The Aimee Bender interview

July 8, 2011

Monday I’ll be sharing your thoughts on the best and oddest parades you’ve ever witnessed so if you haven’t yet please send in your suggestion today!

Today I interview the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a New York Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper's, Tin House, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, as well as heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. She has received two Pushcart prizes, and was nominated for the TipTree award in 2005, and the Shirley Jackson short story award in 2010. Aimee Bender lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC.

What’s typically the first lesson or assignment you give your students?
Usually I do an exercise about a box-- it's a bare bones plot assignment, based on a classic exercise.  Two characters (human or not) go into some kind of space, see a box of some sort, open it, and one has a positive reaction and the other a negative reaction. (By now I have to tell them that wedding ring moments are not allowed-- there have been a bunch!)  But the premise behind it is to see how everyone writes so differently with the identical storyline/structure.  It also is a good icebreaker for students who haven't written in awhile.

Have there ever been any writing assignments or prompts you thought would be a raging success that didn’t seem to take seed, for whatever reason?
All the time-- it's so interesting how that works.  Expectations play a big role here. When I smugly assume it'll work is usually when it doesn't. (And that seems to be true in so many ways, actually-- constantly humbling, that smugness!)  But assignments I tweak on the spot or interest me very directly or feel scary in some way usually work well. My own engagement in the exercise seems to affect how I transmit it. Same with readings-- if I get a laugh one night, and then I anticipate that laugh the next night, I read it with a little different spin and don't get the laugh.

Do you have a policy for what you do when you read something in your students’ writing that you find either disturbing or simply an unnecessary turn-off?
Generally I'm okay with turn-offs because there's usually something to discuss.  Is the writer hiding behind shock value? Is the writer risking anything, really?  And I think writing can be a very healthy place to talk about violence, and prejudice, and taboo. There are certainly violent, prejudiced, and disturbing characters that need life on the page.  One thing I found very consoling and useful about the info after the Virginia Tech creative writing shooting is what people said about the guy's work-- that it wasn't just content that disturbed, it was the feeling that lifted off the pages, a feeling of someone who wasn't thinking clearly.  A kind of mental illness visible in associations or tone.  If I see something like that, I will take notice and either keep an eye on the student or consult someone.  I do have a policy that students cannot write about other members of the class, including me.  One student once violated this by writing a piece with me in it, and it was really unsettling to me, and I reacted strongly.  I was a grad student at the time, and I found it frightening.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Kafka on the Shore which I just loved.  I want to go on and on about it but would spoil too much of the plot.  I'm now reading Anthony Doerr's wonderful stories in Memory Wall.

What are your pop-culture guilty pleasures?
I love reading US magazine at the gym. And will occasionally find myself hooked by America's Next Top Model or some other reality show. What I find hilarious and fascinating about America's Next Top Model is how morbid it is. They really had an episode where all the models had to dress up like terminal illnesses. What? It seemed sadistic and funny and painful and riveting.  

When you write about L.A., what are some aspects of it that you aim to portray that you don’t think are reflected that much in other books/shows/movies?
The everydayness of L.A.-- the markets, the walking, the trees, the ordinary people, the regular bodies, the beautiful subtle weather.  

What’s your favorite creepy fairy tale?
The Juniper Tree, hands down.

What do you do when you’re feeling stuck or uninspired? Do you give yourself prompts?
Yes, sometimes. For years I did font exercises, where I'd change fonts and write about that font, in the mood the font seemed to give me.  The magazine Zyzzyva very kindly published some of those which was so unexpected and gratifying.  So often things get published from prompts or little nuggets vs. the ultra polished/detached story I've been working at forever and no one wants.  Or, I will riff off words.  For awhile I made lists of words I love and I'd play with those.  I also just sit restlessly and look at the clock a lot.

When or where do your ideas typically hit you?
During the writing itself, generally.  The idea will find itself inside a sentence and then go. I rarely, rarely have an idea before I sit down. On a rare occasion, something will bubble up during the rest of the day, or on a walk. On an even rarer occasion, those things will go somewhere.

Do you read your reviews?
I do. It's nerve-wracking but I am curious to see what people take from what I wrote.

Of the many short stories you’ve written, which ending has brought you the most satisfaction?
Interesting question!  A tough one.  There's a story in Flammable Skirt called "Legacy" that doesn't make full logical sense but I found it so satisfying to end regardless, where a character trait is passed along unexpectedly.  In workshop, someone kept puzzling over it and she said it just didn't fit but I felt it fit in some way I couldn't articulate.  But endings are important to me, so it's also hard to say which has meant the most-- sometimes a story has to sit for years, years! before the right ending arrives.  That was true with “Dearth”-- a story about a woman who ends up with a flock of potato babies-- and it took a long time to figure out how it ended and then I was very glad and relieved.

Do you watch much TV? Who are your favorite characters on TV?
I don't watch a lot but I do like it.  I like Glee.  I love The Wire.  I love Friday Night Lights.  Battlestar Galactica -- Sharon was a great character there.  I love the guy on Friday Night Lights -- the stand-up nerd who won the bombshell -- Landry -- what a great character.  And Tyra, too.  Omar on The Wire.   Kenneth on 30 Rock.

Is there anything you’d like to try, writing-wise, that you haven’t before? Like a certain type of character or voice or setting or even just the process?
Absolutely. Lots of things! Voices -- older voices, different places, futuristic, small paragraphs a la Mary Robison. I've been wanting to start sentences in different places. To try to write something that acknowledges history.

Speaking of process, how do you write? Word document, or the ol’ pen and paper, or something else?
Word doc, nearly always.  

What music have you been listening to lately?
PJ Harvey's new one is great-- Let England Shake.  Some piano Beethoven sonatas. Exile on Main Street has been in my CD player at home for months now.  

What’s your favorite cover of the books you’ve published?
I think the olive green paperback of Willful Creatures with the red guy in the cage-- I just love that green color and they let me choose it and that felt so fun to do!

When you read for fun, do you finish every short story you start, or do you ever abort if you’re just not feeling it? How long do you give it to grab you?
I abort -- Nancy Pearl the queen of librarians has a great theory on when you can abandon a book based on your age -- I'm sure it's on her website somewhere, but she's made a real equation about when it's ok to give up. I give a story's plot awhile but it has to be satisfying on the sentence level from page one. There are WAY too many great things to read to read anything for obligation unless it is an actual obligation. But if the writing is satisfying unto itself, I'll read for quite awhile, and the story can take its time. This is true of Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels which is full of gorgeousness but a slower kind of story.

How does it feel to be the 286th person interviewed for Zulkey.com (and now WBEZ)?
Great!  A nice round number there.

You can check out more Zulkey.com interviews here if you so choose!