By Katharine Beutner & Kirsten Kaschock.
Jen Pastiloff here. Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic, I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Enjoy!
Matthea Harvey’s “The Straightforward Mermaid” begins: “The straightforward mermaid starts every sentence with ‘Look . . . ’ This comes from being raised in a sea full of hooks. She wants to get points 1, 2, and 3 across, doesn’t want to disappear like a river into the ocean.” If you were a mythical creature, what would you be? How would you start every sentence?
Katharine Beutner: Kirsten, hello! Thinking this over, I’m surprised that I find it much easier to say how I would start every sentence than to decide what kind of mythical creature I would be. I would start every sentence with “What if–” and sometimes the what-ifs would be marvelous and speculative and sometimes they’d be practical and sometimes they’d be anxious. I’ve cut down a lot on the anxious what-ifs since I got divorced, but they still creep in sometimes.
Since I ask questions all the time, I think I’d be a sphinx, though I’d rather be the guardian Egyptian sort than the riddling kind that has to eat hapless travelers. People tell me I always seem calm and collected, though I find that hard to believe.
What about you? And I’m curious, do you feel a pressure to choose from a particular mythology? I’ve been Greek-mythology-obsessed since I was a kid, so I felt like it would be cheating to claim another source — and I’m really leery of appropriating another culture’s mythology, though for some reason I don’t feel that guilt about Greek myths, maybe because they’ve become a sort of symbolic language for writers and readers in Western literary traditions.
Kirsten Kaschock: Hello Katharine. Lovely to meet you in this imaginary space.
I’d have to be a shapeshifter, skinwalker, facedancer, changeling. A creature for whom metamorphosis is identity. I’d start every sentence as differently as possible, trying on language like shoes. How do I want to move today? I’m not satisfied that my own identity is accurate, so I collect more–writing is a place to do this less tragically than other places. I love my life, just not enough to live there and there only. The thing is, I’m pretty sure when I wear others’ faces, pasts, and bodies—I end up leaving something (my scent? my trace? my soul?) everywhere. P’raps it’s only by being other that I prove I exist? Or some comparable nonsense…
As far as traditions go–dark European fables and folklore are most resonant with me, but you see facedancer up there too (from Frank Herbert’s Dune). I’m fascinated by the mythologies that surround, the ones we are ever recreating. I’m not that interested in writing vampires or zombies, but trying to figure out their function in the current North American cultural imagination… that would be a project.
I have another life where I’ve danced, and being trained in classical ballet and modern dance seeded in me a profound awe of the human ability to transform the self. In the Greek mythology you love (and that my sons are just discovering now), I’m wondering if the everpresence of physical transformation–for punishment or reward or to facilitate seduction–is part of the draw. Some creatures seem simply elemental, others are created or made god. Still others, like the Sphinx, are hybrids. I like what happens to them/me when I think through such manifestations as real, i.e., not (purely) metaphorical. Tell me–in addition to your hypothetical tendencies–does the sphinx-body appeal to you?
KB: I love your use of Herbert’s word “facedancer” — the other thing I thought of, based on your description of your own mythological connections, was “chimera.” Speaking of physical transformations, my father became a chimera in the medical sense after getting a stem cell transplant for lymphoma; we had a birthday party for his stem cells a year later. It turned out that even two sets of DNA wasn’t enough to rout his cancer, but I know he loved the idea of that late-in-life twin-ness — being able to recruit someone else’s cells to help out your own.
The part of the sphinx-body that appeals to me is the feline part. I’ve always loved it when my cats sit so naturally like sphinxes. When I was a child we had Abyssinian cats, and they look exactly like sculptures of Bastet. I’m envious of that kind of grace — and of your dancer’s grace, too!
It’s interesting, what you describe also sounds a great deal like acting to me, but that’s a word you didn’t use. May I ask why, and how you see the actor’s art as different from dance and writing?
KK: I am so sorry about your father’s cancer. I can’t imagine. Just now I’m teaching Octavia Butler’s Dawn–the first book of a trilogy that reimagines cancer’s non-regulated cell-growth as an opportunity (orchestrated by aliens) for regeneration. Sometimes I adore this radical imaginative shift, and sometimes I see how it could be read as an optimist’s allegory. Silver linings and so forth. I am not wholly chimeric: on occasion even my beloved sci-fi can rub me the wrong way (cat-me!) and I turn to history for solace. With all the things I am curious about I sometimes wonder why I’m not, as you suggested, more drawn to acting.
Maybe you’ve hit a nerve. Though I love plays, once loved an actor, love many of my playwright/comedian friends, I’ve never investigated theatre as an avenue for my own art. That said, I’m a big liar: I’ve actually written at least one play, but it facedances as a long poem.
I prefer art that hovers just at the lip of theatre, that raises awareness of the world as performance. John Cage put it brilliantly: “Theatre takes place/all the time wherever one is and art simply/ facilitates persuading one this is the case.” When stories/dance/creatures can do that–make me feel creaturely–that’s when I’m most in their thrall.
