Interview: Aimee Bender
Conducted October 2014
Issue No. 6 – December 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 by The 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.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: For as long as you’ve been writing, media outlets have referred to your fabulist style as being representative of “modern fairy tale.” It’s become sort of the go-to tagline to explain your work to others. How do you feel about this perception? What might it get right and what might it get wrong?
AIMEE BENDER: I like the idea that the writer writes the work and the reader or critic or interpreter decides how to categorize it. So, with that in mind, I am interested in all perceptions of my work, and I am stuttering and useless when I try to describe it myself. I’m fine with modern fairy tale, or magical realism, even though both sort of fit and sort of don’t. I love fairy tales and they are definitely diving boards for me. I love Calvino and GG Marquez and Carter and of course grandfather Kafka, and also someone like Beckett, who is not magical, but absurd, and so the spectrum becomes so large and I’m just happy to be included anywhere on it. If I had to pick a term, maybe I’m most into ‘slipstream’ and ‘speculative’ because they are so open.
BA: You recently interviewed with Brad Listi for the 300th episode of his ever-indispensable OTHERPPL podcast. It was a great listen, and what we found most remarkable was your comment that, since having twins in 2013, your dedicated writing time has dropped to roughly 10 minutes per day. You were previously renowned for writing two hours or more each day. So this is a new phase of your life, and it looks like your writing is going along for the ride. What excites you about that? How did you initially approach this adjustment?
AB: Ha! Fun and funny to me that you call it renowned. It is a big change, that’s for sure. I’m up to 20 minutes, plus an hour one evening, but that’s because their naps changed. It’s all new to me, but what I’m discovering so far is that the same stuff comes up around 10 minutes as it did for 120 minutes—as in, today sucks, I have nothing, or hey, that was productive! or, I hate this, or, I can’t wait! or any various versions. It’s like a little microcosm of the old thing. I can’t write as much, but I can write something, and it feels good to be making a piece of my day writing-related, since I’m up to the ears in baby details. Also, I did the 2 hours a day for 17 years, so I was ready to shake it up. I was starting to feel a little tied to it.
BA: Let’s talk a bit about Southern California. You were born in L.A., grew up there, live there and presently teach there in your capacity as a professor of English with USC’s creative writing and literature program. You got your MFA down the street in Irvine and your BA at UC-San Diego. Much of your writing is situated there, and in “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” your character Rose Edelstein uses her extrasensory palate to distinguish California orange slices from Florida ones, as though there were some sweeter quality of California-ness innate in those fruits beyond their subtle difference of taste. What is it about Southern California that makes it home for you? How do you make sense of that place in your writing?
AB: I seem to be traveling up and down the coast of California, since I spent a few years in Northern CA in the middle of all those places you listed but all still within the state for the most part. I didn’t really expect to be an adult in L.A. but I also felt intrigued to try it out, to take the place I lived in as a kid, and to rediscover it on different terms. And, it helps that it’s a gargantuan metropolis, and one that has grown wonderfully in the last ten years in terms of the other arts. I also like underdogs, or like going against a city’s expectations. There are many things I don’t like about L.A.—the usual complaints—but I especially like being a fiction writer in a screenwriter’s city; I like being a reader who likes to walk here, I like wearing sweatpants in Hollywood. I just like pushing against the assumptions. I once told a friend that if I moved to Portland I might become a Neo-Con. Like that.
BA: Our favorite section of your website has got to be the writing exercises page. In the past it’s asked us to imagine a “fortune teller who is half correct” and “an unrealistic New Year’s resolution.” Right now it’s conceiving of a mechanical problem in an air-conditioned dome. Where do these ideas come from? Why give them away online rather than build on them yourself?
AB: There are boundless writing exercises to do and I’ve found that if it’s fresh for me, it tends to come out fresher for the students or writers doing them so in that way tossing them into the wind seems good for all. I mean, I can use them too if I want. I’m so glad you like it and hope you use it! I also just really believe in the writing exercise as such a useful way to jog one’s mind out of its usual pathways into something new—it shuts down the inner critic a bit. So I guess even making them up is an exercise for me.
BA: What ideas have you had that have blown you away at the moment of their conception? They didn’t have to develop into your favorite stories, nor any stories at all – we’re just wondering when you’ve known by instinct that you’ve hit on something special. What separates a “keeper” from a passing flash of inspiration?
