Aimee Bender is the author of two short story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), two novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) and a novella, The Third Elevator (2009). She contributed to The Secret Society of Demolition Writers and The Writer’s Notebook.
She received her undergraduate degree in Literature/Writing at the University of California at San Diego and, her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Ms. Bender is the recipient of two Pushcarts, the SCIBA award for best fiction, a Los Angeles Times Pick of the Year, and an Alex Award. She has been published in Tin House (“Lemonade”), The Paris Review (“Faces”), Electric Literature (“The Red Ribbon”), Ploughshares (“The Fake Nazi”), and other journals.
She was interviewed by Kathleen Whitney Rohr, Fiction Editor of Lunch Ticket.
KWR: Thank you for supporting Antioch University Los Angeles’ new literary journal Lunch Ticket. We are publishing our second issue.
In the prologue to your novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, about people living forever, the narrator says “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” Did your parents tell you made-up stories as you were growing up?
AB: We did a lot of reading aloud, and my parents encouraged reading a lot. My mom talks about a memory of reading poetry by A.A. Milne together. Occasionally when we were playing my dad would make up a story, but it was rare. My mom would tell me extensive made-up stories. An example: I had very long hair as a kid. Washing it was kind of an ordeal. When we would dry it—and it was this knotted mess—she would talk about me as a witch, because I had witchy hair. It was a fairy tale where I got to be all the characters. I started out as the witch and then as she combed my hair, slowly I became the princess. It was so effective. I ate it up.
KWR: I thought about how my great-nieces would respond to your novella The Third Elevator, because they are young children. Do you think The Third Elevator is a children’s or adults’ fairy tale or something else completely?
AB: A couple people have thought it is maybe for kids, but I wrote it with adults in mind because the questions or the troubles the characters encountered felt to me more like adult troubles. There are certain lines that need not to be crossed to make a story for children, but I don’t think it crosses those lines specifically. Do you think your nieces would be able to read it? I’m curious.
KWR: My eldest great-niece is six, and I think that she would enjoy the entire story, except for the part where the turtles are cooked.
AB: Yes, that moment was not for children as much.
KWR: I read that you have been giving the proceeds from The Third Elevator to insideOUT Writers.
In my mind, if a writer is writing something that has value to the writer, then hopefully the writing itself will have value in some way to the community, but what that value is will of course hugely vary.
AB: Sumanth Prabhaker from Madras Press has this wonderful approach where he asks what nonprofit the writer would like to pick for the proceeds to go to after he has made the money from publication. I had read about insideOUT in the memoir True Notebooks by Mark Salzman, where he talks about his experience in the very beginning of the organization going into juvenile hall, how profound an experience it was for him. It’s a very honest memoir because he really talks about crime and juvenile hall and his own reservations about being there at all. The organization has bloomed a lot since then. I knew about it in Los Angeles, and I got more involved and went to one of the readings in juvenile hall near downtown and found the work there very moving. Just the idea of giving kids, some of whom may go to prison and some of whom may get out, a chance to actually write. I think that’s hugely valuable. I now have a mentee who is an alumnus of the program, so I’ve gotten a little bit more involved.
KWR: In what way do you think that writers have an obligation to the community?
AB: I don’t think writers more than anyone else. In my mind, if a writer is writing something that has value to the writer, then hopefully the writing itself will have value in some way to the community, but what that value is will of course hugely vary. If a writer happens to enjoy a helpful role in reaching out to the community, then great! But it’s a separate action, a different impulse. A lot of writers aren’t interested in that kind of participatory act, and that’s fine—the actual writing is what makes a writer a writer.
KWR: In your short story, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” the rabbi talks about not living small. In conjunction with the idea of writers as people having an obligation to the community and then how a person’s life develops, tell me what a person would look like who is living big.
AB: Do I think every person has an obligation to the community? In some way, yes. I think it’s important to help. How a person tries to help is completely up to them, it can be in a small way or more. I think we all can try to give back in some way a little bit. The idea of living small–the Hasidic story is about when you die you’re supposed to go and apologize to God or whoever for all the ways you did not live big, every way you did not live life fully. What would it look like for a person living big? There would be some kind of investment in her world in many levels, a connection to people in some way, or nature, close to some kind of project or work or hobby or something that has meaning and value to that person. It’s so individual what that looks like, but I think the connection to oneself and the world around is how I interpret that Hasidic piece. Of course this isn’t easy! But it seems like a pretty good goal to me.
KWR: I found that story to be different from your other short stories that I have read, and I liked the Hasidic story within it. It seems to me that you are giving a lesson without lecturing.
AB: That’s good to hear. It’s more of a conversation, a long conversation between two characters that are batting around an idea as opposed to a lot of action. I wasn’t sure what to do with it and then it found its way into Tablet, and it got into the world.
