Kathryn Harrison has written the novels Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, Envy, and Enchantments. Her autobiographical work includes The Kiss, Seeking Rapture, The Road to Santiago, The Mother Knot, and True Crimes. She has written two biographies, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc, and a book of true crime, While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison.
Signature sits down with Kathryn Harrison — author of such notable titles as The Kiss, her groundbreaking 1997 memoir which garnered both controversy and acclaim, and Joan of Arc, a biography recognized for its effort at giving the legend of Joan a modern-day voice — to discuss her writing process, influences and latest work, On Sunset, a memoir that centers around her privileged, yet unusual upbringing in a fading mansion on the legendary Sunset Boulevard.
SIGNATURE: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?
KATHRYN HARRISON: I work at home, in a study on the top floor of our house. I have periods of intense — and unsustainable — work on a book, writing perhaps ten hours a day, followed by the inevitable collapse upon turning the final draft over to my editor. Then I wait for the next book to arrive.
SIG: You wait for the next book to arrive … Meaning, you don’t actively search for your next book subject, the subject “chooses” you.
KH: The subject chooses me. It used to make me nervous to wait for an idea to come into focus. I live in my work. Writing a book is analogous to building a home to live in, a place where I’m safe, and I don’t feel safe without that place.
SIG: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?
KH: I think every writer is left, ultimately and fundamentally, with only his own story. I believe all art is autobiographical, including art that exists outside of the usual autobiographical medium of language.
SIG: What writers have influenced you most?
KH: It’s hard to say how well they are represented on the page, but Flannery O’Connor, Coetzee, Dickens come to mind first — very different writers. I remember, in the case of On Sunset, thinking of Dickens when I wrote this sentence about my grandmother driving in Shanghai: “She has traversed the great bund, been up and down and down and up it, she has driven to the racecourse, attaining such narrative velocity that I see her tearing through the bleachers and onto the course, scattering horses.” The fanciful, hyperbolic quality fits a narrative informed by family mythology and told through a child’s eye, and it is informed by decades of my enjoying Dickens.
SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?
KH: First ditch any romantic notions you have about writing. Don’t wait in your garret for the muse while enhancing your vision with absinthe. The muse lives on her own schedule, and writing is mentally and physically demanding. Show up to work in your best form, having slept, drinking coffee. Sit down and work, and — also key — allow yourself to write badly. Don’t wait for the perfect sentence, as it will not come, not any more than the muse. The empty page doesn’t have to be threatening — as I remind students, they don’t have to share their failures with anyone. Self-consciousness doesn’t belong at your desk with you. Allow yourself to try and try again; no artist gets it right the first time. If s/he did, the world would be enhanced by thousands of Vermeers, rather than thirty-four.