Aimee Bender is the author of four books, including The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Her latest collection of stories, The Color Master, will be out in August. She has published in Granta, The Paris Review, Tin House and more, as well as heard on "This American Life" and "Selected Shorts." She lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at USC. Photo credit by D. Bender.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Monica Petersen. Of the process she said, “I was eager to read Aimee’s books after I found them at a local bookstore. When Aimee agreed to an interview, I was thrilled because I wanted to examine with her the evolution of content and changes in style throughout her writing.” In this interview, she discusses the use of magic in writing, choosing a main character, and how to use a writing contract.
Superstition Review: I love the title of your second collection, Willful Creatures. The phrase really embodies the convictions of the big man in “End of the Line” and the narrator of “Off.” How did you approach creating the strong yet diverse characters compiled in this collection?
Aimee Bender: It wasn’t really a conscious choice—and it took me a long time to settle on that adjective, ‘willful.’ Though really they all are very willful! And I liked how the word could be seen/read as good or bad, depending. For whatever reason, I was interested in aggressor characters—those who make things happen and not always good things.
SR: “The Bowl” in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is the catalyst for the day’s events for the narrator. Did you write that story with the intention to have it synthesize the day’s events or did the bowl have an alternative purpose?
AB: I actually have a green bowl from my grandmother that looks a lot like the bowl in the story and felt an interest in writing about it. Not sure why. The inexplicable mind. But then it did end up playing an active role in the story—but I had no plan about it in advance. Generally, the stories that I’ll keep, or feel interested in continuing to work on, have that sort of catalytic motion inside them, whether or not I understand the reasoning behind the movement.
SR: One of my favorite lines in Willful Creatures comes from “Death Watch:” “You can never account for murder or for accidents.” I saw “Death Watch” as a literary social experiment where ten men receive horrible news. What was your approach in analyzing each man’s reactions to impending death in such a short story?
AB: Thanks! When I was writing that story I was thinking a lot about jokes and joke structure—they move fast, like fairy tales, and often rush through plot in a way I find fun. “Two guys walk into a bar...” and we know something’s about to happen. So what if the punchline pressure was removed? There’s that joke about “guy goes to the doctor, finds out he has one month to live...” and that was in the back of my mind but I wanted to take it seriously and, I suppose, multiply it times ten to see what a range of reactions might be.
SR: The style of narrative changes quite a bit from the stories in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt to Lemon Cake. Your stories progress from a wilder, more direct nature to a subdued but exploratory emotional search. Was this a conscious progression in your work or did this mirror a change in your life?
AB: Not so conscious but I am aware that there’s a drive and push in a short story that I can’t do in a novel because there (in a story) it’s a drive toward an end; with an novel, I have to keep opening up, and opening up again, like each scene is a package containing another package. So the push is just so different.
SR: What was your thought process in omitting quotation marks for dialogue in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? Did you hope to achieve a freer style than one conformed by punctuation?
AB: I actually have quite a few stories without quotes, too, and my other novel doesn’t have quotes either. I think there’s more commentary on the absence of quotes in Lemon Cake because it had a wider audience. But I just like it. I like it as a reader and had noticed it for years in writers like Jayne Anne Phillips or Cormac McCarthy or the dashes in Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s largely a visual thing. Sometimes the extra ‘hair’ look of quotes on the page looks off to me!
SR: The food descriptions in Lemon Cake are so delectable and enticing. I found myself wanting a huge slice of cake immediately after the first few chapters. How did you create these delicious images? In writing the novel, did you have to change the way you thought about food?
AB: Thank you. Glad to hear it! I love food, love reading about food (MFK Fisher being a favorite there) and love the language used around food so mainly it was just fun to play with that. I am helpless before certain adjectives on a menu. Shredded chicken will get me. Crispy? I immediately will consider something if it is called ‘crispy’.
SR: Magic plays a key part in your writing. In “Marzipan,” magic ignites some bizarre occurrences and reveals a deeper disruption in the family’s nature. In Lemon Cake, magic has a subtler tendency to bring out the deeper emotional trials of the family, but eventually helps each member to understand one another’s circumstances. How did this shift happen? Is there a direct correlation between the way you view magic and the way it works in your stories?
AB: It seems easier to have ‘blunter’ more overt magic in stories; in my first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, I couldn’t really make the leap into magic at all; it just felt wrong. So everything in that book could happen in the physical known world, odd as it may’ve been. But with Lemon Cake, the magic arose on page one, with her food ‘power’, and then it was more about following it and learning about it.
SR: As we learn more about Rose in Lemon Cake, a larger mystery arises around her brother Joseph. Was Rose and her ability always the central aspect of the novel? Why not write it in Joseph’s perspective?
AB: Funny you say that—years ago I wrote a novel for five years or so from a teenage boy’s POV and it just never quite worked. It was very different than Lemon Cake but when my editor first read it, he thought Lemon Cake was an elaborate rewrite of this other book which I’d stuck in a drawer. That was kind of comforting to hear, actually. But the boy’s POV just didn’t work, didn’t have enough in it. In the earlier book, he had a younger sister as well, and so I think that was my better angle. That said, I knew Rose’s power wasn’t the whole book—after about 90 pages I felt ready to find out more about the family and there was something rumbling below in Joseph and I wanted to discover that, too. It felt like a much darker, sadder thread through the book.
SR: Many of your short stories use an adult perspective. However, Lemon Cake focuses specifically on Rose, a nine-year-old at the beginning of the novel, as she progresses through childhood. What are the advantages of using a child narrator to explore the world of emotions and our sensitivities to particular experiences?
