Aimee Bender is the author of three short story collections (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures, and The Color Master) and two novels (An Invisible Sign of My Own and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake). Currently, she teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Bender’s work is both utterly human and touched by some kind of magic; the turns in her narrative can make the reader feel as if the eye of the world is opening onto her characters. This is especially true of her newest book, The Color Master, in which she explores spirituality, sexuality, the body, and the myriad ways we forge connection. Bender sheds more light on the human condition than the most deadly realists.
Front Porch: There seems to be a long standing stigma in the literary world
regarding very comic or very fantastical works, in that they are often not considered as “serious” or “important” as realist fiction. Increasingly, however, the distinctions between fiction deemed “literary” and fiction with fantastic elements has begun to blur. What are your thoughts on these cultural distinctions, and their function? How much of a purpose does categorization serve?
Aimee Bender: Happily, as you say, this has been shifting, and there are more varieties of tone these days. And, the high/low culture split started to erode decades ago. Categories are a way to talk about things but beyond that not so useful I think—they begin a conversation but should never be an end point. It’s interesting to me how many women seem to write from a fairy tale influence—Kevin Brockmeier and Manuel Gonzales being a couple clear exceptions. But Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Judy Budnitz, Ramona Ausubel, Karen Russell, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter as the matriarch of it all—it’s a great and growing list.
FP: All three of your story collections (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures, and The Color Master) are organized in three sections of five stories each. Is there a particular reason for choosing that structure? How do you choose the order—or section—in which to place each story?
AB: Originally, it was my editor’s idea, but I liked the way it made mini movements inside a larger whole—the story arc in the part arc in the book arc. Something like that! Then the order placing is a lot about what seems to flow well into the next, and that is inspired by other collections and even more by albums and seeing how musicians make those choices. I was listening to the White Album the other day and one of the many phenomenal things on that is the order! It’s so perfect.
FP: I’m interested in the way food functions in your work. In your novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, food is embedded with the emotions of the person who cooked it, while the stories from The Color Master often use food imagery to describe characters’ body parts (hair is like wheat in “Appleless,” Nature’s face is like a scone in “Lemonade”), emotional states (leaking tears are “eggs cracking” in “A State of Variance”), and even thoughts (the doctor “cultivates” his thoughts of the rabbi in “The Doctor and the Rabbi”). The final story in the collection, “The Devourings,” reverses this pattern by focusing on a magic cake imbued with the desire to please others. Why do you think food is so central to your work?
AB: I honestly have no idea. I do love food, but it’s more than that. Metaphorically, I’m continually interested in this idea of what is taken in/what isn’t—and that applies to lots of things, but food is the most literalized way to talk about that. Lemon Cake really emerged from that combo—of the taking in of what is not food and placing it directly into food. I see that happening with magic in storytelling, too. It’s a way to make concrete something subtle or enigmatic in human relationships and then I have an easier time circling the feeling/idea/experience and talking about it through this concrete thing: apples, cake, fire, ice, et cetera.
FP: Objects seem to function in The Color Master as either tools to enable or block human connection. In “Tiger Mending,” the narrator insists that a handmade object retains the “mark,” or feeling, of its maker, a sentiment enacted in the title story when a dress is infused with righteous anger. In “Wordkeepers,” however, smartphones have begun to take the place of internal thought. Could you talk more about that?
AB: It’s similar to the food thing—to imbue objects with meaning, which a lot of us do (maybe all of us?), is a way for me to access character. It’s hard for me to just write plainly about someone’s internal state, how to do that without a ton of “she felt” or “he sighed” kinda things.
FP: What has it been like transitioning from writing short stories to writing a novel (or vice versa)? Do you have a standard process for doing so, or is it different each time?
AB: No standard process. I thought there might be, but no. That said, novels seem to open up, scenes open to more scenes, and it’s a less linear process for me. Stories usually proceed sentence to sentence but they clamp down on time more intensely and can race forward more easily and end more abruptly if needed. Rick Moody once said that with stories he could try stuff out more freely and I think he has a point—a story has so much room for experimenting. Though I do so admire novels that do this too. Maxwell’s So Long See You Tomorrow comes to mind as a novel that skips around on its own terms in a way that I find freeing and wonderful.
