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Novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum

She calls me back Monday morning, April 10, 2006.

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Binnie: "Nothing. No job at all.

"There was one point when I was six that I wanted to be a doctor because I thought I got to see as many naked people as possible. Then I realized there were other responsibilities attached to that.

"I wanted to be a writer by the time I was ten."

Luke: "What were you expected to become aside from mother?"

Binnie: "I wasn't expected to become a mother. They didn't think I'd be good at that either. A teacher or a lawyer."

Luke: "Because your mother was [an English] teacher."

Binnie: "I was a smart kid. I did well in school. I was good with language. I could argue well."

Binnie grew up in Westchester, an affluent suburb outside of New York City. She has an older brother and a younger brother.

Luke: "Were you the overshadowed child?"

Binnie: "You could put it that way."

Luke: "Are there any similarities in the feedback you've received from childhood to today?"

Binnie: "Weird. I'm actually not weird. I'm perfectly sane and bourgeois. Some of my friends still say I'm weird."

Luke: "In what respect do they say you are weird?"

Binnie: "I'm not quite sure. When I was younger, it was because I did not always want to do what my friends wanted to do. The girls I grew up with, if they were not beautiful by nature, they were beautiful by the knife. Their whole lives revolved around boys. They didn't have any interests of their own. All they wanted to do was watch the boys play basketball or hang out while the boys played football. I thought it was absurd that the boys did things and we watched them do things. I'd have ideas about going places they thought were strange. They would want to go to Florida on Spring Break and I'd want to go to Romania.

"I love to travel but I don't go where people would normally think of as vacation spots. I don't like those things. I pick places at random. That strikes people as odd.

"The way I dress. I wear what I like, not necessarily what's fashionable. I dress up a lot. I'm not casual. I just bought my first pair of jeans in 25 years.

"I copy Sophia Loren. I wear really high heels. I call it 'Italian slutwear.'

"Sometimes we get attached to things we see at a certain point in our lives and this registers what is beautiful. I remember seeing those Italian films [in Binnie's early teens] with Sophia Loren or movies with Elizabeth Taylor and thinking they were absolutely gorgeous."

Luke: "What kind of crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Binnie: "Yech. My friends were popular, though I wasn't. A lot of my friends were cheerleaders. They were all popular with the boys. They were all [white] princesses, though not all Jewish. Everybody had lots of clothes and their own cars. I never learned how to drive. I still don't know how to drive.

"They were my friends but I was always aware of not liking them all that much and not having their values. I wanted to get away from them.

"They all had boyfriends and I didn't. I did their homework for them.

"I was in a [highschool] sorority -- Zeta Phi. I was even president. I didn't belong to a sorority in college.

"I wasn't a well-behaved teenager. I didn't become a junkie or go to jail but I was a fairly bad kid.

"My parents went away for the weekend. I asked if I could throw a party. They said no. I thought, 'They won't know.' There were something like 500 kids in my house. It was completely destroyed.

"I got suspended from school for mouthing off to teachers and cutting classes and letting people cheat off me."

Luke: "Do you stay in touch with anyone from highschool? Did anyone you knew in highschool become famous?"

Binnie: "There's one woman who I speak to once a year or so, but that was after lots of years of no contact, but then she came to a reading I gave and we picked up a little. The guy who started Priceline.com went to my highschool, but I think that's the whole of it."

Luke: "Were you cute in highschool?"

Binnie: "I don't know."

Luke: "At what age did boys start finding you hot?"

Binnie: "College. I looked the same but something changed."

Luke: "Maybe you don't see yourself as men do."

Binnie: "I never thought I was attractive. I thought I had an interesting face that it took people who were older to appreciate that it was interesting."

Luke: "At what age did you become erotically attracted to boys?"

Binnie: "Nine. That they didn't like me didn't mean that I didn't like them."

Luke: "Did you transfer those unrequited feelings to writing?"

Binnie: "I didn't begin writing anything sexually graphic until I was in my twenties. When I was younger, I was embarrassed by it."

Luke: "At what age did you lose your virginity?"