That’s what the recent horror-tropes gone mainstream do best I think: invite us inside them, allow us to acknowledge all our dystopic and apocalyptic proclivities. To identify with the dark. Would you ever write one?
KB: I would love to write vampires or zombies, if I thought I could do it well — but I don’t think I could write graphic horror, which I guess one should be able to do for a vampire or zombie novel. Then again, I think what you’re saying about “identifying with the dark” is what defines real horror for me. The more plausible something is, the more horrible it seems. I think one of the most horrible scenes in film is the moment in The Talented Mr. Ripley when Ripley has just bludgeoned Dickie even though/because he loved him, and realizes what he’s done. (Speaking of chimera figures and facedancing! Maybe we ought to include Patricia Highsmith as a dealer in mythology.) Now, bleakness I’m fine with, for some reason — bleakness feels dramatically satisfying to me in a way that horror doesn’t usually. Cf. why I love the Buffy episode “The Body” so much and couldn’t really care about the most of the monsters on the show.
I wish more writers with a mythological bent would take on modern mythologies — Justin Cronin’s a good example of someone who does so beautifully, almost mystically. Are there any writers you’d like to see take on the depiction of a mythical creature? (Also, a note: of the three people I’ve been in love with, two are actors. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about me. Or them!)
KK: China Miéville does sci-fi mythical creatures better than anyone since Lovecraft. I wish some fabulists would go a step further: Marcus, Bender, Murakami. They already make strange–why not take the plunge and graduate from uncanny to inconceivable? I say that, but I’m trying just such a thing (not vampires or zombies but a definite creature) in my second novel, and there’s this wall. To go from suggestive and possibly metaphorical to the thingness of monster–it’s psychologically rough.
KB: I agree! You can often see writers dance right along that border, sometimes very productively — Sarah Waters in The Little Stranger, for example, or Tana French in Broken Harbor, where there is, or isn’t, a creature in the walls. Whereas contemporary TV and film seem quite happy to go all the way with creatures, as it were. Sometimes literally. I could go on about The Vampire Diaries here, but I’ll spare you. (Also, I love Octavia Butler so much, insert keymashing exclamation points here! She came to visit a class of mine at Smith once, and she was such a dignified, quiet, nerdy woman.)
What kind of questions are you struggling with, specifically, with your novel creature (if you don’t mind my asking)? And will you tell me more about the phrase “make me feel creaturely” that you used above? I want to know more about the connection between feeling creaturely and seeing the world as continuous performance, since a lot of animal rhetoric seems to focus on the opposite idea, that being creaturely is being “natural” rather than performative.
KK: My creature goes through a transformation–she begins as a woman and accumulates… you could call them living growths… self-extensions… tendrils. I want readers to have real empathy for her, but I want her to repulse them viscerally. The balance is difficult.
You are right about animal rhetoric–so much human-animal language floating around recently trying to reclaim some lost communion with the non-made world. But we don’t live there. Rhetoric isn’t response. In my recent dissertation (in dance) I attempted to apply Julia Kristeva’s term abject to choreographic analysis. The abject refers to the moment in subject formation when persons and societies establish a border between human and animal, between accepted behaviors and those discarded (often by/through the vehicle of bodily excess and waste). That’s where I think we live–and live most brightly–at the edge of what disturbs us.
Mythical creatures are the concrete embodiment of abject space. Vampires drink blood. Zombies are rot. The light reflected/refracted from Medusa’s face turns her audience to stone. Now that’s what I call a performance.
When I feel creaturely, I am no longer as discrete–I sense my own body’s electrical connection to other bodies. We are hooked in. Everything I do has continuum, effect. This sense of significant action–of being woven in–this is what I strive for when I write. It’s a constant conundrum since the writing life is so much taking oneself out of the circuit in order to articulate it. You know, Goedel.
Do you have cats in your new digs in Hawai’i? Are you feeling the tug of the non-Greek-mythologies now surrounding you? Your first novel was a mythical re-visioning, yes? Alcestis. I can imagine it might be compelling to attempt to re-cast the mythical beings of such a place–is that why you mentioned being leery of appropriation? I guess I’m asking if you think you’ll be writing myths (your own or others’) from paradise. Tell me–does paradise need myths? And monsters, could it need monsters? Because I would totally visit.
KB: I do have cats! (Do you? It’s probably not fair to assume that all dancers and poets are cat people, and yet.) I brought my two ladies from the mainland this summer and they’ve mostly forgiven me by now.
KK: No cats for me (damn allergies) though I fell for Nastassja Kinski long ago in the classic 1982 film with accompanying Giorgio Moroder soundtrack. And I must tell you: my 10-year old choreography to this was both creaturely and inspired… but I guess I’ve never pictured cats as island creatures. Because of the water.
KB: Sadly, Honolulu is full of feral cats, many of them dumped by people who live here short-term and leave. So I’m volunteering at the Hawaiian Humane Society, too. Yesterday I had my leg vigorously humped by a female Shar-Pei, which is a phrase I never thought I’d write.
As for Hawaiian mythologies, I’ve been reading a lot more about Hawaiian history than about mythology since arriving here. I was clueless about it, as I think we mostly are on the mainland, and the details of the Overthrow are shocking and, well, horrible. It’s not at all my story to tell, and as a recent white arrival, any identification I could have with the story leaves me feeling lousy, as it should. I’ve been thinking about researching the history of the animal rights movement on the islands, though. The local Humane Society is independent and was founded long before the Overthrow, and I’m interested in the details of that. I think the more I write historical fiction, the more I lean away from mythology and toward archives. But then I ended up putting a quasi-mythological epic poem in the very historically grounded novel I’m revising right now. Just when I thought I was out… And I can’t wait to read and hear more about your tendril-accreting creature in your novel, too.
It’s not new to say that the idea of Hawai`i as paradise is a myth. My students write poems about this: how tourists come to Waikiki and can ignore the social disasters — homelessness, poverty, meth addiction — in this beautiful place. Maybe paradise just inspires the making of myths about paradise itself?
KK: Good point. Paradise is always a tongue-in-cheek term isn’t it? The same way Utopia can be translated as no-place. The single time I’ve been to Hawai`i–I was given a round-O`ahu day tour by a local. She pointed out the tent-villages of the homeless, abandoned mansions reclaimed by the poor and/or the addicted. (Did you know slum tourism is more than a century old?) The contrast between breathtaking beauty and horror was/is striking. And the willful blindness (and/or prurient interest) of tourists is a demonstration of abjection in action: “Not me. Not that…”
KB: What are the myths of where you’re living now, in upstate New York? And do you think Philly has its own myths? (… she asks, as a born-and-raised Lancastrian.)
KK: It’s still fall and lovely here, but I’m told it will reach 30 below. I think the mythology of this place may be related to that. The hunkering down. And serious neighborliness–reciprocation being a proven survival strategy in extreme environments. The pull of realism is strong in the farming community surrounding the university. Nature seems to provide enough drama to spare, but also gratitude and engagement. Everyone hikes or kayaks or snowshoes or has carved out a victory garden, bottling preserves against the winter.
But does it have creatures? I don’t know. Hauntings certainly–the history of the Seven Years’ War is alive in the North Country–just south of the St. Lawrence River and southeast of the Akwesasne Territory. I don’t know anything about the indigenous mythologies except for legend of the sky woman who fell, pregnant, through a hole in the blue to become mother of the Haudenosaunee. Gotta love that.
Philadelphia seems much farther/further away than the 7-hour drive sometimes. And yes, Philly is providing the mythological backdrop for much of my new sci-fi novel. It has a gothic history that helps. (Poe and Charles Brockdon Brown’s Edgar Huntly leap immediately to mind.) Philadelphia is, I think, its own creature–rotting and regrowing simultaneously, Hydra-headed and humid, its decay generative. Mycotic. Maybe you can tell I miss it. Finishing the novel while I’m up here may change the orientation of the writing… it may be morphing into a loveletter to a monster. Damn, I hope so.
You said you’re revising Killingly now? (How I adore that title!) Have you ever thought of the novel-form itself as creature-like? In my experience, it seems to swallow and incorporate things I wasn’t expecting and/or didn’t think I was feeding it (i.e., quasi-mythological epic poems). Did/do your novels have personalities? Were they like pets or parasites or did they possess you? Is there a third one (the charm) lurking in womb-time, waiting for a birth or to find its hole and plummet out of the sky?
KB: Oh, I absolutely think of the no
vel form as creature-like! It’s always hungry, and it sits in your belly while you write and consumes things and swells — I’m not sure if that makes it sound more like a child or an intestinal worm. But I think of the novel form as friendly, too. A friendly parasite, something that might sap your energy but also urges you to take in more than you otherwise would.
I do have some threads of a new book tangling in my head, something to do with Jane Austen and animals and southeast Asia, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Your Philly SF novel sounds like the book I wish I could’ve read when growing up in Pennsylvania, by the way. I can’t wait to read more about your tendril-woman, and if you have another novel lurking, I’d love to hear about that, too.
It’s been a delight to trade words with you, Kirsten.
KK: The delight is mutual, Sphinxy.
Kirsten Kaschock is the author of three books of poetry: Unfathoms (Slope Editions) and A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press), and The Dottery, winner of the Donald Hall Prize for poetry from AWP (University of Pittsburgh Press). Her debut novel, Sleight, a work of speculative fiction, was published by Coffee House Press. A chapbook WindowBoxing is out from Bloof Books. She has earned a PhD in English from the University of Georgia and a PhD in dance from Temple University. She is on faculty at Drexel University.
Katharine Beutner is the author of Alcestis (Soho Press), which won the 2011 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Toast, Public Books, Humanities, and other publications. She previously taught at the College of Wooster in Ohio; her academic work focuses on eighteenth-century British women writers and, more broadly, on life-writing.
Love hearing from the both of you. Throughly enjoyed this eloquent conversation.