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Sneak Peek: Binnie Kirshenbaum Interview

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Summer issue of Jewish Book World is coming soon! As usual, we’re posting a sneak peek from the issue: “JBW Talks to Binnie Kirshenbaum” by Phil Sandick:

Binnie Kirshenbaum’s new novel, The Scenic Route, will be published by Harper Perennial in May 2009. Ms. Kirshenbaum is the author of seven acclaimed novels and two short story collections. She lives in New York where she is a professor and the chair of Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program in the School of the Arts.

Jewish Book World: I particularly love your writing about New York. Can you talk a little about the joys and challenges of writing about a place that holds such a mythical space in people’s imagination?

Binnie Kirshenbaum: Thank you; sometimes I worry that New York is a literary cliché. I imagine readers rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh, there again.” There’s a challenge: to make fresh a place that everyone knows whether through books, movies, television, hearsay. And yet, it’s not a challenge because one of the many remarkable things about New York is how it is always reinventing itself. I can walk the same streets day after day and always see something that wasn’t there yesterday. It’s an ever-changing, shapeshifting cacophony and the joy is in the never-ending discovery. It’s my home. The place I know best is also a place unknowable. Thomas Wolfe’s story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” comes to mind, how true that is and how that inability to ever know all its secrets is what renders it a romantic and mythical place.

JBW: Many of your books convey a strong sense of the past. Do Jewish themes influence your sensibilities for writing about history?

BK: How can we understand who we are without understanding whence we came? All that happened before us, all history—cultural, national, personal—has shaped every facet of our lives. History is like psychoanalysis writ large. Everything that came before us affects us in the here and now, the same way we are shaped by our childhoods. In that way, the history of the Jews has of course influenced who I am; I don’t know that it’s possible to separate who I am from any of my sensibilities. It could be that some of my attachment to history comes from a Jewish sense of the importance of history, of being an “old” people, but also I like a good story, and history is that too.

JBW: Have you been to all of the places you’ve written about in The Scenic Route? Were you writing partly from imagination/research?

BK: I haven’t been to all the places I wrote about in The Scenic Route; I’ve been to a lot of them, although none recently and not all in one clip. Because my travels spanned the course of many years and memory fades, I had to do research on some of the places where I’d been to make the images vivid in my mind. And of course many details I’d forgotten, and surely I didn’t always stay in the swanky places where Sylvia and Henry stayed. I needed to research the five-star hotels too. And there were other cities and villages I hadn’t been to, places I saw on a map only. I researched those to form an idea of them. So there was definitely a lot of research involved. What I imagined was what the characters might’ve done while there, and what about a place would strike their fancy. And I imagined their meals. For me, fiction starts with observation, taking notice of something or somewhere or someone I know, and running with it, imagining the rest. So it’s based in reality for about a sentence or two.

To read the complete interview, be sure to check out the Summer issue of Jewish Book World. To subscribe, please click here.

PW Talks with Binnie Kirshenbaum

Thursday, March 26, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

PW talks here with Binnie Kirshenbaum, whose ninth bookThe Scenic Route, will be published in May.