imee Bender and Alice Sebold first met as students at the UC Irvine writing program. Sebold is the author of the memoir LUCKY published by Scribner in 1999. Her novel THIS WIDE WIDE HEAVEN is forthcoming from Little, Brown.
AB: Okay, let's start with structure. We once had a long talk about spiderweb structure. You're working on your novel now. You once told me you believe in looking words up in the dictionary if it'll get you jumpstarted. I believe in that too. So what do you think is the natural way a novel structure works?
AS: I basically believe that anything that moves you there is a good thing and something not to judge yourself too harshly for. It took me a long time to be able to distinguish between the Shoulds in life and the permission slips. An example of this would be a list of great dead authors vs. a box of Crayola crayons. Obviously, I used to think, reading those dead authors and forcing myself to understand them was what a true writer would do and by understanding them I would understand how to write my own novel. This is not wholly untrue. But.... the Crayola crayon box is a freeing agent that helps me with structure too. It allows me to think of things in a less word obsessed and more visual way. I have a huge green spider-web drawing with certain panes of the web filled in with different colors. These are the parts of the novel that are finished. There is something very satisfying about coloring in a pane with cornflower blue and then one far from it in goldenrod. When I was getting into the idea of spiderweb structure I went out and did the Should exercise of reading up on various kinds of webs etc. and because I had been drawn to it via a joyful freedom of spiderweb structure, I loved doing the Should reading. Basically I move toward structure with one hand holding firmly to the great deads and one hand firmly with my spiderpals. I'm interested about your own process re: structure. It seems to be kept so firmly "secret" from writers. How did it open up for you? Did you write AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN feeling free of the Shoulds? If not what did you do to kick them in the butt?
AB: I love hearing all that, the dead in one hand, the spiders in the other. What a good team, so basic and right. Jay Gummerman, a writer who teaches at UCI, once said "there's structure in nature" which I carried around in my pocket like a relief everytime I thought of it. It seemed so true, to look at trees and veins and rocks. Nobody planned those. So then why worry that the brain wouldn't do that structuring work on its own when making something? For AISOMO, at first I kept thinking I had to plan it and that didn't work, as you well know, and then I got distracted for about six months by John Gardner's idea that you should know what the character really wants. I kept thinking: what does Mona want? And it was so distracting to me, until finally I thought, if Mona is real and alive, she'll want stuff. But I don't want to give her something to want, like a prop. John Gardner is very wise but I needed more crayons at that moment. More looseness. Turned out for Mona, the quitting, the non-wanting, was a huge force in her character. What kind of webs did you read up on?
AS: "There's structure in nature." Great Gummerman! I became totally
bug/spider obsessed and found out that there are Trapdoor spiders and Crab Spiders and Cardinal Spiders -- it's endless. But also within this they all built various kinds of webs from Sheet to Funnel to the one I naturally think of which is the Orb one that gets so much uh... media play in the spider world. As an offshoot of all this the little boy in my novel developed a penchant for growing vegetables. It just makes sense that when you strip away the judgement, you find the natural path. Granted sometimes it is a shitty path but that's what editing and, well, the Trashcan web is for. A line that really stayed with me for years and helped me was something Patricia Hampl said about the old Prague, "It's beauty is in its brokeness." And so suddenly the notion of uniform chapter lengths or sentences like "what's at stake for the character here?" don't have as much damning weight as they once did. When you look at a pool of koi they are all beautiful and none of them, because they are uniform. Even the monstrous is beautiful in that way and should be embraced. If not in art, where? So let's get leaner and meaner here. What or who has influenced you Miss Bender?
AB: The trashcan web! Just yesterday I threw out a lot of the many many drafts I printed along the way and that was a lot of trees I killed. Whew. I like that Hampl quote a lot, and it seems inherently true, that there is a brokenness in all people, and in that is pathos and beauty and sadness and joy. Influences! How about some of these people: Italo Calvino, Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, Sylvia Plath, Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Lynda Barry, Bobby McFerrin, Pina Bausch, Alexander Calder, Norton Juster, fairy tales, Jane Campion, Mike Leigh, sculpture in general, Freud, The Midwest, my family...
AS: I notice a good mix in there. But how say would you describe the influence of Pina Bausch and Lynda Barry to grab two from that list?