KWR: I’m glad it got into the world. In your short story “Job’s Jobs” [Willful Creatures], God tells a writer he cannot write anymore or he will be killed. If God held a gun to your head, would you give up writing? And if yes, what would you do instead?
A part of me would die if I couldn’t write, but there is a certain pressured way of talking about writing that I think is not so helpful. If I really felt like I was going to be killed if I wrote, then I would stop writing. Absolutely. If I was in a totalitarian regime, if I was in the U.S.S.R., and I was told you can’t write anymore or we will kill you, I would have done something else or try to say things through metaphor, in another way. Could it be another art form?
AB: A couple of answers. One is that when I went to writing talks when I was starting out sometimes a published writer or agent or editor would say something like, “if you don’t need to write, if you don’t have to write, then you’re not a writer.” I used to always listen to that and I took it extremely literally. I won’t die if I don’t write. It’s not air or water. A part of me would die if I couldn’t write, but there is a certain pressured way of talking about writing that I think is not so helpful. If I really felt like I was going to be killed if I wrote, then I would stop writing. Absolutely. If I was in a totalitarian regime, if I was in the U.S.S.R., and I was told you can’t write anymore or we will kill you, I would have done something else or try to say things through metaphor, in another way. Could it be another art form?
KWR: In the story, Job tries different art forms and God doesn’t like that, either. If writing was eliminated, but you could do anything else, what would that be?
AB: Maybe music. But also I’m not that good at music, so I don’t know if I’d actually be able to do it. Open a nonprofit. I don’t know if I’d be good at that, either! That’s hard stuff. I do really like teaching.
KWR: When you have something that is your life and to think of doing something else, that is quite difficult.
AB: Language is everywhere, so if I do give up writing of all kinds, that eliminates a lot. It’s not like I could say, “It would be fun to try to write a movie,” because that’s still writing. I wouldn’t like to direct a movie or act in a movie.
KWR: Can you tell us about the Imagination Workshop?
AB: Before I was getting interested in insideOUT, there was the Imagination Workshop. It’s a theater group, also a nonprofit, and the idea is to use improv to imagine oneself in metaphor. It’s a way to reach out to those people who have a fixed notion in their minds about who they are and what they can think and what their imagination can do. The improvs were very safe, playful and fun, and allowed exploration for veterans, or psych patients, or geriatric Alzheimer’s patients or youth at risk. They played being a table or a famous architect or whatever. I worked with the psych patients, and twice a year we put on a show, a musical. It was really fun and very meaningful. It was all about play and imaginative expression.
KWR: Did you find that participating affected your writing?
AB: I don’t think it did directly, but it was a very creative environment to be in. It was very meaningful to see someone who was schizophrenic and had a very hard time communicating suddenly be in the moment. It wasn’t a curative activity, but it had incredible power. Someone very caught up in voices in his head would be able to step aside and be a character and have a very clear authority and confidence. That’s incredible to be around. It affected my sense of human dignity and belief and the deep value of the imagination. Here were people who are not usually given these tools thriving inside new freedom.
KWR: What is The Secret Society of Demolition Writers [The Secret Society of Demolition Writers, www.Amazon.com]?
AB: The editor, Marc Parent, his idea was that there are certain demolition derbies where the drivers drive incognito and so the drivers feel very free to drive in a new way. He asked some writers if we would be willing to put in a story without our names on it. It would be something different and free us up.
KWR: I tried to guess which story was yours, but in the beginning of the book the editor says that the writers may have written differently than you would expect them to write. Did you find that writing anonymously allowed you to write differently?
AB: I think ultimately with all writing I’m trying and trying to capture that feeling. I don’t have to show anyone, so I want to try to let myself write anything.
KWR: It was fun not knowing who wrote the stories. Do your story ideas come to you fully formed, where you are basically just transcribing your brain, or do you develop ideas as you are writing?
AB: Definitely the second, I’d say, ninety-five percent of the time. I would say the primary delight I find in writing is the discovery, the unknown aspect.
KWR: I consider writing to include sitting with my eyes closed, staring at the wall opposite my computer, listening to music, or some combination. What does your writing include?
AB: I’ll block out a couple of hours so within that time I can just sit there, I don’t have to write, so sitting with my eyes closed would be fine, lots of staring at the wall. Absolutely. I don’t listen to music but not for any particular reason. Fidgeting and wanting not to be writing is as much a part of writing as the actual act of it.
KWR: Are you still writing in a closet?
AB: No, I moved out of that place and moved out of the closet. It was kind of cramped.
KWR: I workshopped a story once in which a woman kills her husband and kills her dog and possibly kills herself, and I left that part ambiguous. The workshop instructor asked me if she killed herself, and I said I didn’t know, and she was outraged. In your essay “Character Motivation” [The Writer’s Notebook], you say that writers should choose an action for a character that they can’t explain to give readers the opportunity to form their own interpretations. Are writers ultimately required to know everything their characters do and think?
AB: Ultimately, no I don’t think writers are required or even can know everything. I don’t think because a writer conjures up a character he has total access. He has access that he has: the sentences that are good about that character tell you things, and the sentences that are bad about that character, in my mind, don’t tell you much and should be cut. You can make up a million things that are just made-up facts; it doesn’t mean they have any resonance. The only clarification I would need is if it feels like a game a little bit to the reader or an ambiguity. Are you, the writer, stepping away from an emotional place? Then I think it’s a problem. Is it an easy out or does it add resonance, does it add complexity, does it add something real to not know? As a writer, I think the question is: am I skirting something or does this feel emotionally right and true as it is?
KWR: What is the significance, the value, to you of the title of a story, such as “The Fake Nazi”?
AB: The title is the first entry point and then when you finish you go back and think about it again. It has meaning, but some titles are much more dominant than others in terms of how they interact in the story.
KWR: Same question for the first sentence of a story, such as An Invisible Sign of My Own, and I love this one: “On my twentieth birthday I bought myself an ax”?
AB: It’s really helpful for me to have a first sentence that will bring me to the second sentence. I don’t think a first sentence has to be a certain way, but for me it’s helpful if I get pulled in and am eager to find out what’s next.
KWR: In what way are last sentences significant to your story, such as in “The Neighborhood,” “Even though he never plays with them again, they are now fixed to his body for years,” referring to blocks? In what way are last sentences significant to your stories?
AB: Last sentences in general tend to be important to the story. You do not know until you reach the end where the story lands. And you get to the end and you think about the whole thing again.
KWR: Your writing has what I call in my own writing “throwaway phrases”—those phrases that are tangential to the story. Yours are so rich in description. One example is your story, “On a Saturday Afternoon,” “a man’s t-shirt has a stain from peach cobbler at lunch left over from a potluck at Janet’s,” and we never know who Janet is, and we never know about the potluck. What is your goal with that type of phrasing?
AB: There is a lot I can say about that, about exploring the world of the story. I encourage students to let those tangents develop because often if you’re really exploring it may seem off topic but that’s really where the goods are. Or how you’ll get to the end that we were talking about. Indulging the associative mind a little bit; Charles Baxter talks about this well in his book of essays, particularly the one on “Rhyming Action.” For the story Janet never comes back and the peace cobbler never comes back, but I think it felt important to me to talk about a certain kind of man and it helps me to picture him through that detail.
KWR: In a similar vein, your writing has a facility for similes, such as in “The Ring” [The Girl in the Flammable Skirt], “The ring caught the light like an opened wound,” which to me was some combination of a perceived beautiful piece of jewelry along with blood and tissue. Can you tell me what the significance of similes is to your stories?
AB: It’s similar to what I talked about in my last answer. I like similes. I enjoy reading them. I enjoy writing them! Similes that are overthought tend not to work. It’s allowing the impulse to flower on the page. In rewriting, it’s interesting to see which ones don’t quite work. I know for myself whenever I’ve slowed down and I’ve thought “now it’s time for a simile,”—well, those are the similes that tend to tank.
KWR: It has to flow from your writing. Is that correct?
AB: Yes. Writing from a less conscious state; some of it is just the letting go of the thinking and planning process. Some are going to work, and you don’t know if they are going to work until a few days later.
KWR: What is the least helpful writing advice you have ever been given?
AB: Probably for me it’s “what does the character want” that has troubled me a lot, because I think it is a reasonable piece of writing advice, but it’s not the way I think. And so I have often felt it is a failing in me that I have been unable to answer that question. People who give writing advice give advice that speaks to the way they think. And everyone thinks differently. I don’t know what the character motivations are until I’m well into the story.
KWR: When I went to law school, I discovered I should have taken acting classes and should have perfected my poker game. As a writer, are there particular skills you wish you had that you don’t have?
AB: I have a terrible memory for research, so it would be nice if I could retain more!
KWR: It’s almost November and time for the NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month, www.nanowrimo.org], and I have read suggestions that you have offered to those writers. Do you participate yourself?
AB: I’ve never done it. I think it’s a great idea, and I think it promotes less self-consciousness, and I imagine these writers will write lots of pages that they cut and a few key ones to keep.
KWR: Assume you can only say one sentence in your keynote address to the Writers’ Digest conference in October. What will you say?
AB: My guess is the writing advice that I tend to repeat that I find very helpful myself is to write what you feel like writing, because it’ll keep the prose active. Follow the language and the interest of the writer, as opposed to something more obligatory.
KWR: Thank you, Aimee.