While Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum speaks, she gestures with her hands, punctuating the ends of her sentences with a flick of the wrist. Perhaps because of the fairy-tale-like quality of Bynum's work, these movements remind me of a magical fairy queen conjuring a spell. Her sweet, high-pitched voice have the comforting effect of wind chimes swaying in the breeze. The more I talk to her, the more I realize the cheerful Bynum has no sharp corners -- from her spiraling curls, her apple cheeks, and her button nose, down to the rounded tips of her dainty boots.
Bynum's first novel Madeleine is Sleeping, a finalist for the National Book Award, features a protagonist that travels between her dreams. In her second novel, Ms. Hempel's Chronicles, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Bynum continues to enchant readers with her signature lyrical balletic prose. In 2010, Bynum was named one of The New Yorker magazine's top "20 Under 40" fiction writers, and her short story "The Erkling," based Goethe's poem about the malevolent ghost, appeared in the July issue of The New Yorker as well as their published anthology.
Along with being an award-winning writer, Bynum is a mother, she's married to a Hollywood television writer, and she teaches creative writing at the University of California at San Diego. Recently, Bynum was able to chat with us at APA before her reading at USC's Masters of Professional Writing reading series.
Interviewed by Andrea Apuy
January 27, 2011
Transcribed by Sarah Kirby
APA: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: I was born in Houston, TX, but I really grew up in Boston, so I think of Boston -- and in particular, Brookline -- as my hometown. My father was in academic medicine, so we followed his career, and we went from Houston to Baltimore Johns Hopkins to Boston, and then we ended up there. But it's nice having Texas, USA on my passport.
APA: What was it like growing up in Brookline?
SSB: It was wonderful. One of the things that was great about growing up in that area was that there's so much literary history there. My mother used to take me to Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, and Walden Pond is right there. So it was wonderful growing up in a place that had such a long history of creating writers.
APA: Would you say these writers inspired you to be a writer?
SSB: Maybe. I think it was actually getting to see someone's desk -- to see that this book didn't appear out of thin air, but that someone sat for long hours creating it. I think that awareness is what first planted the seed: that anyone can do it if they just sit down and hack at it for long enough.
APA: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
SSB: I still don't know. [laughs] There's a ceaseless doubt. It's something I love to do. Even as a kid, I would make my own hand-made books and write people poems and give it to them as Christmas presents. And then I took my first creative writing class when I was in high school, so I think that was the moment when I really got obsessed with it.
APA: What was that story about?
SSB: The first real story I wrote was when I was a freshman in high school, and we were doing a unit on the Bible as literature, and we each had to pick an Old Testament story and reimagine it. I remember that the boy I had a really big crush on told the story of the divine birth, but told it from the point of view of the cow that was there in the manger. [laughs] I was not as imaginative. I told the story of David and Bathsheba, but I told it as sort of a Southern Gothic story. I remember there was a water pump, like a sexy scene with a water pump.
APA: Oh my goodness. That's great! It sounds really saucy. Were you always drawn to fiction, as opposed to non-fiction?
SSB: It's interesting, because in the past couple of years, I've been asked to write a couple of essays. It's been my first foray into non-fiction, and it was terrifying. I was really uncomfortable writing in the first person. I don't even write fiction in the first person. I felt very vulnerable and very exposed. In one of the little essays that I wrote, I felt so deeply uncomfortable that I ended up writing in the first person plural because that somehow seemed a way around having to use "I." [laughs] So I've made a few attempts at non-fiction, but they have also confirmed that I am much more comfortable behind the veil of fiction.
APA: Why is that?
SSB: I think it's the worry that it will simply sound like confessional. Also, the first person is just a very alien point of view for me to write from. So I think it's both a discomfort with that particular point of view, and then on top of it there's the sense of being very exposed in terms of content. Both a stylistic discomfort and a content-based discomfort.
APA: For your fiction, how much of the work you do is influenced by real life experience?
SSB: There's a lot of real life in there, but it's all transformed. I think it was Alice Munro who said something about details from real life being the yeast that allows the bread to rise, and I've certainly found that to be true. But then, the bread becomes its own delicious meal, because it's very much its own entity, separate from what gave rise to it. But I definitely am guilty of pillaging my own experiences for the seeds of stories.
APA: What influenced your short story, "The Erlking?"
SSB: The Goethe poem Der Erlkönig was sort of the source material, but I was also looking at Mary Gaitskill, and how she, in some of her stories, will alternate points of view. It's one of those rules that I'm always telling my students -- commit to a point of view -- but one of the things that she does beautifully in some of her stories is shift back and forth between two central point-of-view characters.
