Your cat? he said, pointing.
She blushed. No, she said. He wasn’t supposed to ask, is what her face said.
Oh, I’m sorry, he said.
He bought the coat with cash. He wanted to leave her a tip. Is there a tip jar? he asked.
She shook her head, fast. Her blush deepened. This isn’t a coffee shop? she said. He bought a sparkly green bead bracelet at the counter, because it was there to be bought, in a jar, an apology. Do you get commission? he said.
No, she said. This is a used clothing store.
With the blush, the scratch on her cheek stood out like a small crackle of lightning.
—from “The Coat” (Unstuck #1)
Aimee Bender is the author of four books. The most recent, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, won a SCIBA award and was a New York Times bestseller. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, HOBART, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and heard on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives in Los Angeles.
Interview by Molly Laich
UNSTUCK: I was at the MacDowell colony and the writer Kevin Moffett and I were talking about novel writing versus short stories. I was complaining that writing my first novel was difficult, but that all my teachers said I had to write a novel in order to get ahead. Kevin told me that you had once said that you never worried about what medium you were working in—that you just started writing and whatever it turned into was fine. Can you elaborate on that a little? Do you have a preference for short stories or novel writing?
AIMEE BENDER: I like that Kevin Moffett. Yes—I have, many times, started something thinking "Aha! This is a novel!" only to find I had finished it in three pages. That has really happened multiple times. So I just don't think I can know for a while—I'll just write and see what unfolds and if it seems to be opening up to more scenes versus happening upon an ending that I like, then it seems to have a novel feel to it.
Mainly I think that all your teachers saying you had to write a novel to get ahead is tricky. Yes, they are more publishable, but if you are not inclined to write a novel then it seems like a forced thing, which usually doesn't help. There are poets in the world, after all. They're not writing novels. If you like writing stories, write stories! The audience will be smaller, but who cares? As long as you know you have to work another job, something I have always pretty much counted on, (and novel-writing in no way assures otherwise), the pressure dwindles a lot, I think.
UNSTUCK: What are some non-writing things that inspire your writing? Plays, movies, TV, life, etc.
AIMEE BENDER: Everything! I'm about to use part of Caryl Churchill's amazing play Cloud 9 in a talk on fiction. Just saw 2001 again and I can't get enough of that one. Really love the Louie show on FX—I think it's like reading a really good short story over and over. Louis C.K. is so smart and open and strange and moving. And life, yes.
UNSTUCK: What have you been you reading lately?
AIMEE BENDER: I just read Sheila Heti's new book, which I liked a lot, and now am onto Teju Cole's Open City which makes me, once again, want to listen to more classical music. I like reading about classical music. Also reading Wonderland, which is about a pianist. Also reading about plants.
UNSTUCK: You sometimes write about sexy women behaving badly. Here's a meta question for you. Do you get a lot of questions about writing about women? Do people say you are a feminist writer, or not feminist enough? Is it annoying to have your gender brought up in the first place?
AIMEE BENDER: Not a lot of gender questions but some—my favorite moment was at Reed College, which is super liberal and very academic and a little pressured because of that. Great place, but a little pressured. I read a story called "Debbieland" about junior high school girls beating up a girl and after, someone asked why I wrote about such broken women and girls. And as a woman, didn't I feel a responsibility to write strong women? I loved it as a question because it sets me up so beautifully to contradict that assumption. A perfect pitch to an eager bat. Because who wants to write strong all the time? Or read strong? Who is strong all the time?
Feminism has opened up in such a way that happily we now no longer need just strong women figures and characters but just women of all kinds. It's like how we know we'll have reached some better, more varied place with Native American portrayals in the media when there's a film with a non-wise Native American person. That's happening with writers like David Treuer but it's just at the start. Some people do call me a feminist writer and others no—it's such an interesting subject to me so I'm happy to discuss it. I'm also interested in generations and where women's rights hits all of us at different ages—me versus my mom versus my 19-year-old students and all that. My older sister could only wear pants once a week when she was in elementary school. That seems unthinkable that that was only six years before me.
UNSTUCK: How does teaching affect your own writing? Do you learn things from your students?
