Aimee Bender has been publishing fiction for over 10 years, but I hadn’t heard of her until last October when I read her story “The Fake Nazi.” It was published in the Fall 2010 issue of Ploughshares, and it was one of the best stories I read last year. It’s about a German man who turns himself in for the heinous crimes he committed during the holocaust. They thing is, he wasn’t a Nazi and didn’t commit any crimes. In fact, he’s a rather decent fellow. What struck me about the story was the interesting plot and the beautiful prose. I’ve since devoured Bender’s first short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, her two novels: An Invisible Sign of My Own, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which was released this year. I loved them all!
Bender’s fiction is commonly called “magical realism.” For example, she writes about two girls, one with a hand of fire, the other a hand of ice; a man who comes back from the war missing his lips; and a hunchback that had his hunchback artificially implanted. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the main character, Rose Edelstein, can taste the cook’s emotions in the food she eats. For me, the magical qualities of her stories are ground and in real life emotions.
Q. Your stories and novels are wonderfully imaginative. Where do you get your inspiration?
A. Thank you! I don’t really have a source I can point to, but I’ve been working on a strict schedule since 1995, writing every weekday morning for two hours. I get so bored sitting at my desk that eventually I start making up stories. And the boredom is a key factor in the idea-generating, too. I think they are a pair: boredom and inspiration, and one begets the other, in an ebb and flow kind of way.
Q. I love the story “Call My Name” in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I’ve read you wrote it while getting your MFA at UC Irvine and a number of people who you asked to read it thought the story didn’t quite work. One person you respected suggested the lead character should be a transvestite. Do you have a good sense of when you should listen to feedback from others and when should you stick to your guns?
A. I forgot that line, about the transvestite! But yes. That did happen. And another person said that I didn’t have any sympathy for that character, and I really do. The whole process was interesting. It was a story that several journals also said ‘didn’t add up’ and then when the book came out, it was one of the stories readers commented upon the most, and the response was largely positive. That said, there were many people in workshop who were very supportive of the story, which did give me some hope. But I was learning at that time how to take in the comments – my first book actually sold based on a story I’d placed in a journal that got the most mixed response of all, and I just liked it, and I felt like it was ready to send around. I think a writer’s own stubbornness about her own work can be really key in times when response is mixed. Better to be a little stubborn in this way than too receptive. Ultimately, I think feedback is useful when it resonates with something I also feel about the story but maybe won’t quite admit to myself. But if I like the story and no one else does, my own liking of it still counts. In order for a writer to grow, it’s important to try to hear who is really offering useful comments. But in order for a writer to keep writing, the ownership of the story has to ALWAYS remain in his court.
Q. You’re also quoted as saying that UC Irvine was a great because the other students and faulty were very support of your off-center approach to fiction. Is it challenging for you to help your students improve their writing without stepping on their own unique styles?
A. That’s what makes it dynamic – if everyone wrote the same kind of stories, and all I had to say was “add conflict!” or “put in a little setting!” I would not like leading workshops. But I think what’s interesting is trying to see where the author of a story has gotten in her own way, or where the story itself is wanting to go. And we, the workshoppers, have to try to be careful not to impose our own aesthetics upon the story, which is hard to do (and which writers Judith Grossman and Geoffrey Wolff really emphasized at UCI, which was so helpful to me). We all like a certain kind of story best, and this writer may not like that kind of story at all. Nothing makes a writer less interested in workshop than comments that have nothing to do with what they did – (e.g. “Why don’t you add some dialogue! I like dialogue!” to a writer who is interested intensely in description and language and density.)
Q. I’ve read in another interview (I wish I hadn’t written down where) that you “…always tell students to skip over character and plot. The way I read and teach is to look at language.” How do you teach this and how do you apply this in your own writing?
A. So – I hope I didn’t say skip over character and plot. They can’t really be skipped over. They’re pretty central. But – the deal is that plot and character are always evoked through the language used to describe them, so I do think that’s the key. The writer can look to the language to learn about character and plot. What I mean is – they write 4 pages, and the lines that sing, that feel interesting, that feel alive, will have details of character and plot in them, or details of something, and that is, in my mind, the writer’s way of knowing where to take the story. It’s the way we can follow our own unconscious, by what shows up in a lively way on the page. And although we may have great, glittering ideas in our minds about a story, if it’s dull on the page, then there’s no charge to the idea. It’s just an idea. It can be so surprising to discover this way what you really want to write about.
Q. What attracts you to dialogue without quotation marks?
A. I just like how it looks. I like the flow. I don’t mind quotes but they are visually distracting sometimes; it really depends on the story/page.