches of time when it was impossible to write, to keep any momentum going, to hold onto the threads of the book. Periodically, I didn’t see the point to continuing with it, and when the last of my three beloveds was dying, I couldn’t imagine writing ever again. But she made me promise her that I would finish it. So, I could say that the least anticipated aspect was that eventually I did complete the novel, which was bittersweet. They all would’ve been very, very happy, but they weren’t here.
How does it make you feel that an Amazon customer wrote the following about RABBITS FOR FOOD?
“I’ll be honest and say I actually found some comfort in this book because it made me realize that my own struggle with depression has been much different than the narrator in this book, and for that I am deeply grateful. That’s probably not what the author intended, but it was definitely a reminder to keep working through it, moment by moment.”
It’s something of a bug-a-boo of mine, reading literature for self-help or “affirmation” of self, or for the protagonist to be someone admirable; an unwillingness to care or be interested in characters who are “other” than oneself. To be honest, it can infuriate me but it infuriates me a lot more when the book is dismissed for such reasons. It’s always a mistake for authors to look at their Amazon reviews, but we all take a peek. When I’d see a pan because “I didn’t relate” or “I really didn’t like this character” or “I hated this book. It was so depressing,” I start sputtering and wish I could explain to these people that their opinions are narrow and antithetical to how literature should be read. But, of course, I would do no such thing. I calm down and stay away from Amazon. I can’t tell people how they should read, and really, nor should I. At least this person recognized that my intent wasn’t to provide comfort. (Nor did they hate it.) And, true, providing comfort was not at all my intent, but there’s certainly no harm to provide comfort. Certainly, if I were to meet this person, I would want to offer them whatever comfort and compassion possible. This might sound nonsensical, but the author who writes a book is not the same person who wrote the book. When I write, I have an intent to reveal something about the human condition, something likely to be unpleasant, the sorts of things we’d rather not admit. I have little-to-no interest in writing, generally speaking, about nice people. I don’t like to read about nice people, but I am, or at least I try to be, a good person; generous and kind. And on that note, I hope she’s okay, and when she is okay, it’d be great if she reread the novel with a different perspective.
What entered into your decision to have Bunny’s husband Albie be a zoologist?
I definitely didn’t want him to be a writer or an artist or involved in the arts in any way, and I didn’t want him to be an academic, but I wanted him to be learned and to have a curious mind. He also needed to be New York based. And he had to have the kind of job that provided a decent and steady income and one that definitely came with good health benefits. On her own, Bunny would have neither, and I wanted him to want to take care of her. It was also important that he care about animals, and know a lot about them. During the time when I hadn’t quite decided, I took a friend’s child to the American Museum of Natural History, which for quite a long time now has been very active and influential in protecting the environment and committed to saving endangered species. And I realized, “Of course, he’s a zoologist at the Museum of Natural History.”
A RABBITS FOR FOOD narrator distinguishes between mental illness, and other illnesses, by observing that people generally are less open to demonstrating empathy for people with mental health issues than for people with, say, a broken leg. Regarding Bunny, the narrator specifies: “No one has sent her a balloon, one of those Mylar balloons with a yellow happy face.” Just for fun, how do you think Bunny would react if somebody did send her such a thing?
I think it would depend of who sent it, what was sent, and her frame of mind at the moment. If it were her younger sister, she would dismiss it with a good dose of anger as nothing more than a sense of guilt and obligation. If her elder sister sent her a home brewed herbal remedy, she might have laughed. Or else, she’d throw it against the wall. With anyone else, I think it would have to do with what was sent. Bunny isn’t spoiled or materialistic, but she cares very much about being special. If someone sent flowers, she’d probably put them in the garbage can because everyone gets sent flowers. But if someone sent her something funny with her in mind, or send something like a handmade card, something that required effort and/or thought, she might cry. Then again, depending on her frame of mind, she might toss it in the trash the same as if it were flowers.
Bunny quit seeing a certain Dr. Stine in part because Stine analyzed the writer Raymond Carver “as though work and life were one and the same.” Bunny’s point is well-taken. However that may be, though, I’d like to know, for which writers whose work you admire do the writers’ biographies help to enhance your enjoyment of their work?
I’m well aware how contrary I must be sounding, but nothing about a writer’s biography would enhance or detract from my admiration of their work. It’s something I am forever trying to impress upon my students with varying degrees of success. Now that I think of it, I can’t recall ever having read a full biography of any writer. What I know about any of them is either common knowledge or I learned as a student, or from anecdotes told. I know some of my favorite writers were horrible people. Of course, I know much about the lives of writers who are my friends, but I’ve never made a connection between my knowledge of who they are with what they’ve written. What I’d said earlier, I do hold fast to—that author and person are not the same, and author and character are definitely not the same, even when there are similarities, the way our children are not us. Our characters are like our children. Writers tend to be very private people—note the little biographies they write for their book jackets, they reveal nothing—because we fear that readers will confuse our characters with us, and we fear that knowing about our lives will result in assumptions and connections that are not accurate. I’m confident that I will never write a memoir, but there aren’t many questions about my life and who I am that I won’t answer provided it is not being connected directly to my chacter.
Despite being afflicted with major depressive disorder, Bunny writes with verve – her joie d’écrire is palpable. Is it gratifying for you to think that many people will come away from RABBITS FOR FOOD believing that writing and/or reading are good aids for getting through tough times?
I think whatever helps people get through their tough times is what they should do. When I’m going through a bad spell, I watch crime shows on television. There’s enough to hold my attention, but nothing that will hit where I hurt. At those times I can’t write at all. I used to force myself to write something, with the mistaken idea that it would help, but after a paragraph or so, I’d only feel worse and hit delete. Now I know better. But I do worry that people who do write to get through a bad time don’t understand that what they are writing is likely not publishable. My mother did that when she was dying. I told her it was good to write if it that’s what she wanted to do, but when she asked me to help her get it published, she was upset when I explained that it was for her alone, and not something magazines would be interested in. It hurt us both, and I wished that she hadn’t done that with expectations. It was what inspired the character in the novel who kept talking about the novel her mother was writing.
Please add anything else you would like my readers to know about Rabbits for Food, and/or your past and/or upcoming work.
If your readers would like to know if I had a breakdown, the answer is yes. About fifteen years ago. But I must add, Bunny is not me and I am not her. The nearness of names had to do with an idea I had when I first started the book; an idea I quickly gave up on, and at the time I didn’t feel like coming up with a new name. After a while, she was Bunny and I couldn’t imagine her having a different name than that one. Usually about 18 months pass between finishing a book and its publication, but my publisher was very anxious to get RABBITS FOR FOOD out much sooner. I had only 6 months for all the editing, revisions, pre-publication publicity, and whatnot. Then, I got busy with book tours and interviews and all that. This is all to say that upcoming work is barely a seedling, which I hope will grow into a novella about a man with dementia and a woman to tries to suppress all memories of happiness. I do have notes, and next semester I’m on sabbatical. That’s the plan.
RABBITS FOR FOOD is here on Amazon, here on Barnes & Noble, and here on the website of the publisher, Soho Press.
Binnie Kirshenbaum’s website is here.
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