A lonely man keeps a tiny man for a pet; a fruit stand vendor secretly sculpts words out of noble gases; a boy is born with fingers shaped like keys ("sharp ridges running along the inner length, and a point at the tip")...
On the surface, most of the stories in Willful Creatures shouldn't ring true at all. But think of a roller coaster: Bender's magical flourishes crank you up, up, up along the tracks until, suddenly, break-necking back toward reality, a single line tears your stomach out. The ride gets addictive—mundane and surreal, fantastic and familiar, one rush leaves you clamoring for the next.
The author's precocious debut, 1998's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, introduced to American fiction a voice of uncommon invention and feeling—"visionary," as Jonathan Lethem aptly described it, "but close to home." Two years later came a novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, which proved that Bender's peculiar vantage on human relations needn't be confined to ten- or twenty-page frames.
Willful Creatures, seven years in the making—and so eagerly anticipated—does not disappoint. Critic Jessica Shaw raved in Entertainment Weekly, "To curl up with an Aimee Bender story is to thank heaven you ever learned to read in the first place. What a treat to spend 15 stories in Bender's vast and wonderfully unhinged imagination."
Dave: What comes to mind when you hear the words "the perfect story"?
Aimee Bender: There's a story by Richard Brautigan called "The Weather in San Francisco," and I think it's a perfect story in its way. I think it means that the story is unusual and complete, so it feels finished, but at some point it took a turn that you didn't see coming. I remember reading Denis Johnson's "Car Crash while Hitchhiking," the first story in Jesus' Son, and thinking, How did that happen? What just happened?
Perfect is a weird word because it could imply that a story has to be set a certain way, but I don't think that's true. A perfect story, I think, you just wouldn't want to be any other way.
Dave: You've been working on the stories in Willful Creatures for years now, publishing them one by one in journals. What surprised you most when you first saw them together as a collection?
Bender: People say it feels like a darker collection in certain ways. That surprised me. I thought, Is that true? How can that be true?
I'm still learning to see it as a collection. It takes me a while. I'll listen to the comments about it and absorb them, trying to get a sense of what the book is actually like. I'm so used to the stories as individual parts.
Bender: Yes! Excellent! It is.
Someone was saying she's gotten a little meaner, and I think it's true. Someone had noticed, or I had told them. Most people have not made that connection.
Dave: Maybe she was more vulnerable in "Call My Name." There was a different balance of power.
Bender: It's true. And I don't know if she seems younger here or older. She seems more jaded. But she's a fun character to write from because she's so out there. She's so focused.
Dave: In an essay about Murakami that you published in Remarkable Reads, you admitted, "The complaints people have about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are often what I love most. It's messiness, its hanging threads, its matter-of-fact surrealism."
Those qualities are present in your own writing; so often, your stories defy analytical sense. I wondered, then, how do you edit when the intuitive nature of the material is so central to what you're trying to do?
Bender: There are edits Murakami could have made with that book that I think would have made people happier with it; there are parts of the story where I still don't know what it's supposed to mean—he could have let it drift up to the surface of consciousness a tiny bit more. As a reader, though, I like two things: I like trying to figure it out on my own, and I like that he was willing to put it out there at that stage. It feels generous to me. He's not shaping it until it's a perfect pebble.
But to answer your question, I have a tendency to reread and reread, and there's a certain point where it's nice to remember that I want to put the work out there. Some of it will have risen to the surface enough. Sometimes, it's risen to the surface too much. It's an intuitive rewriting process in the same way that the writing is intuitive. When do I feel like I'm harming the story by going at it again?
I think I'm doing that with a story I'm working on now. I now hate it, whereas a month ago I was really liking it. Somewhere in there, it turned. Now what do I do? Do I go back to an earlier draft? Do I just wait? I think what I need to do with that one is wait a while, until I can return to it lovingly— and hopefully take it somewhere.
Dave: In a lot of the stories, you don't give your characters names. A person could argue that you're setting up an additional challenge for yourself by instituting that kind of detachment. How would you respond? What do you feel like you gain from it?
