posted Jul 27, 2010
Aimee Bender loves words—so much so, that she lets them drive her fiction rather than characters or plot. And yet, all the elements of good storytelling come together in her contemporary fairytale-like work. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is the story of nine-year-old Rose Edelstein, who can taste in every bite of food the emotions of those who prepared it. This revelation changes Rose’s relationship to her family and her world, and the reader savors every delectable detail.
In this interview, our consulting editor Julee Newberger got the opportunity to ask this two-time Pushcart Prize-winner how she manages to get readers to suspend disbelief, why she wrote in a closet—yes, a real closet—for years, and why she features a Tennessee elephant sanctuary on her website. And... Well, and more, of course—but read on, to see just what.
In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, you endow your characters with fantastic abilities: a young girl has a supernatural knack for detecting the origins of the food she tastes, while a boy is so detached from the world that he seems able to transform himself into inanimate objects. Yet the worlds they live in, from the schoolyard to the neighborhood bistro, are achingly normal. How do you work to get readers to suspend their disbelief, when encountering the inevitable disjunctures, between “normal” and “supernatural,” that turn up in such a narrative?
I definitely hope readers will take that leap—some readers don’t. But when they do, I’m very glad. My hope here was that Rose’s gift would set off a skewed world from the get-go, and a reader might feel a little off-kilter due to that and maybe more open to other such things happening as the story goes along. Joseph’s gift takes the strangeness up a notch, but it just felt right to me, and his world and doings felt intensely connected to the every day, to the normality of apartments and curtains and parking. And maybe sticking with the everyday stuff is the main piece—that no matter what’s happening, it’s happens in a world we recognize in all the other ways. Also—it’s hard to describe in a clear way, but as I’m going along, I’ll fish around for awhile, with certain scenes, to try to hit a note that looks right on the page. A sentence I can follow. With some of the magic in this novel, I was trying to clear away sentences I didn’t believe, and stick with the ones I did, even if they surprised me. So there is an element of ’what?’-ness with the supernatural elements here, maybe more so than in certain stories which are more matter-of-fact. What felt hard to grasp for Rose was hard to grasp for me, and may be hard to grasp for a reader, too, but for this book, I think that was a key part of what felt right to me.
A number of your stories feature children with fantastic deformities or conditions that are burdens as much as they are gifts. I’m thinking of “The Leading Man,” about a boy, born with fingers shaped like keys, who grows up to rescue a child from behind a locked door, and is celebrated as a hero. What draws you to cast children in these roles? What do they offer as protagonists that adult characters don’t?
I like the idea of someone born with something, who has to wrestle with it as a formative quality—as opposed to an adult who comes upon a skill or strangeness in adulthood. I mean, I find that interesting, too, but it seems like I gravitate more towards the discovery in childhood. I’m a fan of those documentaries 7Up, 14Up, etc, where the director, Michael Apted, tracks people from age 7 on; it’s a test of a Jesuit saying—“give me the child for the first seven years, and I will show you the man”. And I just watch those films and wonder about all of us, at seven, and if we are on track with our seven year old selves, and why or why not, and is it even a fair gauge?
The descriptions of Rose’s every meal in Lemon Cake—from beef bourguignon to chocolate chip cookies —are written in incredibly loving detail. The reader can’t help but wonder: What is your relationship with food, and did it in some way inspire this work? Can you remember a moment when you tasted something that brought about emotions like those that Rose experiences?
Thanks—I’m glad to hear it. I love food writing, and had a great time reading MFK Fisher, and Ruth Reichl, and Brillat-Savarin, and cookbooks while working on this book. Even reading menus is a pleasure. There’s a wine bar here in L.A. called Lou that lists its wines from light to dark, and the last group is called ’gnarly red wines’ or something like that. I know very little about wine but so appreciated a menu with voice!
I love food, and eat it and write about it happily. I can’t remember an experience that would match hers, but as a child, I was an incredibly picky eater. I spent a few years eating largely peanut butter and hot dogs, because the newness of other foods felt too scary. Then I grew out of it. But I remember looking at certain dishes—a spinach and cheese casserole, in particular—and feeling so sure I would hate it, just by how it looked.
There’s a moment in Lemon Cake when a couple in a French restaurant are trying earnestly to describe a red wine, while Rose effortlessly identifies its notes and origins. The couple repeats the word “blackberry” in a way that reminded me of Robert Hass poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which explores the challenge of using language to capture our true experience. Language is certainly part of what makes your work so distinctive—is this scene a tip of the cap to Hass? And has your writing been influenced by the language of any other poets?
