The Rumpus Interview with Aimee Bender

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Skylight Books was packed. Standing room only. People sat under the green canopy of the Benjamin ficus in the middle of the bookstore, they stood in Gardening and Pets, they stooped in the kiddies’ section, they fought over standing space. They waited.

If you were passing by Skylight on September 19, 2013, you might have thought a rock star was visiting the bookstore. And it’s hard to deny that Aimee Bender, author of three short story collections, two novels, and now mother of two, is anything less than a literary rock star. What makes Aimee so popular? I’d argue it’s the magic that Aimee sees in everyday life, in the human condition, that colors everything she writes. It’s what makes her sexy. It’s what relieved our feet and aching backs as we stood and sat and listened, as we lined up to get our books signed.

We were there to hear Aimee Bender read from her newest collection of short stories, The Color Master. She began with “Tiger Mending,” a short story originally published in Black Book as a collaboration between writers and artists. It’s inspired by Amy Cutler’s beautiful painting of the same name, which depicts three women sewing up the backs of tigers, who sit patiently waiting in their human laps.

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The Rumpus: What struck me most about “Tiger Mending,” beyond the imagery of sewing the tiger’s stripes, was the relationship between two sisters, and how they depended on each other to keep themselves stitched together. It made me think of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and other sibling pairs that you’ve written. They always seem to develop from some deeper place of understanding and love. What is it about sibling relationships that draw you to them, and how do you manage to paint them so well?

Aimee Bender: I’m the youngest of three girls, so I felt enormously shaped by having two sisters—two older sisters. There’s that position in the youngest where you often revere older siblings and I worshipped both my sisters. They felt like complete rock stars. As we’ve grown older and things even out, they feel more like peers, but I’m constantly interested in the influence that siblings have on one another, birth order questions, the ways we’re similar and the ways we are different. All of that floods into the siblings in the “Tiger Mending” story and the siblings in Lemon Cake.

 

Rumpus: There was an echo in “Tiger Mending” of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake in the importance placed on things made by human hands. You have that lovely scene where the seamstress is concerned about the intentions she is sewing into the tiger, and the comment about people being more depressed after eating Burger King, which was funny because it’s the opposite of how Rose responds to fast food in Lemon Cake.

Bender: I wrote “Tiger Mending” many, many years before Lemon Cake, and it’s funny how themes reemerge without any planning. When I was looking back at “Tiger Mending” and putting it in the book, I had that same thought—reverberations about what’s homemade and what’s machine-made, and when is it good and when is it bad.

Rumpus: The other place I felt it was in the titular story, “The Color Master,” when the Color Master is telling her apprentice to put anger into the dress. While reading the story, the thought came to mind that the process of writing is also making something by hand. Are you aware of the intentions you’re putting into your stories? Is it something you think about while you’re writing them?

Bender: It’s a great question, and I think it’s a really relevant link to compare to writing. In some ways I think “The Color Master” is, in part, about what it is like to make something. That, of course, is primarily about writing for me.

I don’t actually believe in intention with writing at all. I think in some ways we have to skip over that kind of conscious thinking. I believe in a sort of trying to be intentional in many other ways, but I think there’s intention and there’s the unconscious, and they’re sometimes at odds with each other. Intention is just one layer of communication. What I rely on with writing is not intention. It’s the unconscious material. My job is to get out of the way and let that stuff come forward.

Rumpus: When I’ve heard you speak about writing a particular story, you speak in terms of feeling your way through it, and letting what feels right tell you where to take the story. If you write with intention, you’re kind of writing with a goal in mind and that would lead to being preachy in a way, instead of letting the story tell itself.

Bender: I felt this with the story “End of the Line,” in Willful Creatures, which is about a big man torturing a little man. It was a little frightening to write it because I had to ask, What is my intention? What is going on with me that I’m writing this? Flannery O’Connor has this great quote: “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” You’re going to write whatever you’re going to write and it’s going to be infused with what you believe. What I find really relieving about letting go of intention is to say, you just write anything and you’re going to be exposed on the page if really you’re doing the work you’re supposed to be doing.

Rumpus: Did you get a chance to read the excerpt in The New Yorker from Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals?

Bender: I did, actually.

Rumpus: She wrote about wanting her Christian ideals to permeate through her writing. But when you read Flannery O’Connor, it doesn’t come off that way.

Bender: Exactly. It’s so funny and grotesque that you wouldn’t think it had all of this transcendent material, but it does.

 

Rumpus: “On a Saturday Afternoon” was one of my favorite stories in The Color Master. There was something very liberating for the male characters in the story. It made me think about gender roles, how the woman was really pushing these characters to confront their fears, but it made me think if we were watching the same scenario with a man and two women, it would feel exploitive.

Bender: In some ways it is a response to that fact that we usually do see that scene with a man and two women, or that there is so often an obsession with a girl-girl scene between two women that are straight. It’s kind of the super fantasy—the pseudo-lesbian fantasy. I wanted to kind of play with that and switch the thinking about what it would be like if these two men were physical with each other but it wasn’t expected. It wasn’t given that they would be.

Rumpus: What do you think we, as writers and readers, have yet to explore when writing about gender and gender roles?

Bender: Well, there is so much going on with gender at the moment. I was listening to Free to Be… You and Me, with Marlo Thomas, and it was all about gender, but it felt kind of dated because it was only about women and women’s lib and not about a kind of spectrum and fluidity of gender that I feel is going on now.

Writers can get in the nooks and crannies of things, so even if the broad strokes have all been done, everything needs to be retold through the current lens of the modern day. Each time there is a subtle difference that shows up that is emblematic of the time and I think that’s important.

Rumpus: Recently, an interviewer described the sex in your work as “deviant.” Do you think the sex is being described or understood as deviant because the characters are women?

