an interview with aimee bender   interview  
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  Bold Type: Your short stories remind me of modern fairy tales. Did you read fairy tales as a child?

Aimee Bender: Yes, especially Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. I liked Hans Christian Anderson because the tales were so dark and tragic. My favorites were "The Tinderbox" and "The Steadfast Tin Soldier."

BT: What inspired you to want to write?

AB: As a kid, I liked making up stories, and I wrote a story about a kangaroo and a bat with Christy Chang, and she went on to become a surgeon.

BT: Did you grow up in an environment that fostered a love of the arts and of writing?

AB: Definitely. I was read to a lot, my mom loved dance, and she really encouraged all the arts, visual arts, music. I took a lot of dance.

BT: If writing wasn't your medium, would you have pursued one of these other art forms?

AB: I like to view it as a little triangle, with writing at the top, and they're all sort of at the bottom, and they're all all interesting to me. Theater is particularly interesting to me, but I'm also taking a sculpture class right now and I feel all of those help my writing. There's also a certain kind of joy I get without any of the pressure of writing.

BT: Your writing is kind of magical, what's your sculpture like?

AB: Well, it's a figure sculpture class. It would have been totally magical, I like surreal and absurdist things, that's definitely where I lean, but the teacher was insistent that we just do the body. I wanted a third eye, but she wouldn't allow it.

BT: What writers do you point to as influences, and what excites you about their work?

AB: There are the fairy tale writers we mentioned earlier, and I still go back and read them. I think it has something to do with the fact that fairy tales present plot as metaphor. I guess it's that combo that I really like. I also really love Italo Calvino, because he's just weird and great. I love all these people that I've read that I feel that they write about something that feels profound, but from an unusual angle, and that give me the feeling of freedom and permission. I really like this playwright named Carol Churchill who wrote a play called Cloud Nine. Oliver Sacks writes about these neurological disorders that are incredible. I love the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, William Maxwell, James Baldwin--he's just really emotionally true. Garcia Marquez. I just reread One Hundred Years of Solitude and it made me mad, it was so good.

BT: So, sometime after college you decided you wanted to pursue this further and enrolled in a creative writing program?

AB: Yes, I enrolled in a program at UC Irvine.

BT: Creative writing programs are sometimes accused of fostering similar sensiblities in the writers enrolled, often producing more coming-of-age stories set in college towns, yet your writing is incredibly fresh and inventive and avoids those stereotypes.. What do you think are the pros and cons of such programs?

AB: I like this question, because I have strong feelings on the subject. Some creative writing programs seem evil, but my experience at Irvine was totally the opposite, where I feel like they were really good at focusing in on each writers voice and setting. When I felt like I was obligated to write a story that was more typical, no one really liked it. I feel like it was so satisfying that the stuff that I got the most kudos for were the stories that was the stuff that felt the most like me. I felt like it was a very special place to be.

BT: Are you now teaching creative writing?

AB: I'm finishing up teaching at Irvine, and I really like it. It helps my basic sense of balance to do something like teaching as well as writing.

BT: You taught elementary school, how did that experience help shape your writing?

AB: It's just good for me to be around kids, because they're so funny, and they are such great creative writers, and they inspire and stimulate me to break the rules, they're lack of restriction is just hilarious. I really enjoy reading things that kids wrote.

I read them fairy tales, and made up a ton of stories which they acted out. A fun morning activity. They were so into the stories, and it really made me feel like a good storyteller. They were raucous around the classroom, and then if I told a good story off the top of my head, it really worked. It was the best form of discipline. And that made me feel good, it was a good green light to tell me that I was good at this, and maybe I should take it more seriously.

BT: First works of fiction are often autobiographical in nature, yet yours appears not to be.

AB: My theory is that if I wrote it, it's all autobiographical, but it doesn't have to have happened in that way. For it to seem at all believable, there has to be something true in it, but it's metaphorical instead of literal. I don't eschew autobiographical writing, but I'm not interested in mine to be so straightforward. The things that tend to move me the most are often those that I have to figure out its meaning for myself. The human being's ability to make a metaphor to describe a human experience is just really cool.

BT: Sex and deformities seem to be a recurring theme in your work. Where do you come up with the ideas for your stories?

AB: (Laughs) It's so true! I was just writing today about a scene where these kids are threatening to chop off each other's fingers. My ideas just hit me, I've got to admit. For the stories, I would just think of a first line, and if it has some kind of pull to it, it will write me through the story. Often the first line does have something to do with either sex or deformity, it's about the body, really. Everything a human experiences happens on the body. That's enough setting for me. (laughs) That's the place where pain happens, and love happens, all the good things and bad things. It's just a resonant setting.

BT: Do you have a preference for short stories or novels?

AB: No, I like them both. You get more involved in a novel, but there's something about a short story that if it rings right, it really lingers. Like Cynthia Ozick, I love her short story, "The Shawl." It's one of my favorites.

BT: What is it that you enjoy most about the act of writing?

AB: I enjoy the moment of discovery, when a thing turns in a way that you didn't expect. Usually, there's some kind of reaction I get. Either I feel bad, or I laugh, or get disgusted. Something. That's the whole reason that I do it.

BT: What do you hope your stories convey to the reader?

AB: A couple of people have told me that when they heard a story of mine, it made them want to go write. That was the highest compliment because I like the idea that my work has been the inspiration for someone to go create something themselves.

BT: What is your writing process like?

AB: I write for two hours and fifteen minutes every morning. I write every day, but I don't do more than that, and I do take Sundays off. I tend to read over old stuff, and write about a page each day. But if I stare into space, I feel like I'm working. That counts.

BT: Do you like the solitude of writing?

AB: I need teaching to balance it. I have friends who can't wait until they can stop teaching and I'm like NEVER! I really like having the ability to have my mornings free to write and then going out and interacting. That's why I think two hours is about my limit, because after that I'm ready to go out and start talking!

BT: What do you enjoy doing when you're not writing?

AB: They all tend to relate to the arts or connecting with people. I like to go to movies and plays, but I also just like hanging out with my friends and talking about things and analyzing them. I like connecting with people on some sort of deep level. If those things are happening, I'm happy to do anything.
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