Surviving Tragedy Through Comedy: Binnie Kirshenbaum Interviewed by Kimberly King Parsons

The novelist on characters who use writing prompts in psych wards, the internal lives of animals, and the emotional swings of each new book publication.

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Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food (Soho Press), her first novel in a decade, is heartbreaking and groundbreaking, a harrowing yet darkly funny chronicle of clinical depression. Told in witty, propulsive prose, its protagonist, Bunny, documents her unraveling from a psych ward in New York City: her stalled career, the circle of friends she no longer feels connected to, the deaths of her best friend and a beloved pet. I first met Binnie—who is every bit as brilliant and hilarious as Bunny—when I was a fiction student in Columbia University’s MFA program, where she teaches and serves as chair. I recently asked her about bad book jackets, intertextual narratives, her impeccable comedic timing, and her cats.

—Kimberly King Parsons

Kimberly King Parsons Rabbits for Food contains a book within a book—the bulk of Bunny’s story is told in third person, but the narrative is threaded through with the creative writing exercises she completes in the psych ward. At what point in your process did you know the story would be organized this way?

Binnie Kirshenbaum I’d written some of what eventually became the prompts before I’d written the body of the novel, as a way into knowing Bunny. A few years ago, I went for psychoanalysis, and for the first hour on the couch, I did the usual thing. I talked about my childhood. At the end of the session, the analyst asked me to consider who I am, my essence, without relying on those years. I went home and thought hard about it, but I drew a complete blank. My childhood shaped me. How could it have not?

The next session, I confessed that I couldn’t come up with anything, and asked him if he could give me some ideas of how a person becomes that person without accounting for their formative years. He said he had no idea, but he wanted me to consider it because he’d (astutely) noticed that the anecdotes I’d told were oft repeated, honed into stories that revealed nothing new to me. What he was pushing for was for me to get outside of my comfort zone. Not that those stories weren’t emblematic of what shaped me, but they’d ceased to elicit new insights. Nonetheless, we begin in childhood.

If I were going to know Bunny, I had to start there, and I wrote what I’d called “those pieces.” Like puzzle pieces. Although it took years of trial and error to find the form of the novel—the two parts, the first taking place on New Year’s Eve—I never wanted to write about Bunny’s childhood chronologically. I wanted to start with her well into the breakdown. But I couldn’t let go of “those pieces.” They seemed necessary to justifying her. From draft to draft, I tried different ways to use them: I peppered them throughout with no explanation. Then I wrote them in the third person. Sticking with the third person, I tried making them like the case studies that Freud documented, and called them “case studies.” But third person didn’t fit. Second person definitely didn’t fit. Going back to first person, I experimented with them as therapy sessions. Better, but not quite, and my spectacular editor agreed. Then, one day at Columbia, a colleague asked if I’d ever used prompts (I hadn’t), but there was my Eureka! moment. Creative writing therapy had to yield something, even if it was something only for the reader and not for Bunny. Hence, the prompts.

Some did get discarded, and I wrote a few new ones not about Bunny. Stella’s death was initially part of the text, but I turned it into a prompt because Bunny, as Bunny, wasn’t able to face it, yet it had to be told. I’d toyed with making the scene of her sister in the airport buying the coffee cup into a prompt but ultimately decided that third person was the only way to achieve the omniscience necessary to bring it to life.  

Binnie Kirshenbaum For Rabbits Credit Tina Boyadjieva

Photo by Tina Boyadjieva.

KKP Bunny often uses humor to deal with loss and failure (by the time we meet her she’s so deeply depressed she’s not laughing at her own jokes anymore—however, I certainly was). Bunny is traversing extremely dark territory, but there’s still something delightful about the language you use, a playfulness happening at the sentence level. You have such a gift for writing black humor—does that comedic tone come naturally, or do you revise to get the timing and delivery just right?

BK One way of coping with, of surviving, tragedy is through comedy. For example, we need our comedians to help us through the Age of Trump. How would we get through these times without the release of laughter? Society accepts and delights in the kind of humor and honesty from children that is often forbidden to adults. It might be that lack of self-censorship that results in black comedy. The instinct to write, or say, what I might be thinking is there, and I will do that. Sometimes I take those things out. They can be way too obnoxious, but I need to write it all first. On the sentence level, I work my sentences over and over again, tweaking at the rhythm of them, finding where the punch belongs, fiddling with word choices. That’s actually my favorite part of writing. It’s thrilling to me when a sentence finally lands just as I want it to.

