Authors · Writing

The Word Master: Aimee Bender

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Photo by Max S. Gerber

Aimee Bender’s use of magical realism first got me hooked back in 2006. While I never would have picked up her short story collection on my own, I was grateful a college professor required it for a literature class. Bender’s skillful language and playful settings come together to create a delightful break from reality. Her most recent collection, The Color Master, doesn’t disappoint.

In the title piece, the narrator’s insecurity leads readers to ask ourselves: How can we be good, better, the best? Can we actually be the best, or do we leave that to someone else?  The process of mastering color is like any art form. One must know the fundamentals, identify basic colors, know how they can and cannot work together, and then break the rules to get something so unique and profound. One can then become a master. We are all potential masters.

This is what creating art is about. As writers and artists, we strive to create something unique, melding together words, but not just any words, our words, for our story and our truths, and in the end, the artist lets go and it becomes someone else’s, the consumer of art, to make it theirs to create their own story and meaning. “Color does not exist alone” just like words or stories cannot exist alone. It is what readers bring with them that makes it come alive or die alone. Undeniably, though, Bender gives readers thought-provoking prose with a dash of magic.

 

Christina Berke: I grew up loving the library and reading all the time, but there was a period that I stopped reading. Your collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, really woke me up and got me to fall back in love with literature again. What have you read lately (or any classics) that has reinvigorated you as a reader? How do you usually decide what to read next?

Aimee Bender: Thank you! Makes me very happy to hear that. I too have had periods where I’ve stopped reading and needing something to lead me back in—Calvino was that for me at one point, and Lynda Barry, and recently I’ve been courting the short novel and so many of them are so exciting—just loved Train Dreams, and A Sport and a Pastime, and Outline, and The First Bad Man.

About what to read next—it’s a lot of opening up and closing and opening up, seeing if it’s the right fit for right then.

CB: In your interview with Guernica, you discuss nature vs. nurture. What was your life like growing up (in terms of your relationship with books— perhaps, in particular, fairy tales—and language), and how much of your writing/ word choices come naturally during your writing process? Do you often use a thesaurus? 

AB: I do like a thesaurus, but as something fun to try out, a hat to wear. Otherwise I associate one with high school paper writing which is the driest prose I know. Growing up, I read fairy tales almost constantly and reread a lot which I think cemented them in my mind, and also put the words in me, so they are often right there ready to be used: queen, castle, third, treasure, etc.

CB: Can you give some background on your journey on becoming a well-established writer (and professor)? Did you always write fiction? Was there a clear point when you knew this is what you wanted to do, or was there anyone in particular who encouraged you to write?

AB: I always loved it but it was hard to take it seriously. So I would do it and then worry the rest of the time about what I might do as a job. I had many encouraging teachers, and my sister was writing fiction and so that was both exciting as a role model and also daunting because I felt it was her territory and so I, as many siblings do, figured it was out of bounds. I would call it a tentative process that gradually accrued some umph.

CB: Are there pieces or authors that you assign your students? Or have you found any relation between the canon a writer has and their quality of writing? 

AB: Many! I love to teach “Sonny’s Blues” as the best writing on music I’ve read, and Lydia Davis as someone who reinvents a sense of what a story can do, and students flip over George Saunders and Lorrrie Moore and Gish Jen and Justin Torres. There are so many amazing stories out there! I want to teach Donald Antrim’s “Another Manhattan” and “Bobcat” by Rebecca Lee. Your second question—actually, not really. Reading of course helps! But sometimes raw talent is raw talent and readership helps with a sense of permission and craft-building, but if a writer enters the workshop and hasn’t read much, that’s ok—it’s a great pleasure to expose the class to so much good writing. There is so much good writing out there! When a student gets more serious, inevitably he/she reads more.

CB: What advice do you have for an aspiring writer, or perhaps someone looking into MFA programs? 

AB: Write a critique of your own piece before workshop, and especially before an MFA workshop just so you keep a hold of your sense of it after hearing so many educated voices talk about it which can be confusing.

CB: Can you talk about what rejection is like for you? I feel that often young artists forget that successful people face failures too and it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

AB: Rejection—it’s funny—it IS different being published, that is true, but it’s also still always about the next project and of course that can get rejected as much as anything. So much is a kind of dogged moving forward with many, many discouraging days. From what I can tell, this is just normal writer life. I definitely felt down when I got rejections in the mail, and I got plenty, and still get them, but my general mantra is to return to the process, to where the work is, because it really is the place of gratification anyway. As soon as you publish a book, people ask about your next book. It’s nuts! So, process always.

CB: Tell me about your writing process. I’ve heard you used to tie your ankle to the desk to keep you from getting distracted. What’s it like when you start a new project? 

AB: Hard to answer in a pithy paragraph, and I did tie my ankle but only one time, as a kind of gesture—but it’s all a whole lot of wandering for me, respecting the tangents to such a degree that I end up way out in left field a lot of the time. It’s a line, a word, an image, anything I can get a hold onto, as most things feel so slippery and light.

CB: How did you develop as a writer (as in, what was most influential/ helpful for you)? How important was your time at University of California, Irvine?

AB: I loved the time at UCI. It was really useful, and probably a key point in my life as a writer, the key point, a kind of gateway—I’d never been around so many writers before, talking about writing all the time, making choices in my life about writing to be around more writing. It was like dipping into a sea, a benediction I guess. I loved it.

CB: What was the process like getting your book (An Invisible Sign of my Own) turned into a movie? Did it turn out how you envisioned? 

AB: I actually was very hands-off—I couldn’t really manage it otherwise. So it was all strange, to see it as a film. It’s its own thing.

CB: What’s something you wish you were asked, but weren’t? 

AB: That could become its own labyrinth—there are so many possible questions! Maybe, how are you today? Which I will answer: I am a little sleepy today, but I am making some kind of honey chicken dish and I’m hopeful it will be eaten by small people for dinner.

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