On the heels of her second novel and fourth work of fiction, Bender considers magic and math, craft and discipline, and the influence of other writers and artists on her work.
Reading a review of an Aimee Bender collection of stories or novel gives one the sense that the critic has just experienced a pleasant sense of vertigo. The standard employs the use of not-quite-succinct adjectives—original, bizarre, fanciful, idiosyncratic, odd, mythic—before concluding that what was just described was ultimately well worth the ride.
Bender, known for casting characters and plots in magical or fantastical circumstances, transforms the ordinary and mundane into the extraordinary and otherworldly. In her second and latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose, the young narrator, can taste the emotions of those who prepare her food. The results range from the impersonal to the personal. Overburdened with others’ emotions in everything she eats, vending machine fare becomes a favorite because of its low emotional stakes: she learns each nuance of factory-processed food. But at home, the mere act of eating dinner becomes a means of learning about her mother’s unhappiness and eventual affair, as well as the complicated relationship Rose’s brother Joseph has not only with the family, but the outside world as well. Like Rose, he carries his own mysterious burden, resulting in frequent and inexplicable disappearances. The fabric of Rose’s family frays, as Bender explores how differently two siblings experience the same upbringing.
The new book follows up her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000)—in which one character wears a number on a chain around his neck each day to designate his mood—along with two short story collections, Willful Creatures (2005) and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998), all widely praised for their inventive language and plots. The stories challenge readers to situate themselves at unlikely or uncomfortable intersections: at the meeting place of sex and grief, or where absurdity turns the corner into human fragility. Willful Creatures brings to life stories featuring potato children, a boy with key-shaped fingers, and a couple with pumpkins for heads. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt includes mermaids, a character who evolves in reverse, and a man who returns from war without his lips.
Bender is the daughter of a dance teacher/choreographer mother and psychoanalyst father, and believes that, in part, plays a role in her work. “I think both my parents value the unknown, the unconscious, the mysterious process as a way into either art or awareness, and that was a family value I took in whole.”
Because of, or despite, her (insert critic’s adjective here) plots and characters, Bender has found a huge audience on college campuses and An Invisible Sign was recently made into a film starring Jessica Alba, which premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October. She has also won two Pushcart Prizes, a New York Times Notable Book, and the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, among other honors. And her work has been translated into sixteen languages.
It was only a few years ago when Bender’s writing space was a closet. She’s since emerged. “Happily out of the closet. It was good for awhile, but grew dark and dusty.”
—Sarah Layden for Guernica
Guernica: In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, everyday objects become almost otherworldly through sensory details: a meal tastes like the emotions of whoever prepared it, a chair seems to rearrange its particles to become something else, a television acts as go-between for parent and child. How and why do you turn the ordinary into the extraordinary?
Aimee Bender: It’s a good question, and a tough one to answer in a short space. Regarding the why—mainly, I think I really want to try to get how we relate to each other, and what feelings may come up, and to do that, there generally needs to be some intermediary way to talk about it—this can be magic, or a meal, or a TV—we are always interacting with something, and sometimes the something is a concrete way to discuss the people, too. How many times have I rolled up a little piece of napkin while at dinner with friends? Or the unpeeling of a beer label—it’s, in its modest way, a part of a conversation almost as much as the content. All these kinds of details are the fiction writer’s friend, because they kind of soak up the human interaction and hopefully reflect it back, in some way.
Guernica: A great deal of the new novel seems to be about choice and the lack thereof: what we’re born with and what we make ourselves into. Does the book reflect “nature vs. nurture” to you? If so, how?
Aimee Bender: In a way, yes. I like your point. Nature vs. nurture is endlessly interesting to me. Who we are at birth and who we become, (and then become again) and why one person does ok and another does not—these are questions I mull over even though I know they’re unanswerable. It seems to me that every person is a combo of their initial temperament, the various changes over time in that temperament, and the environment that brought them up. And the combos of these factors are endless! With Lemon Cake, I was also deeply interested in families, and how siblings will grow up, often, in utterly different families even if all the people are the same.
One thing that’s so key about dreams is they are reality and not-reality at the same time, and I think art is too.
Guernica: Your book really gripped me. For some reason, the ending and the character of Joseph left me thinking of David Foster Wallace, a writer I never got to meet, but whose writing and interviews have impacted me greatly. Perhaps I am projecting my own experience with those who have made similar choices.
Aimee Bender: Thanks for saying that, about the book. I’m glad to hear it. DFW wasn’t in mind in particular when I wrote the book but I have thought about him often in the last couple of years. His comment about how reading is a way to be less alone. The loss of his presence and his writing is major; I never met him either but alongside the incredible smarts and humor and invention in his writing, there’s a kind of intense vulnerability in his work and in stories about him, so I think a lot of people felt and still feel a certain closeness and helplessness about his death. Even my mother, who wouldn’t really be one to like his work, felt upset by his death, felt like she wished she could’ve done something. I was struck by that—if even she felt she could’ve done something, then maybe there was something in the air that made a lot of us feel the loss in that way, with some kind of yearning, matched with powerlessness.
Guernica: Your stories contain emotions made physical, often as a deformity. Also, a good many of your characters are adolescent girls or young women. Is there a connection there? And what about these things appeals to you as a writer?
Aimee Bender: I am fascinated by adolescent girls and I can’t seem to shake the fascination. A time of great transition and indirectness. In terms of deformity as a link, it’s a good question. I think I just like it when things are overt, when something is “worn” on the person, and adolescence, in its way, is kind of obvious. The withdrawn ones are withdrawn, the peppy ones are peppy, everyone is hunting for identity with broad strokes.
Guernica: If you could pick five books to represent your life as a reader, what might they be?
Aimee Bender: My life as a reader. Today’s list: The Freddie Stories, by Lynda Barry. Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m currently reading Harryette Mullen’s wonderfully playful book of poems: Sleeping with the Dictionary. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell. After Dark, by Haruki Murakami. That’s eight. And on! Hard to pick.
Guernica: Art seems to interest you, in many of its forms. Imagine creating a time capsule of your influences. What’s inside?
Aimee Bender: Modern dance concerts. The L. Frank Baum books. Kandinsky paintings. Magritte paintings. Joseph Cornell boxes. Poems by Anne Sexton and Lorca. Beckett plays. Ionesco plays. One production I saw of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, in college. Naked, the film by Mike Leigh. Songs by Jane Siberry. Songs by PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush, and Bach, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Joni Mitchell, and Jeff Buckley. Episodes of the “Bionic Woman.” “My So-Called Life.” A Korean film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. It’s hard to stop! I like making this list. X-ray flower photography. Miniaturists. The line drawings of Marcel Dzama and his co-horts. Sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy and Tim Hawkinson. The 409 small theatre, on the UCSD campus, where I saw countless one-acts at 10pm done by graduate students. Bobby McFerrin. When I saw him perform live once, I thought he should be front page news the next day.
This seems to me to be a comforting statement about humanity in some way: that engagement makes it better. Instead of the distant, cold writer image.
Guernica: How do dreams—either waking ones or sleeping—affect your writing? How do you make sense of the interrelation between dreams and art?
Aimee Bender: One thing that’s so key about dreams is they are reality and not-reality at the same time, and I think art is too. Since we spend one third or so of our life sleeping, and dreams spin out the imagery in such interesting ways, they’re just a good way to talk about the surreal, or the world that is not easily understood or grasped through daily actions. They give us room to think of magic, and absurdity, and to find it normal. When people claim that fiction has to be a reflection of our visits to the 7-11 or our dinner table and all its realistic glory, it seems to me that they are forgetting that there is this rich world in dreams, one that provides a huge useful resource, and more space for messiness and juxtaposition.
Guernica: Most writers and English teachers seem to be math-averse, yet your novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, features a main character captivated by numbers. Do you like math? Where did the idea come from?
Aimee Bender: I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts. Jose Saramago’s allegorical novel, Blindness, is one giant playing out of logic, as placed on human nature. I didn’t expect it, in my book, and just found that writing about numbers seemed to appeal to some kind of structural way in which I think. Plus, numbers are so representative of superstitions which provide structure. Numbers exist in both worlds, so smoothly—the ordered world of math, and also the ordered world of magic, religion, and storytelling.
Guernica: How important are discipline and specific work habits to your writing process? What’s that process like?
Aimee Bender: They’re crucially important. I believe so strongly in the way we go about doing the work; it just seems like the work itself is so slippery, and sometimes all you have to hold onto is the method around it. And then slowly the work will happen, within some kind of structure. I felt much calmer about writing once I built it into the day, in the early morning, before I had to interact with anyone else.
Guernica: I like what you’ve said about writing fiction: you can do whatever you want. In your teaching, does that mean you focus less on craft? What are your classes like?
Aimee Bender: It’s a good question. We focus on craft, a lot, but still, the main thesis of my courses is that the rules are not meant to make any grand statements about what fiction is, or should be. As is said, Chekhov’s great story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” disobeys almost every rule. Craft is important, but only really matters when something is already working. No point in over-crafting a scene that doesn’t have life to it. Many of the writing tics fall away when the writer is enjoying writing. We look at the language; my sense is that the language is the guide, and it will point the writer to the story. When the language isn’t working, often that part can just be cut. What else, really, do we have to go on, other than the words that show up on the page? I love how, in class, the writing nearly always gets better when the students have more fun, are more engaged with what they’re doing. This seems to me to be a comforting statement about humanity in some way: that engagement makes it better. Instead of the distant, cold writer image.
A reader does know something about me, intimately, through the work, even if it’s not a direct, exact reflection of my life, and that’s what’s most important.
Guernica: What about your start as a writer? At what point did you know this was what you wanted to do?
Aimee Bender: In some ways, I think I’m still figuring that out. But in grad school, I began writing every day, and it was a kind of flag-planting; I felt like I was marking territory for myself, in terms of time. I want to spend time doing this, I was saying to myself. And then I didn’t stop. I don’t always enjoy it, but my life is better with writing in it.
Guernica: The magical or fantastical elements of your work have garnered much attention and imitation. Because of that, do you find that readers want to know more about you personally (as if to glean new insight from the page via biographical details)?
Aimee Bender: Sometimes, yes, though not too often, and I tend to somewhat dodge those questions. I just like talking about process the most, and my own personal ups and downs aren’t so crucial for those discussions. I don’t really like knowing much bio info about writers or artists I follow; sometimes it taints my sense of their work which I don’t like—it’s like my ego gets involved in a new way, instead of just interacting with the work itself. I guess my general sense is that a reader does know something about me, intimately, through the work, even if it’s not a direct, exact reflection of my life, and that’s what’s most important.
Guernica: Of course, now I’ll follow up with a biographical question. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Aimee Bender: I like going on long walks across cities, with people I love, and eating a good meal along the way. I like singing. I like a nice tree. Riding a bike. That’s a start.
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Author Photograph by Max S. Gerber