Kate Zambreno on the careers and marriages of her modernist Heroines.
Blending scholarship with memoir, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is a gossip’s dream, full of digressions about the author’s own career as a novelist as well as the careers and marriages of modernists Jane Bowles, Vivienne Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Zelda Fitzgerald, and others. Although Zambreno delves deep into the personal lives of her heroines, her focus is on their writing—how their work has been dismissed, derided, or ignored altogether. In Heroines, Viv is no longer “the wife of T.S. Eliot,” but emerges as a fully rounded character, an eccentric woman of ambition, among other things. Zelda, who so desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, is given her due through Kate’s close and idiosyncratic readings of her work and biographies. However, Heroines isn’t mere revisionist history; it is also an ebullient testament to the romance of reading. It’s a book about literature, and Heroines takes it as granted that books matter. It was in this spirit that I wrote to Kate about interviewing her for BOMBlog. As an editor at a small press, engaged in the process of editing, reviewing and promoting women’s writing, I wanted the conversation to continue, and to continue in the writing itself.
Elizabeth Hall More than anything else, Heroines is a book about books: how women writers are read and how female characters are policed. But it is also about the thrill of reading, “the ecstasy of influence,” that rare, ripe pleasure of total engrossment. Early in the book, you describe reading as a narcotic, a pleasure to be savored by the whole body: “I read with my hands down the front of my pants . . . Sometimes I feel guilty about getting my lubed fingers all over library books.” When did your love affair with literature begin? What are your go-to books for getting off?
Kate Zambreno I’ve been recently reading Sontag’s early journals, and she waxes poetic about Rilke while still a young girl. And there can be an impulse, reading that, to think—oh, that’s how a genius is born, reading literature in translation from the womb. And anyway, it’s not like any of us can measure up to Sontag. But I think if you poll many woman writers about their childhood reading habits, you would find a similar mix to mine of inhaling the core girl texts as well as more “serious” literature. AND I think my reading habits as a girl have really defined who I am as a writer.