The Beatrice Interview

Karen Elizabeth Gordon

interviewed by Ron Hogan

This conversation took place in March of 1996, shortly after the publication of The Ravenous Muse and The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales. The first book is a collection of passages from some of Ms. Gordon's favorite books, a testament to the pleasures of food and literature. The second is a radical reworking of an earlier book whose original publisher had failed to appreciate its strange and wonderful beauty.

Since then, the imaginary guidebook Paris Out of Hand has been released, as well as Torn Wings and Faux Pas, a "flashbook of style" that will help you remember the difference between affect and effect, or lend and loan, with the irreverent exoticism that permeates all her books. There are few people who can make learning about language and literature as amusingly sensual, or sensually amusing, an experience as Karen Elizabeth Gordon.

RH: Reading The Ravenous Muse, it's clear that it was a labor of love for you. Tell me about its origins.

KEG: I'd noticed that in all the literature I read there are wonderful, palpable passages that relate to food. Some of them take places at meals, of course, but often food is not the subject of the passage, although it has food-related imagery in it. I wanted to take these passages and couple them with my sense of the muse as always being hungry and demanding, pulling things out of writers.

I include passages from several authors who are not necessarily well-known that I feel deserve a much wider audience, especially the Balkan and Slavic writers.

RH: Can you tell me a bit about the heavy emphasis on writers from that region?

KEG: I originally went to Paris in the early 80s because I had written an epistolary novel with Julio Cort&aague;zar's wife, Carol Dunlop. Shortly after I returned to Paris from London after Carol's death, I ended up in a Balkan inn that looked like a French hotel. I was reading Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita on that trip back to Paris, and it set the tone for my reading for months to follow. That winter I read a lot of Slavic writers in English or French translation. I feel an affinity with them; there's always a mixture, even in contemporary writers like Tatyana Tolstaya, of a certain amount of compassion, irony, and dark humor. And often the narrator's very playful, playing with the fact that he or she is telling you a story.

RH: That sense of playfulness is evident throughout your work. When I look at The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, for example, I get a real sense of the fun you have playing with different pieces of text and imagery, and an affinity perhaps with the surrealists, especially the collages of Max Ernst.

KEG: He was definitely a model. I had always wondered how he did those collages; they were actually illustrations from cheap Victorian tabloid novels. The visual elements have always been important to me; I spent the first two months on The Deluxe Transitive Vampire thinking about how I wanted the book to look: the type, the size, the use of illustrations in the margins...

RH: There's a sensuality of detail to the work there, which also comes through in the writers you've selected for The Ravenous Muse.

KEG: The passages are very vivid. Some of these writers are so vivid that their passages are hallucinogenic. That's why I feel that this book is really about imagination and the act of creation rather than about food. I feel the imagination is terribly important in enhancing our experiences. Everyday life doesn't have to be as quotidian and literal as people assume.

In a book, you can go anywhere. The Red Shoes is being called a novel, but it's a book that allows you to wonder in non-linear paths. Footnotes redirect you to other pages. And you can pick up The Ravenous Muse, open to any page, and start reading.

RH: It shares that quality with The Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic, who appears in your collection.

KEG: I actually had the honor of reading the first chapters of that novel before it became a novel in English. A friend sent me a copy of a literary review in which they appeared. I was absolutely knocked over. I said to myself that this was what literature was supposed to be. It seemed both very ancient and very modern.

I knew Pavic would be an important part of The Ravenous Muse because bread and salt and wine occur constantly in his pages, and as I was putting the book together, he fell into place in a few sections, and ultimately he has the last word. When I do readings, because that passage is about a couple eating and kissing in front of 120 dead people, who have been dead for 2,000 years, I have my friend read the passage, and I lead the audience in smacking and kissing with the dead people, then I read my final commentary about death as one of the ravenous muses that constantly demands from us that we outlive ourselves through what we create in life.

RH: The vampire has become one of the most common areas through which writers and other artists explore themes of sensuality in the last century. How has it come to play such a vivid role in your literary imagination?

