Margot Livesey, the fiction editor of Ploughshares, welcomed Kathryn Harrison to Emerson College on October 1st 2009 with an eloquent speech praising the author. “Kathryn is one of those admirable writers who is not afraid to plunge into new material, new worlds,” she said. “And those new worlds are both interior and exterior. As any reader of The Kiss and The Mother Knot knows she is a fearless pilgrim in the terrifying and arduous country of the self.”
Harrison read from a series of personal essays that are to be published in an upcoming collection. The works made their debut to an enraptured audience. “Kathryn’s reading was great,” said Sarah Green, a newly converted fan. “It was the first time I’ve been exposed to her writing, and I was very impressed.”
Kathryn Harrison guest-edited the Fall 2009 issue of Ploughshares. The issue, which contains only nonfiction, features work by writers such as Laura Mullen, Chip Livingston, and Fae Myenne Ng. Harrison says of the issue, “The twenty writers whose work is collected in this volume pushed past the masks all of us present to the mirror, the neighbor, the spouse. The commitment they’ve made is to report what they find under the surface of their lives no matter how disappointing, threatening, or admirable. Because our virtues are difficult to own, perhaps even more than our faults.” You can order Kathryn Harrison’s Fall 2009 issue here:
Kathryn Harrison has been called “a writer of extraordinary gifts” by Tobias Wolff, and USA Today wrote that Harrison is “adept at transporting readers to strange new landscapes often called the dark recesses of the human mind.” Harrison‘s first two novels, Thicker than Water and Exposure, were named New York Times Notable Books, and her essays have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Vogue. Harrison lives in New York, where she teaches memoir writing at Hunter College, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review.
Below is Margot Livesy’s full introduction to Kathryn Harrison:
I’m Margot Livesey, the fiction editor of Ploughshares, and I’m honoured and delighted to introduce Kathryn Harrison. In her introduction to the latest issue of Ploughshares Kathryn writes of the authors she’s chosen “Each made a commitment essential to writing about one’s own life, a promise that goes far beyond the act of writing.” And she goes on to describe their “willingness to vivisect the conceits we all hold dear. Without that willingness, it isn’t possible to answer the first demands of consciousness, and of conscience; that we know ourselves. In order to write our lives, we have to be willing to see them.”
This gift of unflinching vision is one that Kathryn’s own far-ranging work, both non-fiction and fiction, beautifully exemplifies. She is the author of several memoirs, a travel book, a true crime book, a biography of St. Therese of Lisieux and six novels. I always wait eagerly for each new work in part because I can’t wait to see where she’ll take me next. Will I be accompanying the author herself on the road to Santiago? Or her hero, Will, to a fraught college reunion in upstate New York? Kathryn is one of those admirable writers who is not afraid to plunge into new material, new worlds. And those new worlds are both interior and exterior. As any reader of The Kiss and The Mother Knot knows she is a fearless pilgrim in the terrifying and arduous country of the self. She also demonstrates a wonderful ability in her novels to transport her readers through time and space. With equal ease and authority she conjures up frontier Alaska in The Seal Wife, a brothel in nineteenth century Shanghai in The Binding Chair, the court of the Spanish Hapsburgs in Poison, and contemporary America in Thicker Than Water, Exposure and Envy.
What unifies these rich and varied books is Kathryn’s artistry. In his essay What Is Art? Tolstoy said that art was a human activity in which “one man consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by those feelings, and also experience them.” I love the idea of being infected by art and Kathryn’s prose is highly infectious. It reads as though all the dross, all the superfluous and superficial details have been burned away, leaving only the precise essence.
Here, for example, is a woman skinning a rabbit in The Seal Wife:
Then she girdles the skin around its hind legs and, holding its back feet with her left hand, strips the hide down over the body with her right, so that it comes off inside out, as quickly as if she were removing a glove. The parting of silver-grey fur from tender new muscle reveals an elastic integument of faintly iridescent blue, like the raiment of a ghost….
Reading this, I’m struck by the mixture of precision and beauty which is one of the hallmarks of Kathryn’s prose. I feel as if, if I had to skin a rabbit which I hope I never will, I would know exactly how to go about it. The writing is utterly specific and the lyricism – that gorgeous phrase the raiment of a ghost – is utterly rooted in that specificity.
Another hallmark of Kathryn’s prose, and review after review testifies to this, is her ability to write about passion and how it complicates our lives. Just now I described her as a fearless pilgrim but I think that’s actually not entirely accurate/quite how I experience her work. The reason I follow her characters anywhere and everywhere is because Kathryn, the novelist, the memoirist, is always aware of the fear. She goes on in the face of the fear. One of the many piercing and poignant scenes in The Kiss describes Kathryn’s efforts – she’s perhaps as old as twelve – to record a message to her father. The tape recorder looks like a black casket. She cannot produce one word. “Someday,” she says, “a sentence will come to me, a magic sentence that will undo all that is wrong and make everything right.”
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the author of many magic and infectious sentences: Kathryn Harrison.