Novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum on The Scenic Route and Life Under the Radar

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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins

You might not guess from their idyllic jacket art, but Binnie Kirshenbaum’s six mordantly funny, keenly observed novels share more with Philip Roth's work than with the Tuscany-based romances of Frances Mayes. Which might explain why the prolific Kirshenbaum, a native New Yorker who currently serves as a professor and chair of Columbia University’s MFA writing program (where she has taught literary wunderkinds Benjamin Kunkel and Tova Mirvis), has been floating under the radar for so long, even as she has been garnering praise from other writers throughout her entire career, from Joyce Carol Oates and the late Norman Mailer to Junot Diaz and Richard Ford. Her latest novel, The Scenic Route (HarperEcco/Perennial) is a wry and profound meditation on memory and self-preservation. Vulture spoke with Kirshenbaum to discuss literary obscurity, the future of publishing, and the nostalgia for "first big things."

Your novel portrays two troubled souls engaged in a doomed romance as they road-trip from Italy through Eastern Europe. As the title suggests, they take the scenic route, but you do too, with digressions about their personal histories.
Life is a compilation of stories. Because the narrator is middle-age and without family and children and friends, there's this realization that, who's going to tell stories about me? If nobody tells stories about you, it’s as if you never were.

This struck me as a more personal endeavor than your earlier work.
Maybe what struck you as personal is that sense of reaching middle age and experiencing the fear of, Is all the joy in life behind me? All the first big things have happened: I’m not going to fall in love again or move to New York again or publish a first book again or lose my virginity. I transferred that mind-set onto [the narrator] Sylvia, and, in that way, she’s very close to me.

It’s not uncommon for debut novelists to publish in paperback, but it is rare for a veteran author. Did you sign on for that?
No. And I was initially resistant to it. But one editor friend said, “If it was up to me, I would do everything as a paperback original, especially in this market.” After the stock market tanked, I was actually glad [for the decision] because if people are going to buy a book, they’re going to buy a paperback. Hardcovers are expensive and I don’t want to be an artifact on the shelf.

How timely that the novel opens with Sylvia being laid off.
One of the things I always have trouble with is characters’ jobs, because of my own job experience — camp counselor, waitress, creative-writing professor, writer. Mine is a rarefied world of academics and writers. At my high-school reunion, someone said “I arrange for people to go into nursing homes.” I thought, There's a job like that? When I first started writing this book, in 2003, I didn’t address Sylvia’s job. A friend suggested the layoff to me. Needless to say, it was prescient.

You are prolific and critically praised. Why aren’t you better known?
I think the targeted demographic kind of hates [my outlook]. I have gotten letters saying “This is so depressing, and I didn’t want to be depressed.” For my last book, I confess, I’d read the Amazon reviews. There was one Amazon review that I really thought was wonderful. This woman hated it because the people were nihilistic and she wasn’t looking for that. She thought because of the title, An Almost Perfect Moment, it was going to be about religion and was going to be inspiring. The last line of her review said, “I haven’t hated something this much since Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger.” I thought, That should be a blurb! So you hate me and Mark Twain pretty much the same. I’ve never reached the audience who might really like my work. Someone told me I’m not taken seriously as a writer because of my name — several reviews have mentioned it, actually. One guy told me he expected “Binnie Kirshenbaum” to be someone his mother plays mah-jongg with.

Maybe you should change your name to Jonathan.
BK: [Laughs] Mine is sort of a Bubble Silverberg kind of a name. The world seems to understand that men can be funny and dark, but women narrators are supposed to be likable, and my characters are not necessarily nice and/or likable. But they are funny.