Madeline is Sleeping is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's first novel. Her short fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Best American Short Stories of 2004. A graduate of Brown University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Author biography courtesy of Harcourt, Inc.
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Some outtakes from our interview with Bynum:
"I adore sushi (which I didn't discover, weirdly enough, until I was living in Iowa), but right now I'm on a strict sushi hiatus as I wait for the arrival of my first baby in the spring."
"I didn't see a single scary movie until I was twenty years old, but now I can't get enough of them! My favorites are The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, The Ring, and anything with zombies."
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In the fall of 2004, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Jane Eyre. When I first read it in the eighth grade, I remember being struck by two things: the extreme attractiveness of Mr. Rochester, and my sudden, acute awareness of Charlotte Brontë as the book's author. Up to this point, I don't remember giving much thought to the writers of books I liked -- I was far more interested in the plots and the characters -- the authors themselves seemed, for the most part, like appendages. Maybe it's because the edition I read of Jane Eyre had that lovely pencil drawing of Charlotte Brontë on its cover, or because her name was displayed in the exact same font and size as the title. In fact, her name appeared above the title, which explains why my younger brother believed for years that "Charlotte Brontë" was the famous novel written by Jane Eyre.
I'd like to believe that my growing awareness of an authorial presence was due to my budding sophistication as a reader -- and certainly there was a new sort of intensity and urgency I felt in this book that might have suggested the workings of a very specific sensibility and imagination -- but I'm afraid I would be giving my eighth-grade self too much credit. Either way, I remember Jane Eyre as the moment I became curious about the person behind the book, a curiosity which eventually led, I think, to my first serious thoughts about what it meant to be a writer, to become a writer. Charlotte Brontë continues to exercise her hold over me, as does her sister Emily -- now, in addition to rereading Jane Eyre, I find myself returning to Anne Carson's The Glass Essay" and Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë , both of which cast their own spells.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald -- This book is perfect to me; every single sentence fills me with pleasure. It has a wonderful immediacy about it, yet it evokes the world of 18th-century germany with such vividness and authority and ease, while feeling nothing like a historical novel. I can't think of a book that achieves a more beautiful balance between gravity and lightness, humor and poignancy, plain-spokenness and lyricism. I've returned to The Blue Flower again and again, not only for the sheer delight of it, but also for its lessons about the mysterious, utterly confounding nature of love; it's been a great comfort to me as I've tried to understand why the people I love sometimes choose such odd candidates as the objects of their deepest affection.
The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams -- A favorite author taking on one of my perennially favorite subjects -- teenage girls -- and doing so with her characteristic fearlessness and terrifying honesty. Her writing thrills me; it manages to be flawlessly precise and under control while at the same time possessed by a truly strange, dangerous, unruly energy.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- What a huge gift it is to spend hundreds and hundreds of pages in the company of Eliot's expansive intellect -- at once deeply rigorous and deeply compassionate.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson -- I think I rely upon this book in the same way that some people rely upon prayer -- as a means of creating a sort of stillness that allows for reflection and inwardness and wonder. I love the book as a whole for its story and its shape, but what I reread the most often are certain pages and passages that transport me, both by the rhythms of Robinson's language and the astonishing clarity and resonance of her observations.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh -- I have to confess I fell in love with the T.V. series first, when I was in the fifth grade and forbidden to watch it (which of course made it all the more irresistible). But I came to love the book, too, for its golden descriptions of England between the wars and its elegiac tone, and especially for its treatment of the romantic friendship between Charles and Sebastian, which I found as a ten-year-old, and still find as an adult, very stirring.
The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek -- It's hard to choose just one book, when there's so much to admire about Dybek's work as a whole -- his gift for the burning, indelible image; his adventurousness with form; his ability to write about the fantastical and the real with equal conviction; his enormous humanity; his deep insight into the ways memory works. Any one of his stories, or story collections, offers these pleasures.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- He writes with such virtuosity, such flourishes and pirouettes, such a command of language and wordplay, and yet this book never feels like a performance. It always takes me by surprise with its humanity and its pathos and, despite all of Humbert's circumlocutions, its emotional rawness. Also wonderful is Jeremy Irons' unabridged recording of the book.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Edward Scissorhands -- I do love all the classic Tim Burton touches. Vincent Price in his gothic castle, the monstrous topiaries, the rows of candy-colored ranch houses, the pale, child-like face of Johnny Depp. But I think what makes this movie so memorable for me is Diane Wiest's performance as the suburban mother who takes in Edward and makes him a part of her family. Even though the movie eventually reveals the suburban community's potential for conformity and cruelty, Burton's portrayal of Edward's adopted family, and particularly his mom, remains tender, and is a large part of what makes this fairy tale feel wondrous.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller -- This movie kills me, for some reason -- maybe it's Warren Beatty's dumb, sweet hopefulness, or how luminous Julie Christie looks as a whore, with her crown of frizzy hair. This movie is utterly unsentimental about the "Wild West" and the people who built it, which is probably why the story of these two characters' thwarted hopes is so deeply and unexpectedly moving.
