WRITERS TELL ALL
Aimee Bender on THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE, Mental Illness from the Inside, Writing that Matters, and the Book(s) that Awe Her
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Aimee! I know you know this by now but I’m one of your biggest fans and I am so happy to have read your latest novel, The Butterfly Lampshade. I know the first thing I read by you were your stories (this was years ago) and I’m always curious for those writers who excel in stories and novels alike, how do you decide when the story you’re telling is a novel, and how do you stick with something long enough to write it at novel length? What behind the novel—and this novel in particular—drives you to see it through?
Aimee Bender: Thank you so much, Matthew! I always love talking to you about books and writing. So, let’s see. With a novel, it takes me a long time to find the thing I want to continue writing about—and so I’ll write a lot of scenes/moments/images and see what sticks, what I want to return to. Sort of like throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, if the stuck spaghetti will somehow eventually form a book, a shape, a sculpture?
MT: I recently said that Miriam Toews’ newest novel seems to take a lot from you—I also think of one of her oldest novels, All My Puny Sorrow, about family and mental illness. In very different ways, you both present mental illness, and those who fear it, at times as feeling the illness is perhaps fated, destined, or inevitable. What about this character and the lampshade itself contributes to this most, and what other books (or really anything) would you put The Butterfly Lampshade in conversation with?
AB: I want to read her latest. She’s incredible. I like this idea of books in conversation—for TBL, I was thinking a lot about stories where something comes alive, the Toy Story types, The Velveteen Rabbit, Ovid’s story of Galatea, the sculpture, suddenly moving, with pulse, and vitality. Even Frankenstein animating out of the bodies of corpses. But then wanting those ideas to also go along with conversations about really what is real and what isn’t. I think of Elyn Saks’ incredible memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, about her schizophrenia from the inside, and what it has been like for her. She goes into psychoanalysis because she wants to work with the anxiety that aggravates the psychosis, and lies on the couch, says things like, I killed a thousand people today. And she and the analyst would then deal with that, knowing that she was not an actual murderer. I find this incredible, truly moving in the deepest way. The courage to wander into those darkest places of the mind with another person, exploring.
MT: The protagonist, Francie, deals with losing her mother in a sense, to mental illness and hospitalization, when moving to stay with her aunt, uncle, and their newborn baby near the beginning of the novel. A lot of Francie’s narrative deals with accurately—or perhaps the better word might be solidly—cementing her memory as a sort of fact, especially when life threatens to unravel as Francie’s cousin prepares to move off to college. Can you explain about the format of the novel, how it contributes to Francie’s mindset, and what it was like writing the novel this way? How did you construct this novel, and would you describe your process and it worked with Francie’s story?
AB: Often you hear that backstory drains drama from a narrative, and maybe it was the rebellious part of me that didn’t want to follow that, that felt the dark past had such a pull on this person, and that the real tension remained in the past for her, as she sat in a quiet space in the present, perhaps finally ready to tackle it. (And to tackle it meaning here something fairly quiet-- to look at it, to consider it, feel it.) It’s a basic tenet of psychology, (and history) to think that the past is with us, as Faulkner famously said, “isn’t really past,” so I just wanted that to be the drive. And that the present would be about sitting literally and figuratively with this transitional moment in her life.
MT: There is so much love in your writing, and The Butterfly Lampshade feels like a love letter from yourself to readers, the empathy even more intense than your other (also phenomenal) books before. Do you mind talking about your history as a reader, and also the past few years or even decade and what you feel has led you to write this way, along with this specific book, and especially now?
AB: Ah, that is really so nice to hear, Matthew. It’s hard for me to gauge as I’m so close to it all, so this kind of response is very gratifying. I don’t really pick how I’m writing, but I do keep wanting to write about connection, and at the same time I have a lot of solitary characters, so it’s kind of this back-and-forth, wanting to write about contending with the self, and then seeing how that plays out with other people. I’ve been thinking so much about Ishiguro’s latest novel, and how he conveys a feeling-state, how he really creates an emotion that only can be made out of his book. And that is a kind of powerful empathy I want to emulate—to pass along an experience in such a way.
MT: What is, in your mind, the hardest part about writing? When you write, when you read a story to the crowd, if not general readers do you have a specific audience in mind? Is there any reader in specific you feel you most want to please with your most recent work?
