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Magic-Making In L.A.: An Interview With Author Aimee Bender

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Author Aimee Bender is a literary iconoclast. The Los Angeles Times lauded, “she is Hemingway, on an acid trip.” Her knack for magical realism and her admiration of the fairy tale have inspired a generation of young writers bent on the surreal, citing dog-eared copies of Bender’s iconic collection Willful Creatures as influence. Bender has written five critically acclaimed books, including two short story collections (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures), one novella (The Third Elevator) and two novels (An Invisible Sign of My Own, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake). And when she isn’t writing, she’s teaching writing, exploring LA, and listening to PJ Harvey. I met with Bender at USC to talk about Los Angeles’ less-known lit scene, feminizing fairy tales, and the splendor of LA’s sunlight.LAist: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is set in Los Angeles, and a striking feature of the book is how well you depict the ordinariness of living in LA, or as you’ve called it, “the daily” LA. What would you tell people who might have a different impression of our city what living in LA is really like?

Bender: LA suffers from a lot of false impressions. I think it isn’t a city you can get to know easily, so someone who comes once or twice and has just driven around is going to have a fairly shallow impression of what the city is really like. In LA, you get this top crust of glitteriness, but underneath you have a big metropolis with all the good things, and bad things, that a big metropolis has. People walk. People ride bikes. People go to Farmer’s Markets. There’s a really interesting visual arts scene. There’s exciting poetry happening. And I just heard that by 2020, people want the steelhead trout to be back in the LA River. That’s just not what you expect from LA. I think there’s a lot the city is trying to do to make it more community-oriented and less isolated, which is the danger in LA—that you get stuck in your car and become isolated.

Your stories frequently explore elements of the fairy tale, and often these qualities of the fantastic are juxtaposed with more common experiences, much in the way LA has an idealized vision and a contrasting reality. How does living in LA inspire the fairy tale aspect of your writing?

What people say commonly about LA is that it’s a city where you can reinvent yourself constantly. It’s very open to a person changing or a sort of strangeness in the world and I think that does supply permission and space. There is a kind of magical shimmeriness to that. LA is packed full of fairytale-like film discovery stories, which are very compelling. I remember I saw the opening night of Pretty in Pink when I was in high school. John Hughes was in the audience and I remember just feeling awe-struck and star-struck and feeling like ‘someone will get discovered’ and ‘I want to be Molly Ringwald,’ and that whole LA fairy tale/myth. So I did really grow up with that. But I feel like I would have liked fairy tales even if I was in Russia.

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The fairy tales you construct are much different than traditional fairy tales, especially in regard to the female protagonists. There is a sort of feminist undercurrent that runs throughout your work that is notoriously missing from conventional fairy tales. Are the feminist themes found throughout your work intentional?

I think of myself as a feminist and I feel comfortable supporting women's rights whenever I can, so I think that’s going to filter in. But it is never an agenda, because I think fiction with an agenda tends to be annoying; it feels intrusive. One of my favorite Flannery O’Connor quotes is “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing” For me, that light is an interest in women and all aspects of women—how women treat women, how women treat themselves—all of that is endlessly interesting to me. So I’m not going to write about that directly, but it’s going to be affected by my belief system and my opinions about women—how we help ourselves, how we hurt ourselves, all of that. And I grew up with two sisters so I felt really flooded with girls, which was good.

You teach creative writing at USC. What advice do you think is most helpful to offer aspiring writers?

In terms of the development of voice: really trust what actually inspires you. Try to move towards that. It took a while for me to figure out what was respectable literary fiction and what I really liked. And what I really liked was a mishmash. So it took a while for me to say “fairy tales,” even though I loved them and they influenced me, because I didn’t think that was acceptable. I think there are a lot of people who have something like that—that feels like this shame-filled true love that is so important to a person’s voice. Try to sort out the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘loves’ that are connected with writing, and forget the ‘shoulds,’ because they sort of take you nowhere; they’re just pressure.

In the same vein, what do you think is the most unhelpful advice? Writing programs are often rife with mantras like, “write what you know,” and “show, don’t tell.” What common adage likely does a disservice to writing students?

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All of the mantras bug me, so it’s fun to think what one bugs me the most. ‘Know what your character wants’—that’s definitely troubled me. If you don’t know, I think that’s ok. ‘You have to consciously craft every sentence of your story to lead toward the end where it will all fit together.’ I mean, come on, who works like that? To me, writing feels like an unconscious process, and the more you can let that be part of the process, generally the work gets better. I really think that’s true. So any of the rules that try to make that process extremely conscious tend to end up clunky. You can just sense when a writer is like ‘I have to put in the climactic moment here.’ I think I’d warn against advice that seems extremely heady and plan-oriented. I guess it works for some people, but it just doesn’t work for me. You don’t have to plan. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You learn in a roundabout way and I don’t think there’s an equation.

LA’s literary culture is often gravely overlooked. What do you make of the Los Angeles book community?

I almost think it’s a cliché to think LA is not literary, and it feels like a dried up cliché to me. I just don’t think it’s accurate. LA has a very strong, vital literary community, and I think it’s pretty eclectic and interesting. It’s so dwarfed by film that I think people don’t think it’s there, but it really is. LA has a lot of interesting venues with a lot going on. It’s not uncommon to bump into writers at various kinds of events. PEN, for instance, is always doing great things.

For those looking for LA’s less-known literary sphere, where might you suggest they start?

I think the bookstores are a good start. And the independent bookstores in LA are really great—Booksoup, Vroman’s, Skylight, Diesel; I think they can offer good connections. And there’s the UCLA Extension Program, which is a really great place to find and develop a writing community. There are venues like Beyond Baroque and 826LA, which host readings pretty regularly. There’s also the ALOUD Reading Series and the Hammer Reading Series by Benjamin Weissman.

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What is your favorite literary depiction of LA?

Oh, that’s fun. I love Chandler, Didion and Nathanael West—they’re all such staples. There’s something about the ‘Raymond Chandler LA’ that is just so gritty and romantic. DJ Waldie’s book Holy Land, which is more ‘Inland Empire LA,’ is a very beautiful book. He’s also quoted in one of my favorite articles about LA, which is the Lawrence Weschler piece that appeared in the New Yorker entitled “LA Glows,” about the light in LA. He talks about LA nature in a way that I think hasn’t been talked about enough. In the article, he recounts watching the OJ Simpson trial on TV, after having moved to New York from LA; he had started crying and his kids said something like, “do you know the man in the Ford?” and he said, “No, I had just forgotten how beautiful the light is.” He also talks about how film started here because of the light and how David Hockney was moved by the light and shadows in LA. It’s just a beautiful article and one of my favorite love letters to the city.

And lastly, what LA authors should we be reading?

There are so many! Steve Erickson, Jim Krusoe, Janet Fitch, Sarah Bynum, Amy Gerstler, Ben Weissman, Diana Wagman, Harryette Mullen, Percival Everett, Susan Straight, Bernard Cooper, to name a few.

For more about Aimee Bender, including upcoming readings and information about her work, be sure to visit the author’s website.