AIMEE BENDER: I really love the social aspect and talking about fiction, which is one of my favorite topics. Teaching also constantly reminds the teacher what she values and that is good. Keeps me honest. I do learn things from my students—they read different things, they get younger each year, literally, so they are good lines into culture too.
UNSTUCK: Regarding your process for story writing, I've read that you often start with an image or single sentence and that everything you write necessarily has a tinge of autobiography, even if it doesn't literally come from your experience. What was the magic spark that set off "The Coat," which appears in the first issue of Unstuck? How did the story come about?
AIMEE BENDER: I can't really track the autobio—it's there, it has to be there, but it is camouflaged by the story even to me. Years later I can sometimes figure out the spark but usually there are multiple sparks.
"The Coat" originally came from an assignment to write a story off of an MFA art student's photograph of a man hanging up a frame on a wall. A man with a beard, in a coat. And so I was wondering why he did that. And maybe the spark of me in there is I am interested in the idea of an empty frame, of framing something that is not there. In marking absence in that way. That's abstract, but I am repeatedly interested in that.
UNSTUCK: You've said you're interested in fairy tales because they use plot as metaphor. I am very interested in that idea. I can see that at work pretty explicitly in your story “Appleless” in Fairy Tale Review, where it appears to me that the apples represent female sexuality, and that a certain woman's failure to freely partake in the apple eating makes everybody nutso. My teacher at the University of Montana Kevin Canty told us in workshop that in a short story, we learn who the characters are by what they do. Is this something you're consciously aware of when you're writing short stories? Does it have a place in novel writing?
AIMEE BENDER: No, not consciously aware—most of the better writing I'm able to do happens when I'm paying less attention to what I'm doing. Characters do things, yes, and
it's good to get them out there and very fun to write about characters who are “do-ers” (as many writers, including myself, may find initially startling—writers are often both watchers and doers, so there's an impulse to have the character watch a lot and that can get static. It can work at times but is trickier). In a fairy tale, things happen, pianos fall from the sky, holes open in the earth, foxes turn into nymphs, so it doesn't have to be explicitly character-motivated to affect and impact and even be generated by character. That has felt so freeing to me. And yes—all true for novels too.
UNSTUCK: How much are technique and process and theme consciously present in your initial writing process? What order does it come in? Do you write first, and then think about technique in the rewrite? How would you explain this to your writing students?
AIMEE BENDER: Theme is usually not very present. Ray Bradbury has a great quote about how the first draft is burning down the house, and the second draft is picking through the ashes. I always liked that. That the beginning can be fast and messy and all over the place and as you go through it you learn. But speed allows certain choices to happen and it's helpful to try to sidestep the more judgmental analytical mind and get to the more visceral stewy stuff.
UNSTUCK: Do you feel famous? I think you are pretty famous, as far as writers go. What is it like? Does it ever hinder or get in the way of your writing or your life to be attached to a name that pretty much everybody in this community is familiar with? Does it lead to having haters? Do you ever have the experience of meeting someone who thinks they know all about you because they've read your work? Are they right? Are they wrong?
AIMEE BENDER: Fun question—an unusual one. I mean, fiction writers are not the most visible of groups, so within that group, there's a smaller group that can recognize my name, and maybe an even smaller group that has read my stuff. My daily life is not interrupted in any way. But—it's largely really nice. I love going to readings and having people come up
and tell me what their experience is of my writing—that is great! I also still have readings where two people show up and I know them both and have dinner plans with them after.
When my first book came out, there were a few haters—I think I was younger and had a first book and so it was a little more loaded publicly. And still there are a lot of Amazon reviewers who really, really hate my stuff.
As far as people thinking they know me: once I dated a guy who was making all sorts of assumptions about me based on a character and wondering if it would work out due to that. That was so annoying and frustrating! I'd never felt that before in so personal a way. But generally people don't seem to assume too much or at least they're not telling me. Usually people think I'm really “normal” compared to the strangeness in my writing but I think that skips over the weirdnesses in all of us.
UNSTUCK: What are you working on now?
AIMEE BENDER: Working on stories which are coming along. And starting to put out bait lines for a new novel fish.
* * *
Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.