Tell me your unthinkable thoughts.
Right now I’m worried this interview will be boring.
So tell us something interesting, please.
Well, our children will probably read this, so I will tell them directly, here, via an interview on a website: Please. I’m begging you. Go clean your rooms.
Well, onward. Why did you write A Town of Empty Rooms?
I write partly to teach myself something. What I wanted to learn by writing this book is why people like to accuse one another. I started thinking about it around 2003, when huge, dinosaur-like tanks were calmly rolling down Oleander Boulevard in Wilmington, North Carolina, about to be shipped to Iraq. It was insane. Suddenly, the nation was at war—and this when there were protests against this war all over the globe. People were, on a massive scale, not listening to each other. Then I looked around me, at various groups I belonged to, at people around me, and I started to see how we all often missed each other. I was feeling somewhat lonely, and I sensed around me a general kind of loneIiness. And I wanted to figure this out.
So why do people like to accuse each other?
I think it’s incredibly hard for people to step out of their own heads—or their own “empty room,” from the title—and really listen to what another person is saying. I love the Fran Leibowitz quote: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” I think that’s really true—people like to wait to say their piece instead of trying to absorb what another person feels. I wanted to explore how we’re all often listening to our own ticker tapes running through our heads. It’s so precious to actually be understood.
What is the ticker tape running through your own head?
You don’t want to know.
Really! Why not?
It’s really just the usual muck. But I love the comment by John Cheever in his journals, that you just referred to—in his journals, he said he wrote to “show others that their thoughts were not unthinkable.”
This book seems darker than your last one. Why?
I actually feel that darkness in writing can be a form of compassion. In this novel, I wanted to show how people are struggling with different feelings and don’t necessarily do the right thing when trying to deal with them. And while I was writing this book, I was reading writers who were so clear-eyed about the human condition—Paula Fox, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Cynthia Ozick, James Baldwin. I loved writing about my characters’ struggles. I also find it fun to read about characters struggling, acting out. Some of my favorites are Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or Alexander Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint, or Richard Tull in The Information, or Johnny Hake in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, or the whole cast of The Widow’s Children or anyone in Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I love these characters, their weakness, their weird humanity.
What’s so great about characters who act out?
I think reading about complex characters can be somewhat cathartic, as we see how they are like us in surprising ways. And then we understand how we can live our lives differently from these characters. So I love reading about these characters. But I don’t know if I’d want to have coffee with any of them.
Let’s go back to those unthinkable thoughts. Why are you so interested in them?
The religion in our house growing up was really psychoanalysis. My father’s a psychoanalyst and I started learning from an early age how to figure out what people were really saying (“So and so is being mean because she’s insecure!” Etc.) And psychoanalysis really saved me at a couple points in my life. It’s a lot like narrative because it is about stories, exploring what is emotionally most interesting to you. And the most interesting thoughts in psychoanalysis are the “unthinkable” ones. The ones we have to press down as we go about our lives. To air these thoughts, release them, is comforting. And I think fiction can have the same effect.
To read an honest story, a story that feels surprising and true, feels like a window is being opened in yourself. You think—I’m not alone! Someone else feels the same way. That is what my favorite fiction does for me. It says: I’m not alone. And neither are you.
Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Story, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, and other magazines. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South: The Years Best, and have won two Pushcart prizes. She lives in North Carolina with her family, and teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.