AB: I think starting is hardest for me. Once something seems to have some energy/movement in it, then I have somewhere to go. But the dreaded blank page! This is why I love the writing exercise as a way to move things around in the brain. And re readers—I think I do now really write for someone, and it’s that someone that feels really connected to what I’m doing. I don’t know who it is, but it’s for that reader. With Lemon Cake, a couple people wrote and said it meant a lot ot them, that they felt I’d written it for them. And I wrote back and said, well, then I did; I wrote it for you. And I believe that. A book is a kind of missive into outer space. So good when it’s found, when someone receives the missive.
MT: Which books have you loved most recently, and are there any books that ground you in particular, or have helped inform you or change you greatly, especially in the past decade?
AB: So many! I’m right now reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, which comes out in October, and is stunning. I just finished The Secret Life of Church Ladies which is so inviting, so open, so hot, so able to hold feeling and cut away the bullshit. I am rereading an Agatha Christie book right now also because I had a craving. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. How I gasped as a teen reading it! I loved her so much when I was 13, sitting in class, doing silent reading time, gawking at the reveals.
MT: In the past you’ve frequently written a lot of magical realism, or perhaps works adjacent to the genre, and I wonder what you think writing magical realism, or any different you prefer or love, can do that other genres might not be able to do. Is there an advantage to writing certain genres and can you specifically think of stories that might be told one way but wouldn’t work in another form?
AB: Yes, absolutely—I think books are so often trying to get at the worlds below the world, what’s humming underneath, and so it’s not always easy to articulate, in fact it is meaningful BECAUSE it is difficult to grasp/articulate/find words for. So then we need to and get to use whatever we can to try to capture something so fleeting that is also a part of our human experience. Why not use magic? Why not use anything/everything that feels right in the moment?
MT: What’s a book you feel you wish you’d written, and is there a story in short or long form you haven’t written yet but want to? If so, can you give us any clue as to what it might be like?
AB: I think most often here of Borges’ short, “Borges and I” where he says, so beautifully, that he feels himself more in “the laborious strumming of a guitar” than in his own work. How I sometimes feel, listening to Kate Bush, that she says the thing I’m trying to say. But I don’t really wish I’d written her song. It’s more that I just want to feel that my own listener-ship is real, that if I really think I “get it” then that matters. And so I believe that’s what’s underneath the question. As Zadie Smith says, the reader is a true participant, the “amateur musician” playing the piece the composer made, contributing, learning, expressing. So a reader, then, IS, in a way, “playing” the book that she loves. She is writing her part of it, her engagement with it. That matters, and it is the beauty of the act of reading. We can’t minimize that.
MT: Does the novel feel like it has a different meaning or place in the world now that we have a new president, are in a new decade, are all changing and living a new life? Do you think the book is somehow different than what you set out to write? How do you change, edit, develop a work while the world is changing so drastically? The question seems so relevant when thinking about The Butterfly Lampshade specifically.
AB: Great question, and hard to answer. Yes, it does feel different. Awareness is growing. But a writer also needs to follow what is findable in the moment, which means it’ll live in the time it’s written, flaws and gaps and all, and hopefully will have enough of a wide view to last beyond its moment.
MT: Is there anything in writing, whether it’s in book form or tv, etc, that really bothers you about how mental illness is presented? Is there something—anything—you feel specifically gets everything right?
AB: Yes, I think often mental illness is presented in strange ways. The same way I remember a student once referencing schizophrenia as just all these funny voices in his head! Well, no. Or how my mother trained me, because her sister was mentally ill, to critique so many films, books, TV shows that made light of it in some way. In A Beautiful Mind, the character’s “voice” is personified because it’s a film, and it’s a handsome rakish actor talking to him, and it just feels really nothing like what I’ve observed in people who do suffer from actual voices that are in their minds and often tormenting them or certainly preoccupying them.
MT: I love that your books are so great even young adults (and younger age groups, sometimes) read them—what children’s books do you recommend for children today? I have a newborn nephew and one who just turned two, but of course would love to know what books you suggest for when they’re older (and I’m crossing fingers that they’ll be big readers).
AB: Oh, so many!! On all levels. A few that come to mind right this moment--Snow Music by Lynne Rae Perkins is such a great picture book when a child is crying. It is SO soothing. Several times it was the thing that quieted my twins, even in this snowless So Cal landscape we live in. My daughter’s current favorite book is El Deafo, a great graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing and has to cope. We also love Leo, about a ghost/imaginary friend combo, with Christian Robinson’s gorgeous illustrations. Wild Robot is just so good and I loved reading it, kept insisting we read more. And our go-to has been My Side of the Mountain, from the 50’s, about a boy running away from home and living in the Catskills for a year on his own. Figuring out how to make things work. A book of great freedom and independence.