FP: Do you have any advice for young/emerging writers?
AB: To trust what you love, in terms of books, movies, music, people, buildings, etc, and to write from that instead of “performing writerhood” by pretending to like certain things! Voice comes from you, and you are you and not someone else, so who are you? What might you like to read? And, how can you have some fun? I really believe that language improves and lifts and lightens and deepens when the writer is enjoying writing it. That doesn’t mean it’s a hoot all the time, just that it’s engaging in some way. That the writer is not bored and irritated. That tends to be a bit of a hindrance.
FP: Many of your short stories are written with a fluid narrative stance—the point of view might jump between characters within the same paragraph or, after following one character for several pages, switch to someone else for the remainder of the story (I’m thinking specifically of “The Fake Nazi” here). This fluidity isn’t seen often in short stories. To me, it makes your stories feel fable-like, less distinctly marked by time or place. Is there a specific reason you use this method of narration, or is it natural inclination? Have you encountered much resistance to this style? What advantages do you find in writing this way versus a point of view centered on one character?
AB: Thanks—nice to hear. I think stories are so flexible as a form and I like to utilize that any way I can. It’s thrilling to try out a jump in time or to see what [Alice] Munro does with time, or what [JD] Salinger does with movement in his stories or what Lydia Davis does with a tiny, dense paragraph. So I look to lots of models for permission. I think we limit the form far too much. And all I want is to find language that feels lively so I’ll go anywhere to find it. When you ask about advantages, it’s almost a flip of how it works for me—the advantage is I get more chances to find language/moments I like from which to build a story. But I never go in with an idea of what might work, if that makes sense. It’s more a process of doing it and then seeing what’s happened.
FP: What led you to write?
AB: I’ve always liked words and stories. Simple short answer, but both feel important to me and both lead to fiction!
FP: I’ve read that you are a big believer in dismissing one’s internal editor in order to write. I try to do the same, but sometimes don’t know what to do with the mess of a first draft once it’s completed. How do you know what to keep and what isn’t working? Your language is so economical and your stories brief, yet I feel familiar with the entire world within it by the end. Tell us a bit about your revision process.
AB: Follow the language. Meaning look at that messy draft and find the good sentences or paragraphs. Take out all the rest and see what’s there. I really believe the language shines when the story has something in it and it gets flat when something isn’t really below. So see where the language, the good sentences, guide you. This is why I’m a big believer in going on tangents while writing. Sometimes the tangent ends up being the story itself, because the writer relaxes into it and the language lifts and there’s more there than in the initial idea.
FP: Spirituality seems to be a theme in The Color Master: “Origin Lessons” centers on a teacher explaining how the universe came to be; “The Doctor and the Rabbi” debates the nature of God, love, and prayer; and in “The Devourings,” a cake made of light eventually conquers the darkness that has swept across the land. You’ve also talked about your love of Flannery O’Connor, whose Catholicism greatly impacted her worldview and creative output. Do your own personal beliefs, if any, influence your writing?
AB: It’s true that this is a preoccupation of mine. For years, when I was quite a bit younger, I said I didn’t like organized religion because it seemed like the thing everyone said and so I thought I believed it too (did the same with country music in junior high). But the truth is, I find all religions interesting and very often beautiful. I don’t buy that they themselves are the sources of so much war and oppression, et cetera. I think religions get corrupted like anything, but that in each you find gorgeous writings and ideas from years and years of deep and intelligent thinkers. I’m Jewish, I married a Buddhist, I did one of my best writing retreats at a sanctuary of nuns who’d left the Catholic Church and created a retreat space with a library of amazing books, where I had a really nice time reading some [Thomas] Merton at dusk and looking out at a beehive. Walker Percy’s another writer I love, Marilynne Robinson too, who are so incredibly engaging when talking about belief and meaning. “Why are we here?” is still an interesting question to me. So, yes, I do think all of that leaks into stories and storytelling for me, and I felt it especially with that last part of “The Devourings.”
FP: Out of curiosity: what are you reading these days?
I had twins recently so I’m not reading much! But I just reread [Milan] Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being and it was great and held up. It had been over twenty years but I still recalled certain phrases. The way he circles around themes is so musical.
– Heather Lefebvre