Bender: No, I don’t think so. I think they are doing unusual things. They are doing things that are out of what the “normal” behavior would be. I think if they were a man, they’d probably say the same thing. It’s the first time I’ve heard that, to tell you the truth. People often are like, “They’re bold women—they’re these bold assertive women that do crazy things.” I hear that more. And that, maybe, is about gender. People sometimes will just see the boldness and not see the sadness.

Rumpus: When I was trying to think about these women the definitions I came up with were self-motivated, dangerous at times—self-described as “dangerous”—sexually potent, promiscuous, maybe needy. I think that when we think of women using those terms, some may label them as “unlikeable” or “unattractive.” There was that big outcry in Publishers Weekly, in the Q&A with Claire Messud, and the discussion around whether or not women protagonists have to be likable.

Bender: Which is a very annoying box to be put in, because of course there are plenty of unlikeable people and they deserve to be written about.

Rumpus: I feel like you’ve written characters like this, but no one has ever questioned you about them, and I’m wondering if the format makes it more permissible in a short story, rather than in a novel.

Bender: Might be. I remember in workshop in grad school, we had Ursula Hegi as our visiting writer, and she saw an earlier draft of “Call My Name” and she said, “I think you hold this character in contempt.” I knew very clearly that I liked her, and that she may not be likable to other people but that I liked her. I think maybe she was testing me because once I pushed back, that I wasn’t trying to make fun of her, then she really switched and could read the story differently.

If you’re writing a novel-length piece about a person, you are friends with them. It may be a difficult friendship, but you are spending time with them and you have to like them to some degree, otherwise there’s going to be a kind of patronizing distance that is very unappealing to read. Hopefully part of a writer’s job is any un-likability gets looked at, and you dig under it and find a curve, like what E.M. Forster says about flat characters and round characters.

I don’t even know if my characters are likable or unlikeable when I’m writing. I just want them to be active. I think active characters can be pretty provocative but they’re also really fun to write about.

Rumpus: There was a lot of talk recently about the article in the Atlantic where Laura Sandal discussed motherhood and pregnancy. It made me think of you and your writing process. I think the politics of what Laura Sandal brings up are fascinating, but I’m more interested in how someone can reconcile being both mother and artist. How someone acknowledges the limitations—sleep deprivation, fatigue, lack of time, even resources—and whether they choose to accept or resent them.

Bender: While pregnant, my writing time dwindled a lot. I was tired, too, and so preoccupied. I think of Jennifer Egan saying she was editing a novel en route to the hospital to deliver a baby, or something nearly that amazing. The work somehow gets done. Jane Vanderburgh talks about writing while her kids were in the bath. Mothers are often good—or get good—at multi-tasking, and motherhood seems like one huge multi-task. Although writing does require focus, I also have done well, or maybe even better, when slightly distracted, as a way to get to other material that might be blocked if I was too focused, too “present” or aware—I have to sort of “sideways” my way in. So who knows? Maybe motherhood will work with that.

Rumpus: How has being a mother of twins affected your writing routine?

Bender: So far no routine at all! But they’re very new and very little so I’m just taking a break from writing, which actually feels good. It’ll be different, though—my two-hours-in-the-morning routine can’t work like it has for a while. I just bought a little notebook, so I think for now I may just scratch out paragraphs here and there. But from experience, I also know that that tends not to work so well. I do best when I have time to just wander and not expect much. I’ve always advocated for the routine over the content. The content then is released from pressure when it is not the daily goal.

Rumpus: I know The Color Master just came out in August, and this is like asking you if you’re going to have more children, but what’s next? What are you working on now?

 

Bender: Ideally, it’ll be a novel. But it’s going to be a little while. I have a hankering to write another novel but it’s going to be interesting to see how it evolves.

Rumpus: I will say that after reading “The Color Master” and “The Devourings,” I have a craving for an Aimee Bender fantasy novel. Do you think that would be something you would consider?

Bender: Maybe! I had so much fun writing both of those stories. I had a great time, and they were both based on existing fairy tales, which is something I hadn’t really done before and it felt really fun to have that as a foundation to push against. So, I don’t know if I could extend something like that into novel length, but maybe?

Rumpus: There was a moment while reading “The Color Master,” while you were describing how the Color Master sees a tomato, the weight of it and imaging what’s inside, a thought came to mind: the way you seem to see things down to their most fundamental level and are able to show the magic in them—Aimee, are you the Color Master?

Bender: I don’t think of myself as that! I feel much more like the apprentice. I think that since it is a story about making things, there are those exhilarating moments when it feels like something in the writing is working and has clicked, and some craft and skill are moving into gear and making sense, and those are not common moments; there are so many failure moments, so it’s such a thrill when it works. Part of the apprentice feeling that anger, and being able to make a dress that is her most meaningful piece of work, is completely about that rush and those feelings when you do something that feels larger than oneself. Which is the high of writing, you know. That’s such a great feeling.

Bob Dylan talks about songs, like putting a cup in a river, and you just pull out a song. And his songs! Talk about someone who transcends. Or The Beatles—they feel like songs that always existed. The fact that someone wrote them feels almost absurd. That’s such a wonderful goal, because it’s also the moment when the self disappears and the work becomes better than we are in that moment. It’s not something that I experience often but when I’ve had moments like that, it’s really, really thrilling.

Rumpus: That’s what a fairy tale is, right? They exist forever and sometimes we don’t know where they came from. They just seem like they’ve always been there.

Bender: Right. A fairy tale is like a tree, and so is the song “Yesterday.” They just feel like things that grew from the earth.


Krisserin Canary is a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voice Fiction Fellow and a Tin House Writer’s Workshop alum. She received her B.A. in English Literature from UCLA and resides in Los Angeles. Follow her @krisserin. More from this author →