So. How do you write an introduction for an interview you’ve done with someone who you regard as the best writer alive today?
Maybe you say something like, this person’s books are my favourite. Or, this person’s stories are the ones I’ve re-read the most often and enjoyed a huge amount every time. Maybe you say that reading this person’s books changed you as a writer, that they made you realise what can be done with the short form and that, actually, you CAN write the stories you wanted to write in the way you wanted to write them.
All of the above is true.
So, I guess, all that’s left to say is: here’s my interview with magnificent, the wondrous, the lovely and the brilliant Aimee Bender. Enjoy. I certainly did.
Welcome to the blog, Aimee. It’s a huge honour to have you here. To be honest, there are so many things I’d like to ask you I’m not too sure where to start. But I’ll go for here…
Thanks for having me, Nik. It’s really a pleasure to talk to you about fiction!
So, it’s a novel about a family, really, with some strange twists along the way. It begins with Rose, a character who discovers she can taste people’s feelings, usually their unknown feelings, in the food they make, something she does not really want to deal with. But then it starts to also be about the other members of the family, in particular her brother, and how his secrets mirror or stretch hers. I feel like it’s about all four members of the family, and how they impact one another. But presented in a strange way, which is the only way I knew how to talk about it all. Who’s it for? I guess people who are interested in reading about a family from a really skewed perspective?
How do you think it compares to your previous books?
It’s hard for me to tell. It’s magical, but it’s also set in Los Angeles, grounded in more reality, too. But the strange parts are really strange– though for me, they’re the way I’m trying to figure out how to talk about who we are, with ourselves, in families, on our own, all of it. I feel happiest when people seem to go for both the real and the not-real—they go for the strangeness, and in the strangeness they find something familiar.
I know I’ve said it many times before, but reading Willful Creatures changed me as a writer; after reading it I realised that I could write about what I wanted to write about in the way that I wanted to write – I wonder, was there ever a moment in your writing career where you said to yourself: Ah ha! Yes! I can do this! I know where I’m going now!
I’m so glad to hear that. Really, really nice to hear.
I have had that same feeling, often, when reading, and writing. That, ‘really? This is allowed?’ feeling. So it’s particularly gratifying to hear you felt that reading my book! I had always felt very boxed in with what might make a story ‘work’—it had to be realistic, and about adult issues, and told in a straightforward way—I thought all that even while I was reading plays by Ionesco, and seeing dances by crazy modern dancers wearing bear costumes, and seeing paintings by Magritte. It was shocking, and thrilling to me, to remember that fiction is expansive, and can do a lot more than we sometimes think. In fact, I think fiction is one of the most flexible art forms there is—we can jump time/place/interior/exterior/build buildings/explode buildings/be a building/talk as a building/morph into a butterfly-building, in a paragraph. Unbelievable!
In graduate school, I felt suddenly encouraged to write the more magical/stranger/more abstract work because my peers and teachers were wonderfully encouraging. I didn’t expect that—I was turning in two stories at a time, because my stories were short, and one was designed to impress, and was realistic, and the second was usually one I liked more but didn’t think would ‘count’; I thought they’d prefer the ‘real’ story, but to my shock, they far preferred the one that felt more my own. That was a huge gateway for me.
In terms of shape and, to some degree, content, your short stories regularly remind me of Fairy Tales – what would you say to that?
I love fairy tales—I teach a class on them at USC, in downtown L.A., the classics and some contemporary take-offs. I read them a ton as a kid, and there’s something in their shape and style that is incredibly contagious and inviting. Recently, I wrote a story for Kate Bernheimer (who does all sorts of great stuff with fairy tales) and my assignment was to retell a story of my choice, and I chose Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” [this was the only version I could find on the net – Nik] because I loved how in that the king’s daughter has three dresses made for her—one the color of sky, one the color of the sun, and one the color of the moon. How that enchanted me as a kid! And still does!
Anyway, back to shape. Calvino talks about the economy of fairy tales, and how they move fast without getting into much detail and we go into the movement happily. I love that about reading them, and with contemporary versions, it’s fun for me to step into that form and then tweak it a little, see what happens next. To use a familiar shape but hopefully in an unfamiliar way. And I like the freedom of not naming, of the mythic words like king and castle, alongside our regular daily selves. I really like just about everything about fairy tales.
And sticking with shape – how do you think the shapes of shorter stories compare to those of novels?
I’ve heard Rick Moody talk about this a bit—how with stories you can experiment more easily because there’s just a smaller commitment to what you’re doing. And I can see that—I love JD Salinger’s Nine Stories so much because of the shapes of those stories. They’re going along and then they end and suddenly as a reader I have to think about what just happened. I didn’t see any of it coming. Everything has changed. So your question really hits at the heart of what I often love in stories: unusual shape. Unexpected shapes. One my greatest pleasures as a reader is going along in a story and not knowing where I’m going but wholly trusting the writing to take me somewhere new.
What do you think a story (of any length) needs to have for it to be great?
Nice question. I think it needs to move a reader somewhere, to lift us up from wherever we are, and to move us, and therefore we might call it ‘moving’—really. I don’t care if the character changes if there’s a classic beginning middle and end, if there’s denouement, if it’s happy or sad—what I want is to feel like I am sitting in a slightly different world than I was when I began.
What’s the Aimee Bender Writing Process?
Get up in the morning, check email, write for two hours. Stop usually right around the minute—sometimes I’ll go a few minutes over but rarely more than that. I like structure a lot—the more structured the writing time, the freer I feel to write whatever I want.
What do you think is the most difficult, or the scariest, thing about writing or being a writer?
Seems like being a writer runs a true parallel to being a person, and the same things are hard in both! Pushing for growth, trying to explore, sitting with hard feelings, concentration, patience, faith in the process.
And the most joyous?
The discovery! The discovery is almost always the best part, I think. Finding something unexpected, in a sentence, or scene, or whole book.
Who is Aimee Bender? Can she tell us a secret?
I often take the long route just to avoid backtracking.
As well as being a wonderful author, you also teach writing. I’m curious: to what extent do you think that writing can be taught? And what tips would you give to someone hoping to be published?
I don’t think the core act can be taught, but I strongly believe that we can all get a little more open, and take down some of the obstacles that get in the way. And a writing teacher can help with that. Writing exercises help with that. A sense of play can help a lot! For someone hoping to be published—I think the act of writing is the main reason to do it. If the person is valuing publication over writing itself, then it can be a real drag of a ride—the rewards are thinner there. But if the writer wants to do the work, and work at the work, and push on the work, and open up the work, then I think at a certain point sending it out is an important step, too.
What’s the best piece of writing advice that you’ve been given?
My friend Phil said something very key to me, when I was in workshop with him in graduate school. He said, “just write what you feel like writing every day, and then the language will never be dutiful.” It was so clear, once he said it, and yet I had spent day after day writing what I felt I should be writing, (not necessarily what I wanted to write) and his permission there was wonderfully freeing.
How do you think the short story’s doing at the moment? Healthy? Popular?
Okay. People still don’t read as many stories as novels and that’s too bad. But there are new collections still coming out regularly, and that is comforting! Lots of good stories floating around.
What’s next for you?
Not sure! Probably stories though I’m sniffing around some other ideas too. I was just asked to try to do a picture book (the word part), which sounds incredibly fun.
Anything you’d like to add?
Aimee Bender is the author of two collections of stories and two novels– the most recent is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, called “oddly beautiful” by the Washington Post. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House and more, as well as heard on “This American Life”. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at USC.
Photo courtesy of Max S. Gerber