Do The Right Thing -- Not only does this movie confront issues of race in a totally uncompromising and unflinching way, but it does so with incredible visual panache and a blazing soundtrack by Public Enemy and an irresistible performance from Rosie Perez -- in other words, it taught me that "political" and "entertaining" can be synonymous, and that political, thought-provoking art is at its best when it's also vibrant and funny and beautifully crafted. That summer I drove my friends crazy by constantly repeating, "Mookie, stop playing!" because I was so in love with Rosie Perez's Puerto Rican accent.
The First Three Lives of Stuart Hornsley -- A short film about time machines and true love featuring three of my heroes: my husband, Dana Jackson, who directed it; Stuart Dybek, who wrote the story "Paper Lantern", which inspired it; and Tunde Adebimpe, singer for TV on the Radio (see below), who stars in it.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Usually I can't listen to music when I'm writing; it demands too much attention. But I love music at all other times. Right now, I'm listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's new recording of Handel arias (I also adore her Bach cantatas that were releasted last year.
T.V. on the Radio's amazing cover of my favorite Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, "Modern Romance"; Bjork's new record, Medulla; The Jesus + Mary Chain's first record, Psychocandy; Prince's Dirty Mind. For melancholy days, I love the Canadians: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. And for days like today, when I'm struggling with post-election fury and dismay, System of a Down is very good.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I've been waiting for this book so eagerly, and I want to read it alongside people who are really knowledgeable about American history and theology, so I can ask them all my questions. I'm also anxious to read it and discuss it because of what's happening in our country right now -- I fear that we're suffering from what Robinson has called cultural amnesia, the way societies seem to forget the values and lessons they have learned at great cost in the past.
I received an email today that compared two maps: the 2004 election map, showing the breakdown between the Bush states and the Kerry states, and an 1860 map, showing which of the states and territories were pro or anti-slavery just before the Civil War. The maps were eerily identical, reminding me of something Robinson said in an interview in The Globe and Mail that appeared earlier this week, the day before the elections:
"I began my interest in the history of this region of the country by reading about abolitionists [in the period before the Civil War]," Robinson explains. "They were far in advance of what people were thinking in 1960. They had already worked their way through human equality and integration and all the rest of it."
What amazes Robinson is that this knowledge was completely lost and people relapsed into much more primitive thinking about what we now call human rights. So much so, "that the North won the war and lost the argument," she explains in a flat, quiet voice broken by thoughtful pauses.
"The rise of the pseudo sciences that surrounded eugenics and racism completely erased the whole passionate argument for equality that had been made in the period before the Civil War," she says, adding that many Americans are suffering from a similar disconnection from their cultural moorings in the wake of 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Signed hardcover books by authors I love.
Do you have any special writing rituals?
Normally, I don't do anything special, other than to straighten up the room and make sure my desk is clear. Sometimes I'll read a few pages from my favorite books, or books that resonate with the particular piece I'm working on, just so I can quiet down and begin to hear rhythms in my head.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I'm embarrassed by the fact that I wrote the first few pages of my novel exactly ten years ago, in the fall of 1994. I haven't worked on it steadily since then. There were lots of interruptions, and long periods of concentrating on other things. But still, a whole decade? That's an awfully long time, especially for a book that's as short as mine is.
If you could choose one new writer to be discovered, who would it be?
I am very excited about the arrival of Amity Gaige's first novel, O My Darling. It's a beautiful and surprising book about the ghosts that haunt young marriages, written in the most lucid, delectable, pitch-perfect prose.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Send your stories to literary journals, with unflagging patience and persistence -- it might take a while to place your story, but once you finally do, it can lead to other opportunities, including interest from agents. Many agents really do read the good journals and reach out to the authors of stories they like.
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