MT: You’re such a great influence on the world, both for writers and people who seek you out purely as readers to enjoy a great book. I know I get to experience your work in so many ways, and it’s always wonderful to see that you’re just as great of a person as any of us could hope or deserve. Thank you for letting me interview you, and I’m so thankful for your new book, The Butterfly Lampshade, out in paperback now. I encourage everyone reading this to pick up a copy, even if I’ve already mailed one their way myself. Thank you again, Aimee!
AB: Oh, thank YOU, Matthew! You are such a generous presence, and every writer that gets the chance to talk to you must feel so special. Thank you for all you do for books and readers and writers!
Matthew Turbeville: Shawn! I am so excited to interview you about your newest novel, Razorblade Tears. How does it feel to be one of the biggest superstars in literature today, and what do you think it means to be who you are (a Black man in the South who actually knows where Fayetteville/Lumberton, NC is, for example) and what about you specifically do you think you bring to writing that makes everyone such intense (possibly crazed) fans?
SA Cosby: Well thanks for having me Matthew. I don't think I'm one of the biggest stars in literature or anything but I feel so moved that people are connecting with my writing in such a positive way. I hope that it shows people are willing to read different stories from different voices
MT: I want to note before we talk in depth about Razorblade Tears that I love turning people on to a book before Blacktop Wasteland you wrote called My Darkest Prayer. Can you talk about where your writing has gone between then and now, and how you’ve evolved as a writer through your novels? What books and authors and subjects pulled you into the world of My Darkest Prayer, and how is that different from now?
SAC: I think ,I hope, my writing has become more nuanced since MDP. I love that book. It was my homage to the books I grew up loving like Devil in Blue Dress or RED HARVEST . But it was also my 1st mystery novel and I think I was a bit overly impressed with my own metaphorical prowess lol. But Nathan Waymaker ( protagonist of MDP) is near and dear to my heart. Hopefully I'll get to talk to him again some day.
MT: I know some people may frown upon me bringing race, class, the area where we live in the country into this conversation, but I think it’s important to note that decades ago, Blacktop Wasteland and now Razorblade Tears may not have been possible or been published. This isn’t limited to who you are as a person, but also what you write about, and how you write your books and the characters in them. Can you talk about the way the books are shaped, and the voices of the protagonists, and the way you make your books and characters and stories so addicting?
SAC: I think that you're exactly right. Years ago fiction that starred African American characters had a small niche in publishing. The genius of someone like Toni Morrison cannot be denied. But publishers seemed loathe to give writers of color the same opportunity to experiment in multiple genres that they give their white counterparts. Writers of color who weren't explicitly ensconced in the "literary " camp were seen as a trend. I think today we can say we are not the soup du jour...we are the whole damn meal
MT: I’ve found myself in a lot of books over the years, and I found myself in Razorblade Tears both as someone who is gay and been a victim to hate crimes (though luckily not fatal on my end) and also in ways as the reluctant father figure, the person who’s become nurturing and loving in a very hesitant way. I have more than one great love now in my nephews, and it’s frightening to see how much of me is in them, my sister, my brother-in-law I love as my brother, and I wonder what inspired your passion for this story.
SAC: I had a very close friend who is close to my age who came out a few years ago to their family. It did not go well. At first I was saddened, then I was furious. I couldn't understand how a family could turn their back on their own blood. I wanted to examine that idea and since this is fiction, I wanted to have my characters change as they confront their own prejudice. Because I firmly believe writing is a vehicle of change.
MT: There are some obvious takeways from the book, and maybe some takeaways even I’m not aware of yet (although I’m eager to reread again!). Can you talk about what you hope any reader might get from your writing, and specifically now with Razorblade Tears?
SAC: I hope readers will realize that love is all that truly matters. I hope they realize that redemption is only possible when we confront our transgressions. And finally I hope they take away that you shouldn't wait to repair burned bridges.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? I hate this question, but feel now, with Razorblade Tears coming out, and how it’s more than just a great follow-up novel: were there any fears or a sense of anxiety going into writing the book that would follow Blacktop Wasteland, one of the most well-loved books in recent history?