Binnie: "Eighteen. It was boring. I was in Europe."

Luke: "What gave you the courage to start writing frankly about sex?"

Binnie: "People often think that I write more graphically about sex than I do. I'm never terribly explicit. Any sex scenes I do write tend to be brief.

"I read Henry Miller for the first time [circa 22], who I don't think is a great writer, but I found him liberating. I thought, 'You really can say anything.'

"I had a conversation with a friend about the same time about masturbation. We were laughing ourselves sick about it. I thought, 'Nobody ever writes about [female masturbation].'

"We realized that neither one of us had had that discussion before. That women don't talk about it the same way men did.

"That's changed.

"I thought I wanted to write a story about that, all the components, whether it is the joy of it or the loneliness of it. There's a whole compendium that is attached to it.

"After I wrote a story about it, I felt like I could write about blowjobs."

Luke: "Many of the blurbs for your writing stress that you are a writer on sex."

Norman Mailer wrote: "Not many young female novelists can deal with sex, the appetite for it, and the loss of such appetite, with such candor, lack of self-protection, and humor as Binnie Kirshenbaum."

Binnie: "I don't object that people say it, but I don't like when people can't get beyond it.

"My sex scenes are brief. They're never erotic. They're always either pathetic or funny. If they are meant to be the least bit erotic, they never get more than a sentence or so. I worry that people don't see beyond that.

"I use sex as metaphor. Sex is just one more way we communicate. Instead of talking, sex will say what I want the characters to say.

"That I'm an erotic writer or that I write about sex, that that's the main theme of what I write about, is just wrong and probably insulting."

Luke: "Sex is so powerful that people aren't going to see the metaphor in it."

Binnie: "I don't see how they couldn't. That's what it is. It's powerful in the moment but what it represents and why we do it and the range of emotions that go into it, both proceeding and following it, are just as strong... There's nothing sadder than sad sex. There's nothing more degrading than having sex that you don't want. There's nothing more comical than when sex goes wrong. It does stand in for all these other emotions. It all boils down to sex but that doesn't mean its only sex."

Luke: "I'm wagering that only professional writers and intellectuals are going to see the metaphors in sex and your average reader is just going to see the sex."

Binnie: "Sure. In the later books, less so. There's less sex. I hope that readers are better readers but I can't control the way people read. I would hope they could get more from it than just that. If you're reading just for sex and you're choosing my books, that's pathetic. There's better sex out there than mine."

Luke: "Do you ever get dissed for being too much fun to read?"

Binnie: "Yeah. That's a sore point. I'm starting to see this as a gender issue. Across the board, women writers are not taken as seriously as men writers. We don't have the same gravitas. That men write about war and women write about children.

"Often people have said to me, 'Are we supposed to take your book seriously or not? Are they comic novels?' I'll say, 'They're dark comedy.' Then I'll get a quizzical look. I don't necessarily liken myself to Philip Roth, but if I do, I'll [explain that] he's funny but he's serious.

"They can make that leap if I push them there.

"The better critics see it right off.

"Some read me and just see the humor. I don't think there's anything in the world that's funny that isn't sadder than it is funny. All humor is tragedy but we don't want to go there because humor is a more comfortable place to be. If we explore what causes us to laugh, we'll see it is quite tragic."

Luke: "Are female writers and critics any different in their reaction to your work?"

Binnie: "No.

"I'm down on chick lit. It's not that one shouldn't read for pleasure. I'm happy to pick up a mystery or thriller. Women especially (this comes from Oprah and the talkshows) have come to read looking for self-help and identification in the comfortable way, not in the examined life way. They're looking for inspiration. I think any book where the hero or heroine triumphs is by nature not a good book. They look for identification that is cosmetic. 'Oh, she gets depressed and eats a quart of ice-cream and so do I. She makes me feel better.'

"That's a dangerous way to read because it shuts us off from the true purpose of literature."

Luke: "Which is?"

Binnie: "To expand our world. To inspect the world and to find sympathy, empathy and compassion...

