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A Conversation with Aimee Bender

The celebrated author and professor shares her thoughts about fairy tales, artichoke hearts and putting artists on American bills.

Associate Professor of English Aimee Bender. Photo credit Philip Channing.
Associate Professor of English Aimee Bender. Photo credit Philip Channing.

Professor, mentor, magician with words -- Aimee Bender is all of these. She's also a friend; not just to me, her undergraduate student for more than a year, but to all of her students, to whom she is staggeringly devoted. The first time I took one of her courses — “The Writer in the Community” — I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t all that familiar with her work. I’d changed my major from political science to creative writing a semester earlier and at the time wasn’t all too savvy about contemporary fiction. But Aimee (she welcomes students calling her by her first name) changed all of that. She exposed my class to authors who struck a chord, whose writing was weirder and more fun than anything I’d read in a very long time. It unlocked a part of my imagination that I hadn’t tapped into since I was a kid. I began seeing what was once to me a monochrome world through the kaleidoscopic lens of literature. Aimee’s fiction — Willful Creatures (Doubleday, 2005) and An Invisible Sign of My Own (Anchor, 2001) to name a few — has the same effect; her work enhances readers’ lives through the beauty, magic and mystery of language.

MC: What drives you to write?
AB: I think it comes from a love of language — I really enjoy words and the beauty of words. It comes from an interest in telling stories, and something invisible I can't define.

MC: I’m curious about the writing process. I’ve always wondered about yours, especially after having been your student. Could you tell me a little about it? Is there a certain schedule you stick to, a word count or time limit you aim for?
AB: I have a very rigid schedule where I write for two hours in the morning, five or six days a week, which I’ve been doing since 1995 and it really changed my writing once I set that in place. I know people who do a word count but I do a time limit because I like the idea that I could just sit there for two hours and that could be considered work. And when I write, there’s no using the Internet or e-mail, nothing to distract me.

MC: We know that you write organically, and never really know how the story will end when you start; why do you think this works better than writing a complete plot outline?
AB: I think what happens for me, is if the plot is outlined, I get bored. And as soon as the writer gets bored, the writing gets boring. I also feel like I can’t think up an interesting plot, I’m just not that kind of thinker, so my more original ideas happen when I’m not thinking and I’m just writing.

MC: What do you do when you reach an impasse or a roadblock of some sort in your writing?
AB: I’ll usually shift and work on something else — I won’t try to barrel through it. I’ll work on something else for a while and go back to it. Sometimes I just need a fresh eye and in order to get that freshness I need to look away. I’ll have stories sit for years or months or a long time before I know what to do with them.

MC: What do you enjoy most about writing?
AB: Probably the sense of discovery, because when I write something I didn’t expect to write, then I’m kind of opening up myself to myself, and also it tends to be surprising to the reader. Those days are the most exciting.

MC: In addition to being a beloved and successful writer, you’re a beloved and successful teacher. Can you describe the relationship between your teaching and writing?
AB: My current way of looking at it is that the writing is very solitary and the teaching is very social, and even though they’re about the same topic, they’re super different. I like the teaching because I like people and I like talking about writing. I love writing, but I would have fun teaching anything, to tell you the truth. It happens to work out nicely that I get to teach something I’m passionate about.

MC: We share the same stance on the benefit that writing can have on students, both young and old, but there seems to be a resistance against including creative writing, and the arts in general, in primary classrooms. Why do you think this is, and what does this say about our society?
AB: I think the problem is that people will view the arts as extra, and so when the schools are in a dire situation — LAUSD is struggling right now — the arts can often get cut. But ideally, and many schools do this, the arts should be considered an integral part of a curriculum, because certain students learn differently and will be able to access everything much better if taught through the arts. On French bills, there’s a piano player or a painter, and we would never ever put someone from the arts on our money — they’re always politicians.

MC: What authors’ works do you admire, both now and when you were growing up?|
AB: Fairy tales, the Oz books, and all the children’s books about magical places, and writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, Lynda Barry, Richard Yates, Alice Munro, Donald Barthelme, Haruki Murakami. ... Gosh, way too many to list.

MC: What makes a story successful for you?
AB: Usually if I feel a little different after I’ve read it, and it feels fresh, and has something about it that’s a little bit new, and if it uses language carefully and lovingly.

MC: Are there any new projects you’re working on now, something we fans can look forward to?
AB: I just finished a novel that’s coming out in July. It’s been many years in the making. [Of the book, she only would say cryptically, “It’s about food and family.”]

MC: OK, here are some playful questions. What are your favorite word, smell and taste?
AB: These are some favorite words, because it’s hard to pick out just one: Spoon, otter, kith. ... I don’t like SAT words. ... forlorn is a nice word, so is brethren, skillet, plain and grain. I like moon and elm. My favorite smell is the ocean and favorite taste is artichoke hearts.

MC: Choose a body part, a color, and the name of a song.
AB: The nose, red and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”


Michael Campos ’09 graduated in December with a B.A. in English. His first short story, “The World Belongs,” was published in issue 44 of the online short-fiction Web site


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue