Aimee Bender is an agent of wonder and awe. Her stories and novels are magical, poignant, intelligent, disturbing, and surreal; they're conduits for transforming everyday experience into electric, emotional truth. (That's a lot of adjectives, for sure, but she's mercurial like that.) As the Denver Post writes, "Aimee Bender is one writer who is shouting clearly and beautifully from the hilltops that our lives are most definitely not ordinary and typical." And Entertainment Weekly declares, "To curl up with an Aimee Bender story is to thank heaven you ever learned to read in the first place."
Bender's first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, features Mona Gray, a math teacher who knocks on wood obsessively, worries about her father's health, and cherishes her ax, a gift to herself for her 20th birthday. In one lingering image from the novel, her childhood neighbor, Mr. Jones, wears handmade wax numbers around his neck to correspond to his daily mood. The Boston Globe raved, "[Bender] has taken an achingly idiosyncratic story and rendered it with eloquence, hilarity, and ominous precision....Beguiling and chilling at once."
In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, nine-year-old Rose discovers a special, and unwanted, skill — she can taste the emotions of the person who has cooked the food she's eating. She tastes her mother's restlessness and depression in her birthday cake, which leads her down a path of unwelcome insight into her family's unhappiness. As Rose grows up, and her family grows more unstable, Bender creates a moving and unique portrait of American adolescence. The Atlantic applauds, "Charming and wistful....[Bender] harness[es] her exquisite, bizarre sensitivity, in this haunting examination."
If you haven't read Aimee Bender yet, you are missing out on one of the singular voices in American literature.
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Jill Owens: Both of your novels have birthday cake mentioned in the first couple of pages. In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Mona makes herself a cake with rat poison in it. And in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose has her own problems with the cake. I was wondering, have you had a traumatic experience with birthday cakes?
Aimee Bender: [Laughter] That's a great question, and I'd forgotten about Mona's cake. Good point.
But, no, not that I can recall. I like birthday cake. It's so symbolic. It's a tempting symbol to load with something more complicated than just "Happy birthday!" because it's this emblem of childhood and a happy day. So, I feel like it's just waiting to be corrupted.
Jill: How did this new novel begin?
Bender: I can think of a few different threads. One is that I have a friend who will often talk about feelings as something to digest, and that's just a term she's used for years when we've talked about any experience. She'll say something like, "My feelings felt undigested," or she might be talking about someone else's. I think that term really appealed to me and was simmering in my mind, anyway.I have a lot of beginnings of stories where there is something in the food that is somehow heightened or related to feelings in some way.
That was one inroad because I wrote the first section first, about Rose and the food specifically. Then, it was more about getting to know the family and to see that the food was just a piece of a larger puzzle. I knew the whole book couldn't only be about the food. There was more to find out.
Jill: I was trying to think of the right way to describe it, and I thought, "forced empathy." Rose almost has empathy forced upon her through the food — so does her grandfather through his special skill, and possibly her father would, too, if he realized his gift.
Bender: That's a nice phrase. I like that phrase, "forced empathy."
Jill: But Joseph's special skill is harder to quantify in that way, although Rose tries. [Joseph is Rose's brother.]
Bender: Yes. He doesn't seem as connected to people. But I imagine him as being someone who doesn't have as much of a filter. Whatever he's taking in is just too much. Whereas everyone else's skill is more partitioned, or manageable, in some way.
Jill: What is your special skill, other than writing?
Bender: [Laughter] That's a hard question. I think it can be hard to know one's own. I think sometimes I can be really tuned into people, but that's not always true. I really like feeling connected to people and feeling like I have a good, solid sense of empathy. But that does come with its own complexities. It's strange. It's a good question, but it's a hard question because the characters' special skills are so odd. It's harder to pinpoint what it would be.
