Interview: Aimee Bender

by Stacy Bierlein

Appears in Other Voices #32

Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection of sixteen stories often described as modern day fairy tales. Her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, will be published by Doubleday in July. Bender’s active teaching schedule includes fiction workshops at USC and the California Institute of Technology. Her courses at UCLA Extension—Advanced Surrealism and From Realism to Anything But—attract long lists of students waiting to work with her. Stacy Bierlein talked with Aimee Bender at Babalu Cafe in Santa Monica.

OV: In the stories in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt your characters suffer a great deal of loss and disappointment. How do you account for their resilience?

Aimee Bender I think it’s a necessary resilience, their way to plow through life. There’s a combination of despair and resilience—both ends of the spectrum. Some of my characters are much more resilient than others, and they’ll find it much easier to bounce back. Others I’ll feel more worried about. I’ll worry about leaving them in a certain stage of their own story. Resilience is a quality I respect a lot.

There’s a story by Donald Barthelme that I admire called “The School.” It’s set in an elementary school, and everything is dying, dying, dying. Kids at school become depressed as their friends and pets are dying. The feeling of this death is overwhelming. And somehow, at the end, there is renewal. It’s all the suffering of life compacted into one semester, and at the end of that time, something has opened up. It’s so moving. Ultimately, the story shows resilience as this really beautiful human quality.

OV: There is a lot happening in each of your stories. How do you determine how much a story can hold?

AB: Sometimes they’ll get over-cluttered, and I’ll pare things back. Sometimes they’ll be under-cluttered and they’ll end too neatly. It was a real issue for the novel. How would I prevent it from getting too cluttered? But things just started to combine. There was a merging of the cells of the story.

Often there’s something in language that guides a story. The arc is not only affected by content, but by sentences. If the language is complex, the story may take in less information than you’d intended. If the language is simple, the story may want to hold more.

OV: I’m thinking of “Marzipan.” We start with a grieving man and a hole in his stomach. Then his wife gives birth to her mother.

AB: In the original draft of “Marzipan,” the mother gave birth to her mother, and the story felt like it was missing something. It needed more to really push it along. I started thinking about a man with a hole in his stomach, and decided try it out. At the time, I really didn’t stop to think, oh, a man with a hole in his stomach is an opposite to a pregnant woman. I just started working with this man and woman together and letting things happen. As I wrote “Marzipan,” I realized it was one of those stories willing to take in a lot of information.

OV: A story can be like a young child, rejecting certain kinds of food.

AB: Exactly (laughs). But sometimes a child comes along and says “Yes, I’ll eat broccoli. In fact, I can eat anything.”

OV: These works display a shrewd sense of humor. Are you aware of the humor as you’re writing?

AB: Not always. Sometimes I write lines that make me laugh, and that’s a treat. But the parts I think are funny aren’t necessarily the parts that readers find funny. There was a point when I was writing stories that I felt weren’t funny at all. As I worked on them they got funnier, but I didn’t really know how that happened.

OV: Most of the reviews of your collection discuss “What You Left in the Ditch.” Do you think there is a certain element of this story that provokes discussion?

AB: To me “What You Left in the Ditch” seems quieter than the other stories. There may be something appealing about the war element. It’s grounding of the fantastical element, which may lend the story an immediate seriousness.

OV: It surprises me that few of the reviews mention “Fugue.”

AB: That story sold the book. My editor had seen “Fugue” in Absolute Disaster—an anthology of Los Angeles stories from Santa Monica Review—and contacted me through UC Irvine.

OV: How did “Fugue” come to life?

AB: I keep a journal on my computer where I complain about my writing. I’d been having a dry period and I’d been complaining that I’d written only little fragments of things. I kept thinking everything was crap. I felt like I didn’t have anything interesting, so I put those fragments aside. When I went back to them, I saw one little kernel of something that felt right. Something I didn’t even know was there.

I worked from that. And as it grew, as I looked at what “Fugue” was becoming, it felt hopeful and important to me. I got really excited about figuring it out. I had fun writing it. When I turned it into the workshop at Irvine, a lot of people didn’t respond to it, but I kept feeling attached to it. I sent it to the editor at Santa Monica Review and she said “It’s such a strange story.” Then she accepted it.

OV: Often MFA Programs are criticized for tunneling writers into certain kinds of writing. You hold an MFA from the University of California at Irvine, and you seem to have had a much more positive experience there.

AB: The Irvine program really is about nurturing individual styles, and I was there at a great time. The program was in transition, and there was an embracing of new faculty. I met a great group of writers. A lot of us had work that seemed off-kilter.

Sometimes I would turn in two stories at a time. One would be a more conservative story, and the other an experimental story that I thought everyone would dismiss. Time and time again, the story I expected the group to dismiss was the one they liked better. That was a great lesson, and so liberating. I benefited from that atmosphere.

OV: Were most of the stories in your collection written at Irvine?

AB: Yes. Of sixteen stories, two were written before I entered the program, and one after I’d finished. So thirteen were written at Irvine. It was a really fruitful time.

OV: You write the human body so well. Is it fair to say that the body itself becomes a setting?

AB: Yes, it’s a great thing to say. The body is a total landscape. It’s the first landscape, the place your experience before all others.

OV: Do any of the characters from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt appear in your novel?

AB: They don’t. The main character in the novel is Mona. At first I thought she was the Mona from “Fugue,” but she turned out to be a very different Mona. The novel’s narrator is a lot like the narrator in “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” so elements of the collection influence the novel, but there isn’t a direct line.

OV: Did you approach the writing of your novel differently than the writing of your stories?

AB: It felt so different, in a million ways. It’s possible to hold a story in your head all at once. My fantasy was that I could hold a novel in my head, but that became impossible. It was much longer lesson in tolerating the unknown.

OV: Did you have a specific audience in mind as you wrote?

AB: For me, thinking of a specific audience feels limiting. When I think about an audience, I get distracted. The writing becomes more about pleasing them, and the people I really need to concentrate on are my characters. To focus on Who are they really? And what in the hell is it they’re doing?

OV: Many of your students, interested in the surreal, keep dream journals. Did your own dream life play a role in An Invisible Sign of My Own?

AB: I think it always plays a role in my writing. There’s not one specific dream that fed into the novel, but having an awareness of what I’m dreaming keeps fresh imagery close and available. Making the novel was like dreaming in the way that I just let it be really unconscious for a long time. I wrote without knowing which parts of the story would connect to other parts. Later, looking at random scenes and seeing how they connected to each other—that felt like a searching of dreams, trying to find a through-line.

OV: Have you studied psychology formally?

AB: No, but my dad is a psychiatrist, my sister is a psychiatrist, and my closest friend is studying to be a psychologist. We have these discussions about the things she’s learning and I can’t get enough of them. I have so many cousins who are psychiatrists, it’s insane (laughs). Since childhood, psychology has been presented to me as a way of viewing the world. It’s a huge part of my brain workage. I’m not so interested in pop psychology, but the real thing—a true study of the unconscious.

OV:And your mother is a dance instructor?

AB: Yes. It’s a good match. Both of those professions play with each other and against each other. One physical expression, one verbal, and both deal with the unconscious. You’ll think you’re doing something so different from those around you, then you’ll look closer and see that what you’re doing is linked in this intense way.

My parents are really helpful in discussions of creative process. They gave strong creative encouragement to me and my sisters as kids, and that’s a true gift.

OV: One reviewer said your stories “have all the power and energy of a great rock song,” so it seems important to ask about musical influences as well.

AB: The singer Jane Siberry is one of my favorites. I’m working on a forty page story that erupted from one of her songs. She’s really whimsical, and trembling with feeling, but in unexpected ways. The renaissance of female singers in the past ten years feels hugely freeing. We’ve taken in all these vibrant voices, some really aggressive, some lyrical, and that’s inspiring. And I like P.J. Harvey, who’s dark, edgy, rough—an incredible talent.

OV: You’ve talked about how fascinating it is to watch children making stories and creating pictures. Do you think the writing process is largely about reconnecting with ones natural creativity?

AB: It is for me. In that reconnecting, you allow yourself a chance at being more joyful with your art, to let it become playful, exciting, rule-breaking. Creativity is an amazing natural resource—one you can always re-access. It’s so satisfying to bring surrealist games into a workshop. People respond to writing games and language improves. Allowing playfulness to come forward doesn’t mean the work gets sloppy or less interesting. You get a feeling of life from the words themselves, and the writing becomes sharper, more beautiful.

OV: I recall a story you’ve told, about sitting next to a little girl on an airplane. She had a coloring book, and she was really going for it. She’d colored outside the lines, bold all over, and she’d made the grass purple.

AB:And her mother said “Well, that’s silly.” Her tone implied that something silly isn’t worthy of serious attention. The subtle message: You’ve crossed the bounds. It’s so subtle, but it’s a sort of criticism that makes people stop taking risks artistically. And it’s essential that children feel free to create. It’s so important to give them outlets.

OV: You ask your students to read a poem a day.

AB: Poetry is an amazing influence. As a kid I loved hearing poems. A poem distills all the things that fiction does into this tiny package that is so potent, so concentrated. In reading poetry, you take in so much about language and emotion and our world, but in tiny metaphors that might expand to the size of the universe.

OV: The courses you teach at UCLA receive a good deal of attention, and the quality of work generated in these courses is so impressive. Clearly, there are a large number of writing students really striving to push the limits of traditional fiction. And there seems to be an audience out there craving experimental fiction. Readers and writers feel willing to take risks, and I wonder if editors and publishers are responding.

AB: Small presses play a strong role here and they’re more important than ever. In the past few years, more surreal and magical fiction has found its way to print, so I hope that means houses are opening to ‘different fiction.’ I agree with you that there’s a readership for this sort of work. You can only trust what you as a reader want to read, and I know I get such delight, such thrill, from reading work that’s off-center.

OV: Your students read William Maxwell, Barry Yourgrau, Russell Edson, and Richard Brautigan. Not the usual literature course line-up. What has to happen in a work of fiction for you to want to take it into your classroom?

AB: There needs to be something in language, form, or spirit that feels reviving. The writers you’ve mentioned give permissions. They invite me to do things I didn’t think were allowed. And it felt like a miracle to me to find them.

I felt alienated from fiction from high school through college. There were so many books that I slogged through. I felt guilty. How could I think of being a writer if I didn’t like reading? It was painful. I had yet to find the adult versions of the writers I loved as a child. And when I found them, they presented a totally joyful reading experience, even in their darkest works.

OV: Your students also read case studies by Oliver Sacks. What is it about this work that takes your attention?

AB: They’re just so incredible. I can’t talk enough about Oliver Sacks (laughs). He combines an incredible sense of wonder and awe of the human condition with great emotional wisdom. He seems so attuned to people and the metaphors they present. His studies are utterly bizarre; totally permission-giving. They’re well-written and odd.

OV: I’ve read parts of Sack’s book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I recall a clinical study about twin boys who live in a “thought-world of numbers.”

AB: Yes, it’s fascinating. The twins communicate by tossing prime numbers back and forth. I re-read that study for the novel. Mona is a math teacher at an elementary school and she’s obsessed with numbers. Numbers are symbols, equations, and physical objects. Mona would enter the cafe we’re in, and before she could do anything else, she’d focus on numbers on signs, prices on menus, dates on artwork. And it’s exciting to see characters interact with numbers. It’s great to see numbers on the manuscript page. It feels right to use them. They’re right there on the keyboard with you.

OV: You’re an active member of the literary community. Clearly, you break the stereotype of the reclusive writer. Are you ever bothered by the solitude of writing?

AB: Yes. That’s why I write two hours each morning, then go out into the world. I crave interaction. I need to talk about writing with other people as much as I need to sit down and do it. When I was writing sporadically, I felt so pressured. Things like magic and humor came into my work when I structured my schedule. During my two hours, I can really get into it.

OV: Are you looking forward to writing another novel?

AB: I’d like to write another novel, and write stories along side it. I’ll keep writing stories.

OV: A new story, “Job’s Jobs,” has God appearing to a writer and forcing him to give up writing, then painting, cooking, accounting, etc., until the man is stripped of all arts. Yet God gives no reason for these demands.

AB: To have stated a reason for God’s demands would have made the man’s actions more about proving something to God than simply being forced to reconsider his options. In this story, God’s demands should seem totally unreasonable and odd, in the same way that we limit ourselves for odd reasons.

OV: So God appears in this story as....

AB: The most solid of walls, rather than a more noble pursuit of faith. Job proves himself by keeping faith, and in some ways, the man in the story proves himself by relying on his own resources, even as things are taken away. He is still connected to his spirit, even when his spirit has been repeatedly tested. Some of the people who saw this story said they felt really horrible for this guy at the end. It makes sense; he’s in a box (laughs). But he’s so resourceful, and I feel happy for that.

OV: The story begins with God telling the writer, “I’m making a rule. You can’t write another word or I’ll shoot you.” If you couldn’t write another word, what would you do next?

AB: All of the art forms seem appealing to me. The feel related; they’re simply using different tools. I’ve always had an interest in theater. It would be fun to make a short film. I’ve taken sculpture classes that have been great, and I’d like to become really good at a musical instrument. Of course, I’d need to have words around. I’d keep finding ways to get words in.