An Interview with Aimee Bender
Bender’s first collection of short-stories The Girl in the Flammable Skirt seemed to open doors for other authors whose stories were just as ethereal. The simplistic manner in which the stories were told and the strange qualities that her characters possessed was only the beginning of what we would come to know as being Bender-esque. While her first novel An Invisible Sign of my Own was a successful venture, she has returned to the world of short-stories. Willful Creatures examines our capacity to love regardless of how flawed that love may be or what form it takes.
Willful Creatures has Bender’s signature traits tattooed all over her stories. In “Fruit and Words” a woman who’s just broken up with her boyfriend finds a stand on the side of the road that sells just what the title suggests. The main character in “Off” declares her mission for the night when she decides to make-out with a blonde, brunette and red-head at a party; a taste of Neapolitan for our self-assured female. Bender explores the cruel reality of abusive relationships, whether they’re driven by suicidal girlfriends, higher spiritual beings or adult-size captors. It’s no coincidence then that Aimee Bender can tell a story better than many of her contemporaries. She swears she’s not a good story-teller, but her short-stories say otherwise. While keeping busy teaching Creative Writing at USC and preparing to go on tour for her new collection, she talked to me from the freeway in her car about writing, music, art and how nerves tend to get the best of her.
Do you get nervous talking to people when you tour or are you pretty comfortable with having to go and read a short-story or a section of a novel if you’re working on one at the time?
I do get nervous. I definitely get nervous. It varies. I think sometimes I’m more calm for whatever reason but sometimes I’m super nervous and I get worried and I’ll forget what I’m doing. I can really psych myself out about it. Usually once the story begins then I kind of relax into it, but there is sort of an anticipatory work up that happens.
So, do you know where you’ll be going on your book tour?
Yeah. I’m going to read in the bay area and then Portland, Seattle, and then New York, Boston and Iowa City.
Iowa. Nice and humid in the summer.
I know, I know. It’s funny to me. It’s because they have this great bookstore there but it’s funny to me that the one mid-western stop is Iowa City.
I read your new collection Willful Creatures, twice. You have such a knack for story-telling. I wondered if there was anybody in your life when you were growing up or even as you got older that you picked up the knack of story-telling from anybody?
That’s a neat question. I have two sisters and think they would sometimes tell stories a little bit. My dad is kind of a good story teller but I don’t think of anyone as a classic story-teller. Actually, I have an uncle who’s a coach and he’s incredibly funny. He just weaves these tales... they’re wonderful. He coached basketball in the valley for years and so, he seemed to tell stories that felt more like classic story-telling, y’know kind of take over the table and everyone would...
I think it’s also just the reading, I read a lot of stories as a kid. I think kids' storytelling is so sharp and so I think a lot of stuff I read also has that knack and as an out loud story-teller I’m actually quite bad. I have lots of pauses and I don’t always know where the story is going and I make things end too quickly.
I really enjoyed the story “Jinx” about the two adolescent girls who get new butts. I think what I like the most about it is how you touch upon what kids go through when they are an adolescent. It’s such an awkward time for teenagers. What is it about that particular time in our lives that’s endearing to you?
That’s true. I like to write about it a lot. In terms of adolescence, I think it’s such an emotional time. I remember feeling so unequipped for all the interaction... I think teenagers interested me in that way where it’s like you’re really smart and almost evolved in certain ways. And teenagers are often really articulate and passionate. But you’re really new to it too! There’s this new-ness to all these complexities in these relationships.
It reminded me of middle-school. You’re going into a place where you want to be treated like an adult and yet, you’re still really a kid.
Right. You kind of want that too and you kind of want to be protected and then also treated like a grown-up.
I noticed in “Debbieland” the main character of Debbie is so uncomfortable in her own skin and is trying to fit in. And the kids around her that have been observing her take exception to her because of her insecurities. I thought the more interesting character of your story is the “we” character. I wondered why you chose to tell your story in the first person plural.
It was just fun to do. I think I had read something and... The Virgin Suicides is in “we” and I think I had read a bit of that awhile back and it stuck with me. And it’s just fun to sort of try out different points of view at different times.
It is! It even caused me to go back through and read it a second time. I haven’t read many stories written that way. I had purchased the premier issue of Black Clock when “Debbieland” first came out. How did you become involved with contributing for the Black Clock issue?
I had met Steve Erickson a few years before and I really like his writing. I can’t remember where we met. It may have been the bookstore... or through Cal Arts? The LA writing community is very small so... I don’t remember the beginning point of that. But then when he was putting together that first one, he very kindly emailed me and asked if I would send him something.
I was so excited to read that issue. There were so many great people in there. Heidi Julavits...
Yeah, she had that really cool story in there.
“The Eternal Helen.”
Yeah. He did a really great job and has continued to. He’s a great person as an editor because he has such a different sensibility in general, so that was great!
You were a busy person last year. I know you had a story in Dust-Up too.
Yeah, a friend of mine is the editor of Dust-Up and he hopes at some point to do another one. That was a project that he dreamed up and then there were a lot of people that I went to grad school with that are in there.