KKP Animals play a critical role in this novel—there’s the title, of course, and the therapy dog that never shows up at the institution (which is why Bunny is forced to do those creative writing exercises in the first place). Plus, Bunny’s name is Bunny, her partner Albie is a zoologist, and the two of them dote on the cats they’ve had over the years. Could you talk a bit about what animals mean to you, both in your work and in your personal life? (I noticed you thanked two cats in your acknowledgments!)

BK If I hadn’t become a writer, I definitely would have become a naturalist, conservationist, or cat rescue lady. I have always lived with cats. I believe that cats and dogs are the only animals that should be kept as pets, as they are the only animals that naturally evolved to be, although if I lived somewhere rural, I’d likely keep farm animals. My cats are like my children, although I know perfectly well that they are not children. I’d never put clothes on them or expect them to do tricks or do anything except be cats. They bring me comfort and pleasure, and they make me laugh, and I try to give them good lives.

But I have intense, visceral compassion for all animals, a fascination with their behavior, and I am overwhelmed by the interdependence of species, how nature is perfect (until we started mucking with it). I try to take animals on their own terms; that is, I don’t feel disgust for a rat because it’s a rat. It’s a rat; I’m a human being. It’s what we are, and who am I to decide it should not exist? This is not to say that I want rats in my apartment. (It’s one of the reasons I like living with cats.) But I don’t think I have a right to take its life, either. Circuses sicken me. Experimenting on animals (especially experiments that are scientifically unnecessary) is, in my opinionated opinion, heartless and immoral. Hunting for sport is pure evil. The world is (slowly) catching up to the fact that animals have deep emotional lives, and even those that might not, all have the will to survive.

Almost everything I write makes mention of something along these lines. My subliminal propaganda perhaps? JM Coetzee did it, too. I’m not sure how many people have noticed it in his work or in mine, but I do hope that something gives pause there.

In the writing itself, to transpose animal behavior or characteristics onto people can illustrate nonverbal communication that can be extremely telling. Also, animals and their behavior can make for the ideal metaphor, especially insects, and when it comes to descriptions of personality or the physical appearances of certain characters, a likening to animal attributes can be just the ticket.  

KKP Bunny is a writer herself, and she mentions how an “astute critic” pointed out that her last book jacket looked like “an ad for a feminine hygiene product.” In interviews you’ve expressed a similar sentiment about some of your own previous covers, that there was some disconnect between the texts and way they were presented. The jacket design of Rabbits for Food is one of my all-time favorites. The art is beautiful, and the rabbit is adorable, but when coupled with the title, it feels appropriately bleak and instantly compelling. I wondered if you’re as delighted with the design as I am, and what the process was like to get to this final version?

BK It depresses, and angers, me, and hardly just for myself, when serious literature gets burdened with what I call “girl covers” only because the writer happens to be a woman. Those covers trivialize the books, and I believe they actively discourage discerning readers from reading them. I told my former editor that if I were browsing in a bookstore (and I am someone who buys several books a week), I’d never have picked up my last book to even bother reading the flap copy. Women read books by men all the time, but few men will buy books with covers that look like romance novels or perfume ads. I love the cover on Rabbits for Food, which is a first for me. It is, of course, great art. Initially, I was dead set against having any kind of rabbit on the cover. Rabbits are fluffy and cute. I didn’t want a fluffy and cute book jacket. But this rabbit, Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare, isn’t at all a cute bunny. He’s beautiful and majestic, and to me, he also looks a bit mean. He’s a serious rabbit. This cover (along with a slightly comic version of the same rabbit, which none of us were particularly keen on) was the first one presented. Then, it was only a matter of finding the right font.

KKPIn an interview in 2011 you said that each new piece of writing presents its own challenges, that “writing the fifth book is the same as writing a first one.” Do you still believe this to be true? How did completing this, your seventh novel, compare to the process of writing your first?

BK I wish it were otherwise, but it remains all too true, for me at any rate, that to write another novel is not at all like riding a bicycle. With each one, I have no idea what I am doing. I have to figure out all of it—characters, predicaments, voice, form, plot, pacing—from scratch. I have no idea whether or not I’ll be able to get it to work. The big difference between writing the first and the seventh novel was that the first was a far less stressful experience, but it was also a coming-of-age novel and a far less complicated novel. I didn’t then have the same kind of daily dread or number of fears, which increased somewhat dramatically with each subsequent book. Common to my first and last novel was the experience of profound relief, coupled with elation, upon finishing it, of knowing I’d come to the end, and I didn’t hate it.

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the short story collection Black Light, forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. A recipient of fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Columbia University, she lives with her partner and sons in Portland, OR, where she is completing a novel about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.