AB: You know, it’s only in the writing that it happens, or happens meaningfully, when I’m sitting and actually typing, so as an idea, no idea really stands out. So many seem interesting and then on the page as they go along turn flat so I can’t even recall which ones those were since they soured when tried out. I’m still interested in the idea of a person who can find lost items, as in the story “Loser”, but just because it seems like something I could write more about someday. I find it repeatedly interesting that lost items are somewhere. It gets to me.
BA: Our personal favorite “idea” is probably from “Drunken Mimi,” which appeared in your debut collection, The Girl With the Flammable Skirt. There’s just something about a high school imp on stilts falling in love with a mermaid who has this hypersensitive, almost sexually energized hair…it proves difficult to forget. The finished product is only six pages, but the thought of it is so gorgeously surreal that it could grab a reader in half that space. Where did that come from? Were you still a student at Irvine when this story was generated, and if so, what did your workshop make of it?
AB: Fun to hear this. I was at Irvine, doing my MFA, and had felt very encouraged by the workshop to try things out, so it was great fun to turn that into a grad workshop, when just a few months before I was sure they would never accept such a thing. They were wonderfully supportive; I had such an open group of peers sitting around the table with me. I don’t know where it came from, as it just seemed to develop as the story went along, but in retrospect it seems the true main thing about a mermaid is her lack of a lower body. Wonderful poet Matthea Harvey recently turned out a book with a load of mermaid poems in it and she did this great interview at “The Paris Review”; they asked her ‘why mermaids?’, and this is what she said: “Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough.”
BA: You’re very upfront about building your stories around spectacular conceits. Many begin with these great world-setting hooks, like, “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution” and “The ogre’s wife was a good woman.” Why jump-start a story that way? Is there a difference in process between those that have hooks and those that do not?
AB: So, I think you are giving me more of a sense of intention here than I have when writing. There is no ‘why’. There really is no workable plan. I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, and want to try to write some kind of essay or something about it. Because I don’t sit down with a goal and when I do, it spectacularly fails, about 99 percent of the time. So the reason those stories start that way is simply because I found the sentence had enough in it to lead me to another stenence and on and on until there was a story to look at and rework. And, that many other times, conceits or openings fall on their faces and don’t work. What you see is something I felt worked enough to show other people. For the ones that don’t have hooks, it’s the same deal—something inside the sentence felt charged enough to lead me to the next line. And then discoveries happen from there. It all is important to me, as an idea—that a writer doesn’t need to sit down with any intention at all, except, probably, to try to be open to what bubbles up. I say ‘probably’ because it will bubble up anyway and sometimes you don’t even need to be open to it! You just need to sit there and get bored enough to do something.
BA: Reading through your portfolio, it’s obvious that you’re one of those peculiarly blessed types for whom short story writing and novel writing appear to come with equal ease. Is that true? How do you distinguish between those budding stories that are to become shorts and those that grow up into full-fledged novels? Might we someday see a novel length revisiting of a past short story?
AB: Thank you, that’s very nice of you. I find novels harder but also more fascinating in a way because there is a greater wandering time and it takes longer to hit on the line that will pull through that many pages. Especially because I can’t plan—I have tried to plan but the wandering seems to be the way to go. A story can go as long as it goes and then drop. It’s hard to describe how I distinguish between them except a story has a different velocity inside it and a novel seems to want to ask more questions, to open up more, and because of that, I can’t seem to make a story into a novel. A story once done seems to be done, even if I liked the characters.
BA: Perhaps one of the benefits (drawbacks?) of occupying such a high-profile position is that you’ve been interviewed and interviewed and re-interviewed to death, and a lot of those conversations have touched on a number of common topics (we apologize if we’ve gotten similarly redundant!). Is there anything we’re not asking that you’d like to tell us? Some thought on writing that’s been overlooked?
AB: I am, in truth, kind of promiscuous with my interviews! I have done a lot of them. I keep saying yes when people ask. But they seem to energize me, is the truth, too—I like talking about writing, and it reminds me what I love about writing, so it is a little like a chiropractic experience for me. No other topics, no, but I do like these questions, so thank you! They were fun to answer.