Aimee Bender is the author of the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own and the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake follows Rose Edelstein, who at age nine bites into her mother’s homemade lemon cake, only to discover that she can taste her mother’s emotion in the cake. Rose delves into the emotional lives of the rest of her family—her brother and father—and as Rose grows up, the book becomes about much more than food. Bender—her writing as brilliant and thoughtful as ever— masterfully uses the surreal elements of this novel to explore family dynamics, the secrets we keep, and the intuitive nature of children. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake comes out in paperback this week, and I caught up with Aimee via email.
The Rumpus: You’ve written two collections of short stories and two novels. In some ways, I could see the premise for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake working as a short story, but it works beautifully as a novel. What were the origins of this idea, and how did you know it was going to be a novel and not a short story?
Aimee Bender: I had been writing pages about food that had something extra attached to it for a while—had a character obsessed with the warmth of soup in a piece that never went anywhere. I also have a good friend who talks about feelings as something to digest or process, and although I didn’t really make the link consciously, I think the similarity to food—these food words attached to emotional life—made sense to me. The first chunk, about 90 pages, I wrote quickly, and that was all about figuring out the rules of her food “power.” But I knew there was more in there, and her brother became really important to me, and really unsettling to write about, and I just felt clearly that the two were linked even though I wasn’t sure exactly why or how for awhile.
Rumpus: In your writing process, how do you approach these two forms—the novel and the short story—differently?
Bender: With a novel there’s a kind of open-endedness that feels rambly with me for a while. I don’t know where the longer story is, or what I can write about for pages and pages. There’s so much hit or miss. A story feels more tightly reined—like even the sentences are driving towards something a bit faster, even if I also don’t know where I’m going. These initial cake pages, even the very first bits of them, felt longer, stretchier, more scene-based than a story might.
Rumpus: At the beginning of the book, you quote from The Physiology of Taste: “Food is all the substances which, submitted to the action of the stomach, can be assimilated or changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses which the human body suffers through the act of living.” This is a fascinating quote and really gets at the idea that eating is inherently tied to the human experience. Emotion seems to be something that connects all of our experiences as well. How do you see the relationship between homemade food and emotion working in this novel?
Bender: I love this book by Brillat-Savarin—it’s full of quotes like this, of ways to take food and make it bigger/more complex than usual. Sections called “The Sensation of Taste” or “The Erotic Properties of Truffles.” He has a section on Death, another on Dreams. He is interested in how food impacts us in every possible way. I saw it on a table at a restaurant in an underground cave in Cambridge, kind of a reading spot for people as they waited for a table, and I was immediately drawn to it. For the book, I wasn’t thinking coherently about the link between food and emotion while writing, but after the book was done, I could think about both as two different types of things we take in, one solid, one ephemeral, and it made my job easier as a writer to concretize the feelings in the family that were unexpressed by putting them in the food.
Rumpus: Also, food and emotion seem to be especially profound when considered in the context of family. Food brings families together, and we’re connected emotionally to our family perhaps more than most other people in our lives. In this book we learn a great deal about Rose’s family, and come to care about them as much as we do the narrator. What makes family such a rich subject for literature?
Bender: I think family’s the first group we know and probably the group we know best. And family systems theory—that stuff is incredible. There’s a quote I love from a book I read years ago, about family systems, “sometimes children will play out the conflicts of their great-grandparents.” I mean, come on! We talk about psychological patterns a lot as if they’re ordinary or no big deal, but when you really think of patterns writ large like that, over generations, played out unbeknownst to the players, it blows my mind. It is scary, thrilling, and fascinating to me. And also what I also love about that is the psychological statement and basic tenet that what is not looked at will show up another way. I have always found that idea compelling, even in stages of my life when I was not looking at anything in any depth at all. So families are one of the clearest ways we can see that happen, the “nurture” lab.
Rumpus: You frequently write from the perspective of kids or teenagers, which is interesting because these voices are often absent from literary fiction. What do you love about young narrators? Is there something about this perspective that allows you to do things you can’t do with an adult narrator?
Bender: I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid. I love Cruddy, Lynda Barry’s fantastic novel, because of how she nails a teenager’s voice, and it’s true in her comics as well. She rearranges sentence order in such a totally pleasing way. Also I really like listening to how kids speak in general, so when a writer can capture a young voice realistically, I appreciate being reminded of those voices.
Rumpus: In your writing, you often juxtapose disparate elements, like a humorous tone with sad content, or magical elements with realistic situations. This adds a lot of depth to your work, and I’ve always felt that it makes your writing feel very unexpected. How do these elements come together for you?
