Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection of short stories published last summer. She is currently at work on a novel. Her stories are dream-like, wickedly funny, inventive and weird in the best of ways. The following interview was conducted via email.
Ryan Boudinot: Why did you divide your book into three different sections? Do you feel a sort of thematic unity to these stories?
Aimee Bender: The three parts – I must admit it was the editor’s original idea but I liked it because three is such a good mythic number. I had them loosely titled Loss, Rage and Magic but it didn’t totally work because the mermaid story isn’t rageful at all and a lot of the stories have some of all three of those things in them, so making up the mini titles felt false. Hopefully, within the structure of three parts, there is a certain kind of flow to the order, in that some of the more intense stories peak in the middle, and there’s a lifting up with some of the later ones.
Do I feel a thematic unity to the groupings or to the stories as a whole? Tell me which one before I go off and make a huge list for you and embarrass myself.
RB: With the stories as a whole. Not within the sections.
AB: Themes in the stories as a whole – here are some: desire for connection, isolation from others, burden of caretaking, the ways loss gets expressed, suppression of passion, acting out of desires in a painful way, self-mutilation, deformity as a way to show loss or change, the connectedness of everyone, sex as an expression of loss rage obliteration connection or freedom, hmmmm, man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself – ha.
Hmmm. Kind of a weighty list. Plus I know I’m missing tons of them. But there’s a start.
RB: You mentioned one of your parents is a psychiatrist. It felt to me there was a lot of subconscious material in your stories. What’s the relationship between your subconscious and your writing like?
AB: Hooray! It’s my favorite question on earth. Really. First I will say I’m just going to use the word unconscious instead of subconscious though I’m not sure I know the difference. But that’s the word I’m used to. I talk about this a lot, with myself and other people. So I am glad for the question and appreciate your interest. I realized about a year ago that my parents, in a way, had a similar job: my dad, through psychiatry, is dealing with the unconscious and forging his way through other people’s unawareness and bringing them into the air to look at, and my mom is delving into her own unconscious to make up dances. She’s a dance teacher and choreographer. And I’m sort of the combo platter, in that psychiatry is so essentially verbal and well, duh, of course so is writing, and also I am like her in that it’s all about creating from this inexplicable mysterious place. I think the human brain is so thrilling when viewed from this angle – that I am writing images without necessarily analyzing them and later, I can look at a certain sentence and the meaning is suddenly laid bare. This, I find, is like a miracle. It’s like outer space exploration and the Bible. It’s just such an amazing capacity that human beings have. How does the brain do that? How does free-association lead the way to emotional revelation? And yet, it DOES. So, that is where I think they link up: the use of metaphor is so innate in human beings, it’s like a sixth sense, the need to make a comparison to describe experience. But how weird when you think about it, that we can’t just name our experiences as they come, we are always, constantly making metaphors. And I think psychiatry is also all about metaphors or what I find most beautiful about it is metaphorical.
When I was a kid, I remember being terrified of thunder and talking to my dad about it, and at some point having the fear released when I admitted I was angry at someone, and this was like magic – I’d thought I was really truly scared of thunder. When my dad suggested I might be a little mad I thought, at first, he was insane. A friend of mine recently suggested that learning this so young, that metaphors can work this way, was like learning piano young, it gave me some kind of easy access, and it has affected my fiction since then. Because I was mad, and my dad was right, and I hadn’t planned on being scared of thunder, I just was, and I made that up on my own, without planning, without a thought to how beautiful and simple it was. So. I think, even then, at age nine or whatever, I thought: this is the coolest goddamn thing. That is truly beautiful. And I’m sure on some level that is also what motivates my fiction for me. It seems the best work I do is when I am really allowing the unconscious to rule the page and then later I can go back and hack around and make sense of things but the queen of the story is that part of my brain and the stories wouldn’t work, wouldn’t move me, wouldn’t have any power, unless they had a strong connection to my unconscious. That’s why the whole concept of planning fiction is so ridiculous. I just think the more you loosen the reins, the more resonant the work can be. It’s so funny when people put down art as not essential to a society, because it’s like pretending that people don’t have dreams. As if dreams don’t reveal an entire subterranean world happening that must be acknowledged. Even those people who say they don’t dream still do, they just forget them. People are so so so much more than just eating sleeping working machines. I am in awe of brains that way. Each one is like a little beautiful religious thing.