SAC: I think the hardest part was ensuring I was telling the story in a way that didn't dehumanize any of the characters. That I allowed them to be living breathing people. That was the narrative challenge. I think personally it was a challenge to follow up BLACKTOP WASTELAND. The reception to that book was beyond any of my wildest dreams. I didn't want to let anyone down least of all my readers.
MT: There were some things about Razorblade Tears that threw me, but I also study structure, writing, screenwriting, and so some things I saw coming—and yet I couldn’t stop. I didn’t care. A lot of these things I know did surprise other early readers, but I wonder, whether something is surprising and a twist or something you don’t actually see coming, what propels you through great crime novels other than the shocking turns, and why do you think crime fiction is so important, especially today? What can it do that other genres simply can’t?
SAC: For me crime fiction is the language of the dispossessed, the lost and the broken. It's a universal story telling motif. For me as a reader it is endlessly fascinating. It's the continuous study of the best and worst of us. For me crime encompasses all other genres. A Thousand Acres is a crime novel. The Secret History is a crime novel. The Color Purple is a crime novel. Every novel is a crime novel because everyone has the potential to break societal rules
MT: Where do you start when you write a novel? What was Razorblade Teras like when you first began, and where did you see it going?
SAC: For me I have to sketch out the characters. I like to write character biographies. They never make it into the book but they give me a handle on my protagonist. Once I have that then I can begin.
MT: When dealing with race, class, sexuality, hate, etc, in fiction, or addressing issues in America, what are some issues you felt you had to confront in your novel, and is there a book, for better or worse, you feel your novel is in conversation with? What would you suggest others read along with your latest?
SAC: I think I'll always talk about race class and sexuality because these things are the foundational drivers of not only narrative but our shared communal experience. I don't know if there is a book I consider a companion piece but I was definitely inspired by Kelly J. Ford's COTTOMOUTHS. If you liked RAZORBLADE TEARS you will love that book. It's a rural noir with an LGBTQ heroine. It's so country and raw you can smell the chicken sh*t
MT: Did you write any characters you felt you couldn’t relate to, or maybe characters outside yourself, really in any of your books, and if so, did you ever feel it was hard to write these people and make them real? It never feels you struggled, but I know things can be a lot different on the other side of the page, typing on yoru screen (of if you’re a pro, writing by hand?)?
SAC: I think my villains tend to be awful people because the better your protagonist. I don't identify with them but I do my best to understand their motivation, even if that motivation is repugnant to me .
MT: What books do you feel people need to read today? What books, which authors do you think are most important to dive into today? What book would you suggest anyone to read, and what book would you say is something you turn to maybe keep writing if you feel out of sorts, or to remind you of a love for books?
SAC? Oh man that's a long list but I'll mention a few
Donald Ray Pollock
Ernest J. Gaines
Rachel Howzell Hall
And many many more
MT: I mentioned how I know people who obsess over you in a nearly scary way. You’re that great. Similarly, I wonder who are the S.A. Cosbys in your life, the ones you would kill the read, the authors you love completely?
SAC: I'm totally enamored with Donna Tartt , Dennis Lehane Walter Mosley and Stephen King and Nikki Giovanni. I'd love to have a beer with all of them.
MT: I love that you threw out Pat Conroy and The Prince of Tides once as one of your favorite Southern Gothic novels, something not everyone might consider fitting into the genre. What other books and tastes in general do you think people would be surprised to hear about? Are there any hot takes you can shoot my way? I love that you love Pat too.
SAC: Haha I don't have too many hot takes but I guess people may be surprised to know I grew up reading romance novels. My grandmother had a stack as tall as an azalea bush . I guess my only hot take is ...you can take classes to become a more technically proficient writer but ultimately you're either born a storyteller or you ain't. Nobody can teach you that.
MT: Can you give your superfans any hint at what you’re writing now, and what your next book make be like? How long do we have to wait? What can we expect?
SAC: I'm working on a Southern Gothic murder mystery that's like True Detective Season 1 meets Sharp Objects
MT: Shawn, whether it’s an interview here, or me virtually interviewing you in a private conversation, I always love talking to you about your work. Please stay in touch, and thank you always for being the great writer none of us deserve, but are so appreciative for. You are one of my favorite people and favorite authors, hands down, and I hope there are some people reading this interview and finding out about My Darkest Prayer, or buying a copy of all your books for a friend, or themselves. I hope everyone gets to read your work. It’s phenomenal and deserves to be preserved and cherished and celebrated. You deserve all the best. Thank you, Shawn.
SAC: Thank you for having me Matt. It's been a pleasure.