I just went and read that poem. Heard Hass read last year and it was fantastic, but I hadn’t read that one. I feel like I could talk about what it stirs up in me for awhile. Maybe the tip of what I’d like to say has to do with Walker Percy—who also talks about language, and its limits, and how we lose the impact of words all the time, that the word sparrow becomes empty for us and can only be reclaimed if we’re in prison and a sparrow lights on a shelf outside the window and is our contact with the world. Only then, he says, can we reclaim the word, and then the thing. That essay and this poem talk to each other beautifully. I think a lot about the limits and possibilities of language—how it is our best tool, in so many ways, and how limited it is, how we have to redo it all the time to try to get it right. And, yes—about poets. I love reading poetry, and I think it’s an incredible tool for a fiction writer, and really a person of any sort. Nick Flynn once said he responded to work that moved like poetry moves—with gaps, with suggestion rather than filling in, and I relate to that, too. The stories in Jesus’s Son work like poems; so do the films of Mike Leigh, in a way, and on and on. I’ve recently started memorizing a few poems because I never had to do it for school, and I was curious about it as a way into a poem, and it’s a really intense, exciting task. It’s fun to drive around L.A. and say Kay Ryan and Wallace Stevens out loud!
You’ve described your latest novel as “kind of a retelling of a novel that hadn’t worked.” That novel, you’ve said, originally focused on a boy—perhaps Rose’s brother—rather than on Rose, who later wound up being the protagonist. Are you working on anything now that hasn’t quite gelled, and if so, do you think it will show up in something else later on? Can you give us a sneak preview of a future Bender novel?
I have a couple other novel-possibilites that haven’t gelled yet. Not sure if they will move along, but one is about a female cop, and the other is about a male cop, actually. They’re two different possible story lines that may or may not connect.
Are there any questions left that you still you wish someone would ask you about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake?
It still feels new, that the book is out—so this is a hard one to answer right now! I think I kind of want to talk about the whole book but also don’t want to spoil surprises for readers, so that has changed the way I talk about it in interviews, at least at this stage of the game.
You’ve talked about the importance of trusting the unconscious in your writing, and letting it rule the page—at least in the beginning stages. But many writers have trouble trusting that unconscious. They’re self-editing right from the start. As a teacher of fiction, how do you encourage writers to trust that unconscious, and allow themselves to eschew plot and character for language, in the hopes that story and connections will occur later on?
Yes—eschewing plot and character for language—yes yes yes. The thing is, plot and character are both built from language, so what feels like a trade-off really isn’t. There’s a lot to say on this. For one, when writers are enjoying what they’re writing, even if it’s painful enjoyment, or painful material, the writing tends to be more interesting. So I try to use exercises to shake up the writers in a class, to get them out of their heads, away from their ambitions for stories, their conservatisms. And to have fun. When someone in class is doing a writing exercise and starts to laugh at what they are writing, it’s one of my favorite kinds of classroom moments. Then, it’s all about pointing out what happened. How the work they did without thinking is usually 10x more interesting than the work they slaved over with too much thinking for weeks. How revision is a continuation of the creative process vs. the obsessive picking off of a scab/desire to impress. We’ll play writing games, pass cards to the left with surprising words on them, try to return to the original love of the writing itself. To loosen everybody up, including myself. And yes—to trust that if the writer is following language, and letting the work guide the way more, it will go somewhere!
For some time, you wrote fiction in a closet. Was it a real closet or an alcove that might pass for a bedroom in Manhattan? What was it about this enclosed space that allowed or even encouraged your creativity to emerge? And have you graduated to a cleaner, better-lit space?
It was a real closet—it fit a card table, a chair, and that was about it. I had to angle my body in to sit. I wrote an essay on writing in there that I haven’t published but would like to, at some point—I liked the idea of going into the closet as a kind of entry into the world of childhood’s shadowy scary places. Instead of a repression (going in the closet), it’d be an unearthing—(what’s hiding in the closet?). It was dusty, and I wrote in there for a shocking almost 3 years. But I moved, due to a breakup, and in my new apartment, I wrote happily outside the closet, and fact is, I liked it better. The closet was kind of a drag, in many ways. That said, I did write a couple of my ’scarier’ stories in there, so maybe it did work a little bit.
Of the many interesting links to blogs, interviews, and literary journals on your website, one of them is not like the others: the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Is this a favorite cause of yours? How do animals—elephants, in particular—tie into your fiction?
I put that up there just because I liked it—how wonderful that there’s an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee! I don’t have a real link to elephants in my fiction, but they are wonderful in their strangeness, like most animals. There’s a great Polish short short called “The Elephant” in the International Sudden Fiction book that, in 3 pages, manages to remind us why we need to see elephants as heavy weighty deep creatures to grow up with some stability, somehow.
Now that it’s beach season, what’s on your summer reading list that isn’t on Oprah’s?
I want to finally read Cloud Atlas, which has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I know I’ll love it but I found the very very beginning tough so I put it down once. That happened to me with The God of Small Things, too, which has since become a favorite of mine. Sometimes I’ll buy a book and it’ll sit on the shelf for a few years until it seems to ripen, as it pertains to me, or I get myself ready for it, over time, and I think Cloud Atlas is just about ready for plucking.
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