A Conversation with Aimee BenderBy Angela Stubbs
December 01, 2010
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is your fourth book, 2nd novel. What drove you towards the novel form this time around?
I like to work on both at the same time. I’ll work on a story for awhile and then switch gears and muck around in a novel to take the pressure off both forms.
Do you feel that it’s easier to take a break between novels and work on short-story collections? Do you have a form you prefer?
I feel more at home in the short story but writing one affects the other so currently my stories are all kind of long!
This book takes place in Los Angeles. Tell me why you decided to set your story in Los Angeles.
I’ve often set stories in a kind of unnamed town or city, and this time around I wanted to ground it somewhere and I hadn’t written a longer piece about Los Angeles. I grew up here and I know a lot about it so it just was fun to use the names and places and show a kind of daily L.A., connected to errands and walks and trees. A few people commented on how it’s a different L.A. than they imagine, not having been here, and I was glad to hear that. The city has been so eclipsed by film and TV.
When you began this novel did it begin as a short story or could you tell it would be something larger?
I did know that it would be larger– when I hit upon the food idea I knew there were a lot of scenes in that, but I wasn’t sure where it would go after that.
You enjoy writing very surreal, fairytale-esque stories/fictions. I like to call them Grimm’s Fairytales on acid–what about childlike innocence and storytelling appeals to you as a writer?
I’ve always loved fairy tales and the quickness Italo Calvino talks about in his essay by that title– how they move at a fast pace and information flies out at you. And the movement in fairy tales is often so unexpected and the imagery is plain but resonant– Snow White in a glass coffin– a glass coffin! It’s immediately evocative and carries with it a kind of well-honed dream language.
Do you tend to edit as you go when you’re writing a novel? or do you find it’s easier to go back and trim words/pages where necessary after you’ve finished an entire chapter or portion of the novel? Is your editing process any easier when you write short stories?
I’ll write in the morning, and then the next day, part of re-reading is a re-doing, a re-going-in. So I’ll add and trim and cut and paste and all that as early as day two. It’s almost a combing through– new paragraphs/ideas will come from that second read, and it goes on and on until it’s forming into something.
You’ve always had a knack for writing stories that deal with magical realism. I think of this as a tool for writers because I think we have a unique gift to empathize with other people (fictional or otherwise) and writing about experience or perceived/imagined experiences are often better explained or understood when using something like surrealism or magical realism in one’s work. How do you feel about that?
Yes, I agree– often if a story is told in a skewed way, I will find myself responding more readily to it. Hard to pinpoint why. I remember reading Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” which is full of such luscious, rich language as it tackles the Holocaust. The magic in the story, the beauty in the magic– allowed me to feel the bleakness more than a more bleakly told story might’ve. It’s a very powerful story.
As I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake I began asking myself questions like, “what would it be like to really be able to feel everyone’s feelings all the time through food or work/art/objects that one has created. Have you ever experienced any kind of psychic feeling or been able to intuit on any level something similar to the fictional version of your main character?” if none of the above applies, what then, would you like to have the ability or superpower to intuit?
No psychic feelings or abilities but I have a pretty good intuitive sense sometimes. But also in other ways I’m dense, dunce-like. But I do think there’s a lot of information we pick up from one another without even knowing it. I was a spacy kid on occasion, a daydreamer, and I think that was partially a way to get a break if I felt like I didn’t want to pick up more than I was already picking up.
I recently took a class writing class on the Art of the Everyday at Naropa University this past summer. We discussed, among many other things, art for the sake of art and whether or not we can label something art if it exists only for ourselves. If it exists and we share it with the rest of the world does that then validate something as being art? What are your thoughts as it pertains to work you create that does or does not see the light of day. How many pieces of “art” would you say you have hidden or tucked away that you’ve written that no one has ever seen or read?