When you come from a program like the one at UCI, it’s great to still have a connection with your fellow writers/alumni so that you can get put together something of real quality like Dust-Up.
It’s nice to get the feedback on that. I felt really proud to have been a part of that.
I saw the movie The Station Agent over the weekend. Have you seen it?
It reminded me of your story “End of the Line.” I know a Lilliputian man is not as big as the character in The Station Agent, but it made me wonder if you’d ever read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift?
I did when I was a kid. It’s interesting. I remember the Lilliputians and I remember they tie him up -- so I remember parts of it, but I was too young I think... to get a lot of the satire... so maybe I should read it again. Someone was asking me the other day about The Borrowers. What is it about books about little people that are somehow so compelling?
Your writing tends to be just as compelling.
I don’t know how or at what you were doing when you came up with the idea to have this adult-size captor purchase this little Lilliputian man. When I read the first page or so, I thought I knew where it was going.
And then it takes this turn.
Yes. It does. It zings you in this completely different direction. In your last collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, you had your book divided up into Parts One, Two and Three and you do again in this collection. I didn’t know if it was coincidental or done purposely or if it’s a superstitious thing?
I wonder if it is deep down a superstitious thing. It was actually my editor’s idea for the first book. He thought it could lend some shape and then I did sort of grow attached to it because the stories altogether felt like a big clump and when I could put them in three parts I could organize the parts a little bit. And I fretted a lot about the order and I still feel like maybe I didn’t get it exactly right, but it still felt like within the three sections I could make a little mini-arc in terms of where they left off and where they were going. When it was all together it just felt a little unwieldy or something like, “How do I put these in order! What do I do?”
It makes sense to break them down into sections to have a little bit of clarity in that regard because it can get mushy. Do you have bigger themes at work there?
Well, the middle one is the mushiest but I felt like I put the meanest ones up front. The stories about torture and cruelty are at the beginning. And then there’s a little more hope and redemption towards the end for the characters. I like that movement of them. The middle is sort of a mix so that felt a little less specific. It doesn’t hold together as I’d imagined they would, but...
No, it completely works.
I’m really interested to know how you deal with incorporating surrealism or magical realism into your stories. I’m sure it’s probably not something that’s been thought out in advance.
Yeah, it’s not. So, it’s funny because it’s in terms of the brain pattern thing or “where do they come from?” It’s not that it’s that clear to me either -- I’ll just start many, many different stories and some will be really out there and some won’t be and it will just kind of be a roulette wheel in terms of which one has something to it, or which one do I feel motivated to explore. I don’t remember the genesis of “Fruit and Words” and how that happened. I think it was just another one of these kind of “jump in and see what would happen” if the words were real.
So, it’s essentially for you, just a trial and error thing? Which one works and doesn’t work, whether it’s a word or a phrase or a sentence?
Exactly. And I have so many stories that are just these embryos that become stories and some I’ll return to years later then suddenly I’ll want to build into something and so that’s just an interesting thing, how that process works where really it’s so messy. And there are so many little piles in the sandbox. So many little castles!
It’s so hard to know what’s going to evolve into a story later on.
Exactly. It’s always surprising which ones end up working. I really didn’t think the big man, little man story would ever see the light of day.
I know. But here it is. It’s such a nice surprise though because it’s so organic and it just comes from a place that’s not preconceived. When you teach do you have any advice that you give your students when they sit down to work on stories?
You know we do a lot of stuff. A lot of things where they get beginnings outside of themselves where someone will pass them a word or a character and then they write from that. It works for some students and not for others. When we look at their stories, it’s interesting to try and see what part of a story is working and what part is not. It’s like you said, if the surrealism and the magic realism and whatever else is in that soup seems to be working side-by-side, then great. And often some part of the story will be stronger than another part of the story. Then my job is to just circle that and say, more like this, less like this. I just do that so much. That’s what’s helpful to me. When people do that do me. When they say, “you went into this part -- that felt really good.” It’s hard to tell as a writer to know what’s compelling to a reader!
It’s true. You know what sounds good to you as the writer but the general readership out there is a different story. Do you have time with teaching and writing to workshop with your other friends that are writers?
Yeah, we try to. It goes in these intermittent periods of time where there will be an intense reading of things and then a break for awhile, but I really benefit from it. The more scheduled things are for me the better.
Is it difficult for you to take a work-in-progress, even though they’re your friends or fellow writers when something hasn’t quite evolved into what you want it to be and have them give you feedback on it? Is that helpful to you at that stage?
I think there really is a point where it’s not helpful to get feedback. If something is kind of unbaked in my mind... The thing with a novel is a novel takes forever, but a novel scene can be fairly polished but clear where it fits in the larger novel. So, I will try and get a scene or a story as good as I can. And as full and complete as I know how to do it before I want someone else’s opinion because if it’s still in a mushier place, it can feel invasive to get comments.
I think so. Yes.
Do you feel that?
I do feel that way very much so. There’s are moments for me when I think the story is in a place I want it to be but I’m not super sure, that’s when I’ll give it over to someone else to read. I sometimes regret it later. I’m very protective of it.