Jill: You don't have synesthesia, or anything? [Laughter]
Bender: No, I don't at all. I'm trying to think if there's one that fits, but not really. In some ways, as part of the process of writing this book, I've been paying more attention to things like, What is the feeling I get from a certain building or from a certain voice? What are the feelings imbued in everything? It's fun to really try to pay closer attention to the whole experience. To go to a museum or an art exhibit... For example, I went to a Hopper exhibit in Chicago a few years ago. It was a fun challenge for me to say, What are the feelings coming off of these paintings? How would I describe it to myself?
Jill: I like the scene of the food tasting in the book with Rose and the other patrons that are trying to do that, though they're not quite getting anywhere near her level.
Bender: Yes. We all can do that to some degree, I think.
Jill: Both of your novels are sort of delayed coming-of-age novels or, perhaps, refusing-to-come-of-age novels, in the sense that the main characters both stay with their families much longer than most young adults do. I was wondering what interested you about that dynamic.
Bender: That was a link that I did feel aware of, that in Invisible Sign Mona had to be kicked out of the house by her mom, and then in Lemon Cake Rose chooses to stay at home because there's been a loss, a hole that she wants to plug up. I'm really interested in the question: What are the genuine points of growing up? Especially because I do feel like there's a cultural delay now. I teach at the University of Southern California, so I have a lot of interactions with 19- and 20-year-olds. It feels as though now your whole 20s has become a time for the process of self-discovery. The old progression was: I'm getting my BA, and then I'm going to go get a job, and then I'm going to get married at 25. That has switched so much.
What are the points of separation and growing up that happen, and when do they happen? The delay does interest me, especially in terms of a family dynamic. I think it's a difficult process. There's a part of me that likes to concretize it by having the kids still in the house, not actually leaving. It's a metaphor for a kind of internal shift of independence that's stalled.
I find that interesting in myself, in coming from a close family, but also in many people that I know.We note the different points in our lives that some kind of growth happens. And they don't usually hit the mark. I had a bat mitzvah at 13. Was I ready to be a woman? No. [Laughter]
Jill: The lag between the rite of passage and the actual life stage that's supposed to correspond with it.
Bender: Yes. And they're so often startlingly off.
Jill: As you were just saying, the family is the primary focus of both Mona and Rose's lives, to the exclusion of other friendships and relationships. That's interesting and unusual, I think, for books about adolescence and early adulthood.
Bender: I get a little myopic in the act of doing any writing. I think I'm not as interested or not as able to write about balance, because I think there's something I want to try to get at. I'm trying to get at something about the experience of growing up or about families. It almost feels like things get a little extreme. It can help me to have the character get a little isolated, because it pushes things forward in that way.
With either book, it didn't feel like a pressing piece to develop the friendships. For me as a person, friendships are incredibly important to me, but in writing, they can distract me. Not consciously, but in some way from trying to get to whatever it is I'm trying to get to, about the family and about Rose. Well, not just Rose. Each member of the family has their own little piece in this book.
Jill: I think it feels realistic for her character because she's a little obsessive. But she's so worried about what's going on with her family, and so full of all of their emotions, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of room left for other people.
Bender: Right. People come packed with all of this information. That links the two siblings, Rose and Joseph, a lot, too. People are these pockets of feeling and information. Each new one comes with a whole new array of material which is both incredible and also overwhelming.
Jill: How did you come up with the character of the grandmother? She was one of my favorite characters in the book, even though she herself is only minimally in it. But her influence shadows the whole book.
Bender: That's a great question, because I had a whole longer scene with her where the family actually does go to visit her and she takes them out to dinner. It was really fun to write about her, but it didn't end up fitting in the book as a whole. But, there was something about her — she's straight down to business, but she's also a little harsh. I saw that as an important counterbalance to the other members of the family.
There was a point when they went to see her, and she was wearing an outfit that reminded me exactly of my high school English teacher, who was actually quite harsh and straightforward, and a little scary. [Laughter] So maybe she had a slight role in that grandmother character, but the grandmother is probably a compilation of a few different people.
