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.

Phil Sandick is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. He has taught cours­es in lit­er­a­ture, com­po­si­tion, and cre­ative writ­ing since 2006. Phil is cur­rent­ly study­ing rhetoric and com­po­si­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill.