Interviewer: There’s a great freedom and playfulness in your stories that I love. To be honest, you’re one of the writers that first really showed me that I could write about anything. I think a lot of young writers get stuck thinking they can only write a certain way—when or how did you realize that wasn’t true, yourself?
Bender: I guess I had a couple different points. One was what I felt when I started grad school, where I assumed I should be writing very literary realism and didn’t necessarily want to. My stories were short, so I could turn in one realistic one and an additional little side dish that I preferred, and it was a shock that over and over people in workshop kept saying the second one was better writing. There are certain moments where you really take in a piece of information deeply, and I think that meant a lot to me at that time. Somehow that language felt more like me, more like the stuff that I love to read.
Also, my mom teaches modern dance and choreographs modern dances, so when I was a kid, there was always a feeling of creativity being very important, a thing to value as much as anything else, and that value was really open. There weren’t limitations on the type of things you could do. She would show me things—a play, or Anne Sexton poems, or we would go to a museum, because those were things she valued. So there was an atmosphere of openness.
Interviewer: Your stories have been called modern fairytales. Do you think this is an apt description?
Bender: Fairytales influence my work a lot, and I love them and read them a ton. I read them when I teach a class on fairytales, so I’m re-reading them yearly. In terms of it being an apt description, in some ways yes, because I think I’ve learned a lot about how a story progresses from the fairytale and the speed of it. Italo Calvino has an essay on quickness from when he was translating Italian folk tales, and he talks about the economy of expression in a fairytale and how that’s what interested him in those. I really love his stories—the movement, the quick turn. So that’s something I like to play with in a story, that you can really change what’s happening or accelerate what’s happening. Someone said yesterday, “Your stories don’t all end with happy endings, like fairytales are supposed to.” But I like that, just absorbing the structure and messing with the structure. It’s also something that’s fun—to have something that appears like a fairytale but becomes really internal or ends in a surprising way. Because I figure a lot of us have taken in that model of storytelling.
Interviewer: People focus a lot on your magical or surreal stories, but you also have more realist ones, like “Off.” Where does the impulse for realism come in, and where are you drawn to the more surreal?
Bender: Usually I follow the language, just follow whatever paragraph or whatever sentences seem to be leading somewhere. But really, the majority of the time that’s not happening, and it’s me waiting for that, because it’s such a joy when it feels like there’s some sort of momentum or drive, because I can follow that drive and it will go somewhere, and I don’t really care where it will go. I guess I’ve sort of given up caring where it will go because it’s become clear over and over again that that’s how things work for me. So sometimes it will go in a magical direction and sometimes in a realist direction, and I think my job is to follow it. And I think it’s hard because we all want to impose something on a story at any given moment, but I think it would be just as much of a problem for me to say, “Uh-oh, this is a realistic story, so I’ve got to throw in a dragon for it to be a magical story,” or to cut out the magic to make it realist. So I think it comes back to prose that has life to it, and that it’s just a relief when that happens.
Interviewer: You have such sympathy and generosity towards your characters, even the cruelest of them. One of the things that struck me the most about “The End of the Line,” a story whose cruelty and violence actually made me uncomfortable, was the move at the very end—where the little little girl, if you will, has such sympathy and feeling and pity for the Big Man.
Bender: It was interesting writing that story, because the story was a little bit scary to me as I was writing it. I wrote little bits of it over a series of years, and I would think, what is wrong with me that I’m writing this story? Why such a sadistic story? What is it about?
There’s a Flannery O’Connor quote that I love—and I quote her a lot, because I think she’s one of the wisest in talking about writing—and she says: “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” I don’t think I understood that quote until I got to the end of the story and felt like it wasn’t just about this guy torturing this other guy, it was about what might motivate him to, and that my belief under that could be a desire to try to understand people, but you have to go to a kind of scary place in order to do that. I think it was comforting to me somehow, the idea that whatever you write in terms of content, whatever the content, it will be governed—unbeknownst to you, but it will be governed—by how you think about people.