KEG: The vampire is totally unambivalent about its desire. We're part envious about being able to desire so completely, and it's also flattering to be desired by the vampire. The Transitive Vampire came about because of Julio, who was an absolute vampire fiend. When I first arrived in Paris, he carted his collection of vampire stories and ghost stories to the mantel in the guest bedroom. Although I already had the vampire character in the book, I was still fumbling for a title when I picked up a copy of the annotated Dracula at three in the morning.

RH: Are you a night person?

KEG: Very much so. Hopelessly. I just love that time so much. It's unfragmented and velvety. My mind is very free at night. When I wrote the Transitive Vampire, I was often up until six every morning.

When I was in Paris last summer, and doing research on Paris Out of Hand, an architect friend of mine would take me on drives through Paris at two in the morning, so I could see how the city was put together in ways you really can't see when you're walking in the daytime and taking things in detail.

RH: Tell us about Paris Out of Hand briefly.

KEG: It's a fictional guide to the city. Almost everything is invented: hotel names, street names, even historical personages. I have fictional museums, too. The Museum of Lips and Books, the Museum of Gastronomy But Not Tasting, the Museum of Doors. There's even a little church of marionettes that nobody has ever seen that I find out about from a drunken marionette. My experiences of Paris are very much present in the book, but the locations are made up. They become real by the thoroughness and vividness of the descriptions, and the wonderful integration of text and images. The images were created by Nick Bantock and his partner, Barbara Hodgson, who had originally approached me to do the book.

RH: Getting back to The Ravenous Muse and its authors, the short author biographies at the end of the book are another element that shows off your sense of playfulness.

KEG: When the book was finished and had been copy-edited, my editor suggested that author biographies would be a good addition, since one of my main purposes had been to get people to read these authors. She gave me ten days, and they were exactly the ten days I'd already consecrated to finishing Paris Out of Hand. I simply couldn't say so-and-so was born in that year, wrote these books, and died, so my apartment was strewn from end to end with books about these authors to find the right information. I could often find something in their lives that would fit into the theme of the book, or a marvelous quote like Graham Greene's description of reading Flann O'Brien: "I read it with continual excitement, amusement, and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage."

RH: Flann O'Brien has a special significance to another book of yours.

KEG: Yes. His book The Dalkey Archive is where Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers of The Red Shoes, got its name.

RH: Tell me about the history of The Red Shoes.

KEG: The book was originally called Intimate Apparel, and it came about at a time when I had a somewhat ambiguous contract with Times Books, where the editor on my first two books had gone. They wanted me to do a word book, and I ended up completely unable to do the sort of book they wanted, an educational book that could be filed in the reference section. The dictionary form I used was a structural gesture towards honoring what they were expecting, but the definitions were overlapping stories. I was miffed when they decided to sell it as a reference book, because to me it was a work of fiction. They even got a call from the Library of Congress, wanting to know if they had categorized it properly.

Dalkey Archive had been wanting to publish this book for years after it had gone out of print. After we got in touch with each other, I completely rearranged the order of the book, added a list of dramatis personae, a new afterword by one of the characters, Yolanta, who was based a lot on my own experiences in Europe. And I retitled it The Red Shoes.

It's very much in the spirit of some of Dalkey's other books; they publish many of the French writers who took part in the OuLiPo movement, including Jacques Roubaud. The writers in that movement were extremely erudite, sophisticated, and philosophical but also knew how to have fun with that. A lot of their books are based on structural tricks. Raymond Queneau wrote an entire book based on the structure of a cathedral; Georges Perec wrote a novel without using the letter E.

RH: It says in the author blurb here that you divide your time between northern California and Paris.

KEG: Uneasily and unequally, I always say. I have a life in Paris that goes on behind my back even when I'm not there. I have things in storage in two different places, and some of my dearest friends are there. I go when I can, but I'm never able to finish a book in Europe, because I always run into practical frustrations. Even though there are some English libraries, I still have trouble finding all the books I need, and until the advent of the laptop, I could never find a typewriter I could use. So I start books there and then come back to California to finish them.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
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All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan