“I Like the Mess”
Talking with Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender’s short stories are weird and wonderful affairs. Her last collection, Willful Creatures, at times almost reads like a series of Czech folk tales. A man keeps a little man in a cage and slowly tortures him to death; a boy with keys for fingers searches for just the right lock; some potatoes in a pot turn into hideous fat babies. Her only novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own—about a 20-year-old girl with OCD who uses hatchets to teach math to elementary-schoolers—somehow managed to be both more realistic and even more ethereal than her short work. Bender will be reading at the Richard Hugo House on Friday, October 24, with Matt Ruff, Marie Howe, and Laurie Katherine Carlsson. She answered some questions over e-mail earlier this month. PAUL CONSTANT
Your writing often has a fable- or fairy-tale-like feel to it. Do you feel a particular affinity for fables and folk tales? Do you specifically research them?
I love fairy tales. I’m currently teaching a yearly fairy-tale course at USC, for the freshmen. Anne Sexton, Robert Coover, Oscar Wilde, Donald Barthelme, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Kurt Vonnegut, Judy Budnitz, Kelly Link—all of them have really great takes on the tales. Very fun to reread.
I’ve heard many of your former students speak favorably about your teaching skills. Lots of fiction authors make their living as teachers, but you’re one of a handful I actually hear positive things about; what’s the relationship between your teaching and your writing?
Thanks, that’s nice to hear. I’ve always liked teaching, and I need a break from the utter solitary internal life of writerliness as my work. So teaching helps a lot that way. I don’t want all my work to be me, at my computer. I’m talking about writing while teaching but the key component for me is the interaction. Which is why I have zero desire to ever teach a class on the internet.
Sometimes your stories seem almost constructed on one fanciful image, like a pumpkinheaded family. What comes first to you, the characters or the action?
Usually it’s the image that shows up in the first line, and I’ll follow the image to see what’s in it. But I think up a lot of images that are flat and have nothing in them, and those die out quickly.
An Invisible Sign of My Own felt different than your short stories—it felt more rooted in reality in some certain way. Did the writing of the novel affect the story that you told?
Yes—I had a more magical character who was a whittler who carved his fingers into flowers. He may end up in a short story someday but he didn’t fit the tone of the novel so I had to cut him, which was ultimately a relief. But he hung around in many drafts like a sore thumb, um, literally. I remember thinking with Invisible Sign that I wanted it all to be possible—not quite reality, but not full-blown magic either.
Did you enjoy writing An Invisible Sign of My Own? Are you going to write another novel, do you think?
I did enjoy it. I find novel writing harder, and I throw out a ton of pages, but I also like the big mystery of what the thing is going to be about. I’m finishing up a draft of a new one now.
You’ve written very well about Haruki Murakami and the messiness of his fiction, and how appealing it is that his stories aren’t clean-cut. What other authors do you look to for this quality?
Ah, I’m glad that came through. I love the messiness. Barthelme has a certain very beautiful messiness. His writing is precise but he’s very free with his tangents and what kind of meaning he’s after. I think there’s some gorgeous mess in Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica. James Baldwin’s amazing short story “Sonny’s Blues” is giant and sprawling and I think messy but the emotional impact feels directly tied to that freedom. The story would not have the same depth if it got to its point zippily. Maybe Melville as one of the ultimate good mess-makers. And the fact that an abridged Moby Dick came out last year seems like a pretty clear indicator that we like to clean stuff up too much. I like seeing the mess. As long as the writer is still engaged, I really like following along and going down unexpected alleys.