And I think a lot of different things about people. For example, there’s this woman who—and this is kind of random—but there was this YouTube thing that went around about this woman who threw a cat into a garbage can. It was really disturbing. She was walking down the street and there was this cat, and she petted it, and then she threw it in the garbage. It was really upsetting—I love cats—but it’s really interesting that she pets it. And then because the internet has a kind of mob mentality—it wasn’t like I liked the woman, seeing it—but the reaction against her was just so strong, and saying that she was so awful; I think she even got death threats and had to go into police custody. And that’s fascinating to me—she did something wrong that I don’t think is good, and people respond to that in a way that goes over the top in a whole different way. So I guess I’m just interested in why people do these things and how it shows up.
Interviewer: You often employ the fantastic to talk about cruelty and violence, and also subjects like loss and grief and adolescence—all difficult things to write about. Does the fantastic give you the space/distance to approach those difficult things?
Bender: Usually when I’m working and it feels most productive, it’s because I’m trying to get at something that I don’t really fully understand, that I can’t look at directly. I don’t really know what it is, but there’s something about the skew that gives me a deeper access to what I want to try to look at. It just lets me look at it more clearly. I don’t know where that comes from—some part of me just thinks it’s like hair color. I think it’s true too that in film or in art I generally respond to things this way—if it’s slightly skewed I can access the emotional content better as a reader or as a watcher or whatever. So it’s something like in “The End of the Line.” I think it was kind of distressing to work on, but I could distract myself with the tangibility of where would a little man live, what he might do, how he’d be managing it, who’s this big man? I don’t want to villainize him, even though he’s the villain.
Interviewer: In your stories and in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the strangeness of your characters often manifests physically, as something to do with the body—key fingers, iron heads, mermaid tails, the ability to taste feelings or merge your body with furniture. It brings up questions about how the body holds and expresses our psychological or emotional state. Is this a conscious choice on your part?
Bender: It’s not a deliberate approach, but I think it is a way to make concrete something internal and then be able to look at it tangibly and not worry about meaning. In the fairytale, I think the external landscape is a representation of the internal of the character. And I really like that—I really like just being able to view the world metaphorically, as opposed to a more realistic world where you can’t view things that way, and it messes with your sense of the world. So I think I would say the body becomes an emotional landscape in that way.
Interviewer: When I was teaching your book Willful Creatures, some of the students had a hard time rationalizing your uses of the strange—they couldn’t figure out what it means—but I know that you have said before that not knowing what it means is fine with you.
Bender: That’s putting meaning above all other experiences of reading, and I think meaning is important, but meaning is complicated. I just finished Never Let Me Go, the Ishiguro book, and he puts you through something—it really messed with my sleep, and it really disturbs you by the end. And I guess my goal is to put the reader through some kind of experience, and if it’s an experience they don’t fully understand, that’s fine. I think we all go through experiences all the time—all the time—that we don’t fully understand, so my hope would be that there would be something that would resonate in some way that would be interesting or satisfying or moving. That would be my goal.
But I think some readers get really frustrated with that, and some readers really enjoy it. It’s a different kind of storytelling; it leaves a fair amount of gap, and some readers like to step into that gap. But some readers, sometimes they don’t know that’s okay. They’re expecting, particularly in a class, that they’re going to have to write a paper on it and that they have to understand it. It can be liberating to realize there is another way to approach reading.
Interviewer: Your writing style is pretty spare and clean—not overrun with complex or flowery language—and I think this makes room for your strange or bizarre images to be seen better and felt more.
Bender: It’s not at all intentional in that way. I don’t think a writer has control over what kind of prose pops out, and I think a love of language can show up in so many different ways. It can show up in the ornate Angela Carter way; it can show up in the spare Carver way. I can’t tell a relationship between the content and the language in my work, but sometimes I feel like using language that’s plain lets me play with accessibility and inaccessibility at the same time—the language is accessible, but often the stories don’t make sense. But if the language was really complicated and so was the story?
I don’t think it has to match, but hopefully they create a conversation, and there’s something about plainer language that maybe would give a reader more tolerance for taking in a story that goes somewhere they don’t expect.
