The Beatrice Interview

Aimee Bender and Elizabeth Stuckey-French

"Whenever I told myself I knew what the novel was about, I was wrong. "

interviewed by Ron Hogan

I met up with Aimee Bender and Elizabeth Stuckey-French in the lobby of the Sofitel, a ritzy midtown hotel just a few blocks away from the offices of Doubleday, their mutual publisher. Over lunch, we discussed Bender's first novel, An Invisible Sign of Their Own, which follows Mona Gray, a young elementary school math teacher struggling to make sense of her father's illness. (That description, though, doesn't even begin to hint at the beautiful surrealness of Bender's prose.) We also talked about Stuckey- French's debut collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa. Stuckey-French's stories are less overtly surreal, but they also have a wild, manic edge to them that catches--and keeps--the reader's attention. As we wait for our salads, we laugh over the odd coincidence that the designers of their dust jackets have--independently of one another--both decided to feature bent legs on the cover...though, as you can see from the pictures on the left, the resemblances end there.

RH: Aimee, I was rereading some of the stories in your short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt recently, and I noticed that you'd maintained the sensibility of those stories in the novel. How were you able to maintain your voice for several times longer than you've done before?

AB: With the short story, you're not dwelling too long on what it's going to be, shapewise. You get a sense of the story's shape fairly soon. But I had no idea what the shape of the novel would be for the majority of the time I was writing it. One of the things I wanted to maintain from the short stories was that the scenes have a certain tautness. I tried to maintain the story's push, but that push often comes through individual scenes, andthe novel ends up feeling like a rainbow collection of scenes.

RH: Did you start by saying to yourself it's time to write a novel, or was this a short story that just kept going?

AB: I wanted to write a novel, but I'd spent the whole year before feeling that I couldn't even start, so it was an evolution just to feel I could even try. I didn't know how to do it at all. But the novel didn't come out of any short stories. In fact, I tried to take some of the short stories in the collection and then try to write the next part, and it didn't work. Then I came up with a whole different novel in my head and tried to write that, and that didn't work, either. It was learning and relearning the same lesson over and over: get out of your way and just work, and hopefully something will come out of that. The more invasive I got into my writing process, the more I'd bottom out. And whenever I told myself I knew what the novel was about, I was wrong.

RH: What was the first image that came to you that stayed?

AB: There was Mona. But she was going on a quest for a woman who braided water, who's long since gone. And then there was a whittler and a wooden man, and they went to breakfast--that's gone, too. One early scene that stayed was the bubble scene, where the guy is blowing bubbles with smoke in them. But I didn't know who he was at first.

RH: How long did it take you to write the novel?

AB: It took me three years. I spent some time working just on the novel, but then I started working on short stories alongside it. I would think that the stories I was writing had to fit into the novel, and when they didn't, I just kept writing them. The less pressured the novel got, the better I felt. When it became the one big project, the Novel with a capital N, the writing became very dry and dull. If I have seven things to work on in a two-hour stretch, it's likely that I'll write a good sentence for the novel in that stretch. Otherwise I'd just get tired and bored with it.

RH: That takes care of whether you want to do both novels and short stories in the future.

AB: I feel like my short stories have become affected by the process of writing a novel, though. Now I'm writing stories a little bit slower than I used to. They boil on the stove more than they have before. It takes me longer to find the end. It's replicating the process of novel writing--although I'll still race to the end of a story sometimes, too.

RH: How long have you been writing stories, Elizabeth?

ES-F: I did the "write stories when you're a kid" stories, and I took writing classes in college. But I didn't think of doing it seriously. I was a social worker for six years, and I would write stories and then put them in my desk. I got tired of doing that, and I went back to graduate school to study English. I liked to read and I thought, "What the hell? Let's do this." That's when I took my first fiction writing class with a good teacher and we had to revise. That's when I got hooked on writing.

RH: And that was when you decided to apply to the writer's program at Iowa?