"This [Oprah approach] closes off the world. We want nothing but ourselves reflected back in the best light possible.

"The ghettoizing of literature has done the same thing."

Luke: "Do you want your books to be perceived as serious literature?"

Binnie: "Yes. I think I write serious literature. There are lots of great books that are funny. Nabokov was a riot. There is a ton of serious literature that is funny. I hope I fall into that camp.

"I write about alienation and loneliness and a loss of a sense of place in the world and things that are ultimately serious."

Luke: "How much of what you write about is a working out of your own personal themes?"

Binnie: "Everything one writes is a working out of personal themes. I rarely have autobiographical components. Making things up is one of the real joys of fiction. I'd be more inhibited if I used my own life. I don't think my own life is as interesting as the lives I've given my characters.

"Many people assume that all fiction is autobiographical. I don't care that people think that."

Luke: "What are the biggest prices you've had to pay for your writing?"

Binnie: "I'm not rich.

"I don't know that I've had to pay any prices. I love what I do and I like my life. I don't have any children and I don't care."

Luke: "Have you had any lovers get furious with you because you used some part of your experience with them?"

Binnie: "No.

"If I do use people, they either really like it, no matter how they are portrayed, or I've had people think they're in there when they're not... My mother got mad at me over a short story I wrote about a greedy family fighting over a will. I said to her, 'That's not our family.' She said, 'You and I know that but nobody else is going to know that.' She was right but there was nothing I could do about that."

Luke: "What are the biggest surprises you get when people read your work?"

Binnie: "With An Almost Perfect Moment, many people thought it was about a Jewish girl who wanted to be Catholic. It amazed me how many people did not know that the Virgin Mary was Jewish. Or that they did not understand the end and thought she had gone into a convent.

"In Hester Among the Ruins, too many people did not understand her anger towards Germany and they saw the final exchange as her being vindictive. I saw it as a justifiable vindictiveness. People saw him as somebody who tried hard to make amends for the way and she wouldn't let it go."

Luke: "These would have to be non-Jewish reactions?"

Binnie: "Yes. There were Jewish reactions -- how could she do this at all? How could she go to Germany?

"Some people just saw A Disturbance in One Place as a sex book, just a woman who had all these affairs..."

Luke: "Have you had the humbling experience of encountering people who understood what you wrote better than you did?"

Binnie: "Yes. I once did a book club that was all shrinks. They were insightful. There have been times when I've taken what other people told me and then when I was asked about my book, I used it.

"I didn't know why I had the ending of 'A Full Life of a Different Nature' about masturbation. Somebody talked to me about the end and I remember saying, 'Thank you. I didn't understand what it was about.'

"There's a degree of idiot savantism in writing."

Luke: "What infuriates you about some of the books these days getting rave reviews?"

Binnie: "It drives me crazy that the characters have to be likable [and the protagonists triumphant]. If we held up this standard, there would be no literature until the 1980s. People can accept that MacBeth was not a nice couple but in contemporary literature they want to read about nice couples.

"I don't want to read about people I want to be friends with. I have friends. I want to read about people who are going to show me something I don't know.

"When comparisons are made and it's said that this is the next Dostoevsky and you read it and it is a good book but The Brothers Karamazov it isn't. That hyperbole will bother me."

Luke: "What about these complex novels that only an academic can love that get rave reviews?"

Binnie: "I try to be open-minded. With all experimental fiction, no it is not necessarily a good yarn and you can't get lost in it easily. Most experiments fail.

"There should be some degree of difficulty in reading. This should come from pondering the characters and the dilemmas and the moral questions questions posed, not just from getting through it. I'm looking to morally and emotionally connect the dots. Other people are looking to cerebrally connect the dots."

Luke: "Do you want to call out any authors whose work you think is crap even though they are acclaimed?"

Binnie: "No. I don't review books. As much as I will privately say things, I feel that everybody has worked hard, even if the person is a jackass. It's always painful to see that about oneself and I don't like causing pain to others."

Interview II

I've read all her books (but History on a Personal Note). She calls me back Monday morning, April 24, 2006.

