Writer and closet true-crime nut

Kathryn Harrison: Writer and closet true-crime nut

Kathryn Harrison keeps “Grimm’s Fairy Tales’’ and “The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales’’ close by.

No wonder bestselling writer Kathryn Harrison likes fairy tales - not the ones where the girl gets the prince, but the ones where the prince kills the girl. Her life has at times resembled a Grimm’s fairy tale: abandoned by young parents, brought up by very elderly grandparents, an incestuous relationship with her father. The latter is recounted in her memoir “The Kiss.’’ Harrison discusses her most recent novel, “Enchantment,’’ 6 p.m. Thursday at the Boston Public Library.

BOOKS: What draws you to fairy tales?

HARRISON: I keep both “Grimm’s Fairy Tales’’ and “The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales’’ at arm’s length. I have a limited number of shelves in my office so if anything new comes in something old has to go. Those books have stood the test for years. I read them as a kid, but as an adult I didn’t pay much attention to them until I was in my 30s, when I had kids. They were interesting enough to prompt me to return to the originals, which are far darker. These are stories in which anything can happen, which is thrilling. With the glass slipper [in “Cinderella’’], for example, the stepsisters cut their heel and toes off to fit into the shoe. That’s not Disney. My favorite is Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard,’’ which is filled with temptation and betrayal and eroticism. It truly isn’t children’s literature.


BOOKS: How did being an only child influence you as a reader?

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HARRISON: My grandmother wasn’t much of a reader, but my grandfather was. He liked books about politics and biographies. Still, I was the biggest reader in the household from age 7 on. I remember knocking off a Nancy Drew before school. I’d wake up early because I was put to bed too early by my grandparents, who were Victorian British people, so I had a couple of hours to kill before school.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

HARRISON: I am reading 15 books at once because I’m in a heated research phase. I’m writing a biography about Joan of Arc. At this moment I’m reading “The Waning of the Middle Ages’’ by Johan Huizinga. It’s wonderful. What I have been reading the most is the transcription of her trial. A sense of her voice is preserved in this incredible record. Of the biographies, Vita Sackville-West’s “Saint Joan of Arc’’ holds up quite well.

BOOKS: What other kinds of books do you like to read?


HARRISON: I like books about what makes people tick. I’ve read a lot of Freud. I came late to Carl Jung. More recently, I like Louise Kaplan’s “Female Perversions’’ and Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death.’’ That is one of my very favorite books of all time. I read it and felt he had articulated something that was preconscious for me.

BOOKS: I read that you read the Bible several times. Why?

HARRISON: Not several. Twice. And the second time I skipped the long boring things, like the specifications for building temples. I embarked on it with some trepidation because it is so long. I had a good Bible, The Oxford Study Bible, which I would recommend to anyone who reads the Bible without a teacher. The Bible is really interesting for history but also for its many stories that have and do inform literature. Then the stories are just great, like prophets getting swallowed by whales.

BOOKS: Do you have a guilty pleasure?

HARRISON: True crime. I like Ann Rule and books about the Scarsdale diet doctor who murdered his wife. The problem is there is only a handful of great literary true crime. The rest is pretty much pandering. Still, if there’s a book about a new serial killer I want it now. I do. I am not proud of this.