Bender: Saying "the man" or "the woman," sometimes I like those words better than the words of names, even though it's true that once you name someone they're more specific and the reader can identify with them more. Maybe it's just an attraction to a kind of fairy-tale storytelling—it feels like names would be slightly too specific for the story; sometimes it would be a loss to attach a name to the characters. Like the big man and the little man [in "End of the Line"]—the big man can't have a name. I would lose part of my feeling about who he is. He's just "the big man"; he can't be Bob.
It feels like a texture to me. The texture would go a little wrong if the character was named, if the story wants to be more mythic. As soon as someone is named, the story enters the world of reality a little more. As soon as a capital letter comes into play, it looks different and it feels different.
Dave: In the L.A. Times you were quoted as saying, "There are a whole spectrum of ways people can fail to connect with each other. That can provide a lot of material."
Bender: The ways they do connect, too. There's a spectrum of those moments of connection and the moments we fail to connect, going from super-large successes to failures. Success would be love, I guess, and failure could still be love, but the bad side; and loss.
But it can be subtle, too. Sometimes I'll feel really satisfied paying for my bag of potato chips at the supermarket; and sometimes I'll feel like there's a missed moment there, where we're not even seeing each other—it's just bag of chips, and one dollar, and quarter change, and that's the experience. We're interacting with people everywhere, and there are all these gradations of people seeing each other.
Dave: What's the most underrated body part?
Bender: Wow. Maybe the elbow? It's really underrated. A lot of them are really highly rated, I think; a lot of them get a lot of attention.
Dave: The nose gets a lot of attention.
Bender: It does.
Dave: It's right there in the middle of your face.
Bender: It's true. I'll stick with the elbow.
Dave: I think it's good.
Bender: Okay. Thank you.
Dave: In so many of your stories, characters are drawn with a physical deformity or some other trait that sets them apart from others. I don't mean this in a negative way, but is that a kind of shortcut?
Bender: Yes. Right. I think it can be viewed in a negative way. Or there's a way that it's true for a kind of magical storytelling, and it's true for deformity, and it's true for writing about sex, and it's true for writing about teenagers—I'm coming to see that the common theme in the subjects I pick is that something is made physical that is an emotional state. That means I can write about it as a physical thing.
That doesn't mean that a person's deformity in real life has anything to do with their emotional state, but in story-land it can work that way because you can use it as metaphor. If there's some deformity I can play with?
If the girl has a hand of fire, I'm going to spend the whole time wondering, What does she burn up? What does she not burn up? How does she sleep? I'm going to be preoccupied with small details, but the small details carry with them, hopefully, bigger things. So it feels like cheating—This counts? How can I be getting away with this?—and at the same time I think it grounds the story for me. It gives me access to the story.
Dave: Reading the story about the boy with keys for fingers ["The Leading Man"], I had the feeling, which occurs every now and then, of Why hasn't someone written about this before?
Bender: Oh, good!
Dave: It seems so obvious once you think about it.
Bender: That's nice to hear. I know that feeling when I'll read something that just feels like, Of course. It makes some kind of sense. And who knows where that image came from? It popped right out of the air. But it does give me a job at that point, which is to find the doors. Where are they? And they'll surprise me, where they are. That feels like a more tangible step in the process for me, and that makes it more pleasurable. It's fun to wonder where the doors are. Who knows?
Dave: In the Murakami essay, you listed a number of elements that he uses "to sustain the motion of the story"—surrealism, psychology, history, sociology. History rarely plays a role in your writing.
Bender: It's true. I would like to include history more often but I'm intimidated by it. I'm not so good with the facts. I make things up, and then I have to double-check and triple-check to make sure I wasn't being completely ridiculous about my assumptions.
He was great with the World War II stuff in Wind-Up Bird. There's a part where the character and his wife are raising vegetables in Hiroshima; it feels like an acknowledgment of the nuclear bomb and the change —if you can grow vegetables there, then things must be healing. He has an ease with history that I really don't.
Dave: How has living in Los Angeles shaped your writing? You're not working in any kind of local tradition such as noir. And you're not writing stories or novels that would be readily adaptable as screenplays. You're also not writing stories set on Venice Beach; it's not that either. But I feel like there is a sensibility, something native to southern California?