Interviewer: You’ve talked in other interviews about your writing process being very intuitive. How does this work? Does a more critical and organizational mind ever come in? In revision, maybe? Or is that, too, intuitive?
Bender: The way I work is, I’ll have a set amount of time, and I’ll work on whatever I want to in that time, and then it’s just looking for something that seems to have some momentum I can follow along. But there’s a lot of waiting. For this last novel, it was maybe a couple of years of just mucking around and trying to get to know the characters, and there was a certain point where I had enough pages to kind of begin to glean a sense of what the book might be about—or not even what the book is about, but where its preoccupations lean, and what it is. There was a moment when I begin to be able to hold it in my head. So then I printed out all the pages and went on a little retreat and spread them out on the floor, and then I came back from the retreat with a horrendously messy first draft, and then took another long while to begin to shape it. So the organization part comes in really forcefully at that point, but it’s still very guided by a kind of intuitive sense of the emotional progress of the book, and how one feels after the next page. But I could feel in a kind of painful way my brain working at that point, and it wasn’t fun. It was concentration in a way that’s hard for me.
Interviewer: Although you are definitely housed in “literary fiction,” it seems writing fantastic or magical stories is often discouraged as genre fiction. What do you think about this distinction? How does one cross over?
Bender: I think ultimately the distinction is false. I just think it’s false. Because I really do believe that the main important factor has to do with language. You want to feel like the writer is getting at something that is from them specifically, and that can take a while to figure out, that’s a much much harder question. What that is should be able to be anything.
The worry about genre fiction is that because it operates in a kind of formulaic way, the writer will sort of turn out something that is also a formula. But that can happen with literary, realistic fiction, too, and in fact when it does it’s even more dastardly, because it’s sort of like faking something that’s supposed to be elevated. I want to see something that’s genuine to that writer. Although some people may have restrictions about genre, if something showed up in my workshop and it felt like the language was fresh, it would get pulled in and would be part of the discussion. And certainly I was worried about writing magical stuff in workshop, and I was so thrilled that it was okay. You can kind of feel when someone is going to magical elements as a way to falsely jazz up a story or avoid some of the kind of painful stuff coming up in the story, and then it doesn’t need to be there at all, and then it feels annoying. So I feel like it needs to have an active part. But only the particular writer can know, you know: What am I doing? What is this dragon doing in my story?
But I think, if there’s a tremendous joy with having a dragon in a story, then absolutely try it.
Interviewer: Creative writing programs get a lot of flak for supposedly homogenizing writers and steering them towards a particular kind of fiction, which obviously did not happen to you. What is your response to that criticism? And how do you approach teaching creative writing, yourself?
Bender: Genre realism would be the fear. Genre fiction, but it’s workshop genre. That’s been a criticism for a while, and it resurfaces in new forms with new worries. The danger in workshop is that a writer listens to everybody and takes all the comments and puts them all studiously into their story, and then stops writing. Writes a very nice story that’s been drained of all strangeness. I just don’t fault workshops for that because I think workshops can be so helpful. And it’s up to the student and the writer to filter the comments that don’t match.
Learning that skill, the skill of not listening to people, is so important. I’ll make a little graph when I teach; it’s a line graph, and one side will be the writer who says, “I’m such a bad writer, all their comments are so brilliant, I wish they could just help me all the time with my stories, I don’t know what to do.” On the other side is, “I’m so brilliant, no one understands me, they’re all idiots.” And then I ask people to try to locate themselves on that line. If you’re on one side, you take in all the comments and you usually stop writing. The brilliant writer who thinks they’re brilliant never stops writing and never gets better, but boy do they turn out work. And then we’ll talk about what’s the ideal place, and usually they say it’s somewhere in the middle. And we’ll sit with that, and then I’ll say, “Okay, what if it’s not quite the middle?” And they’ll say, well maybe it’s slightly closer to I’m so brilliant, you know, just a couple inches. In that way, in terms of workshop, it always has to go back to the writer as the authority, the author of the work. And then there’s no worry about this homogenization.
