WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Aimee. I have been such a big fan for so long. My first experience with your luck was reading Girl with the Flammable Skirt, a book I love so much but have to keep buying year after year, since many friends have “borrow” my copies pretty permanently. I wanted to discuss—before getting into detail about specific works—what your writing process is like. How many hours do you spend a day or week writing? Do you have word limits or goals? Do you write in a linear fashion or jump around a lot? Tell us how writing works for you!
Aimee Bender: Hi, Matthew! Thank you. I love hearing that about the borrowed books.
I’ve long been a big believer about time limits for writing—can point you to some pieces re that if you’d like, as I think about it all the time: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/writing-every-day-writers-rules-aimee-bender
These days I do 1.5 hours in the morn, and one hour in the evening on Mondays. The stricter the better. Jumping around, once in that strict time structure, is just fine.
MT: I really love your stories, and I’ve also really loved your novels. Your most recent novel was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s such a unique and innovative concept. Can you start by explaining how you came up with the idea for the book? Also, while I don’t necessarily believe in giving all books labels, what would you categorize Lemon Cakeas being—both age levels and genre-wise?
AB: Let’s see. I think of Lemon Cake as adult fiction, literary, with some magic in it, but I’m fine with however others think of it. It won an Alex Award, which was unexpected and nice to get, which meant it was approved for readers 12 and up, and that was good, too—I’m happy when teenagers read it and find a home in it. But I also love it when they read it with their mom or dad and then the adult gets in there too.
The idea for the book is harder to track—one route was a friend of mine that always refers to feelings as something to ‘digest’; another piece was a composer who asked me to write on the seven vices, including gluttony, which led to a character that sounded a bit like Rose, and mostly just the daily wandering around on the computer until something starts to have some motion in it.
MT: Sometimes, I feel like you’re honestly at your best writing from a first person POV. How do you establish the voice of each character, and how do you make the novel so intimate and candid as you do? Every book and story feels like you’re opening the door for a new universe and allowing readers in.
AB: So glad to hear it! I love first person. I love reading it, love writing it. I find third very tricky, which is why I lean toward the fairy tale third person which has quite a bit of distance in it. Voice tends to just arrive, but there are many voices that fizzle, so it’s more about trying a lot and failing at a lot before arriving at something that works.
MT: When you were younger, what were your favorite books? What have been your favorite books in recent years, and what books do you feel have had the greatest impact on your literary career? Are there any modern authors—story writers or novelists or otherwise—who have had great impacts on your writing?
AB: I read a lot when I was little, and I’m a mom now and revisiting some of my favorites has been wonderful: William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and E.B. White’s Stuart Little, where the prose is just crystal clear, and soon Julie Andrews’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which has the best ice cream machine ever. I recently read my children Ozma of Oz (Baum) and was amazed and a little embarrassed to see how much those books have leaked their way into my writing. There are many current books thrilling me—there’s an abundance of riches these days. I just finished and learned so much from the Rachel Cusk trilogy. Adored the voice in Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s collection. I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping during the election ramp up and it was the only thing I found soothing: the careful articulation of daily activities as a way to get into worlds beneath the world. Soon to read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, and he is a usual favorite of mine. So weird and resonant.
MT: When was your first publication? How old were you, and is this a publication that is collected in one of your collections or is it something that you have steered away from? I know many authors tend to—not necessarily feel ashamed—but perhaps turn from their earliest work as it is extremely raw and unrefined. What do you feel is most important for potential future writers when dealing with publication?
AB: Oh, I have to say I do feel annoyed when writers diss their earlier work. It still counts. And it usually met some readers. I just think we don’t really need to be critics of ourselves so publicly that way—it’s not our job. My very first pub was a tiny magazine in San Diego that took a story as an undergraduate, but it had one issue and never did anything again. The first “real” one was “The Threepenny Review,” a Berkeley literary journal as encouraged by a teacher, the wonderful Jane Vandenburgh, and I was shocked and amazed to get that thing in print. And then I thought it would be easy after that, which it was not! It was a story called “Dreaming in Polish” that was in Flammable Skirt but does feel different than many of the other stories in that book. It came from an earlier era, where I was thinking more while writing. Now I try to think as little as possible.
