Author Q&A: Aimee Bender

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 won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, a NY Times Notable book for 2013. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and more, as well as heard on PRI’s “This American Life” and “Selected Shorts.” She lives in Los Angeles with her family, and teaches creative writing at USC.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Aimee Bender

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

As a kid, what did you dream of doing as an adult?

I liked the idea of singing, or piano-playing, and writing, too; the super fun writing of elementary school days.

What type of songs do you (or did you want to) sing and play on the piano?

I’m a sucker for good folk songs. And musicals. My sister used to be the piano accompanist for our high school musicals, and she’d come home and play “Man of La Mancha” over and over, and I’d sing, and it was so fun. So I’d love to be able to play some of that.

Are you energized or exhausted by teaching at the University of Southern California? Or do you experience a bit of both?

Yes. A bit of both. Generally, I leave class in a good mood. The paper trail is the tougher part. I like it when I’ve read the work and can then discuss it, but it does pile up.

In an interview with LitReactor, you mentioned “letting yourself” develop your magical-spunky style of story, and how this took time because you were concerned that it wasn’t serious enough. Why do you think most writers feel so bound to the idea that they need to produce “serious” and “important” work?

I think we want to be taken seriously, right? Because the work should be meaningful and important to the writer. I tell my students it’s good to be nervous before workshop. It’s fitting; it means something’s on the line. But I think what “serious” means has a lot of room! Or that’s what’s been so crucial to me: that I could write something that was fun to write, while still addressing more serious ideas and feelings. I do still struggle with it, but I trust more that if I write about anything—anything that seems interesting in the moment—that’s a clue that more is underneath it, more that will move closer to that mysterious seriousness.

Speaking of serious, I’m wondering if you think we put too much pressure on writers by holding them responsible for encouraging or promoting certain social behaviors by writing them into stories. (I’m thinking of the highly controversial story “Cat Person,” for example.) While writers are responsible for what they write, and while creative works influence social attitudes/acceptable behavior, is it the writer’s job to ensure that all story elements and characters are morally upright (aside from obvious villainous examples whose role as the villain is clearly determined)? 

Such an interesting question! In regards to “Cat Person,” do you mean she’s promoting disappointing sex? What was the critique there?

The writer of “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian, was criticized because the young woman/main character seems to engage in “fat shaming,” in judging the guy for being a bit tubby. I can’t help but wonder if cultural norms (like this thin ideal) are either reinforced or simply reflected in works of art. The fact that this young woman is grossed out by a man with a big belly might draw important attention to the fact that this is the attitude at the current moment, or it could be the reason why it’s the attitude at the current moment, because it plants in readers’ minds the fact that they could and maybe should be equally grossed out by such people with big bellies. It seems to me like a classic chicken-egg situation.

It’s tricky trying to figure out if it’s the character’s experience, or if the story is also pushing an agenda there. The author does mention it a few times, so that starts to seem unclear, or worth exploring more? Is the character obsessed with weight for some reason, and if so, why? Is the author?

It’s interesting, the worry that readers would think they should be grossed out by it. I suppose then part of a reader’s job, if the writer is making those lines between character and author clear, is to know what the reader thinks, because of course there’s attraction to all types!

Charles D’Ambrosio said something I loved about passive characters, saying you can have a passive character as long as the story isn’t passive, as long as the story moves. And you can apply that across the board. A writer can have a sexist character, but the story, how it moves, how it ends, what happens, that has to look at things with a greater complexity.

To what eyes do you send your own work? (Other than your agent, of course.)

A few friends: a writer friend, a friend who is often my first reader, and a psychologist who loves reading and gives me honest feedback.

Why do you think there is so much coaching specifically catered to writers? Are there as many conversations with painters about how to paint?

Good question. Hmm. I think there are a lot of answers that seem to solve everything, which is always alluring, and writing taps more directly into our psychological selves than painting does (at least on the surface). But I also think there are too many rules and too much advice. The largest portion of my advice is about how to dismantle advice.

How do you feel about such writerly advice as “write what you know?” How much of your work—the more magical and the less magical—comes from experience?

All of it! None of it!

Why potatoes? Why pumpkinheads? (A term seen in the stories “Dearth” and “Ironhead,” from Willful Creatures.)

I like the words and I like how they look. They please me on the page. I want to hang out with those words for a while.

Can you identify particular writers who have most notably helped sculpt/shape your voice and style? Inversely, have you read anything recently published in which you can see your own influence? I read Catapult, and I felt like Emily Fridlund’s brain had been soaking in a container filled with your work. Not too strong, just like a light marinade, but still, something to that effect.

I love Fridlund, and she wrote that before we ever worked together! But I still find it gratifying to hear that. Her sentences are so intensely good and build character in such surprising ways. Lately I’m feeling influenced by writers like Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk, who are so spare and cover so much ground in these wonderfully brief yet intense chapters.

There are many who helped shape my voice and style. For today, maybe I’ll mention Pam Houston, whom I read as an undergrad when her first book came out. I just enjoyed every second of reading her work, and it was so joyful to think fiction could be that pleasurable to read.

What is it that you want to experience before/after/while reading a piece of fiction?

Great question. I need reminding. I want to be engaged with it. I want to not really understand it. At some point, I hope to feel affected in some way by it. I want it to move in a way I don’t expect it to move; I want to be surprised.

What kind of things do you read? Do you stick to as much of a schedule for your own reading as you do for writing?

I do try to read regularly. Mainly before bed. Anything. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels. I just hate reading on the phone or the computer. So it feels key to put that thing down.

What other art do you consume? Are you drawn to visual art that has surrealistic qualities similar to your writing, or are there other styles you admire more?

I love all kinds, and maybe especially music and theatre: dance, plays, musicals, songs. I learn a lot about structure listening to music. And there is something about the black box of a theatre that thrills me. I used to feel panicky waiting for a curtain to open, and I think it was because I was so excited about it that I thought I might yell by accident or something.

Who are some of your (literary and other) heroes?

Currently, those high school students in Florida who are changing the debate. Jordan Peele. (The Oscar-winners were recently announced.) Marilynne Robinson. James Baldwin. Donald Barthelme. (These are all writers I’m recently encountering in some way or another. I’m about to teach Donald Barthleme’s Snow White, and it’s so fun to read aloud.) Pema Chodron. Mr. Rogers. Kate Bush. Obama. Journalists.

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