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November 13, 2004
Sink Your Teeth Into This Delicious Madeleineby Ron Hogan
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum suggested we meet for lunch at a Korean restaurant around the corner from her office; the National Book Award-nominated novelist still makes ends meet by working as a consultant for non-profit organizations. "I used to be a teacher before I went into graduate school," she recalled. "I took the job right out of college, naively thinking that it would be the perfect job for a writer--I'd get out at 3:15 every day and have long stretches of vacation... I had no sense going into it of just how incredibly consuming teaching is, and when I came back from graduate school, I made the choice to stay away from teaching for a little while, do something a little more contained that I could leave at the office when I went home at the end of the day and wasnt as emotionally consuming."
As the youngest of the five nominees for this year's fiction award, and the only one nominated for her first book, Bynum's arguably gotten knocks a little bit harder than those dished out to her four colleagues, but she's taking things in stride, noting that even if the book was attacked, its cover still appeared--in full color--on the front page of the NYT arts section. "At first, I was really taken aback," she said, moving some jab chae onto her plate, "but the negative tone has been so constant, so one-note, that your skin gets a bit toughened. It's the third piece the Times has run and they all seem to be making the same point, so a certain kind of immunity has built up."
"It's thrilling to have this conversation going on and to have my book be part of it," she continued, "and I feel like I'm in such good company." She noted that while much of the press coverage has dwelled on the so-called similarities of the nominees, she finds their work very different from hers and from one another--and not as obscure as everyone makes out, either. "I'd fallen in love with Joan Silber's "The High Road" when I read it a year ago in the O. Henry collection," she enthused, recalling how much she enjoyed meeting Silber at the group photo shoot a few weeks earlier.
But what of her own book, Madeleine Is Sleeping? Where does its fragmentary, deliberately dreamlike prose come from? "It started for me in a time of great intellectaul agitation," she explained, "when I was suddenly being introduced to a lot of authors like Borges and Calvino and Cortazar as well as theorists like Barthes...I was in such a state of excitement and agitation from reading all this and I wanted some way to apply all that stimulation to my writing." Many of the characters and situations, she acknowledged, are "borrowed" from other texts so that she can give them her own spin. The title character, for example, was inspired by a footnote in Foucault about a man in 19th-century France who had been institutionalized after being caught receiving sexual favors from a young girl. What, she wondered, had been the girl's story, and why hadn't anyone thought to tell it? Another character was inspired by her fury at the treatment of a secondary character in the film Tous Les Matins du Monde; as she remarked, with a bit of a laugh, "So often fiction seems like an opportunity to rewrite stories when you're not happy how they turn out."
So where does Bynum go from here? Her boss will be shutting down the consulting firm at the end of the year, and Bynum said she might be ready to return to teaching, perhaps even teaching creative writing now that she's a published author. In the meantime, she's savoring the nomination: "This whole process has been so astonishing that not much could diminish my delight."
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