Bender: Thanks! You know, it’s not really planned, but I think juxtaposition in general can be so interesting. I just saw a good friend’s dance piece at UCLA—his name’s Barak Marshall and I think he’s coming up to SF soon. Anyway, he had placed, downstage, a couple of men sharing a pair of high heels who had draped a dress over their shoulders together and I’m explaining it badly, but they were sort of visually forming a woman between them. It was very funny, a very good theatrical visual play. But in back, stage left, were two women moving quietly and gracefully, with slow, contrasting movement. So in the front was this very slapsticky routine, and then it was changed and modified by the grace of the background movement. And just seeing that is a permission-giver. It reminds us, viscerally, how we are never one thing. How experiences are never one thing. Or I think of someone like Jane Siberry, a singer I really admire, because she will have sometimes bizarrely absurdist lyrics but they are set to heavenly sounding music and the two together create some kind of tension/opening. In terms of magic—I think the magic is one of the ways I can access more realism, because for whatever reason, if I have to write about something directly, I feel more inhibited.
Rumpus: You live in Los Angeles, which is also where The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is set. Can you tell us a little about the LA literary scene? How is it different from New York, or San Francisco?
Bender: Yes, it’s fun to discuss. I haven’t lived in NYC so I can’t really compare but what’s really nice about LA is that fiction is far and away NOT the dominant form so everyone is an underdog and very supportive of one another. Everyone here is a screenwriter instead, so when I’ve said I’m a writer, that’s what most people assume. Once I was at a party, and a TV writer sort of looked at me mournfully when he heard I was a fiction writer. He said, that’s a real writer, and I felt like that was kind of a bummer to hear, because of course there’s amazing writing happening on TV these days. But then he explained himself: you get to keep your copyright, he said. And that brought it home to me, in a new way—what a hard thing that must be. But also they get tons more money, too, so it’s a trade-off. I lived in San Francisco for a while and the writing world there also felt really lively and good but didn’t have that same underdog, almost arbitrary, feeling of LA—there’s just something about being willfully outside the dominant writing industry that I like.
Rumpus: What other Los Angeles writers should we be reading?
Bender: Other LA writers (or writers who live in LA)—this is a short list and I’m forgetting many but: Percival Everett, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Mark Danielewski, Maile Meloy, Diana Wagman, Amy Gerstler, Benjamin Weissman, Danzy Senna, and Jim Krusoe! Jim Krusoe is undersung and a wonderful strange fabulist. No one quite like him. He has a new book just out.
Rumpus: Your writing feels very personal, and you have a knack for writing about extraordinary characters or fantastic events, while at the same time getting close to everyday human emotions, which we can all connect to. Do you think about your audience (or any audience) when you are writing?
Bender: Thank you—that’s just what I would hope for. My relationship to the idea of audience has changed in the last few years. I don’t think of anyone specific while writing, and I don’t want to get caught up in imagining what a reader might think because I do think that can get distracting. But I just think it has become clearer to me that writing is making a vessel to send to a reader. I want to write something that I connect with, and I’ll work on it as long as I can, and make the vessel itself as clearly as I can, but then sending it out is key. Then we meet on the page, invisibly. That duet, and the beauty of it, is clearer to me, and kind of amazing to me. Zadie Smith has an essay on the value of a good reader, and she gives a reader enormous dignity in how she talks about it. We sometimes pretend it’s all the writer performing, and the reader as passive recipient/admirer. But no—the reader is stepping up and joining; the reader has to put herself on the line as well.
Rumpus: As a teacher at the University of Southern California, you must read a lot of works-in-progress and encounter a wide variety of styles. Have you seen any trends among the aspiring writers that you work with? Any predictions about what American literature will look like in the next twenty or thirty years?
Bender: Great question, though I don’t know if I have a good answer for you. It’s very fun to see the styles change, or to see who is being read most intensely. Last year was Bolano and David Foster Wallace—this year I’m not sure yet. Their writing styles are all over the place, but they are definitely interested in strong voices.
Rumpus: What are you reading these days? What was the last book that surprised you?
Bender: I read Never Let Me Go last fall and it surprised me and unsettled me deeply; the emotional power there built very slowly and steadily and insistently and when I finished it, I couldn’t sleep. And, in a way that I really like, it was difficult to pinpoint why. I’m also reading and loving Eileen Myles’s book Inferno which is about her time becoming a poet in NYC in the 70’s and it’s so honest and genuine and the voice is really inviting and great. She talks about hearing Patti Smith and I then read Just Kids which I also loved but I think the two should be talked about together more—Myles’s book is more under the radar but equally compelling, just with a very different feel in the long, sparky, wild sentences vs. Smith’s more meditative, lovingly-crafted voice.