THE NEW YORK TIMES lauded Karen Bender’s debut novel, Like Normal People (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) as “energetic, precise, sympathetically alive to the strangeness of ordinary life.” The Los Angeles Times bestseller, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, was followed more than a decade later by the intelligent, quietly powerful, and similarly well-received A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint, 2013). Between novels, Bender, an avowed short story writer, published short fiction in such prestigious outlets as The New Yorker, Granta, and Ploughshares. Now her first short story collection, Refund (Counterpoint, 2015), arrives, filled with darkly humorous, sharply observed, deeply human stories of economies both financial and emotional. In this Los Angeles Times Bestseller and New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, also on the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Bender combines John Cheever’s surreality with Raymond Carver’s grim reality, yet arrives at a wickedly smart view on contemporary America that is all her own.
Bender grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met her husband, novelist Robert Anthony Siegel. The couple currently live in Wilmington, North Carolina, with their two children, and teach creative writing. Bender was in town for the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is where she talked with author Nancy Spiller for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
NANCY SPILLER: You seem so nice and polite. Your stories in Refund are surprisingly dark, funny, and angry — is this persona a cover?
KAREN BENDER: It’s all a cover! My theory is that, in fiction, we need to express everything without censoring it. In real life, we need to try to be good to each other. In fiction, the relationship between reader and writer is about trying to connect through honesty. Honest writing may be dark, it’s not about the niceness we’re presenting to each other in real life — it’s about all the different feelings you have. I had a talk with an actress recently, and she said she really liked roles in which her characters were mean because it helped her get the cobwebs out. Which is a beautiful way of describing what art can do for you psychologically. You can be a good, caring person in your life, but in fiction we should be able to be everything, our characters should be uncensored, because that is actually healing for both writer and reader. When readers come to my work, I want them to have all of their feelings — including the dark, complicated ones — understood.
Your father is a psychoanalyst and you’ve referred to psychoanalysis as having been the religion growing up in your house. How did that lead to your faith in narrative?
Fiction is about telling stories, and psychoanalysis is also about telling stories and interpreting dreams and understanding metaphors. That’s one of my attractions to psychoanalysis — it’s about emotions and finding emotion underneath stories that may not be what they appear to be about. I also think my true religion is literature, I really believe in the bond between reader and writer and the ways we connect through honest revelation.
How did you get started as a writer?
I actually wrote about this in an essay for The New York Times a couple of years ago, as the story of the rock. I was at a birthday party when I was six years old, and the birthday boy was running away from kids who wanted to put him through the spanking machine, where they would spank him. He picked up a rock and he threw it and it soared over everyone and hit me right here (indicates temple). I fell back and I was bleeding and an adult took me over to the birthday cake table and put me down and moved the birthday cake so it wouldn’t get bloody. It was just this awful moment — I’d gone to this birthday party thinking it was this nice party and it ended up being a head injury. A narrative is a way of gaining control over the chaos of life. So the thought — They had to move the birthday cake so it wouldn’t get bloody — was a way of controlling this chaos. And I started writing my first story, which I wrote then when I was covered in bandages.
In your collection Refund, major public disasters often get sidelined for smaller, more personal ones. In the story “Reunion,” you have a shooting at a high school reunion that turns into the comitragedy of a former boyfriend running a real estate scam, in another a grammar school lockdown leads to evidence of a student’s neglect at home, and in the title story, 9/11 becomes the disastrous demand for a rental refund on an apartment near Ground Zero. What inspired this play with scale and perspective?
We all live our own experiences of making dinner or having a family, or whatever our experience is, and these experiences of violence and horror surround us all the time. The shock of September 11th was that life seemed normal around downtown Manhattan and then suddenly it looked like a war zone. Mass, random shootings are so common I think they are becoming part of the American psyche now. Perhaps we think of them as events that could happen at any moment. The extraordinary is woven into the ordinary.
Were you living in New York near Ground Zero?
We did live near Ground Zero. We were out of town at that time.
Was the financial aspect of Refund inspired by your own money concerns?
I didn’t set out to write a story collection about money, but it evolved that way. I started writing the stories in 2002. “Refund” was the first story I wrote and I wrote “Theft” about the swindler on the cruise ship. I wanted to write about money because in New York, income inequality was becoming more pronounced. We were in an apartment that was subsidized, so we had a very low rent, but the building was going to go private. Our rent was about to go up a lot, so we had to figure out what to do next. My husband is also a writer so it’s just something we think about a lot: how do you balance earning money, creating art, and raising a family? Most people we knew were going through this struggle in some way as well.