AB: In my mind, she’s still looking back, as she uses words and phrases a nine-year-old probably wouldn’t, but I imagine that while looking back she reverts to that age somewhat too, so it’s a kind of hybrid between retrospective and immediate perspectives. I do like books who are told clearly from a child narrator though. Room did a great job with this. So many classic children’s books do, or something like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—very satisfying. Some Salinger. Child narrators often see what adults don’t see, or have blocked, but children may not have the words to say it in an ‘adult’ way which means it can be fresher to read.
SR: Your work has been classified as magical realism. In your work, does magic work as a tool to expose greater human flaws and create a new understanding; if so, how?
AB: I hope so! All I know is when I’m using magic it’s to try to get to something that I can’t quite get to without that tool. It has given me access. I respond to that in books I read, too—feels like something in my DNA, that I just often feel more deeply if the story is told via metaphor or magical storytelling in some way.
SR: In an interview with Sycamore Review, you said that “teaching keeps a person honest.” Does teaching keep you honest in a way that writing cannot? And if so, how?
AB: With teaching, I’m up there talking about fiction and I can hear if I’m not doing whatever I’m preaching and sometimes I don’t realize my own hypocrisy til I’m right up in the face of it. So that is something teaching offers that’s different. I have lots of beliefs about fiction and what I value about approaching fiction but I still get mired in the same rules and crap and limitations so it’s helpful to remind myself that way.
SR: You wrote an article for the July 2012 edition of O Magazine about the creative process of writing. How did that article opportunity come about? What was your approach to writing it?
AB: I actually wrote it many years ago and kept meaning to send it around; finally, I thought O might be a good fit and found it a place there. It was fun to write—after I moved out of that closet, I just felt like I had these three objects of limitation: a closet to write in, a set amount of time, and Sarah’s contract where she blocked out her writing routine. So they all pointed to the value I find in sometimes drastic limitations as a way to seduce creativity.
SR: In the O Magazine article, you discuss creating a contract with your friend to ensure that she writes on a daily basis. Is that contract still in effect? Have you used it with anyone else besides the friend who devised it? What effect did it have on your writing although it was mainly for her benefit?
AB: Hers only went on for a few months, and I think we did do another. But I use it still! Am doing two contracts now with two different graduate students, and it IS a fascinating process. One guy, Chris, said it made him think about not wanting to have me see him disappointing himself. Well-put, I thought.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? Is there anything specific another writer has said to you that has really benefited you or changed the way you look at writing? If so, what was it?
AB: So many! A writer can’t exist without other writers, be it through books or teaching or whatever. Judith Grossman talked about stories with a mythic, tale-like focus and others that are more immediately in today’s world and outlining that split really helped me. Paul Auster talks brilliantly about the role of the reader, as does Zadie Smith. Alice Sebold and Glen David Gold were in my MFA workshop and I soaked up and still soak up their advisement re-writing. I constantly quote Flannery O’Connor’s wisdom on writing. And then there are all the authors who I just love to read, and learn from via reading. That’s a long list!
SR: In the article, you state that the only when the “fantasy of writerhood is punctured, the focus, then, can shift” to the page itself. How does this “fantasy of writerhood” destroy or hinder the creative process?
AB: Writing is still revered in certain ways, and that’s good—it means we have a cultural spot! Writers are given a special role, and this is still relevant even with all the other media around. A lot of people feel they have writing inside them that hasn’t yet come out. But the downside is there’s over-reverence for language, for story, for writing, for writing time, and this (can) mean carefulness and preciousness and brittleness. Chang-rae Lee once said “don’t treat language like you’re in church.” Amen. A sculpture teacher once told me, ‘be aggressive with the medium’ when I was tiptoeing around some clay. She was very right and I found it helpful. As I find helpful photos of PJ Harvey in one of her CD liner notes where she’s holding up signs saying “Don’t Be Subtle.”
SR: One of the most striking quotes for me from Lemon Cake occurs when Rose is describing Joseph’s eyes: “I would plant a cereal-box side panel in from of him, and his eyes would slide over and attach to the words…words and numbers anchored them back to our world.” How are words, and literature, anchors for us to keep a hold on reality even though when we read, we escape from it?
AB: Nice point—I think of it as his exiting there but also he is reading after all! Even if it’s reading cornflake ingredients. It’s interesting to watch TV sometimes and then read and see directly how the two inhabit different spaces. Because we can actively get inside the mind of a character, reading tends to expose us to a much grayer area. And, there’s not the same pressure to get ratings, to uplift. A good book does supply a kind of escape, but as Flannery O’Connor says, it also puts us in greater contact with reality. And in that way it’s not an escape at all but an exposure.
SR: I loved how “The Meeting” took the standard boy-meets-girl storyline and exposed the reality of the story that movies never portray. What was your approach in writing an unconventional, conventional love story?
AB: It was fun—I was thinking a lot about expectations vs. reality and how to navigate the two. I know for myself, and people I’ve dated, and people I know, there can be a real clash between an internal list and the actual person in front of you and it’s hard to give up that list but of course the list can really get in the way.
SR: Your website is beautifully decorated with your own artwork. Does your artwork have the same goal for you as writing? What can you express in artwork that writing cannot?
AB: Thanks! Artwork feels much lighter, in that I don’t spend much time on it and I enjoy it and I’m glad to have a use for it but that’s about it. With writing, the stakes are higher and I care more. Interestingly, I used to do artwork much more and then when I started writing regularly, on a schedule, I stopped doing other arts as often—it felt like the creative outlet was established so I didn’t spread it out as much. Which has been fine. But I had such a good time making that site and using these pictures that were sitting in a cabinet.
SR: For many years, you wrote in a physical closet in order to escape the outside world and avoid distractions. What does your writing space look like now that you have moved out of that closet?
AB: Just a regular room! Which, compared to a closet, feels gigantically spacious and nice.