There's also a really great Kate Wahlberg story called "Play Date" that was also an influence on "The Erlking." That was a story that really gave me permission to write about parenting young children. "Play Date" first appeared as a story, but then it was ultimately a part of her novel A Short History of Women. And then of course, I really do love writers like Angela Carter and Kate Bernheimer and Lucy Corin and Rikki Ducornet, writers who are drawing upon the fairy tale tradition. So those were some of the stars in the constellation for that particular story.
APA: In much of your work, you reference fairy tales, folktales, and gothic poems. Could you talk about your allure is to these genres and forms?
SSB: I think one of the aspects of fairy tales that I love is that this is a type of story that we associate with some of our earliest reading experiences -- or some of our earliest narrative experiences. So, even before we're able to read on our own, fairy tales are stories that become very familiar to us. My daughter knows five different versions of Cinderella at this point: the Disney version, the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, the Brandy version, the Julie Andrews. [laughs]
So that's one of the things I love about fairy tales: they return us to a pre-literate time in our lives. I also love fairy tales because they always walk that line between wonder and darkness. There's a lot of disturbing energy in fairy tales. And especially going back to their original versions, they can be quite horrible. And I'm interested both in the horror and the starkness of some of these tales in their early original forms, but I'm also interested in the way they evolve and the ways in which they become seemingly sanitized. But I find even the act of sanitation to be dark. I find even the expurgation happens to be fascinating and insidious as well. So yeah, all those reasons.
APA: You've written a lot of short stories, essays, and novels. Is there a particular form that you prefer?
SSB: I think I'm drawn to the short story because I'm a miniaturist by nature. Often, when I conceive of things, I'm thinking about things on a small canvas. But what's wonderful about a novel is that it's so lovely to be inside a larger project. I mean, it can also feel overwhelming too, to take on something larger, but there's something wonderful about being with the same project for 4 years, 5 years.
And I only say that now in retrospect. [laughs] At the time, it was anxious, and there's that feeling of I'm never going to finish this and it's never going to come together. There's all of those anxieties about working on something longer, but in retrospect I look back wistfully on the experience of writing those two novels, because it was wonderful to be inside a bigger container -- for lack of a better word. It's just wonderful to have that sense of enclosure. Sometimes with short stories, there's the intensity and the satisfaction of writing a short story, but then it's done, and you're out on the streets again, and you have to start all over! So, I think by instinct, I think in terms of the short story, but I also really appreciate the shelter that a larger project can give me.
APA: So how do you decide whether it's better as a short story or novel? Do you start by saying "Oh, I'm gonna write a novel?"
SSB: Oh, I never say that. Only when I'm 85% done do I begin to even use the "n" word because otherwise I think I'd be completely paralyzed. With both of my novels, they both started off as small projects and just kept slowly expanding. And even while they were expanding, I wouldn't allow myself to think of them as a novel-length narrative, because that brings so many expectations and so many responsibilities. I felt like it was just so easy to write when it was this unidentified written object, when it wasn't carrying all the significances of the "n" word. [laughs]
APA: So you're an instructor at UCSD. How did you go into teaching, and do you find that it enhances your writing, working with the students?
SSB: Getting to teach writing has alays been a fantasy of mine, so I feel really lucky that I get to do that. I had been a middle school teacher, and then I left that to do something a little less consuming while I was trying to keep writing. But I'm really glad that I've come back to teaching and that I get to teach students who have made a really serious commitment to writing. And I do feel that it feeds my work. It also just keeps me on my toes. My students raise the bar really high. They're doing such risky and adventurous and inventive things with their work that it makes me feel as if I need to sort of step up to keep pace with them.
APA: How do you see students' reactions to fiction evolving with onslaught of visual and sonic media? Is there a generational change?
SSB: The thing I've noticed is that there's a lot of excitement about writing, but there isn't a corresponding excitement about reading. I teach this huge lecture class that's an introduction to the craft of writing fiction, and there's always over 100 students in the class. The wait list had 30 or 40 students. All these students were really interested in writing fiction, but I don't find that there's that same level of interest in taking just literature classes. So I try to use the fiction-writing classes as an attempt to prosthelytize about the joy and the necessity of reading widely and promiscuously and voraciously, because it's really interesting that there's this interest in expressing oneself on the page but less about reading.
So I often find that students will come to these classes really excited to try this but not having much of a background in literature, which is really interesting for me, because my writing really came out of a love for reading. So... I give them a lot of reaing in my classes. [laughs] But I'm actually very heartened by how many young people are so truly passionate about this. I feel that the flame is very much alive.