MT: I’ve been witnessing the literary culture grow and change over the years. Do you feel that women and other marginalized people are finally taking a strong stance in the scene, or do you think full representation still has a long way to go for most marginalized people?
AB: I do see a change. A really important change in that representation is at the forefront of so many literary discussions now. There’s always a ways to go, but I think it’s on people’s minds and the amount of good material out there to find and to teach is stunning and very exciting.
MT: What is the highest praise you feel you’ve received for a work of fiction? Are there any negative remarks that you’ve been really hurt by—or even inspired by, hopefully pushing you forward in an effective way, even as an act of defiance?
AB: Fun to think of. Highest praise—I think when someone returns to a book, and when I feel it really got under their skin and lives with them, becomes part of them. I don’t want to feel like the work gets read and then is over. I want it to linger, and for someone to be moved and impacted, even if it’s unclear why or how. Early on, I felt really vulnerable to all reviews and would sit and deconstruct them with a couple key friends which helped. Now it’s a little easier, though still nerve-wracking, of course. I still want someone to catch the ball I threw.
MT: You haven’t released a book in several years. Of course, there are authors that release books every 1-2 years, and some authors—for example, Donna Tartt—who only release books every ten years or more. What is your next book going to be like, and how do you feel it will be different from previous works?
AB: I’m working away on a novel, and it has short chapters in a way that is a bit new for me, and a kind of distilled quality, I think, but it also circles around some similar themes because I have my treasure chest of preoccupations which does not seem to change!
MT: What’s the most astonishing reaction you’ve had by a fan? I’m assuming you have quite a dedicated fan-base, simply looking at my own friends and how quick they are to say “We never borrowed that book!” or “I’ll try and find it.” (Side note: Got both these responses from one friend, and when at her house and in her bedroom one day, saw it lying plainly on a shelf as if she’s in the middle of reading it—I decided to let it slide. I could get another copy. She needed this book.)
AB: (love hearing this btw!)
MT: Given today’s political climate, what is the one book or collection or story you’d recommend Americans and other humans to read? What would you recommend to our president—if possible, both one of your own works, and a work by someone else you highly value or covet?
AB: I lean toward poems as resources for us all—and the news cycle is so intense and so wearing that to spend some time with something small and intense and beautiful and made with such care seems helpful. I’ve been reading Terrance Hayes’ new book, and Wislawa Szymborska. But that same impulse is also bringing me back to Marilynne Robinson, for similar reasons. Anti-impulsiveness. True consideration of human experience, loss, beauty.
MT: What genres do you prefer not to go near? What are books you don’t care for, or simply cannot stand? What books have you found yourself surprisingly drawn to, and what book would readers find strangest to discover influenced your own work?
AB: There isn’t one! Because it’s all about voice and language and I’ll read anything at all if told in a way that feels fresh and interesting.
MT: What is the hardest book or story you’ve ever had to write? I remember Annie Proulx stating it took her twice or so as long to write “Brokeback Mountain” as an actual full-length novel? Have you ever completely given up on a work?
AB: Yes—I gave up on a novel about a teenage boy who was acting out left and right and the voice had some merits but the narrative drive was really, really not working. One story in The Color Master, called “Faces” was pillaged from that novel.
MT: Finally, what advice do you give in general—based on things we’ve discussed, or otherwise—to promising new writers, up-and-comers, etc, on how to tackle writing, and the best ways to go about finding their own voice and their own style of writing?
AB: There’s the writer who is you, and the writer you are pretending to be, and in my mind, finding out the writer who is you is a better route, will lead more clearly to voice. I ask my classes to write on a subject about which they know a lot, a kind of expertise. But not necessarily a proud expertise. What do they really know about? Barbecuing, celebrity dating profiles, their mother’s rules (which is essentially why Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is so great), etc, and from that, see what shows up. Nothing shallow will remain shallow if pored over with care.
MT: Thank you so much for talking to me, Aimee. It’s been a pleasure—and fantasy, honestly of mine, ever since I was younger. I am really looking forward to whatever work you do next, and am constantly on the lookout for new writing of yours. If you have any other thoughts, commentary, suggestions, or wisdom, please let us know!
AB: Thank you so much!