You currently live in Wilmington, North Carolina, where you’ve said you feel somewhat outside the culture. You’ve also lived in Taiwan for a year. Does being an outsider help you to make the wonderful, incisive, disturbing observations you do about American society?
As a writer, you’re always trying to get yourself to wake up and see what’s new around you. It’s easy in real life to just shut down and assume everything is kind of the way it is. But you need to see the world in a fresh way. In Taiwan, in particular, we could see American culture in a new light. In Taiwan, there are no guns and it’s very safe. I saw all these shootings in the U.S. and it just looked like a war was going on. Also, when we returned, all the houses looked so big. The neighborhoods are so spread out. There is so much I saw more clearly from abroad. The challenge for a writer is how do you see what’s in front of you in a new way?
You play with distances, the children within a family might not be named, but, as in the story “The Third Child,” the girl next door is named. For you, as a mother, are these some of “the unthinkable thoughts” a writer is supposed to seek on the page?
Right, I love Cheever’s quote, that you’re supposed to write about the unthinkable, unsayable. I wasn’t really aware that the children or the people were unnamed until readers started bringing it up. Why don’t they have names? I think it is a way of trying to free myself to invent. I wanted to distance my characters from what was going on in my own world. Not naming the characters is a way of creating distance.
You have said that John Cheever and Raymond Carver are influences on your writing, and I felt that in reading your stories. What of their writing do you hope to bring to your work?
Their work honors the strangeness in ordinary life in such a powerful way. My story “Reunion” is having a conversation with Cheever’s wonderful story “The Country Husband,” which describes a man named Francis Weed, who is in an airplane that almost crashes on his way from a business trip. The plane lands in a field and he goes home to his family — they are having dinner and they don’t even care that he was in a plane crash. And I just thought that contrast was so interesting — he has this brush with mortality and then he just returns to a regular family dinner, which he describes as its own kind of war. It brings up questions, how do you live with the constant shadow of death around you? Living is really so hard, and Cheever’s sensory descriptions just always make me want to write. And Carver’s stories are realistic but have such a haunting, surreal edge. He is the master of the nuanced image. His story “Feathers,” is a story of a dinner party with the two couples and their baby. There are two images in that story that are just incredible. One is a peacock that wanders through the happier family’s house. It’s beautiful and makes a strange noise; there’s also a very bizarre orthodontic teeth cast in the living room with jagged teeth. The peacock and cast are complicated metaphors or symbols the reader can find so much meaning in them. Their work inspires me again and again.
You have wonderful descriptions in your work — a housing tract is “like a vinyl stage set for suburban housewives to run amok in.” Do you collect those and use them as they seem to fit, or do they come to you as you’re writing the stories?
They tend to come as I’m writing. I don’t keep a diary right now of little notes. I have in the past. I tend to be a writer who writes line by line, it’s harder for me to write in terms of the larger landscape, in terms of plot. I think I’d like to go back to keeping a diary of images or notes, I think that can be helpful.
With a story like “Reunion,” did you write that line by line, or did you know you were going to go from a shooting to a fake real estate office next to a Subway Sandwich shop?
That story came from such a weird subconscious place. I had gone to my 20th reunion, which was an eerie experience. It was great to connect with people, but such a strange way of marking time. I had to write about it. I started writing about the reunion itself and then the character Warren Vance walked in and just started talking. And then everything just started to evolve, his weird office, the real estate business, and it was just fun to write.
We live in a highly secular society; you’ve said you consider literature to be sacred, do you think that’s the ultimate value for readers?
Literature changes people; I truly believe it can change the world. I’m a real champion of literature in that way. When you read literature, you may feel your strangeness is understood by another person. You think no one else can think this and then the writer expresses that thought or feeling and you think, oh it’s not so strange. And as a writer and a reader, you get to inhabit all sorts of consciousnesses, which can also be so illuminating and freeing. You see how people live and think who are not like you in any way that seems superficially similar; and then you see how everyone is very similar underneath. That’s, I feel, the sacredness of literature. And in a culture that’s based on falseness, clichés, and selling and advertising and a lot of manipulation of thought and feeling, literature is sacred because it is honest.
What about the benefits of fiction versus memoir?
Great writing is great writing. Some of my favorite books are memoir. I think our relationship to memoir is a little different because we’re witnessing how someone survives something. How did someone get through this experience? A memoir is, in a way, a guide. In fiction, the writer is forming the material into an arc that’s more like a dream. A great story to me is basically like a dream. It has that intuitive power.
Your mother is a painter and a dancer, how did that contribute to your writing?
Yes, she’s a dancer, and a painter, a choreographer, she’s very much into the visual arts, which I am not, I am verbal. My mother was really supportive of creative work and encouraged it with my sister and me. That was always very valuable, because not all parents encourage their children’s creative work.