Jill: I couldn't help but think that if my grandmother were a little bit crazy, she might start sending me things like Rose's grandmother sends her (used makeup, chipped dishes, furniture) because she has tons of that stuff in her house.
Bender: Right. Exactly, and I think there is something that was interesting to me about the process of when a person is aging and begins the giving up of objects. The idea that you could send them through the mail made sense to me in some way.
Jill: How do you think about tone? I spent all weekend with your books, which was wonderful in terms of the artistry and the writing and the emotion. Your books and stories are funny, certainly, yet, by Sunday night, I started to get really sad. There's a lot of redemption in your work, too, but, especially in the new book, Rose is so lonely through so much of it.
Bender: The new book was hard for me to write, in certain ways, and when I'd read through it, I'd feel really sad. And it was a sadness that I think I know about in some form, but also don't. That's the process of writing for me; it's like emotion that I'm trying to understand more.
I think sadness does keep coming up, and it's interesting to see what material shows up again and again. The biggest puzzle for me is that it takes awhile to figure out what characters or what ideas have the meat to go the full length of a book, something that I could write 200-plus pages about, as opposed to three pages or seven pages. There's something in that sadness that I think is compelling to me. I like that tone. I like thinking about that — or there's something about writing that makes it useful to me to think about different kinds of loneliness or different kinds of loss and to use writing as a way to explore those feelings.
It's good to hear you mention humor. [Laughter] The humor is not really deliberate. I think it just shows up where I don't want to be overly delicate with pain, and I also want to push at it. Freud says that humor comes out of aggression. I want to shake it up a little bit, too.
Jill: It's interesting you say that about figuring out what to spend 200 pages on versus three pages on, because, while I was re-reading your story collection Willful Creatures, I thought, As a reader, I'm not sure I could spend a whole novel with the big man who buys the little man — nor perhaps with the narrator of "Off." The stories are so rich and concentrated, but I don't know if I could take those characters in such high doses.
Bender: Yes. I feel the same way. I feel like I could only write the big man, little man story in little bits. I would dip in and then dip out because I don't think I could possibly carry it through for a book. I actually tried once to write a novel from the point of view of that character in "Off," and it wouldn't work. What my questions were about that character were answered in the length of the story. That's why it's such a puzzle to figure out: What are the questions that are unanswered that are sustainable? I don't know those questions going in. It means there are a lot of pages that get cut.
Jill: In Lemon Cake, you write:
It shifted my bad mood a little, to note this. The irritation was becoming just a staticky front underneath of which was forming the arrow of anticipation, beginning to point.
You frequently map emotional states in concrete images — in that case, in terms of weather, in the rest of the book through food, and then in An Invisible Sign of My Own through the numbers that Mr. Jones wears. Is that a purposeful choice?
Bender: I'm glad that you note that. It is purposeful, but I also think it may be the driving force behind all the stuff that I write, because I want very much to concretize feelings, to even try to name or describe what a given feeling is. I find both enjoyment and comfort through that.
There was one day last year, when I was having a bad day. I'd had an argument with someone and was trying to describe to myself what the feeling was in me. Once I could describe it to myself, I felt much better.There's something about the amorphous, unnamed quality of feelings that, when I can pair it with language, I feel like I have more of a sense of what's actually going on. I think that's true in everything. You mentioned the food and the numbers, and even in some of the magical realism, I think it's the same kind of impulse. Often, it can be a metaphor for a state of mind.
I specifically remember writing those lines that you read, and trying to really imagine, What is Rose feeling? What's it like to be there at a moment when she has wondered and wondered what's been going on with her brother, and is there some kind of shift happening where she'll likely find out?
I like reading that, too. That was something I really admired about Miranda July's book of stories, because she does that constantly. She is constantly describing emotions, elusive states of feeling and nuance, in these poetic lines. I really enjoy that in her work.
