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Scenic journeys through stories with author Kirshenbaum

BY KRISTEN PETERS | JUNE 17, 2009 7:20 AM

Stories handed down through generations are vital to survival — or so says author Binnie Kirshenbaum. The New York City resident sometimes begins writing with history, using stories from her past and the lives of people around her to formulate her characters.

Binnie Kirshenbaum reads from her latest work, Scenic Route, today at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque. Scenic Route is romance story told through a series of roadtrips taken by the main characters through the European countryside.

Though Kirshenbaum is a fiction writer, Scenic Route started with real characters. Her inspiration for the is loosely based on characters from her past.

“Often what happens [is] I’ll start with something that I remember happened to me, or that I did, and that’ll be the opening to get me there,” Kirshenbaum said. “Once I’m there then the fiction really takes over and I really start inventing.”

Scenic Route traces the life of Sylvia, a recently divorced middle-aged woman who escapes to Florence, Italy after being laid off from her job. She then meets and develops a relationship with a man named Henry through stories they share with each other while taking a road trip.

“I started thinking about how — without stories being passed along — we don’t really have an existence in a way,” Kirshenbaum said.

As for the idea of her story, it started on a typical Sunday afternoon.

“[I was] just looking around my apartment and saw this one photograph, which I’ve had always, of my great grandmother,” the 45-year-old said. “It was hanging on the wall and had been for who knows how long, and for the first time it hit me that I didn’t know her name and had no family left to ask.”

Besides the photo, a locket and some glassware were all the objects Kirshenbaum had to remember her great-grandmother.

“Even the things we leave behind are left with a story attached,” she said. “And without the story, they’re nothing either.”

Though a few anecdotes from Kirshenbaum’s life parallels Sylvia’s, the two share almost nothing in common the author said.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that we don’t want to have many regrets in life,” Kirshenbaum said. “Sylvia is someone who’s come to middle age and realize she has nothing but regrets.”

Kirshenbaum plays out her vigor for life in her novels, making no excuses for her edgy topics and subject matter — especially because she’s a woman.

“I think it’s okay for men to be graphic,” Kirshenbaum said of the socially acceptable amount of sex portrayed in novels. “It’s a patina over everything and I think that women are expected to be good girls and men don’t always have to be good boys.”

The author, who is on the chair of the Writing Division of the Columbia University Graduate School, has had to maneuver her way out of falling under the “Chick Lit” category.

While at a book expo for a signing, Kirshenbaum was approached by a man who had read and enjoyed Scenic Route. She said the man was thoroughly surprised after finishing it because he expected it to be more woman-oriented.

“He just wouldn’t get off that track even though he was saying he was disturbed by it and laughing at it,” Kirshenbaum said. “[He] clung to the notion that it was a book by a woman therefore it had to be something he wouldn’t like.”



Excerpt:

“Here is the story of Henry and me. I wish it had a different end.

It had a good beginning.

That’s what I would say. If Ruby would hear me out, I would say, “This is the story of Henry and me,” and no matter that it’s of the recent past, past is past, and to tell Ruby this story now would be to call on memory, to travel back, and, as it was, to be with Henry was never quite of our time but of another time better than all that. A time before my time. Like how it was in New York during the last Hotel and that pink place for ice cream, the name of which escapes me, and Henry, he was not quite of our time either. “I wish it had a different end,” I would say to Ruby. “It had a good beginning.”

Also, I would apologize to her.

I would say, “Ruby, I am so sorry.”

Ruby is living some six-hundred-plus miles away at her mother’s house, which is never a good thing, a middle-aged woman living with her mother. That Ruby lives with her mother, it’s my fault. In a roundabout way, but still my fault.

Rumpelmayer’s. The pink place for ice cream was called Rumpelmayer’s. I would apologize to her not for what I did because I did nothing. I did nothing and I said nothing, and for sins of omission, such as mine was, there is no good excuse, and I’d say that, too, and again I’d say, “I am so sorry.”

And Ruby, she’d say, “You’re sorry? You’re damn right you’re sorry,” and then she’d hang up on me and I’d be standing there holding the phone with no one at the other end.

Or, who knows? Maybe she would say, “It’s okay, Sylvia. It’s over. Forget about it now.” Not likely but possible because all things are possible, and it could happen that she’d say it’s okay. ‘It’s okay, Sylvia. Really. It’s okay. It’s all behind us now.’

And I then could tell her, as I could tell Ruby and only Ruby how it is that, precisely that, that it’s all behind us now, that is what I am most afraid of, that everything good is over, and where do I go from here?

To which Ruby might say, “You give up. Or you begin.”

‘You begin.’


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