Your husband is a novelist, your sister, Aimee Bender, is a novelist and short story writer. How does that work with so many writers in the family — does it become a competitive situation?
When I was starting to write, I wrote my 10 commandments on becoming a writer. Robert, Aimee, and I are very supportive of each other’s work, and we all do very different work. I wrote various commandments — for example: set up a writing schedule, have a writing buddy, etc. And one was Only you can write your version of the world. That is one of the most incredible things about writing — that your version of the world is valuable and it only belongs to you. Whatever anyone else is doing is important in its way, but it’s not what you’re doing. Write what you need to say and treasure it.
Can you tell me more about your 10 commandments?
My 10 commandments are on my website. The first one is simple: write. Write. Number two is create a writing schedule for yourself. Either write an hour a day or a page a day or something, so you see the work build up. One describes revision as simply a task; you take it step-by-step. The “commandments” are just practical ideas that are supposed to combat the idea that writing is magical and happens when you’re hit by lightning. This “lightning” concept is, I feel, actually destructive to writers because it is about the idea of writing being magical, genius. The more you think of writing as practical, a task that you can master if you persevere to the very end of yourself, the more you can succeed. Writing is a process, is something you can control, instead of being hit by lightning.
The more you view writing as a process and something that occurs over a number of drafts, the better. Writing is notoriously inefficient and happens with many mistakes and failures. I’ve been online reading a lot about how writers process failure, writing something that doesn’t work, and how it’s important just to process failure as information instead of reacting to it emotionally. It doesn’t help to moan, Oh my God it didn’t work. The more I view writing as a process, a task, like an office I return to with determination, the easier it is. The process is not magical; I’m just an ox plowing a field. That’s helpful for me.
And what is your process, every day, a particular time?
My process has varied throughout my life, but lately I try to write in the morning. And I try to do it whenever I can. A writer has to always juggle a million things. I juggled different sorts of work before I published my first novel, then teaching, teaching and raising little kids; it’s always a battle. I’m just a writer that writes. I never go out to lunch. A friend of mine said recently, “Let’s go out to lunch,” and I did — there were all these people out at lunch. There’s a whole world of people who go out to lunch. And it’s one of those activities I tend not to do that because that’s my work time. Sometimes activities such as going out to lunch fall away when you’re really trying to get stuff done, but then when you’re a little more loose, you can go out to lunch — it’s fun, you know. But a writer has to be very disciplined.
And you said about the need to have a writing buddy — who is yours?
Yes. This is the best goal to have from a writing class — to find the friends and the people who are there for you during the hard times. Because the hard times are the times you need them, which is, to be honest, most of the time. Publishing a book and getting all of this attention, the frosting part of the writing life, in my experience, doesn’t happen that often. Mostly the writing life is sitting down and writing and failing and feeling frustrated day after day after day. It can be thrilling some days, and boring and aggravating others, and not always that much fun. You can show something to your writing buddy and hear him/her say “That’s good, keep going.” That’s gold. To have someone be honest with you and supportive is important. I’m married to my writing buddy. [Laughter.] So Robert and I look at each other’s work first thing and that’s very helpful.
Do you share your writing with your sister?
We read each other’s work when it’s published. That’s when we read it. Her work is so different from mine, I actually don’t know how I’d critique it. It’s a lot more magical. But it’s fascinating, hearing her comments on my work and telling her what I think of her work because I see all these different ways she’s processing these experiences in our family that are similar to mine but also different. You can grow up in the same family and really inhabit different universes.
Let’s talk about publishing. With your first novel, published by Houghton Mifflin, there was an auction, you got paid a lot of money, that was 1998, it came out in 2000, it got tremendous reviews, and it was a bestseller and a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. And your next book comes out 13 years later and it’s a completely different landscape.
Yes! I sent my second book to my agent in 2008, 2009. I sent it to my agent, he loved it, he sent it out in 2010, but publishing was really in a different place then. The industry was still coping with the recession and editors were nervous, especially about literary books. They didn’t know if they would sell or not. And so my book, A Town of Empty Rooms, was rejected many times, until my editor, Dan Smetanka, read it and loved it and Counterpoint committed to it. It was just a blessing. They could see the importance of it. Same with the story collection. I was really fortunate to have found Counterpoint. It’s a wonderful home for me and so many amazing writers. Thank God for it.
The overall sense in your stories is that the lives of your characters just don’t measure up for them in relation to the American Dream. There’s just no financial or emotional security waiting out there no matter how many days they trudge through. Is that your sense of post-9/11 America?