Bender: It's hard to tell what part of the place is in me because I'm from there, but my current thought is this: People think L.A. is a very social city because of the wheeling and dealing, people making movies; everyone's so friendly—nuts but still smiley. They're not grim, toughened New Yorkers. And I think part of the reason that's true is because it can be very introverted in L.A.; you spend so much time in your car, often by yourself, that there's a lot of down-time. There's a lot of daydreaming space in L.A., and in that way I think that does help my work.
People on the subway in New York, you know how they don't look at each other? I think it's because they need a break from people—and they don't have a car. So you need to create your own little bubble. In L.A., you can be friendly all the time because you keep going back to your protective bubble. It takes a half-hour to get anywhere. How many half-hours in a day do I have? I have plenty of them, going from place to place. It's not like I'm doing my writing in that time, but it gives me that space-out time. It's protected.
Dave: Where do you take friends who visit?
I take classes there, too. It's great for writers because it's half real and half not, and no one knows what's what. They have this wonderful, very dark exhibit of trailer parks in America, little dioramas of trailer parks with chirping crickets. It's beautiful! Somehow there's something so lovely about it. They have letters to the observatory and bats that fly through walls. It's a great place. I'll take people there—and to the beach, often. And I have nieces and nephews that come visit, so we go to the Tar Pit Museum. I've been to the Tar Pit Museum probably eight times in the last couple years, so I know it pretty well.
Dave: What number are you wearing today?
Bender: It's been moving around a lot. I'm probably around a sixteen or a seventeen. Not a great mood, not a bad mood. But I'm glad to be in Portland. It's beautiful out.
Dave: You're here the right time of year.
Bender: It's so pretty.
Dave: Have you had time to get out and do anything?
Bender: I walked around a little bit. I went to the farmers market by the Heathman Hotel. I had some blackberries; they were such good blackberries. And I tried some Havarti cheese samples.
I was really jealous of that farmers market. I was having Portland-envy in a really big way. It's easy to romanticize this city.
Dave: Particularly in August.
Bender: Everyone looks like they have a very livable life. A lovely life. It seems very manageable, but also beautiful.
Dave: But we don't spend nearly enough time in our cars.
Bender: Right! You can actually just go home. Things are next to each other. It's a good size city.
Dave: When Ian McEwan was here, he said, "If I was commanded by the government to exchange whatever writing ability I had with someone else's other ability, I'd say to Ry Cooder, 'You can have my writing ability; I want your playing ability.'"
Whose ability would you trade for?
Bender: It definitely wouldn't be a writer because I think I would want a break from words. There are a lot of people; that's the challenge. How do you narrow it down?
I think maybe a composer/performer. Maybe Yo Yo Ma—that would be very cool. Or, it would also be cool to be one of those joyful scientists, working on quarks. Like Richard Feynman, though he's dead. Someone who is seeing a kind of lightness. The Dalai Lama—that would be good! Someone who has a handle on something pretty large that I don't understand at all.
Some kind of dancer would be amazing, too.
Dave: If someone wants to read Italo Calvino but doesn't know where to start, what book would you recommend?
Bender: What kind of person are they?
Dave: A good reader, open-minded. And they come to you and say, "Aimee, you love Calvino. What should I read first?"
Bender: The first one I would recommend would be Cosmicomics because it's so light and funny and deep and great, but I think I like his stories better than his novels, generally. There is Invisible Cities, which are like little bon bons. But I'd stick by Cosmicomics. That's my answer.
Dave: Are there topics you're surprised more people don't bring up with you in interviews?
Bender: I'm asked less about things in the realist vein. Since I'm writing all these metaphoric stories, how do you ask about real life?
Maybe that's not surprising, but often people will be like, These stories are so out there. As if there isn't a bit of weirdness in everybody. It's like, Wow, she's got such a wacky mind! I think some people perceive my work that way.
Dave: Do you have any interests that would people wouldn't expect?
Bender: I took a meditation class. That was really interesting. And I'm interested in psychology, but I think that's pretty evident. And food. I really like food.