Jill: Those wax numbers from Invisible Sign have been such a resounding image for me. I find myself telling people about them frequently, ever since I read the book years ago. I would imagine other readers have told you that — it seems like it's such a serendipitous image, like it needed to be created to fill some kind of void.
Bender: That's so great. I'm really glad to hear it. People do say it. When the book came out, sometimes people would bring a number to a reading, or they would say, "This is the number that I am." I felt so happy about that. I think it's about communication, too. It's wanting to let people know how you actually are. That's my hope. So I'm really glad. It still comes up sometimes, and I think that's one of the images from the book that people bring up the most.
Jill: Why did you go back to the novel form for the new book? Did the story just feel like it needed to be in that format?
Bender: It was the same as with Invisible Sign in that I wanted to write a novel, but I find novels a little frightening because they're so much bigger. [Laughter]
It was an interest I had in trying again and seeing what would happen. I was working on a book for a number of years, which didn't really work, that was from the point of view of a teenage boy. Then I started another novel, and then finally I started this one. It went through a few phases, and then, in some ways, the book about the teenage boy morphed into this book, but instead of it being from his point of view, it was from the point of view of the sister of the teenage boy. So this was kind of a retelling of a novel that hadn't worked.
The thing I really love about the form is that there's so much discovery.There's a lot of discovery, sentence by sentence, with a short story. That's why I love writing short stories. But with a novel, the plot movements have to be surprising, which feels a little exhilarating in the moments that it works and horrible for the many months that I don't know what I'm doing. [Laughter]
Jill: I was going to ask how you build a novel in contrast to a short story. I was thinking about the accumulation of details, of themes that emerge and then re-emerge. There are so many details in your novels that feel true and accurate for the characters on their own. But then they also become the perfect symbols and vehicles for moving the plot of the novel forward.
Bender: I'm glad. It's an awkward process for me. I will write for a couple of hours in the morning and see what comes up. So, I'll start one novel, and that won't go anywhere. Then I'll start a second novel, and I have these various beginning bits. With this book, the character of Rose popped into place.
I was talking with a composer, Harold Meltzer, who wanted to collaborate on a piece about the seven deadly sins. But, he didn't want them to be the seven deadly sins — he wanted instead to switch them around. So, instead of gluttony, the sin would be refusing food. Rage would be passive-aggressiveness. I thought that was so amazingly cool. Harold was like, "Would you be interested in working on little paragraph monologues for voices?" So, instead of pride, the thing I wrote was about someone who refused to say that they went to Harvard. You know how sometimes people go to Harvard and they just say, "I went to school in Boston"? It's something like pride, but it's like hidden pride. I just want the person to say, "I went to Harvard." And, I would say, "That's great!" [Laughter] It's the same thing as passive-aggressiveness in that it's slightly below the surface.
Jill: I talked to Brady Udall a couple weeks ago, and when he was talking about using animals in his writing, he said: "They can accept and absorb our hopes and fears in a way that humans can't." Potentially in connection with that, when you're writing magical realism or about the fantastic, what does that let you express that writing more straightforward "realistic" fiction would not?
Bender: It's a nice comparison to the animals; it lines up in some way.
I believe there's something about just being a person and living your life that's hard to articulate. It doesn't feel like the realism is as available to me. Sometimes I'm inhibited by what's happened in my life or the actual people that I know. If I'm representing them in a real way, and trying to be honest about whatever feelings come up — all of that gets a little more inhibited if I'm trying to be truer to my actual experience.
There's something about metaphor and about magical realism that feels like I can just forget. It feels very free. Whatever the story is, I can try to be as honest as I possible about what's happening. I actually feel this as a reader and as a movie- and museumgoer, too. I respond more viscerally to the feelings that come up when reality is a little bit skewed. It feels like it gives me more direct access as opposed to less.
Jill: I love that idea. Because it's unfamiliar, you're not bringing to it the same kind of baggage and attachments and associations that you already have. You can see it anew.
