Q&A with Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Leigh Dana Jackson

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Isthmus | October 6, 2004
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Madeleine is Sleeping

Harcourt, 272 pages

The characters populating Bynum’s debut novel include the sleeping girl of the title, a widow who is as libidinous as she is rich, the flatulent artist M. Pujol, and two women who undergo Kafkaesque transformations -- one sprouting viola strings, the other, quite obese, wings. Allegorical yet fleshy, the book is structured in brief vignettes that heighten its dreamy carnality and the tensions inherent in its flirtatious embrace of both fable and reality. Madeleine is Sleeping is one of the fiction finalists for the National Book Award. Bynum and her husband live in Brooklyn.

David Medaris: How did the fantastical characters of Madeleine is Sleeping seed themselves and gestate in your imagination?

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: A few of the characters probably began as a little piece of grit -- a feeling of discomfort and anxiety (over fatness, hairiness, disfigurement) -- and through heightening and re-imagining these grotesque attributes, I think I hoped to turn that discomfort into the source of something lustrous and remarkable and lovely. And many of the characters were historical figures -- or maybe it's better to describe them as real people who can sometimes be found in the margins and footnotes of history. In the course of haphazard reading or movie watching or music listening, I'd occasionally come across brief references to lives that would trouble or tickle me: the village idiot, the flatulent man, the woman singing the part of the leading man. I wouldn't do any further research; the one exception was Le Petomane, the farting artist, whose biography I read -- a little novelty book found in the office of my father, who's a gastroenterologist. But I would use their particular dilemmas (getting caught receiving a hand-job, or losing one's job to a castrato) as my point of departure -- and the peculiar, funny, melancholy nature of their circumstances marked them as somehow belonging in the same world as the characters that had sprung wholly out of my anxieties and imagination.

Q: How did you set the foundation for your book's structure?

A: The opening pages of the book were originally an experiment in hyperfiction, a form of storytelling that draws upon the same methods of electronic linking and non-linear navigation that Web pages use -- and though I didn't love staring at a computer screen, I did love the delicate little boxes and labyrinthine maps of hypertext. So I transferred the glowing windows of text onto paper, hoping that some of the medium's singular qualities might survive the conversion back to the printed page: in particular, the illusion of limitless narrative possibility, and the refusal to privilege one story (or reality) over another. The extremely permeable boundary separating Madeleine's dream world from the more prosaic domain of her family owes a lot to hypertext's porousness. And without hypertext, I might not have come up with the image that gave the book its title. The figure of the dreaming girl provided the hub from which all the other stories and diversions could radiate (and in its hypertext form, the node through which the others were, literally, linked).

Q: Are the images and narrative of Madeleine's dreams representative of your own?

A: No. I haven't had much luck at translating my dreams into writing.

Q: Amazon.com customers who bought Madeleine is Sleeping also bought The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant. If you went out and bought a copy of your own book, what other book would you buy to go with it?

A: Versailles, by Kathryn Davis.

Q: What audience of readers do you envision for Madeleine?

A: I'm still getting used to the idea of the book being a real thing that's out in the world, so when I envision an audience of readers, the only people I can clearly picture reading the book are people who are somehow related to me. The thought of someone I don't know finding and choosing and reading the book is still astonishing to me. That's why I was so excited to discover that I didn't know the two readers who reviewed the book on Amazon -- they're true strangers! And if I'm ever lucky enough to see someone on the subway reading the book -- that would kill me.

Q: Who or what is your muse?

A: I tend to think that each project has its own muse, or muses. In the case of this book, I'd say the muses were Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, Bjork, Penelope Fitzgerald, Mark Morris, Angela Carter, David Lynch, Anne Carson, Italo Calvino.

Q: What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why would you recommend it?

A: The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. I tend to avoid really big books, but this novel is possessed by such a strange, unruly energy -- I devoured it, and then felt a bit funny afterwards. She writes with incredible fury and fluency -- and with a frankness and exactness about the way families work that is at once completely entertaining and completely excruciating.

Q: What book from your childhood left the greatest impression on you?

A: Jane Eyre.

Q: Why do you live where you live?

A: I live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. My husband used to work for Spike Lee, and that's how we came to know and like this neighborhood -- Spike grew up here, and shot some of his movies here, and still keeps his production offices on our street. So I love walking around and feeling like I'm in an early Spike Lee film. Plus, a lot of writers have lived here: Walt Whitman and Marianne Moore and Colson Whitehead. And then Cake Man Raven, who makes the best red velvet cake in New York, has his bakery only a few blocks away.

Q: Which of the five senses do you most rely on?

A: Sight, I think -- but I don't wear my glasses often enough so the world is somewhat fuzzier than it should be.

Q: What is your favorite meal?

A: Right now I'm longing for raw things: oysters on the half shell, beef carpaccio, tuna sashimi. But if I have to eat a hot meal, I'll always choose Chinese: crabmeat soup dumpling, tofu stuffed with shrimp, lion's head, stir fried watercress, lobster with ginger and scallion. Heaven.

Q: What are you afraid of?

A: I'm afraid of Bush winning the election.

Q: What brings you joy?

A: Too many things to name!

Q: What is in your CD player?

A: TV on the Radio -- Young Liars; Bjork's new record -- Medulla; Jay-Z's Black Album; Ziggy Stardust; Squirrel Bait.

Q: What is your favorite Web site, and why?

A: The New York Times website, so I can read the paper without getting my fingers dirty.

Q: If you were to sell the naming rights to your next book, who would you solicit?

A: Wes Anderson -- I like the titles he comes up with.

Q: Do you have any tattoos?

A: When I was 18 and living in Los Angeles, I made an appointment to get a tattoo at Mark Mahoney's studio, but my friend Tim Green, himself the recipient of many tattoos as well as the then road manager for the Cult, talked me out of it. He had a mysterious black smudge inked on the back of his hand -- This used to be a bird, he told me. I cancelled my appointment.


David Medaris is a staff writer at Isthmus.


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