AB: Pina Bausch! She's a choreographer, and I saw her for the first time ten years ago and it filled me with so much joy and was so stimulating I could hardly stand it. Women playing accordions topless on a stage covered with real carnations. It went straight to my heart. Absolutely thoughtless response, a totally non-intellectual connection to the way she is putting her unconscious out there for us to experience. And Lynda Barry-- I think she's truly amazing and her book CRUDDY blew me away. It's so dark and fearless and funny and awful. Somehow so simultaneously deep and unpretentious. It doesn't put itself on a pedestal, as a book, but it's taking on all the meaty stuff in its own way. I so admire artists of all kinds who know who they are and push that. As opposed to trying to be in some safe middle ground. Did Bobby McFerrin as a child realize he wanted to make music with his whole body? What's so great is at some point he realized the specialness of that, and ran with it fully, and now there is no one like him. I know you like Pina Bausch too, what do you think of her?
AS: I think what I gain from Bausch is one of those overwhelming sensory joyrides where on the other side of viewing her performance no rules apply, so that when you wake up the next day and go to your own much less thrilling-seeming task of working on fiction you don't sit down with the same engrained baggage you had the day before (or at least as much of it). That's why, though I work best getting up at early hours and logging my time, I often find myself drafting crucial one or two page starts in what I'd call secret islands of time. Inside the carwash or right before I teach a class. I feel a drift from structure as topic and wonder if that might be because what we are saying about structure is that to find it you must first forget it. We both teach and share a loathing for those "How to structure a novel" guides that live and breathe like the bossy maiden Aunts from James and the Giant Peach. (another marvel of insane permission) What have you found was important to forget while working on your novel? Those shoulds and voices, those nasty Aunts. What were they?
AB: I just want to add that I think Pina Bausch does have rules, they are just totally intuitive, and to allow those intuitive rules to be the guide is kind of the great quest, so hard and so worthwhile. It takes such enormous trust. And, those How-To books, they are exactly like Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. (are those the right names? I think so.) They lock you up in a house, cleaning the underside of the stairs while the world goes on outside. A giant peach! I agree, kids' books are full of permission. Okay. Forget the structure as you do it, yes. I think I had to forget that it was a novel, forget what the Flammable Skirt book was, forget that I had no idea what I was doing. I have a journal I wrote in while I wrote the book and it was these nail-biting entries, like: what IS this thing? It's scary to not know, but it seems like that's the only way it's going to hold any mystery for anyone, if you don't know for awhile what something means, and where it's going. At least for me it is. Some "should" voices that were hard to get rid of were: "I Should be able to write this start to finish." Or "I Should not be worried." And "I Should not have fun." And "I Should have a tiny sense of what I'm doing." I knew nothing, I kept shifting focus. Faith faith faith. It says above my computer, "The word of the day is faith".
AS: Okay - It all comes down to what it says above your computer. I have a sheet of paper that says "Revolution of Beauty." One of my influences is the painter Helen Frankenthaler, who was condemmed for a while as painting things for the sake of beauty and she was painting in the land of big muscular boy painters who got both critical raves and big gallery sales. It made me think that in beauty -- true beauty there is revolution. It may be quiet and it carries no guns, but it is the revolution I cherish. To transform experience and thought into language and narrative that is beautiful even if that beauty is in brokeness. I think that faith you're talking about begins when you go out in the world and begin to cull people and things that will support your intuitive sense of what is right for your work. What is very painful is to think of how many writers are lost because they didn't break through the snobbish oppressive voices of the shoulds that now seem even more dominant (what with more books on HOW one should write than ever. I think of Tillie Olsen's SILENCES in this way. There are people out there right now being silenced by the voices of the Shoulds and it breaks my heart to think of that. The other word above my computer is "Invincible." I feel true beauty, in whatever form and no matter how fleeting (say in a dance performance), is this thing, is "Invincible," and that gives me great faith.
AB: What did Frankenthaler find beautiful? I think also that every person defines beauty differently, and in the heart of that is where they should go artistically.
AS: I agree with that. One of the ways that other disciplines help is that they don't give you something to do a comparison with, they encourage or they don't, free you or they don't, but I can't look at a Frankenthaler painting and thing "she did that red fading into orange bit better than I wrote page 36" Frankenthaler for me is in the effortless (or again, seemingly to the viewer) slip of colors into one another and these grand mercurial shapes that never seem to be captured -- remain liquid. To do that with words would be amazing and so she spins me like that. I have a final question for you on the eve of AISOMO hitting the stores. What gift would you give to all writers if you could do such a thing? Animal, vegetable, or mineral?
AB: All 3. Take your pick. For each person to find their own sense of what's beautiful. To know it, pursue it, expand it, and trust it. Everyone is different and art must and has to and exults in difference, and the more difference, the better. The more we unite. So it'd be an animal for some, a vegetable for another, a mineral for a third-- you, who are reading this, which are you? Go write down some influences of your own. I would be so happy if after this conversation of ours, Alice, it made people want to go make stuff. That would be the gift I'd want to give. I think it's one of the greatest survival tools we have.