I'm in a reading group with friends—it's a potluck. We're doing hard books that no one will read one their own. We just did The Odyssey, which I'd never read. It was good to finally read it. And it was really good. It was extremely readable. Who knew? Who knew that's why they assign it—because it's actually really great, not just to torture young minds.
Dave: I came across an interview recently where you were talking about reading Ulysses. I took a class, my senior year of college, where week after week we read every word of the book out loud.
Bender: That's amazing.
Dave: I don't know what other book you would do that for or how often you would want to do it, but it was great. For the first six weeks of class we studied Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, and on our own we read the Richard Ellman biography, but we spent the rest of the year going page-by-page through Ulysses. On the last day of class, an Irish actress came in?
Bender: ...to read Molly. Wow.
Did you have a chance to talk about it as you read aloud?
Dave: We did. My copy of the book is funny, actually, because for pages and pages there are notes through all the margins, and then there will be eighteen consecutive unmarked pages—a class that I missed.
Bender: That's a dream. The book is so poetic. That was what amazed me about Ulysses: how playful it is on the page, how exuberantly playful. That's the shock that I felt about it, which I feel repeatedly with great literature. How playful The Great Gatsby is, to name another, how he'll take an image and it will be sparking with life.
I developed a prejudice in high school that it was all going to be boring. That kind of teenage, why-do-I-have-to-read-these-goddamn-classics feeling. And then you discover that the classics are classics because they're lively. They don't stick around because they're boring. If they're boring, they go away.
[Editor's note: At this point, Aimee recorded several short audio segments for The Bookcast at Powells.com/a>. In closing, she read the first two pages of "Ironhead," a story in Willful Creatures, transcribed below.]
The pumpkinhead couple got married. They had been dating for many years and by now she was impatient. "I'm getting cooked," she told him, and she took his hand up to her neck to the inside of her head so he could feel the warmth of the flesh there, how it was growing soft and meaty with time; he reeled from both burden and arousal. Taking her hand, they walked over to the big soft bed and while he unbuttoned her dress, he thought about what she was asking for and thought it was something he could give her. He slipped his belt out of the loops and the waist of his pants sighed and fell open. When the pumpkinheads had sex, it was at a slight angle so that their heads would not bump
* * *
They had a big wedding with a live jazz band, and she gave birth to two children in the span of four years, each with its own small pumpkinhead, a luminous moon of pumpkin, one more yellowish, one a deep dark orange. The pumpkinhead mother became pregnant with her third child in the seventh year, and walked around the house, rubbing her belly, particularly the part that bulged more than the rest. At the hospital, on birth day, the nurses swaddled the baby in a blanket and presented him to her proudly, but she drew in her breath so fast that the pumpkinhead father, in the waiting room watching basketball, heard through the door. "What is it?" he said, peeking in.
She raised her elbow which cradled the blanket. The third child's head was made of an iron.
It was a silver model with a black plastic handle and when he cried, as he was crying right now, steam sifted up from his shoulders in measured puffs. His head was larger than the average iron and pointed at the tip.
The father stood by his wife and the mother adjusted the point so that it did not poke her breast.
"Hello there little ironhead," she said.
Dave: You know, it occurred to me when you read that that I didn't ask you anything about sex.
Bender: I know. It's present in this collection, but maybe it was in the other more.
Dave: It was probably in the first one more.
Bender: But I think it's the same thing as the deformities, in a weird way. It's the same writing.
Dave: It's the most visceral example of people coming together. You're talking about their relationships and how they relate.
Bender: Exactly. Right. It's the most close, and then you can learn all this stuff.
Dave: That's what sex is so great for.
Bender: A learning experience.
Dave: Right. I want to learn about you. Uh huh.
On that note...
Bender: On that note!
Aimee Bender visited Powell's City of Books on August 24, 2005. For the record, she does not actually wear a number—our exchange lapsed into metaphor right there. Which reminds me: I had planned to ask several questions about An Invisible Sign of My Own (wherein the hardware store owner, Mr. Jones, every day wears a number on a chain around his neck, hidden under his shirt, designating his mood). Next time: more about Mona Gray, I promise.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State