That is way too long. I’m not even sure if I really answered your question. But I answered something.
RB: How do you get all that unconscious material down on the page without second-guessing it?
AB: Mainly it’s just sitting there and trusting that the connections are being made and that I don’t have to work so hard but then anxiety creeps in, like what if it’s not true? Or what if this time it won’t work? And that needs to STOP. So the more I get reassurance from the world through various artists, etc., about the whole creative process, the better I feel. I once asked my mom for something like that and she said, “Oh, I have total faith,” and I said, “In me?” and she said, “Yeah, but I meant in the whole process of making something, I have faith in that.” Which I thought was great. That it wasn’t even really faith in me specifically was comforting because it was more mysterious than even that, it was about trusting the art made by people since people have been. So then I try to write using the good old “follow your nose” approach, which for me means to write each day just what I feel like and not feel obligated or forced to try to make connections or make a point or anything. Trusting that the point is ingrained, which is always a better point anyway. A more complex point.
I just put a new screen saver on my computer with fish and spent a few minutes this morning looking at the virtual fish. They were soothing. And feeling like: that’s okay. Fish are good to look at. If I want to look at fish, that can be more useful this exact moment than trying to figure out why this particular goddamn character is being such a pain in the ass. I have about ten signs above my computer saying “faith” in various synonym forms. Also, I think the way to get the unconscious revved up is to make a little contract with time, i.e. I have to sit at the desk for this long every day, a set amount, and that’s just the law. I believe in laws like that. Then the unconscious knows what’s what, it’s like a teenager, and it will follow those laws. Eventually it’ll start putting out. Uh oh. Now the teenager metaphor switched on me. But you get my point.
If the specifics, the discipline, is in place, then the rest will work. Within structure things loosen up. And here, the structure is just plain time on the chair. And that’s where I think the sole thing that’ll kick you out of your chair at that point is a crisis of faith and that’s why it’s so crucial to have support on that subject and to remind yourself constantly and crucially that that is the whole POINT, that writing can’t be thought out and known, that something happens between the brain and the fingers that is different than thought. It just is. It’s a new path. That’s why it works. I can’t think a story. I can tell one out loud and write one but I can’t think one. It gets stopped in the first paragraph and then I digress. I’d have to voice it out to make it work. Wild, that. Why is that? I don’t know. But it just makes me believe that the pathway, the wiring is different, and to think we can think through that wiring just isn’t true.
RB: Is there a particular state you find yourself in when you write, and if so, do you use any particular means to get to it?
AB: Well, I wear that leopard skin hat on my head and do yoga chants and then light candles and then do bicep stretching.
No. No state. Right when I wake up. Closest to dreams I can get. Sleepy and bugged. Also I want to get it out of my way so I can have the rest of the day without writing guilt.
RB: I’ll do my best Charlie Rose here and ask about the novel mentioned on the jacket of your book. If you’re not at a place with it where’d you’d like to comment, that’s fine. Otherwise, I’d be interested in knowing what kind of direction it’s going.
AB: I don’t want to talk about it concretely because it feels so weird, like footsteps all over my brain, my response is so visceral, like “what the hell is another person doing in here? Get out!” but I love to talk abstractly about novel-writing. Which is: I keep just following my nose on it and things are linking up but it’s never like one day boom it is all clear where it’s going. It’s very slow, very little by little. I can see why people get discouraged so often writing novels, because they don’t trust that the thing will evolve. I was not kidding about looking at the virtual fish – that is sometimes how I write my novel. Slow. I love it when it is not causing me total anxiety. I am trying my best to let it be what it is and also let myself write what I want and allow it to be what it is and also let myself write what I want and allow it to be different than the stories and also related, thematically or tonally or whatever, to them, too. There are a lot of numbers in it, bizarrely. And hardware and amputation. All that I will say.
