A Conversation with Aimee Bender

© Aimee Bender and Figure/Ground
Aimee Bender was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. August 8th, 2014

Aimee Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated byThe Believer as one of the best books of the year, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, released this last August, a NY Times Notable book for 2013. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and many more places, as well as heard on PRI’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. She has received two Pushcart prizes, was nominated for the TipTree award in 2005, and the Shirley Jackson short story award in 2010. Her fiction has been translated into sixteen languages.

She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC. We spoke by email in February and April 2014.

Aimee Bender, The Color Master

Aimee Bender, The Color Master

When did you first know you were a writer? was that a lifelong interest or did that come later for you? 

As a child, I loved writing and freely announced myself a writer.  Later, it was harder to be so free with it.  Saying the word ‘writer’ felt too bold somehow.  So I was always interested, always writing, but I smushed it into “hobby” position for many years. I was raised in the 70’s and my elementary school was trying out a new approach to creative writing (I recently had lunch with my fourth grade teacher, a beloved teacher, Mrs. Polep, and she was telling me the behind-the-scenes info which was so interesting).  This involved not correcting grammar but really pushing kids to write and to write freely.  I’m sure this also had a big influence on me.  She told me they had to train parents, who were always ready to correct.

I think that “correction” thing is really hard, isn’t it? It comes from parents correcting and then at a certain point, there is a self-consciousness that inhibits creativity. At least with art it happens that way: there is that point where kids are suddenly concerned with whether something looks the way it is supposed to, looks “realistic.” So how were you able to stay free and uninhibited? Or were you?

I got caught in the trap, too, and when I entered grad school I felt sure I had to write a realistic story to be a serious writer.  Luckily, I was surrounded by an eclectic group in workshop, and my stories were short, so I often “snuck in” one that was more my own liking.  Sure they’d hate it. And of course that’s the one they pointed to as more my own.

How did your writing move from hobby to center stage? Was that in college? grad school? What about mentors or other influences? what writers do you look to for inspiration?

It was probably post college that I felt I really wanted to get an MFA– I could only take it that step and not really declare that I wanted to be a writer, as that felt too big. I think in grad school I felt so happy to be immersed in the writing world and that let me know something about what this meant to me. So many mentors and influences.  One big one was Judith Grossman, who was a prof at my grad school and really validated the fairy tale as legitimate literature. And Alice Munro is on my mind today because of the wonderful Nobel Prize announcement and she is so inspiring and so bold in her choices of story structure– I learn so much from her and also I have no idea how she does what she does which is a great combo. Flannery O’Connor’s book on writing, Mystery and Manners, is one of the deepest discussions of what makes writing work and why we should do it that I’ve ever read. So many others.  Murakami.  Barthelme.  Salinger.  Baldwin.

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

What a great list!

I was looking at a link on your website to cafe irreal and read about irrealism, and agree that it better describes your writing- better than surrealism or magical realism. I actually think of some other books and films that are captured better by that term as well– like Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, or Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, NY, the way they are structured according to dream logic. Can you talk about that? I have written about Synecdoche and the idea of concretization (illustration of structures of personal experience by concrete symbols). does that resonate?  I reread that scene when Rose first tastes her mother’s emptiness in the lemon cake and had this association: Rose’s “ability” concretizes, illustrates graphically that moment when as a child you “see” your parents, you “see” more than you want to see. 

“I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down… None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.”

Thank you.  So nice to hear.  Yes– a new collection just out. I love both Ishiguro and Kaufman, by the way. Dream logic. Would love to see your writing on that at some point.  I suppose dream logic means that my job is to follow what ‘feels’ right or what intuitively seems like a good move without worrying about ‘sense’ or the world of daylight and usual cause and effect.  But also it’s not at all that anything goes.  We all dream and know how dreams hold together in their own way. I think most magic concretizes– that’s sort of its job in a way which is why I find it easier as a tool– suddenly there’s this concrete element to work with and then meaning can accrue on its own and I can get occupied with the nuts and bolts, the ‘showing’ world of fiction.

Your idea of  the ‘showing’ world of fiction is just terrific- like a picture being worth a thousand words. My mind went in so many directions- how dream logic works like riddles- ‘when is a door not a door? when it is ajar.’ I loved the idea of tasting feelings, reading feelings as they are encoded in flavor and sensation. Can you say more about that?  I actually wondered about synesthesia, and whether you experience a version of this yourself, if it is a part of you, and therefore your characters- a way of being in the world- or if it is more a device.  

It’s interesting—I write a lot about synesthesia but I’m not aware of having it.  But, I think I must have it a little or I wouldn’t continue to write about these mixing of senses.  But maybe I can respond more clearly to your question just by saying that feelings/emotions are so ethereal and slippery—and so to make something physical, in food, or in the senses, the sensory, and therefore the touchable/smellable/etc world is a way to write about it too.  I guess I like the idea of letting the senses go to places they usually do not, because I do think we ‘sense’ lots of things without necessarily naming them/knowing.

Yes, excellent.

How does a story or novel unfold? do you have an idea from the outset where you will end up? or are you often surprised?  

I’m always surprised—it’s the best part and the hardest part to wait for.  I don’t really have a clue where I’m going—I like to just see where something will go but most things go nowhere!  The joy of it is when I hit on something that has a motor in it because then the surprises will happen.  But I have to wait around for a while, usually, before something interesting will happen.

Are there different sources for the short stories than the novels? for instance, I see that Tiger Mending — which is gorgeous, by the way– had as source material a painting. Is that common? Do you want to talk about sources, source material for your writing?   

Loved writing off that painting and I’ve written a couple stories from songs, and a few from visual art.  My mom teaches modern dance and choreographs so I also have a great love of theatre and dance and I think all those images impact me too.

And as a painter, the story The Color Master is particularly resonant.

“I put the anger in the dress the color of sky.  I put it in there so much I could hardly stand it––that she was about to die, that she would die unrecognized, that none of us would ever live up to her example, and that we were the only witnesses.  That we are all so small after all that.  That everybody dies anyway.  I put the anger in there so much that the blue of the sky was fiercely stark, an electric blue like the core of the fire, so much that it was hard to look at.  It was much harder to look at than the sun dress; the sky dress was of a whole different order.  Intensely, shockingly, bluely vivid.  Let her go?  This was the righteous anger she had asked for, yards of it, bolts of it, even though, paradoxically, it was anger I felt because soon she would be gone.”

How have things shifted with the birth of your twins? have you felt their presence in your work? in overt or covert ways?  

Not yet! Too soon.  But I’m sure they will change things a lot.

Aimee Bender, photo credit max s. gerber

Aimee Bender, photo credit max s. gerber

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Aimee Bender and Figure/Ground Communication with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J. (2014). “A Conversation with Aimee Bender,” Figure/Ground. August 8th.
< http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-aimee-bender/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com


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