Interviewer: You often have humorous moments in the middle of very serious stories, and you get the reader laughing at something: in “The Rememberer,” for instance, where the boyfriend reverse-evolves into an ape and then a turtle and then a salamander, that later we think, “What? Should we have been laughing at that?”
Bender: I think it just sort of bubbles up while I’m writing it. Sometimes I’ll find it funny while I’m writing it, but sometimes it will be while I’m reading it. I’ll be like, “Oh, look at that.” That’s where you go back again to the O’Connor quote about belief. Maybe I’m curious about how things are in the world and when they strike you as funny, so that’s going to show up, but it’s certainly not planned as a kind of comic relief. People will laugh at a line in a reading that I didn’t know was funny, and it’s really fun and interesting to get that response. And then the next time I’ll read it differently, baiting them for the laugh, and they won’t laugh.
Interviewer: I was talking about your work with a gay friend of mine, and she pointed out that you have a large queer following—she thinks because your stories are often about being different. Whom are you writing for? Whom do you imagine as your audience?
Bender: That’s so great. I love hearing that, and I feel difference comes up again and again in certain ways. But what’s funny is I wouldn’t have even necessarily expected that as a theme. All the themes that show up repeatedly are in some ways a little bit surprising. I do feel so interested in difference. For one, we all feel different in certain ways at certain times, and it’s a powerful position—powerful meaning resonant, because it’s not a powerful position, or it often feels like it isn’t. I guess one of my ethics about being a writer and being a teacher is that I want my students to be writing what comes from them, and I want to continue to try to write what comes from me. In a certain way, I think there is a parallel between that and someone asserting their sexual identity, or all the various ways that you come to terms with who you are, and that interests me a lot. And it’s such an interesting question to engage with writers, because we put on so many wrong hats as a part of the pressure to be taken seriously.
Interviewer: In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose is drawn to processed foods that no person ever touches because they are free of feelings and only taste like factories, but when she has to eat other food, she seems to prefer organic. Is there a hidden political message here? Or is it just that organic food does, of course, taste better?
Bender: I think it’s because it tastes better, but I do like all the politics in the food movement. I really do think there’s a marked difference with a lot of foods—tomatoes particularly. But I also think that’s why the processed foods were so important to me in that book—that it wasn’t a book with an agenda, it’s a book about a person wrestling with people, and how it shows up in the food. Because I think the processed food can become a representation for a certain refuge in anything that is not people, which is a lot of things.
It’s hard to be political in a story. There is a quote in A Room of One’s Own, and I can’t remember it exactly, but Virginia Woolf says something about the danger of writing fiction with an agenda because it does get in the way, or often it can, of letting a story play out. That’s why it was so nice with “End of the Line” that so many people could read that story as political, but as I was writing it, I was like “Oh no! What are the political ramifications of this story? What am I doing?” And it was so interesting, because I think that’s where your political stance shows up, but hopefully doesn’t feel pushed, because I think people pick up on that.
At the same time, Steve Elliott, a writer who I think is great, has published a few anthologies called Politically Inspired. They’re political fiction, so I wrote a story that was an allegory about why I think the death penalty is stupid, but it felt really different in writing that. It felt like a different mindset; it felt like I was making an argument. It was fun, but because it’s political, people take it in, they agree or disagree, and then they’re done with it.
Interviewer: As a lover of junk food myself (I can hardly go a day without eating potato chips), I appreciated that Rose finds a sort of break or salvation in processed, bad-for-you foods, although for very different reasons than mine. How much junk food do you eat, and do you love it?
Bender: Of all my book touring questions, that one has not been asked. It’s like, “What do you like to cook,” but I like it better. I mean, I don’t eat much anymore, but I just drove here from Louisville and I had a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on the drive, and I was like, “This is junk food, and I really love this.” It’s so good. There was a point in college that I just loved fast food, and I love potato chips and all of those things. And if you count pizza and hamburgers as junk food, I love those too, but now they have all the artisan pizzas and free-range hamburgers, and that doesn’t count.
So I don’t eat a lot, but I really see the appeal.