A conversation with Kate Bernheimer


    Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Kate Bernheimer about the one fairy tale that encapsulates her life, why she considers herself more of a student than a leading expert, her first day as a professor and why both fictional and nonfictional people aren’t who they think they are.

    I like to be in a world where a white duck, the sparkling sun, some bread, and an innocent brother and sister constellate goodness together.


    Brenna Ehrlich

    As a leading expert in fairy tales, which tale best encapsulates you and your life? Your beliefs and the things you care about? When did you first hear this fairytale and in what format? Please set the scene for us.

    Kate Bernheimer

    First, I just want to say that I hesitate to refer to myself as a “leading expert in fairy tales,” because I consider myself always and forever a student of fairy tales; but I want to thank you for such a thoughtful depiction, because I have dedicated much of my adult life to their cause, if you will.

    One of the first fairy tales that I fell in love with as a child, and to which I often return, is “Hansel and Gretel.” Of course, there are thousands of variations of the “abandoned siblings” tale type worldwide, and I’ve only had the pleasure of reading maybe around a few hundred in translation to English, but I always love this kind of story. When I first read it as a child, and I really don’t know where I might have first encountered this story — most likely in a Golden Book version — I just loved it.

    I don’t enjoy being frightened so I’m not certain why. But I was (and remain) very close to my brother. I think I liked that they were a wonderful pair. Does this story best encapsulate my beliefs and the things that I care about? Yes! I believe children, I believe all people, deserve to get free of people who terrorize them, deserve to stop terror. And I like to be in its world where a white duck, the sparkling sun, some bread, and an innocent brother and sister constellate goodness together. Evil hasn’t met its match in this story; innocence is matchless.


    In a world so currently bereft of magic and, it seems, hope, do you think today’s writers have the capacity to even create new fairytales? Or is that format something lost to the ages?

    Today’s writers have as much capacity to write new fairy tales as yesterday’s writers, who were today’s writers yesterday. I’m not planning a fairy tale funeral yet. The world is bereft of enchantment right now — in that it’s been demoted. We are expected to accept atrocities day after day and deny that there can be anything good. This is such an important question and I’m grateful you asked. I’ll quote Auden, who said it beautifully well: “Be enthusiastic over the night, not only for the sense of wonder it alone has to offer, but also because it needs our love.”

    This jar brimming with baubles and scent reminds me of a beloved friend who burned terribly brightly and was always so full of life.


    Fairy tales often truck with the number three. Can you find the three most important talismans you own and take a photo of each? Can you tell us a little about where they came from and what’s important about them?

    I’ve selected three important talismans, but they are not the most important, because when I set forth to fulfill this task (like a fairy-tale hero, I work hard at assignments!) I started to pile up so many talismans that it was a little alarming! I hadn’t realized I had so many important talismans! Here are three of them.

    This little burro was given to me by my friends Willy and Lee for Christmas a few years ago. I have an obsession with burros as actual creatures and as characters. I’m not sure if this figurine was sent to me as a tribute to the much-maligned burro, to me, or to the general study of assography — an actual term! My friends didn’t tell me. This sweet fellow has pride of place by my bedside. He is important because he always looks kind and because my dear friends sent him to me.

    My late friend Sarah Hannah and I used to exchange pink gifts in the mail. One of the last gifts that she sent me, in 2007, was a jar covered in pink beading, filled with fragrant black wax. There was no wick left, she told me in an accompany letter; it had disappeared when she’d lit the candle, testing it out before sending it to me. After she died I put some of the jewelry she and I bought in high school and over the years in it: a peacock feather earring (she has, or had, its pair), some rings, and a strange floppy brooch that I was given by her father, among other trinkets and articles of clothing, after she died. This jar brimming with baubles and scent reminds me of a beloved friend who burned terribly brightly and was always so full of life.

    “MOM’S ROOM” is a label my daughter made me with her amazing Dymo label maker. It’s on the door to, of all places, my room in our house. She has been diligently labeling many things in our house: the cookbook bookshelf (“COOKBOOKS”), my bathroom mirror (“MOM”), and the back door (mysteriously labeled “2018!”).


    What advice would you give to the following three characters — The Little Mermaid, The Swan Princess and Baba Yaga?

    This is a question I actually assign to my students in “Introduction to Fairy Tales,” a lecture class I sometimes teach! Thank you for asking. I would answer differently depending on my mood, but here are today’s answers:

    You’re beautiful just the way you are.

    I saw Swan Lake for the first time danced by American Ballet Theater in New York City, at Lincoln Center, when I was around eleven years old. A friend’s grandparents had taken us there – I am surprised I didn’t pass out from the shock of such beauty. Then, as today, I could not take my eyes off of the corps de ballet. My advice is thus for the corps swans: What you do there is so important, lovely, and hard! You are not in the margins! Brava!

    Your love of nature has not been in vain.


    Can you tell us a bit about your first day as a professor? What it felt like to enter a classroom? What apprehension you might have felt? What is the clearest memory you have of that day?

    This is no secret because I tell every new set of students I meet, hoping it endears them to me, but probably achieving the precise opposite: I was terrified. Here was a person who hadn’t spoken aloud in a classroom until she actually had to teach a class. A person who was not only inexperienced with, but totally resistant to, public speaking! So my apprehension was total, complete. Needless to say I have no memory of that day whatsoever, though I do, oddly, have a photograph of myself in the classroom; in it, I am sort of cowering at the chalkboard wearing a poorly fitting black blazer, with an enormous smile on my face. My father had visited me in order to attend my very first lecture and took the picture with Kodak film.

    We aren’t who we think we are. I would extend that idea to characters. Nobody’s the main character in anyone’s story, not even her own.


    Please describe the process of writing using only sidekick characters in popular fairy tales.

    My process is that I read a whole lot of versions of a particular fairy tale — say, “Hansel and Gretel” — until I’m absolutely satiated, til I feel the story is part of me, part of my way of thinking and seeing — I almost hypnotize myself into the story. Then I choose my favorite version I’ve read and prop it up on the desk and I start writing in a spiral notebook with a ballpoint pen. First, I start by copying the story. I copy it until I get tired of copying it. Then I choose a place in the story I like very much and describe it. From there, I find a character.

    Of course, this can go on a great while before I have to start all over again. I generally prefer to give my attention to a quieter character than the other versions I’ve read, but for me, all of the characters are side characters, or as you say, sidekicks. Just as in life we all are. To paraphrase the author Mark Epstein, we aren’t who we think we are. I would extend that idea to characters. Nobody’s the main character in anyone’s story, not even her own.


    Finally, what piece of daily magic still gives you joy? Makes you sit back in wonder? When was the last time you experienced this kind of joy or wonder?

    The Catalinas, the mountains north of the city of Tucson, turn the most remarkable shades of pink and blue every evening. Different every time. When we first moved into this house, I started to call the light on the mountains “the magic minute.” Now, every evening, one or the other of us calls out, “Quick, quick, before you miss it, the Magic Minute!” and we watch the last light of the day on the mountains together. It doesn’t get any better than that.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 124
    Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
    Conducted by: Email
    Edited by: Morgan Enos
    Published: February 7, 2018
    Total questions: 7
    Word count: 1509
    Reading time: Five minutes
    Hyperlinks: 4
    Imagery: 3


    Goodness: Constellated
    Enthusiasm: Night
    Bauble: Brim
    Atrocity: Null
    Identity: Null
    Duck: White


    About the subject

    Kate Bernheimer is a writer, editor and scholar of fairy tales. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

    About the guest curator

    Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.

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