Luke: "How do you know so much about loneliness?"

Binnie: "I grew up in the suburbs? I was a lonely kid. I always had friends but I never felt like I belonged. There was a side of myself that I kept to myself."

Luke: "When did you feel like you belonged? College?"

Binnie: "I'm not sure I've ever quite felt that way. But certainly when I got to college it was much better. I found kindred spirits. I could express myself. Existential loneliness is something we all suffer but we tend to turn away from it and I like looking at it."

Luke: "You suffer more than most people."

Binnie: "It's not something I talk to people about. Usually, when we're together, we don't talk about loneliness. Perhaps?

"I was a middle child. Middle children tend to get ignored. I had two brothers who were probably more difficult children than I was.

"The neighborhood [Westchester, New York] was all-white but very mixed with different religions. I was the only Jewish kid in my age group in my four-block radius. There was a fair amount of anti-Semitism. I felt excluded until I got to highschool, which was 50% Jewish.

"I like being alone, so maybe I feed it?"

Luke: "How did the anti-Semitism manifest itself?"

Binnie: "'Christkiller!'

"I had no idea what anybody was talking about. I was clueless as to why anybody would say that to me.

"I remember kids throwing pennies at me.

"There was one scene I used in a story about a neighbor who wouldn't let me swim in their pool."

Luke: "What do you love and hate about growing older?"

Binnie: "Not much I love about it.

"I'm more secure and confident. I'm more confident about my own attractiveness even though I know that by and large youth and beauty are synonymous. I don't know that I got better looking as I got older but people respond to me as if I have. I believe my own attractiveness in a way that I didn't when I was younger."

Luke: "More men hitting on you?"

Binnie: "Yeah. Or better quality."

She's been married 15 years to a non-Jewish professor of medicine.

Luke: "Tell me about you and God."

Binnie: "I'm a believer in a strange little way, certainly not in an any fundamentalist way. I subscribe to evolution. The world is a miraculous place. That nature happened as it did is mind-boggling. I allow for the idea that there's some grand plan, not necessarily a grand being. I believe in inherent good and evil and that the inherent good is god. I try to live as good a life as I believe in and there's some idea of serving this greater good, this god, by doing that. I believe in trying to leave the world a better place than you found it."

Luke: "Have you had a relationship with God? Do you talk to God? Does God to talk to you?"

Binnie: "He definitely doesn't talk to me. Occasionally I've asked for a favor.

"It's more when I'm faced with a moral dilemma. When I'm less than perfect. I'm a vegetarian because of my religious beliefs but I wear leather. But when I put on leather, I get this twinge of guilt. That may be my god admonishing me for being a hypocrite."

Luke: "What's your relationship with organized Judaism?"

Binnie: "There really isn't one. My family was irreligious. We were Jewish by cultural identity. We never went to synagogue. We were Christmas Jews. One or two years we gave Chanukah a shot and everybody was disappointed.

"We didn't have a tree but we had stockings, Santa Claus, gifts, Christmas dinner.

"We didn't decorate the house.

"When I was younger, I didn't have much of a Jewish identity. I didn't like being Jewish because I associated it with being a Jewish [American] princess. It wasn't until I got older that I embraced being a princess. That people would make jokes about Jewish women wanting to marry doctors, I resented that. Misguidedly, I didn't resent the person saying it. I resented my being Jewish.

"Then I got older and read more and was out in the world more and realized that Jewish women do other things aside from marry doctors. I learned more about the religion and learned that whatever beliefs I had about the world and God, they jelled more with Judaism than with any other religion.

"I took it upon myself to observe a few rituals. I don't eat bread during Passover. I don't have a seder either. I light a [yartzheit] candle for my mother. I named my cat in memory of my mother because I don't have children. I got dispensation from a rabbi for that. A lot of the rituals about death. I never leave flowers at a grave. I always put a stone down."

Luke: "Do you think you have an eternal soul?"

Binnie: "In an abstract way.

"I abhor cut flowers. Planting things is wonderful. Using one's money to perpetuate betterment."