RB: You used the word visceral. I’d say that word could be applied to your whole book. The human body appears in your stories as something in a constant state of flux, something malleable and vaguely threatening, but also the source of a great deal of power. I’m wondering if this has arisen from your experience with dance? We’ve talked about the mental aspect of your work; let’s talk about the physical. (Your mom side as opposed to your dad side)
AB: I think I just like the human body so much as a whole landscape of everything – it seems like it’s immediately resonant. So much happens. I am definitely fascinated by people’s relationship to their bodies, what isn’t their head. I could watch people dance for hours, like in college, just because it told me so much about them, how comfortable they were, how performative, all that. My mom’s brother is a basketball coach and it’s interesting that they both chose a path that is physically oriented. I’m not sure why, but my mom definitely uses her body when she talks, she acts like a dancer, and my uncle talks about basketball all the time, he is full of juicy details. I’m just interested in men and women and seeing and guessing their relationship with their body – it’s so mysterious, and yet you can glean things from each person. It IS so powerful, that whole landscape – holds love, loss, pain, pleasure, self-destructiveness, kindness, some of that can be reflected pretty fast. I’m being vague. I can’t think of a specific right now. It was interesting teaching elementary school – there’s an interesting mix of female elementary school teachers – there were a LOT of sexy ones who were really into being overtly sexy which was interesting and then there were plenty of repressed ones who were really pretending like they were old ladies at age 25. Makes sense to me that you’d find both those types in extreme around kids… Interesting also – the kids responded to both but I think were less likely to be super huggy with the repressed ones. Makes sense too.
RB: One day in seventh grade my class had a substitute teacher who made us write on note cards what qualities we looked for in a teacher. My best friend Epi Sedano wrote on his, “Likes to have fun with underage boys.”
RB: I’m sort of overloaded with lurid testimony at the moment. You keeping up on the Clinton investigation thing?
AB: I know, this Clinton thing is intense. The heartbreaker is reading about Monica saying shit like, “Why don’t you ask me questions about myself?” Ugh. I think she really had hopes. But also, I don’t want him to be impeached. It’s just gross to see the weird power shit that gets into the sex there.
RB: A lot of your stories seem to veer off in unexpected directions. I’m interested in “Quiet Please” in particular [in which a librarian has sex in the library with every man in sight to deal with the death of her father]. What interested me wasn’t necessarily the premise, but the place it found itself in the end. I know each story must come into the world in its own way, but do you find yourself starting with a particular scenario and taking off from there?
AB: Yeah, I just was running with the premise of this librarian and her coping mechanism and the pain of that moment and then it veered quite organically on its own. Same with a story like “The Ring.” It’s like grabbing hold of a running horse. So much is about plain “feeling right” – I have a fair amount of false endings and the right one always feels good.
RB: I’m kicking this interview into the lightning round. You’re allowed a one-sentence response to the following topics:
Things that start with “M”
Angela Carter: I love her, “In the Company of Wolves” was my first exposure to her and I thought it was deep and mysterious and thrilling.
Franz Kafka: Just went to a Kafka LA event; those are rare; I’m cheating by using semi-colons; everyone should reread “The Metamorphosis,” including myself; what a huge influence he is on everybody.
Greek Mythology: Ah, those petty wonderful Greek gods! All myths are good. I like the dog in Hades, what is his name? He has that great name. Begins with a C, and then Y?
Halloween: Clearly the best holiday around.
Peaches: Clearly the best fruit, or a close tie with grapes and watermelon and plums. They make me want to go to Atlanta.
Things that start with “M”: mother, mouth, money, muchacha, mad, myth, murk.
California: Where I live. Water meets desert.
Radiohead: I like “OK Computer” better than their first album; saw them with Belly in ’93 or so in San Francisco and he bugged me on stage but as long as I am not watching directly I like them.
Amputation: Outside the body therefore can be discussed and addressed more than the various amputations we ALL have inside.
RB: His name was Cerberus.