Aimee Bender on the burden of sensitivities: An interview

BenderSycamore recently ran a review of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Now, Dallas Woodburn–current editorial assistant at Sycamore, and Bender’s former student–presents an intriguing interview with Aimee Bender on Lemon Cake, the practice and craft of writing, and the difficulties of being sensitive to the world.

Sycamore: As a professor of creative writing, how does teaching writing influence your own relationship to writing?

Bender: Teaching writing is a whole different animal, and it suits me because it supplies the more social aspect of work, whereas writing is so solitary.  I can’t write all day—my concentration flags.  I love talking with students about their writing, and workshopping, and talking about fiction in general, but it all feels to me very different than the act of writing itself.  So they work as a nice pair.  I also think teaching keeps a person honest, because if I’m up there talking about what I believe in, and there’s a tiny voice in my head reminding me I that did none of it that morning when I sat down to work, then that is useful, too!

Sycamore: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is set in Los Angeles, where you grew up and live today. When I was reading the book, details of Los Angeles were tangible anchors that kept me grounded in the story—the setting almost seemed like another character, as opposed to some of your other short stories, where the setting is more ambiguous. How did you come to set this novel in Los Angeles, and how important was that to the book?

Bender: I grew up in L.A. and I know the city well, so it was fun to just let out that knowledge and have the story set somewhere real, as opposed to other pieces that have been placed in unnamed towns or villages.  I enjoy that too, but this book felt different, tonally.  There’s a lot of magic in it, but I thought the magic might have a different texture if it was set in a real place, versus being immediately put in the world of tale or fable.  Also, many people still have such set notions of L.A. as a film place only, (or Woody Allen’s disdain in Annie Hall still sticks, even though it was a long time ago!) and since most of us who live here aren’t in the film business, I wanted to try to present a more ‘daily’ L.A. where regular people are living go-to-the-market kinds of lives.

Sycamore: When the book opens, Rose is nine; by the end of the book, she is in her early twenties. Her voice feels incredibly authentic at each stage of her life. How did you approach these time shifts in the narrative?

Bender: I’m glad to hear it!  I kind of made a rule for myself that she was looking back, but while she was looking back she would get strongly into the time period she was talking about.  So it was both retrospective and not.  I do think she says words in the beginning that a nine year old probably wouldn’t use, but also she is so close in her memory to being nine that the two time periods meld.  It was a way that I could access both at once and tell myself it was okay to do so.

Sycamore: When I took your fiction writing class at USC, one of my favorite assignments was when you challenged us to integrate writing with another form of media, and explore how the two art forms could play off each other.Your website features many of your own drawings. How do other art forms influence your writing?

Bender: It can be a real relief to get away from words, as a way to think about structure, and feeling, and the visceral experience of someone else’s worldview.  So, I find myself interested in pretty much every other art form.  With that class you’re mentioning, what was so fun was seeing what students came up with: art, or comic books, or songs. One student bought a bunch of gift cards and wrote stories on the back about shopping in each place, or another wrote on his boyfriend’s back with a Sharpie and took photos.  Pretty great.  I like to draw, and I play bad guitar, and my mother, who teaches dance, made sure my sisters and I all took dance as children, and all of that has been incredibly helpful.  When I read, I’m usually reading as a writer, and paying attention to the language. It’s a fantastic break to go see a Tim Hawkinson exhibit, where he has made a skeleton of a bird out of fingernails, or go hear Beethoven on a piano, and not really understand the techniques very well, but relate to it on a pure level as a viewer/listener.

Sycamore: In a recent interview with The Hipster Book Club, you said, “I think of this sometimes—how sensitivity to the world either means you get lauded for it, get paid for it, get celebrated and loved for it, or at another moment, feel burdened by it, or unable to deal, or panicked, or scared, or shut-down.” Your work often explores dark themes and your characters struggle with the depths of emotion and complications that come with being human. How do you keep from feeling burdened by your “sensitivity to the world?”

Bender: In some ways I think it’s really what the whole novel is about, and I wanted to think about the ways sensitivities are wonderful and also can be very painful.  I think anyone who puts a pen to a page has a sensitivity to the world, because writing is so much about getting down what you’ve seen, what you’ve noticed, what you are aware of.  JD Salinger—a perfect example. In a way, it makes sense that he withdrew so intensely; there is such a delicate sensor behind all his writing.  About feeling burdened, it’s a complicated question. I don’t know quite how to answer it directly, I think the book may be my clearest answer.

But mainly I think sometimes it is a burden, and sometimes it isn’t, to be a person in the world, aware of anything, really. And I think most people feel this to some degree.  There are incredible leaders like Darwin or even Al Gore who push science/awareness to a new place and are sensitive to the world in a new way and suffer a lot for it because people don’t want to think about it.  Denial is such a hugely powerful force, and maybe, in a way, it could be put in opposition to certain sensitivities like theirs.  Deborah Eisenberg once described the writer’s job as being aware in a subterranean way of movements in the culture before they rise up to the surface.  She said it more clearly, but that’s my memory of the gist.  So, to answer your question: I think feeling burdened at times is not a bad thing, but something, like pretty much everything else, to learn about, and use in the work itself.


woodburn_red_dress-150x150Dallas Woodburn is pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiction at Purdue University. Her
short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Dzanc Books “Best
of the Web” anthology and has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Arcadia Journal, and
The Newport Review, among others. Learn more about her nonprofit youth literacy organization “Write On!” at