A very interesting question, and an ongoing debate, always. I do think writing, or art, activates, or becomes what it is, when another person sees it and experiences it. Paul Auster says something along the lines of ‘writer and reader make the book, both’. And I love that– that the reader’s role is actually half, that the reader needs to step in and do her work too. That the work is inert until that reader shows up. But– then there’s Emily Dickinson. And her work was just waiting unread for scores of readers to find it and be moved by it but its timing hadn’t arrived yet. The work still needed that reader– but it was going to happen outside her awareness. I also think of DH Lawrence, who has a really interesting essay on Pornography and Obscenity, where he excoriates art that is masturbatory, art that is not a way to try to connect with someone but only is the artist getting off for him or herself. And he wants art to reach out, to be a communication. That does not mean it has to be about reaching out– it can be about a selfish self-centered masturbatory character and still be a gesture on the part of the writer to a reader, a kind of connection that requires a reader to occur.
You’re teaching at USC in their Creative Writing/English program. What’s your biggest challenge as an instructor vs. being Aimee Bender, the writer?
I love teaching but the paper trail piles up and right around now I am wiped out from all the extra details. And there’s less reading time. So I really soak up the breaks.
Is there anything that you edited out of TPSOLC that you wanted to leave in and if so, what? How do you feel about the editing process? Are you able to part with pieces of the novel easily if necessary?
I had a line about how what landed on Rose was a talent and what landed on Joseph was an illness, but that maybe they were in some way the same shape, or a similar shape, just different intensities, different sizes. The line is botched here, and truth is, I couldn’t make it fit. But I did try. I do part with loads of pieces– it’s just part of the way that I work, and sometimes it’s upsetting but sometimes the scenes show up in other places, later.
How closely do you get to work with your editor on the changes that need to be made and is that easy or difficult for you?
We work closely– for Lemon Cake he sent me a few pages of notes, and careful on-the-page notes, and very thoughtful ideas on character and structure. I’m lucky with this– I’ve worked with the same editor for all four books and that is rare these days. He’s incredibly respectful of writers, so the process has been smooth and much easier than it might be. I get protective more often with copy editors who will suggest things that are sometimes more logical but lose the rhythm of a line.
Many of your characters and stories have to do with the trials and tribulations of being a young (er) person, adolescence. Do you feel more comfortable writing about characters that are dealing with the strife of that time of life or is that just happenstance?
I just like that time; I find it so interesting, endlessly. So ripe. So much going on below and above surface.
I read your first short story collection almost 10 years ago. Since then you’ve written another collection (Willful Creatures) and two novels. You are on best-seller lists and touted as being one of the best short-story writers around. What’s it like to see your fan base grow and readership expand?
Thanks– it’s very nice, what you say, and gratifying. And still surprising to me! I love meeting people at readings and talking a bit– it’s a great treat for me.
I’m always interested in fans/readers who think an author’s work is some kind of thinly veiled autobiography. Do you ever get questions about the stories you write and/or questions about any strange connections/parallel as it may relate to your own life?
Yes– I sometimes do, but I think less than others since magic is such a good disguise. And ultimately– the details of my life are regular life details and not so interesting, and hopefully what comes through in the fiction is a more complex rendering of what I’m trying to sort out over time.
You have a close-knit group of friends who are also writers that you met while getting your MFA at UC, Irvine, chief among that group–authors Glen David Gold and Alice Sebold. After all the years that have passed, how much to you rely on each other for feedback when you’re editing or writing (or re-writing) as the case may be? Tell me about that dynamic.
Yes– they’re just great and we still read one another’s work, but more when someone has a whole book to show. Both of them are incredibly smart and thoughtful and challenging readers and also we know each other well so we can point out aspects to each other as friends, too– where the work might be stepping away from its charge, or what is changing over time.
After having conquered writing, yet another successful novel, do you think you’ll collaborate with any other authors on upcoming works? Another short-story collection? Tell me what’s driving you to write now and if you can, tell us a little about what you think your next project will be.
Not sure yet what the next project will be– I have some stories cooking, and some hints of beginnings of novel ideas, and this week I’m working on a piece for a radio show. This part is always pretty slow and often a little laborious– just seeing what might rise up, and not knowing at all what it’ll be.
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