I do feel that, just getting older, as you travel through life, your hopes for stability that you have when you are younger are just undone by uncertainty. I think 9/11 was a time the country woke up from a kind of delusion of omnipotence. Just being shielded from that sort of violence outside. But I think the sense of insecurity is simply a function of getting older. Everyone encounters difficulties; life is inherently unstable, about change.
Let’s talk about the difference between entertainment fiction and literary fiction and how do you deal with being thrown into competition with writers of escapist fiction on sites like Goodreads? You’ve mentioned you get reviews there that people say you’re depressing. What do you do with that?
Right! What is the role of literary fiction in our culture? I feel so strongly the importance of deep, complex literary fiction. It’s really important to fight for in our culture. I have my definition of literary fiction and commercial fiction. Literary fiction tries to illuminate something true in a human life. When you read something literary, it should illuminate a truth in the world. It should help you see. Entertainment fiction is used to distract yourself from life. And that has an important role too. Sometimes we need to be distracted from our lives. But illumination is also deeply important. Certainly some books blur these boundaries. But I feel the value of literary fiction needs to be restated, and that we should treasure it and what it can do for us as readers and human beings.
You mentioned “Reunion” was prompted by your own 20th high school reunion. What are your inspirations — newspaper stories, personal experiences, stories people tell you?
It varies. I go to a story with some emotional drive. A story explores an emotion that I want to think about or it can explore an issue that I am frustrated about or angry or curious about. I write to work things out in myself or in the outside world. So I’ll start with that and I’ll start imagining. Sometimes a story is inspired by a situation, a character, an image I read about or experience.
In A Town of Empty Rooms, you were working through some of your discomfort with the culture you find yourself living amidst in Wilmington, North Carolina?
I always wanted to write about being Jewish before, but I hadn’t found a way to do it. I did want to explore Jewish identity when we were in the south because suddenly being Jewish was unusual. I grew up in West LA where there was no carpool on Rosh Hashanah because no one went to school and then I lived in New York and I never felt like I was particularly different in that way. But in North Carolina, sometimes, I was the first Jewish person someone had ever met. And our kids were very aware of their identity, being the only Jewish child in their school or groups. And our city, Wilmington, is quite religious — at the YMCA where my daughter plays soccer, they’ll do a little prayer before the game. There was a big uproar when the city council voted not to say a prayer before their meetings. On Sunday mornings, everything was closed until noon, except for Chuck E. Cheese, which, when the kids were little, was both a relief and insanely depressing. So being Jewish was being outside the mainstream in Wilmington, and I wanted to explore this, for suddenly I viewed myself in a different way.
You viewed yourself in a different way — as what?
As Other. There were several odd experiences. Once, a friend of my son’s came over and we were having lentil chili. And he said, “Is this a Jewish dish?” And I realized we were being discussed as Jews in his house. Lentil chili is not a Jewish dish, but I understand that he was thinking of us as that. It made me wonder, how do people think of themselves? How do I think of myself? What comes up first? How does the world see you? I’ve been playing with those ideas more. A Town With No Rooms did that.
Did you or any of your children ever experience any of the instances of anti-Semitism that happen in the book? Like dropping the penny? In the novel, a boy at the son’s school drops pennies in front of Zeb and tells him to pick them up, when he does, it’s supposed to prove that he’s Jewish.
That incident with the pennies was true. I heard about it at the synagogue we attended. It happened to a girl who attended another school. I recently talked to a mother of one of my son’s friends and she said that at his elementary school, a mother found out she was Jewish and asked to see her horns. She said the mother didn’t ask this in a mean way, but was just curious. That sort of interaction told me that people didn’t really know many Jews. We weren’t kicked out of the Boy Scouts—which happens to the family in the book — or anything like that. People are mostly very welcoming and curious. They’d say will you please come do a presentation on Hanukkah? Every year I’d be asked to do the Hanukkah presentation at the school and all the kids would get a dreidel and they were thrilled to get a dreidel. Each Hanukkah I became the ambassador for Judaism. Both of our kids were on the cover of the local newspaper during the High Holy Days at one point or another, blowing a shofar or doing some other Jewish activity. I think our children do have strong Jewish identities, but it hasn’t necessarily been that easy for them to be The One.
Are either of your children interested in becoming writers?
They’re both amazing writers and they both say they have no interest in being writers. They’re crisply practical. Our daughter wants to be in fashion marketing. And our son is very gifted at photography, but he’s saying he may be interested in P.R. So they have seen the struggle. They’re both very creative. I really hope they follow their creativity, if they want to, because they have a lot of talent, but they see the cost of it. I don’t think they see the glamour in it [laughter].
Nancy Spiller is the Los Angeles–based author of Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (with recipes) and Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned From My Mother’s Recipe Box.