by Max Talley
Aimee Bender burst onto the literary scene in 1998 with her first collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. (Though she was bubbling under the surface with stories published in The Threepenny Review, GQ, and The Antioch Review.) She followed that with her first novel in 2000, and then the incredible collection Willful Creatures in 2005. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake novel was a New York Times Bestseller in 2010. More recently, Bender has published the collection, The Color Master, and last year, her novel, The Butterfly Lampshade. I’ve left out a novella, and her many stories in anthologies and in the late, lamented Tin House. Throughout her writing life, Bender has continued to teach creative writing at the University of Southern California. What is her style? Surrealism, magic realism, fantastical fiction, fabulist? All those and more. You may have heard a drunk at a bar—vaguely resembling me—bemoaning the loss of the great eccentric writers, and asking, “Where are the new Kurt Vonneguts or Virginia Woolfs, man? Who is the next Tom Robbins?” Well, they won’t be replaced, but Aimee Bender is very much among us. We get to share the planet with her now, and anticipate future books from a writer most definitely in her prime.
Max Talley: It seems to be a wonderful moment for fantastical or eccentric fiction, with you at the forefront. There’s Kelly Link and George Saunders, and Zadie Smith has written some Interview with fabulist pieces like “The Lazy River” in her recent Grand Union collection. Is it a reaction or escape from the current climate, or is the real world so bizarre that weird storytelling fits right in?
Aimee Bender: It is an amazing moment in that way, but truth is, this kind of storytelling has always had a place—Ovid! Kafka! Fairy Tales from everywhere! Called “Old Wives Tales” because women would do chores and tell stories and the stories had magic in them, almost always. I just think some of American fiction has taken longer than other places to let it be another key way to tell a story. That said, Toni Morrison really stretched the limits of what fiction can do in order to tap into emotion and history and storytelling, and even something like Moby Dick is so huge and wonderfully obsessive that it almost tips into a kind of fabulism.
Talley: You’ve spoken of the L. Frank Baum Oz books as well as the classic The Phantom Tollbooth as childhood delights. As far as darker surreal and absurdist fiction, were the short stories of Nikolai Gogol, like “The Nose” and “Diary of a Madman,” and Franz Kafka an influence? I think the ultimate compliment is when an author’s name gets to be a descriptive: “Orwellian” and “Kafkaesque.” We can’t be too far from Benderesque.
Bender: Oh, “The Nose”! I was so shocked and thrilled when I read that for the first time. It’s so funny. When the nose shows up in a bread roll? What? And I can remember clearly when my mother pointed me toward Kafka and also toward the theatre of the absurd playwrights—Beckett, Ionesco, where everyone turns into a rhinoceros as a way to talk about Nazi Germany. She has that sensibility, and I suspect it may be a gene, because I have it too and it doesn’t feel like a choice. I like the darker and the strange because they feel true to me. When I read Murakami, the intuitive choices just feel right, they move somewhere below language. And I could talk about the Oz books on and on. He has a book where people have flat heads and carry around their brains and the corrupt leader has too many cans of brains and manipulates everyone. I don’t think corrupt leaders tend to be smarter, not at all, but I love the way he’s thinking about problems of government in that!
Talley: As someone who is known for stories that dart off in odd or unexpected directions, is it tricky to dip into pure realism or literary fiction? Do you care about certain readers’ expectations “I wanted flying monkeys and sad tigers,” or do you just write what you feel at the moment?
Bender: It’s such a relief when something is working on the page! I’ll take whatever it is. So in that way it’s less about content/topic and more about how the sentences are moving along.
Talley: You mentioned being a PJ Harvey fan in 2005. Are you still? I consider her the true Queen of England. You’ve also spoken of Bob Dylan. Some of his longer songs feel like abstract short stories with a beat. Are you influenced by songwriters, or do you just enjoy inspiring music in the background to spur on writing?
Bender: Love PJ Harvey! So lovely what you say—true Queen of England. There is something so regal about her, regal and also unsparing, willing to go anywhere. I think there’s a new link of some of her current work? A friend sent to me. A sweet rabbi friend who is also Harvey obsessed. And with singers, it’s the lyrics and it’s also how they’re sung—from “Teclo” and the trembling notes there to something so smooth and vulnerable as “You Said Something”—people talk about how she can alter her voice so astoundingly. I don’t play music while writing but I certainly learn a ton from listening to it: structure, emotion, detail.
Talley: I loved “The Fake Nazi” story. You deal with Hans Hoefler confessing to all manner of war atrocities in court that are proven over and over to be false. The story could have ended with his end, but instead you follow the judge’s clerk’s secretary. She becomes obsessed with Hans and then his older brother too. I think you hit on something there, that not all our fixations are romantic crushes or have a deep emotional resonance. I go to a Ralph’s supermarket and wonder why a longtime checkout clerk has vanished. Someone who didn’t matter when visible but whose absence has altered my background reality, the wallpaper of my life. Suddenly, I’m very curious.
Bender: Thank you! And yes—I live near the tar pits in Los Angeles, (and just wrote a story about the sculpture of woolly mammoths there for Speculative LA, a new anthology with lots of wonderful writers who each take a neighborhood and let something weird happen there—an amazingly sad piece by Alex Espinoza that I just read yesterday)—and there used to be a joyful guitar and ukulele player, Charlie, who would sing for the passers-by. He’s gone now. He may have been homeless. I worry about him, wonder about him. People that are part of our lives even if we don’t know them well, and who carry on a different part of a larger story. Fiction—as someone like Alice Munro shows so beautifully—can pass like a baton from one character to another and in that we find where that particular story lives.
Talley: Many if not all of the stories in your three collections were previously published in literary journals and anthologies. Was your writing immediately embraced and celebrated, or did you suffer multiple rejections from nincompoop editors who didn't get exactly what you were doing?
Bender: Multiple rejections! Much wallpaper!
Talley: Your story “Wordkeepers” was great, and while we are laughing reading it, there is a more serious, truthful undercurrent. Our minds are so filled with Google or YouTube information, with 24-hour news cycle blather, and social media posts, that we begin to forget or at least misplace the basic descriptors for the important objects in our reality. As the main character in your story does. Have things become so confusing and overwhelming that we need to upload our vocabulary and standard responses to the Cloud now so we can access them when words fail us?
Bender: I do wonder about this. It’s worse for me now with lockdown because there’s just less empty space in my day and it was certainly worse with Trump to worry about—my mind so fixed on the news cycle that it was hard to find free internal space to think. And find words.
*To read the second half of this interview, please see Volume 6 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal, Saturn's Return.
Max Talley is a writer and artist from New York City who lives in Southern California. Talley’s fiction and essays have appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review, Fiction Southeast, Gravel, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Bridge Eight, Litro, and Entropy, among others. His near-future novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he teaches a writing workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. www.maxdevoetalley.com