Bender: Exactly. There's a beautiful, very, very short story by Cynthia Ozick called "The Shawl." It's a story about a concentration camp, but the language in it is so lovely. She doesn't name it, the camp, but she lets you know enough to determine that that's what it is. Then she lets all the associations come in. It's so powerful. It made me feel a depth of sadness that I hadn't felt in something that was more direct.
Jill: I also read The Third Elevator this weekend, the book you did with Madras Press, which is absolutely magical and lovely. How did that project happen?
Bender: Thank you. I'm so glad you found it. That was a story I wrote many years ago and had never been sure what to do with it, because it's slightly too long to fit in a story collection. I was going to try to put it in Willful Creatures, but balance-wise it didn't really work. And I always wanted it to be its own little, self-contained piece.
There was an art project in L.A. that did a series of books, and they published it, but in a very limited run, so that trickled away. Then, this guy Sumanth, who's the editor of Madras Press and who used to be at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, was working on their journal, Ecotone. I'd had some nice collaboration with him, and my sister and brother-in-law teach there and are writers, as well. So, it was all connected.
Sumanth had moved to Boston and wanted to do this project. He asked if I had anything that was a little bit longer. It was a perfect set-up. Then, he asked if I could draw the cover, which I'd always wanted to do, so that was really fun. And I'm happy that he's having proceeds go to whatever nonprofit each writer wants to support. That was totally satisfying. Plus, the books are a really good price, so that's nice, too.
Jill: What do you think is so magical or archetypical about the number three in Western culture? Because there are three elevators in your story, and in so many fairy tales there are three doors, three kingdoms, three daughters, etc.
Bender: I think there's a mathematical idea about three — though I don't totally know what it is — or even a rhythmic idea. There's a sense that we use the first two to build up the third, which has a different resonance. I think it goes to a primal place. In that vein, there's something about narrative that builds up to three very naturally. It also shows up all the time in sitcoms. The joke will build: one, two, and then on the third is the bigger laugh. I think we're wired to it. But you're right. Three is all over fairy tales.
I teach a fairy-tale class, and we don't do that many world-wide fairy tales, but when we do, I notice that it shows up in those, too. So, I think it might be international phenomenon.
Jill: A cross-cultural rhythm.
Bender: Yes. There are often three kids, three trials... It's almost like it feels good in the body.
Jill: Your story "Job's Jobs" reminded me of the beginning of Invisible Sign, in a way. Job is being forced to quit everything that he loves to do, whereas Mona is quitting the things that she loves to do on purpose, just as she gets good at them. It reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art." I was wondering, have you had to quit anything that you've loved?
Bender: That's a good link.It took me awhile to figure out what I liked, to focus myself. I like all sorts of different things, so I definitely quit my share of activities growing up. I liked piano, and I liked ballet, and all these kinds of lessons that then fizzled away. There's something about figuring out where to follow through that was a big deal for me when I took my own writing more seriously. It was easy to kind of dabble.
Jill: That's like Rose's mom, too. She's trying out all these different careers and activities that she eventually gets tired of.
Bender: Exactly. In that way, I definitely relate to her. There was a point where I really felt worried. As in, What am I going to do? I don't know. I like all sorts of different things. There's something wonderful about it because it comes from a love of the world. But then it's hard to narrow down.
Jill: What would Rose taste if she ate a meal that you cooked today?
Bender: [Laughter] Today, I think she would probably taste excitement about the book coming out. But, it would be a strange sculpture within a sculpture, like a Russian doll. I would say two answers. In terms of the feelings that I feel at the moment, I'm on my summer break, and I'm delighted about that, and I'm really excited about the book coming out. But there's also this tricky piece which is that part of Rose's ability to taste the feelings that people aren't always aware that they're feeling. In which case, I don't know! [Laughter] I think I'm pretty aware of what I am feeling, but...
Jill: But you can't speak for Rose, in that case.
Bender: Yes, I can't guarantee that I know everything that's going on. But I think it would be, hopefully, a good meal.
Books mentioned in this post