Kathryn Harrison might best be known for "The Kiss," her controversial memoir about a physical love affair she had with her father. But she is also an accomplished novelist, and her latest book, "Enchantments," is -- so says Jennifer Egan -- a sumptuous account of the last days of Russia's doomed Romanov family.Rasputin is in there, too, because what's a Russian novel without Rasputin? (Outside of "Anna Karenina," of course.)
We lobbed our ten questions at Harrison, and then some:
What was it that drew you to the Romanov story, which has been told so many times before?
I read "Nicholas and Alexandra" by Robert Massie when I was about 11. From that point on, I’ve been fascinated by the Romanovs and that period of Russian history. About ten years ago I discovered Rasputin’s two daughters lived with him in St. Petersburg and socialized with the Romanovs, and—best of all—that his elder daughter escaped the Bolsheviks and went on to become a lion-tamer. I couldn’t resist that kind of raw material, and now I had a pair of eyes—Rasputin’s daughter’s—through which to see into the lives of the royal family, and the revolution itself.
You have written memoir, biography, fiction and historical fiction---what is it that draws you to so many different kinds of writing?
In terms of going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction—in which I’ll include memoir, biography, and true crime —is that one relieves the other. I find it challenging to plot novels, especially as I rarely follow a linear chronology. Because the kind of nonfiction I write has a plot, the events and transactions that make up a life, nonfiction offers me a break from plotting. Then, once I’ve worked within the constraints of nonfiction, in which I can’t make anything up, I’m happy to return to the freedom fiction grants me. Shorter work—personal essays and book reviews—allow me to take a break from working on a book, which is good for the book and for its author.
Describe your writing room.
I work in a small study on the top floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn—it’s about 75 square feet, 11 taken up by book shelves along one wall. Whenever I need a book I have to move aside one of the objects that blocks its spine—gifts from friends, fossils, my mother’s teddy bear, my children’s art projects. My study is unusual in the number of relics it contains, religious ones, like ex votos from various cultures, and personal ones bequeathed by family and friends. Relics of other times in my life, too, like seashells I collected as a child. Almost every material thing I care about is in my study.
What is your writing strategy—do you have rituals that you maintain?
I work at my desk, and, as a believer in Flaubert’s advice to be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work, I keep very regular hours. If I’m working especially hard, I’m at my desk by five AM. A writer needs the same kind of work ethic as anyone else who wants to get anything done. Just show up for your job every day.
How do you get past writers’ block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
I’ve never had writer’s block. As for the Internet, I’d like to log off, but I’m addicted to Wikipedia.
Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
What books do you re-read?
David Copperfield. Madame Bovary. The Master and Margarita, by Michail Bulgakov The Bible. Jung. Gordon by Edith Templeton. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
What’s on your desk?
The largest desktop Apple makes—27”—so I can pull up and compare pages of text. I never use a laptop unless forced by travel. Three stacks of research materials, all concerning Joan of Arc. I’m working on her biography. A cup of pencils. Those colored post-it tabs in every color they come in, as I use them to track specific themes in the research. A cold cup of coffee and another cup of pens. Correspondence waiting for replies. A litter of index cards, as I use them when I write.
Where are you right now? Describe what you see
I’m at my desk, which faces the wall opposite the bookcase. It’s covered, floor to ceiling, with framed photographs, drawings, and jackets of books I’ve written, an antique mirror, a shadowbox containing a taxidermy diorama at the center of which is an ermine standing upright on his haunches.
What are you reading right now?
The Waning of the Middle Ages by J. Huizinga
What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
I don’t have a favorite place. It’s all about the audience—to the extent that I might remember an audience but not the venue.
What authors have inspired you?
Oh, so many. Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Flaubert, Dickens, Coetzee, Marquez ...
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