It’s good to be protective of your own work, it is very important. It’s true. And I don’t know if you should try not to be. I think it’s healthy to be protective of it somewhat. I think you want to be open if someone is telling you something useful but, I think it’s better to err on the side of slightly-protective than not because you want to keep writing! (laughs) If you feel “this thing really isn’t working” and you can put it aside, that can be very helpful too. But you have to also guard your work.
It’s tough and very vulnerable to put a story out there for consumption. Especially when you submit to literary journals and magazines for publication. You worry about the feedback you’ll get from an editor and so on. But you should be used to that process, right?
It’s still vulnerable. Absolutely. I don’t think that goes away and it shouldn’t... really. There should always be a risk.
How do you feel about writing the short-story versus the novel?
I write short-stories first. It’s the first place I go to. But I like the challenge of the novel, of trying to expand. I just feel like I don’t lean towards expanding. I feel it’s good for me that way, but it definitely is more difficult. You have to have a lot more faith in the process because it’s a longer process for that one piece. So, I like that part too, but I think my first instinct is to write short-stories.
I wanted to talk to you about comic books. I think it’s interesting how they are making a big comeback in fiction and even film.
Yeah, oh my God. It’s been a huge era.
Did you read comic books a lot growing up?
I did a little bit. What I read I really liked and I wish I’d read more with superheroes.
I know the in the last collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt you had the story “The Healer." There were some really great images in that story and even though there weren’t outright superheroes in your new story “Hymn” there are still a few characters you could say have superhero qualities.
I really didn’t read enough X-Men but I love the mutations. They’re so amazingly creative. There’s a great passage in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” He talks about unusual mutations or unusual miracles. The blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth.
He is such an amazing author! I always find myself getting especially angry when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I know! It’s so great.
The other book I’ve heard you say you really enjoy is Lynda Barry’s Cruddy.
I love Cruddy.
What is it about Cruddy that you like so much?
I just love how dark and funny it is. I think the voice is so strong and the push to the voice... the momentum to the voice. And I love how tragic it is. The part that compelled me the most was the journey of the girl and her father and the back and forth to the high school. I like that, but the girl and her father stuff I just thought was so good. I haven’t read it again. I want to but I feel it’s so precious in my mind now... you have to take it down a notch in my mind to read it and enjoy it.
I know. It’s true. There are certain books you kind of put on a shelf and it’s nice just to know that they’re there and you can remember your journey you took when you read that book. You have it all in your memory and you don’t want to disturb that.
Exactly. It’s very true.
And the drawing is fabulous too.
Yeah, it’s really good. It’s almost like it races through you.
I try to listen to music when I write. Lyrics to songs tend to influence my writing sometimes. There’s an Australian singer-songwriter by the name of Butterfly Boucher who can paint these great stories with the words in her songs. Is there anyone that does that for you?
I’ve been very inspired by Jane Siberry who’s a Canadian singer-songwriter and she’s great! There’s something about her lyrics that I also find very compelling and sort-of... full of melancholy whimsy and I really like those and PJ Harvey. Her music is very brave and just takes these risks that are outrageously bold and interesting and open things right up.
No matter what the art is -- what form it takes on... as long as there’s a creative process involved and it’s something that we as readers and writers or painters inspires us then it’s an interesting process.
In all forms. I find it helpful too to talk to someone in a different art form because you kind of see your own experiences reflected back but through different vocabulary and through different phrases but there’s something helpful about that, I find. You know, listening to an architect talk about building a house and have a plot...
Yes. Even the space that we all share as people and the spaces between buildings and even the spaces between each other. That interests me too.
I think in order to make a life we are making creative choices at all times so there are the people like you and me who are doing it as part of their work but I really think it’s part of being human. An essential part. The more the two processes can be related, the better.
That’s such a great point!
Your story “Job’s Jobs”...
It’s kind of related to what we were just saying.
Yes, it is. It made me think of how we do have an inherent need to create as humans, whether it is through architecture or cooking or whatnot. What I love is how God (in this story) is harassing your main character.
It’s so mean! (laughs)
It’s fabulous how this writer’s creative attempts are thwarted due to God intruding with his process. Threatening his life in various ways. In the end, the writer is unable to practice any physical forms of creativity and is blindfolded and kept in a box. All he’s left with is his imagination and that is what he must live in now. That is how he can re-live those moments.
Ideally, there is a little part that cannot be taken away.
So, if God came up to you tomorrow and wouldn’t allow you to write or be creative, what would you do, job-wise?
I think I like teaching a lot and I’m very interested in psychology. Something with people . . .
Being able to interact?
Yeah, because it’s constantly dynamic and that way it’s creative because it feels like the interaction is between people and never predictable and that seems interesting to me.
Your story “The Meeting” is also a bit dynamic and unpredictable too. Your male character doesn’t like that his life isn’t fitting together as he’d imagined. Yet, it’s the unpredictability that works out for him in the end.
What’s hard is to just try and be aware of all our options at any given moment. That does feel like you could live creatively; however that looks, which I think is really interesting.