By Grace Hyatt
Aimee Bender is the author of six books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, The Color Master, a NY Times Notable book for 2013, and her latest novel, The Butterfly Lampshade, which came out in July 2020, and was longlisted for the PEN/ Jean Stein Award. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages.
Inscape: What do you think magical realism offers readers that other genres don’t?
Aimee Bender: I like to think that writers are always trying to capture something about the human experience and the complexities of what it means to be alive. Art of any kind tries to capture something real—made artificially, but real. That’s where I feel magical realism is because the goal is not to try to replicate life exactly as we live it moment to moment; it’s trying to incorporate our imaginations, our dreamscapes, our fantasies, our disappointments—all the different ways we move through the moment. I don’t remember the exact quote by heart, but Gabriel García Márquez was known for saying that he didn’t even feel like life was magical. His grandmother, I think, had told him, “This is just what life is.” Depending on which lens you view the world through, your experiences will feel more or less connected to actual reality.
Inscape: Two of your stories, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and The Butterfly Lampshade, both begin centered around experiences in childhood. Do you think that there are elements of the genre of magical realism that align better through the lens of childhood?
AB: That’s a great question. When we think of all the books and films available to kids, so much of it is magical. I think it starts to shift around age seven. There isn’t a clear line in the way that the rational self grows up in child development. I think it becomes more porous when you’re looking at it from a child’s perspective. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I wasn’t consciously aware of wanting to subvert the superhero genre, but I was trying to think of all of us as having various superpowers that we form based on the gifts we’re given and the problems we have—and then what the challenges of those particular superpowers are. I was really thinking about that line between reality and the imagined.
Inscape: Do you have a specific process for getting into the right headspace to write?
AB: I don’t. I’ll write for a certain amount of time, setting the end point from the get-go, and holding to that. But I don’t have any routine to get me in the space, because I feel like, strangely, that can feel like a pressure to me. I think the main thing I believe is if you put in enough regular time, stuff starts to happen in whatever way works for that particular writer. For me, it’s a five-days-a-week kind of deal—but that’s not true for everyone, of course. I used to write right when I woke up before I had kids, and now it’s after they’re dropped off at school. I always try to do it first thing.
Inscape: How do your timelines for writing your novels compare to your timelines for writing your short stories?
AB: I think a novel varies, of course, because some writers can really focus solely on a novel, and then I think it goes a little quicker. But for me, I’m always feeling out the shape of the book and figuring out what’s going to be the preoccupation of the book, and it takes a while to find that—years sometimes. I’m currently happily writing pages of things even though I don’t know what shape they’re going to be, but I believe they will form something. I’ve done it enough times to trust that there’s a process happening, and a short story can also take a while. I have some short stories that have been sitting there in their files for years. I think there will be some sort of spark that will light a certain short story, and the rest of it will get written in a shorter amount of time.
Inscape: As a teacher, have you noticed certain things that discourage students who are aspiring authors?
AB: Writing workshops are delicate balances, in that the writer should be receptive to the comments and willing to hear and grow from the comments that feel right to them, but the writer should also understand that they are the author of the work and they get to pick what they do with it in revision. I think a tricky spot for some writers is if they’re taking all the advice and not trusting their own judgment. I think those are the writers that stop writing—but there’s also the trick of the writer who feels they know best about everything and never listens to anyone. That writer has a harder time stretching and growing too. You need to train your intuition, your ear, to find the readers who are good matches for you, then disregard the readers who aren’t.
Inscape: How do you encourage your students to push boundaries in their writing?
AB: I give my students lots of writing exercises that stretch them to play with their writing. When you’re doing a writing exercise, you don’t feel any pressure to form it into a story. Students often write better work when they’re not burdened by questions such as, “Is this a story? Do I have a plot? Is my character developed?” Instead, they’re thinking about what’s fun in the moment, and then they can develop from there.
Inscape: How would you say teaching has impacted your style and writing?
AB: It’s hard for me to know. Teaching is the social part of my job, which is a nice balance because writing is so solitary. Talking about writing with a class and workshopping makes me think about my own writing, but it’s not the same process. I think it keeps my own opinions front and center. My students teach me about different things they’re reading, and what they see in stories teaches me about the potential of stories, so I do learn a lot from that. It’s more about the form in general than my particular work, though who knows—maybe there have been changes I can’t track.
Inscape: The Butterfly Lampshade deals very heavily with mental health as Francie tries to understand her mother and her childhood. What is most important to you when writing a story about mental health?
AB: Good question. One thing that was really important to me was that her mother be a fully dimensional character with moments of strength and great capacity and also moments of incredible vulnerability and fragility. I didn’t want to stigmatize her in my writing or shrink a sense of what she would be able to make of her life, but there were things she couldn’t do. At the time the book takes place, she can’t raise a kid anymore, but she can have a relationship. She can kind of make a way for herself that’s different but also her own. That felt really important to me. My mom’s sister suffered from a lot of mental illness, and we would visit her often when I was a kid. I watched how annoyed my mom often was at representations of mental illness in film. She often found it romanticized or overly villainized, like how often schizophrenia is misused as a term. She really shone a light on it for me in terms of seeing how, culturally, it becomes a placeholder for something else.
Inscape: Are there certain things or topics you try to avoid in your stories?
AB: No. I feel like I have to be pretty open to whatever comes up. Then I can look at it and see if I want to share it—and maybe I don’t. But I don’t want to feel like I’m closing down options even at the get-go.
Inscape: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write The Butterfly Lampshade?
AB: A lot of things; it’s hard to pinpoint one. One is my experience growing up with my aunt. One is watching my mom’s experience of wondering what the role of this particular mental illness was, if it would play a further role in her life as a mother, and what that would look like. But also what it’s like to be an imaginative person and to find that scary at times and to not know the bounds of it sometimes. Again, that’s something I see in children in terms of that porousness, like where something feels very frightening and you can picture it and imagine it, but this imagination is also one of the tools I rely upon most in my career and in my life. So I guess I was interested in all those things, and it’s kind of like in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, when I was thinking a lot about sensitivity, and what are the benefits of sensitivity, and when is it a problem? I think I was trying to wonder about that in The Butterfly Lampshade as well.
Inscape: What message do you want readers to take away from your work?
AB: Well, I don’t really think in terms of message, so I suppose I would like readers to have a feeling or an experience that is inside their body and inside their emotional landscape that feels unique to them—and maybe they can’t even fully articulate it for a while. There’s a writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, and whenever I read one of his books, I feel like he’s taken all of these words to create an emotional world. I feel so affected by the world that he has created. I think that’s my hope—to get even a little bit close to that feeling where something is created through language that is not about language.
Inscape: Are you working on a new novel?
AB: Maybe. I’m definitely working. I’m always working on pages of something and writing stories, but I’m not sure what’s going to form.