Luke: "How do you determine what's right and wrong and how do you know when you've done something wrong?"

Binnie: "I think a lot about what's right and wrong for me. Largely what's wrong has to do with causing suffering. I'm devoted to Peter Singer that way. To do nothing about suffering is wrong. Hypocrisy bothers me.

"You know when you're being hypocritical. Your conscience tweaks and tells you.

"I don't think I've ever done anything that causes active suffering (that I'm aware of)."

Luke: "You've never stabbed anyone?"

Binnie: "No. I've punched a few people but I'm so tiny (5'2") it doesn't hurt. I have no physical strength. In that way I'm a real Jewish girl. I've never deprived anybody of their food or their livelihood."

Luke: "What are the ways you've caused others the most pain?"

Binnie: "Withholding of love.

"I feel bad when I look at the newspaper and I see there's genocide in Darfur and I know I'm doing nothing about that."

Luke: "Do you think it is possible to be sexually promiscuous and not wreak vast amounts of hurt?"

Binnie: "Yes. Absolutely. 'Don't ask, don't tell' is probably always a good policy.

"Somebody can be faithful and more hurtful by giving affection elsewhere or other kinds of loyalty elsewhere. An example that always cracks me up -- someone once wrote an essay that was published in an anthology about how she no longer has sex with her husband, and that she wasn't having sex with anybody else either. She signed it.

"I figured everybody would've been happier if she had just been having an affair. If she had been having sex on a regular basis, she probably wouldn't have been compelled to dishonor her husband in that way.

"The humiliation, the traditional cuckolding, is far worse.

"I don't think promiscuity and adultery are such terrible things. Society has made more of it than it is.

"I don't know that I'd be terribly bent out of shape if my husband slept with somebody else. I might be bent out of shape if gave the affection he gives me to somebody else. Or the loyalty or if he left me. But if he slept with somebody else now and again, I wouldn't get worked up about it.

"I suppose emotional adultery is worse.

"We all have a multitude of relationships in our lives for different reasons. I have a best friend but she doesn't fill every need I have for friends. I have other friends that I do other things with.

"If my husband had something that he needed to talk to someone about and that for whatever reason he didn't feel like he could talk to me about, I'd rather he'd have someone to talk to about because I care about him."

Luke: "What's it like for your husband to be married to Binnie Kirshenbaum the novelist? How does your writing affect him?"

Binnie: "He's good about it all. He reads none of it, which isn't to say he doesn't know what's in there. When we were dating, I gave him a short story I'd written. He read it and told me about the three words I'd misspelled. That was probably the last time I showed him anything.

"He writes [scientific] papers I don't read. He just doesn't read fiction.

"He comes to readings I give if I ask him to. He's supportive that I do what I want. He's happy for me when things go well. He's not all that terrific when things don't go well because he's a pragmatist.

"I've told him many times that if I get a bad review, he's supposed to tell me that that person is stupid and nobody reads that paper anyway. As opposed to saying, 'Oh God, Binnie, you must feel awful.' That's what he's thinking."

Luke: "Is there gloom around the house when you get a bad review?"

Binnie: "Sometimes. It depends on where it is. If it is in a major publication, I feel bad. Sometimes it is only a few hours. Usually it gets offset if a good review comes in.

"Nothing could make me give it up."

Luke: "Tell me about you and Germany."

Binnie: "That's a strange relationship. I think it's over. My earlier books were translated there and did wildly well. I was invited over to give readings. It was just a strange experience. I never felt so Jewish in my life. In some ways very cliched. You can't help wondering what people really think. What their parents taught them.

"At the same time, shamelessly basking in the philo-semitism. A man there once said to me, 'All Jewish women were phenomenally brilliantly and unbelievably sexy.' I liked that people did think that.

"I never felt so desirable. There was a lot of electricity with German men in that this was the ultimate forbidden fruit on both sides. Yet I don't find them particularly sexy.

"It was fraught with complications. In the end, there's a culture clash.

"I haven't been over there in a year-and-a-half. From 1998 till 2004, I was going over a lot for conferences, panels, literary festivals. I made a lot of friends there. There was a time when Munich was my second home.

"The first time I went I was 16. I went on a teen tour."

Luke: "Have you had many romantic relationships with German men?"

Binnie: "None."

Luke: "Do you find WWII German military uniforms sexy?"

Binnie: "No, because what's associated with them. On the other hand, from just a purely aesthetic point of view, they had it down."

Luke: "I find tremendous despair in your writing. Am I misreading you?"

Binnie: "No, it is there."

Luke: "Where do you find your reason for being?"

Binnie: "Despairing? The same place the loneliness comes from. I think about life like being the last person at the New Year's Eve party. There's so much going on and everybody's happy and then it's over and you're sitting there with a hat on your head and the balloon is floating past and there's this ultimate emptiness. That's how I see the human condition."

Luke: "I want to shake all your protagonists and say, 'Commit to something.'"

Binnie laughs. "Yeah."

Luke: "Commit to a community or a religion or a club. Make a bunch of attachments. They are all lacking attachments."

Binnie: "They are. If you can make attachments, you are no longer lonely. Or maybe it's that all attachments are ultimately false. We're born alone. We die alone. All connection that we make is fleeting and superficial.

"I don't know that we all speak the same language, that anybody else completely understands us. That's where the desire to write comes from, the craving to be understood.

"It's hard to commit to a group when that sense of hypocrisy always eats at you.

"If I had committed to what you had committed to, I would think, 'This is wrong. That's wrong. This is bulls---. Look at how you live your life. You're telling me how to lead my life.' I don't think I'd be able to reconcile it well enough.

"Writers are always outsiders and have to be. It's the only way we can write and it is the reason for our writing. We're outsiders and we need to connect, but we can't connect because we write."

Luke: "What about you and joining things?"

Binnie: "I'm not a joiner. Somebody I know is doing a book on clubs. He emailed me. I said, 'Not since six weeks of Girls Scouts in fourth grade.'

"I go my own way.

"I belong to the Democratic party."

Luke: "Do you do things with them?"

Binnie: "No. I give them money. That's the whole of my affiliating and belonging.

"I was a member of PEN. I believe in a community of writers doing favors, sharing contacts, work. I don't go for the formality of groups. Once you organize and set down some rules, things are bound to go wrong. Once you have a power structure, things are bound to go wrong.

"I see it as a tribe as opposed to a family, and a loose community as opposed to an organized one."

Luke: "How does your family like your writing?"

Binnie: "They don't. I'm sure my brothers have never read anything I've written. They're not literary. Years ago, I gave my younger brother a book that was wrapped. He said, 'This isn't one of yours, is it?' It wasn't.

"Before she died in 1998, my mother was mixed. She was nervous that I would tell family secrets. If there was a lot of sex, she'd roll her eyeballs. 'What are people going to think about you?' At the same time, she was kinda proud.

"I don't think my father has read anything specifically but he knows what's in there. He's proud like my husband. If I get a good review in the Forward and his friends call him and tell him, he's pleased.

"It pleases him that I am more Jewish because he was raised more religiously than my mother was. Even though he's not observant, he has more of an attachment.

"I'm not especially close to my father. I'm not at all close to my brothers. Friends were always more important than family."

Luke: "All of your characters are alienated from their families?"

Binnie: "When I was young and wrote stories, people told me that all my characters were orphans or only children.

"I don't fully get family."

Luke: "Was there anything autobiographical in any of your mourning scenes? Not showing up to the funeral? Or not being notified."

Binnie: "My father had a stroke a few months ago and it was three days later before anybody told me. When my mother was dying, I was in Europe. When I left for Europe, she was in remission. I didn't get the call that she was dying until she was in the hospital and no longer conscious and that I should come back. She'd been in the hospital for several weeks and nobody called to tell me to come back.

"I always felt like an afterthought.

"My mother used to tell stories that they'd be halfway home and realize I wasn't with them. There was always that feeling that I didn't quite belong to that group."

Luke: "Did your family sit shiva for your mother?"

Binnie: "Yes. We didn't cover the mirrors but we did stay in and spend a week of mourning. I even gave the eulogy at her funeral. That's because my brothers couldn't write.

"There's a scene in a book I'm working on now about sitting Shiva for the mother."

Luke: "Your publisher concludes in its blurb for your book Pure Poetry: 'Lila knows that she has to take action, and in doing so learns some startling truths about herself, her capacity for love, and the nature of true freedom.' Is that true? I don't remember her learning startling truths about herself."

Binnie: "Those things get written by somebody else. If she learned anything, it was that any freedom she's going to have is from within herself. Maybe she learned that loving someone does come with commitments and maybe she wasn't the one to make them."

Luke: "She seemed as lost as ever. It's not like there was redemption."

Binnie: "No, except that she's ready to rid herself of the ghost."

Luke: "There's not a lot of redemption in your books?"

Binnie: "Yeah. I don't believe people really change."

Luke: "Can you give any turningpoints in your life where you were never the same afterwards?"

Binnie: "I always likened going to college to someone who was gay coming out of the closet. There was so much of myself that I kept hidden growing up. There were political awakenings. But no."

Luke: "Surely you had to let some things die to get married?"

Binnie: "Sort of. I always put weddings and funerals in the same box. When somebody marries, lots of things die."

Luke: "There are aren't dramatic realizations in your books."

Binnie: "No. I'm thin on plot. For me, it's the people, not even so much what they do but learning about who they are."

Luke: "I always want them to change their lives, be redeemed and have dramatic realizations."

Binnie: "Hester has one."

Luke: "She doesn't belong in Germany and that German."

Binnie: "And she's no longer ashamed of her parents."

Luke: "All your books are depressing."

Binnie laughs. "They are. I write black comedy."

Luke: "What about you and therapy? Have you had a lot?"

Binnie: "On and off over the years. I'm tired of it. Now I see somebody periodically because I'm medicated. To get my drugs, I have to spend a little time chatting. This is the first person I went to who I think is smarter than me. It's only been nine months.

"One I stayed with for five years but I was definitely smarter."

Luke: "Did you ever put off going on medication because you thought it would diminish your creativity?"

Binnie: "Yeah.

"I remember getting a book accepted by a publisher and thinking, 'I should be really happy now and I'm not.' That was the catalyst [for getting help].

"A friend of mine who went on medication says, 'She's completely the same person only she used to have a headache and now she doesn't.'

"I think that's true. I'm very moody still. I have very dark periods."

Luke: "How long do they last?"

Binnie: "Anywhere from a few days to a year. I just got out of one that was heavily on and off for the last year-and-a-half. It would go away for a few days and come crashing back again.

"I don't worry about killing myself.

"I'm more productive when the medication's working. My work is as dark as before."

Luke: "How does your husband handle you being in a dark place for months?"

Binnie: "He's good about it.

"I remember when Primo Levi killed himself, somebody wrote an op/ed about how terrible it was that somebody who survived what he survived then killed himself and that this was a terrible message to survivors. My husband said, 'What a moronic thing to say. The man was sick.' I remember thinking that was a lovely compassionate way of looking at it.

"He sometimes became impatient with me when I would resist going for help.

"My cycles of depression got worse when I first got married and I resisted going for a couple of years."

Luke: "How much has therapy and medication helped your happiness?"

Binnie: "Medication a lot. I don't know that the therapy has made any difference. I know that is not a Jewish thing to say.

"I hoped that therapy would unlock something in my unconscious that would make a difference in writing but that never happened."

Luke: "Have you had phases of hope in your life that this is the meaning of life?"

Binnie: "No."

Luke: "You've never been a true believer."

Binnie: "I'm a true believer that there are many paths to happiness."

Great Book Or Great Marriage?

Whenever I ask high-achieving women if they'd rather write a great book (or direct a great movie, etc) or have a great marriage, they usually take offense and maintain they can have both and there is no need to choose, and no, they won't rank which objective is more important to them.

One who did not take offense to my question was married novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum, who emails me that she'd rather write a great book.