On October 1st, 2009 Richard Hoffman – author and Emerson College professor – introduced Fall 2009 Ploughshares guest-editor Kathryn Harrison at her Emerson College reading and afterward moderated a question and answer session with her.
“Harrison’s characters, like most if not all of us at some point in our lives, are looking for love in all the wrong places, usually because they are the only places — and people — available, and thereafter they must deal with the necessity of making meaning of those encounters — which is to say they must survive,” said Hoffman of Harrison in his introduction. “And this is to say, therefore, that Kathryn Harrison is one of our essential writers.”
Harrison answered questions posed by the audience – everything from inspiration to her choice of nonfiction rather than fiction. Later that night, she read from her as-of-yet unpublished work to a captivated audience. “I was completely mesmerized the entire time,” said Abbie Rickard, an aspiring writer. “She’s a great storyteller. I went and bought her memoir The Kiss the next day.”
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, “What connects these narratives is that they are true, and represent a struggle, a particular struggle whose value I can’t overstate. The author of each labored to put words to his or her experience. To articulate it, to speak it, to write it honestly, which requires something more than effort. Each made a commitment essential to writing about one’s own life, a promise that goes far beyond the act of writing.”
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.
Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot; a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux; a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture, and most recently, While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family. Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.
I never use the word fearless in describing the work of even the most honest and candid memoirists and essayists. Of course there is fear in writing of oneself, one’s relationships, obsessions, choices, regrets, hopes. But what seems like an intrepid voice on the page is in fact the product of staring down fear, again and again, sentence after sentence, using one’s art, one’s craft, one’s feel for what is not merely true but also beautiful. And the insistence on both is called courage — not fearlessness, but courage.
When such works as The Kiss, Envy, Exposures, and The Mother Knot are offered to a world steeped in polite lies and warmly blanketed in sentimental untruths, that courage, forged at the writers desk, choice by choice, sentence by sentence, comes in handy.
Kathryn Harrison is a writer who has come under attack for illuminating reality, especially womens’ reality. Jonathan Yardley, one of the country’s most prominent book critics, called The Kiss “slimy,” “repellent,” “revolting” and “shameful”; other critics used, abused I’d say, this exquisitely limned story of psychosexual experience, a story, ultimately, of terribly twinned parental failings, to decry the tell-all nature of pop culture.
People who should have known better, who I believe in fact did know better, jumped on this instance of poetry in prose, as evidence that the culture was going to hell in a handbasket. Never mind that secrets, betrayal, seduction, all the classical twists and promises and penalities of eros, have been the constant theme of this brave writer’s work. As Ocar Wilde once said (and he certainly knew from experience) “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
Harrison’s characters, like most if not all of us at some point in our lives, are looking for love in all the wrong places, usually because they are the only places — and people — available, and thereafter they must deal with the necessity of making meaning of those encounters — which is to say they must survive. And this is to say, therefore, that Kathryn Harrison is one of our essential writers. Please welcome her to Emerson College.