The Scenic Route

Harper Perennial  2009

 
This richly textured and wonderfully engrossing novel tells the story of Sylvia Landsman, who at age forty-two decides to leave her loveless, jobless life in New York and travel abroad. In Paris, Sylvia meets Henry, a charming Southern gentleman. The two soon find themselves touring the continent as a couple, Sylvia spending her severance package, Henry his wife’s money. As their trip unfolds, Sylvia narrates a broad tapestry of enchanting stories: tales that span from classic love stories to portraits of her father’s life, before and after her mother’s death. One character who keeps entering Sylvia’s stories is her eccentric best friend, Ruby, who eventually becomes a deep source of guilt for the narrator.

Kirshenbaum impressively weaves these stories and travels together with Sylvia’s playful yet subtly poignant voice. The novel dazzles with picaresque storytelling and portraits of European landscapes and scenes. The sensory delights, occasional frustrations, and persistent soul-searching of intercontinental travel are omnipresent here. Kirshenbaum not only takes the reader on a winding tour of Europe, but also on a tour of the psychological map of family, fate, friendship, and romance. Kirshenbaum navigates both paths gracefully, unpacking the many layers of Sylvia’s personal history throughout the journey. 

Interview

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. 

Phil Sandick: 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.

PS: 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. 

PS: 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. 

PS: Sylvia’s voice (in The Scenic Route) is at once tender and sarcastic. How did you find that balance?
BK: No person is always all one way, are they? It wasn’t so much that I was looking for balance as it depended on what, or about whom, Sylvia was speaking. I let her views on people, her feelings for them—those she loved and those she didn’t, and those she admired and so on—determine her tone of voice. Sometimes her sarcasm is defensive and self-protective, and then it is undercut with vulnerability. There is an uncensored honesty to her, as well; it doesn’t render her any less tender, I don’t think, but love doesn’t make her blind, either. 

PS: Were you directly inspired by Scheherazade’s tale-telling for this novel or is that something you realized after the book had already taken shape? 
BK: One of the many, many wonderful things about Scheherazade’s tales is the way one leads into the next; it parallels some of what I was trying to say about the continuum of history. Everything is connected, all things come to bear on what follows. I was well into the novel before I realized how much of the way I was telling it was influenced by Tales of the Arabian Nights. But yes, I was directly inspired by Scheherazade although it took me a while to give credit where it was due. Certainly, I was influenced by many other books, too. 

PS: Do we turn to fiction to find out how we should live our lives? 
BK: Oh, I hope not. I firmly, strongly, devoutly believe that we read fiction to see ourselves as we really are and/or to try and understand what it is like to live a life not your own, to “examine the human condition.” Fiction has no moral responsibility other than to be honest. Honesty is rarely pretty and not often inspiring. For how we should live our lives, we ought to look to philosophy, ethics, religion, law, and our conscience. For how we do live our lives, we read fiction. Great literary characters are not usually good people. That said, there are perhaps life lessons and self-recognitions to be gleaned from fiction, but those require a lack of self-protection on the part of the reader, a willingness to own up to our own imperfections. But let us not forget that it’s great fun to read fiction; it’s meant to entertain us, too.


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