ES-F: Yes. The master's program was at Purdue, then my husband and I both decided we wanted further degrees, so we both went to Iowa. I felt like I needed something more. The degree from Purdue was a master's with a concentration in creative writing, so I didn't get a lot of workshops. And at Iowa, I had a different teacher every semester. I feel like I got a lot out of it.

RH: You had an opportunity to be mentored by some great writers.

ES-F: Margot Livesey and Ethan Canin particularly liked my stuff. They're the first teachers who really encouraged me; other teachers wanted me to tone my stuff down. They encouraged me to push the humor and hysteria as far as I could, and that's when things really started to take off in my writing. I don't know why they felt that way, but they just saw that it was my strength and encouraged it.

AB: I had Margot Livesey at the University of California- Irvine writing program, too. She was wonderful. And it makes me enraged when I hear about people being told to tone their writing down. It's like a kid who's done a beautiful drawing being told to color in the lines. It seems so anti-creative. If you're being told to bring out certain elements of your writing that's one thing, but it seems like so many critical comments are just squelching.

ES-F: And the stories I like are stories that push things as far as they can go. I was just thinking about Tobias Wolff's stories recently. Like "Hunters in the Snow," about three guys who shoot their friend accidentally and put him in the back of the pickup to take him to the hospital, but they keep getting cold and stopping for coffee. It's just on the verg of being unbelievable, but it works, and I love it.

RH: Like "Electric Wizard" in your collection. It's bizarre, it's extreme, but it feels like it's still well within the realm of possibility.

ES-F: A friend of mine was teaching gifted eight graders, and two weeks after one of her classes ended, a kid in that class committed suicide. And I just started thinking about what would happen...and there was a lot of death in my family around that time, too, so I was thinking about death. But I wondered what would happen if the parents called and wanted to know how he'd done in the class. And when I had taught that class, before her, I had a student who'd basically written nothing the whole time. So...

RH: What first comes to you when you're creating a story?

ES-F: I usually get ideas when people tell me about things that have happened to them or to people they know. That's practically the only way I get story ideas now. The dog psychic story was based on a story a friend of mine told me about a couple she knew who had contacted a dog psychic. I get these little stories, and I don't know the people, so I have to imagine the rest of the story. But it strikes a chord with me--I'm really drawn to the subject.

RH: Who are some other fiction writers who have inspired or influenced you?

ES-F: Alice Munro is one of my favorite writers. I just love her stuff. She can describe feelings and emotional states that are so difficult to describe, even though everybody's felt them. And I love the situations in her stories, people lying and getting into trouble, people deluding themselves. I also like William Trevor's stories and novels a lot. He's incredible at getting different points of view, and his dialogue is excellent.

RH: Are you thinking of a novel somewhere down the line?

ES-F: I'm working on something now, and it's taken me a while. I had a contract to write it before I had any ideas, so I was thrown into a panic. How do I write a novel? What's a novel idea? What's a novel? So I floundered around for almost a year, until finally somebody told me a story about something that happened to them (laughs) and that story's blossomed out into a longer series of events. I'm finally writing about something I'm really interested in; there's a lot under the surface I still feel I don't understand, that I want to explore. My other novel ideas...I wasn't vey interested in the subject matter. I wasn't curious.

RH: A number of writers I've talked to have discussed the difficulties in doing short stories when publishers put a lot of pressure on you for novels.

ES-F: My editor told me that if I wanted to keep writing stories, I should do that. But I wanted to see if I could write a novel. It's hard--one of my strengths as a short story writer is compression. I'm very comfortable with cutting out, so it's hard for me to switch over.

RH: Like "Junior," the dog psychic story. There's enough emotional power in there for a novel, but it all fits into 25 pages.

ES-F: And I had a ton of stuff in there that I later cut. But I felt that I had to write those sections to understand the characters.

RH: That sounds a bit like what you went through in writing the novel, Aimee.

AB: It sounds both similar and different. I go through the same process on the sentence level, where I read sentences over and over and cut them until they sound right. But I relate to the way you're going about it--you just don't know what's going to have the oomph to last over the length of a novel until you do it.

I told you before about the character in an early draft who was a whittler. I loved him as a character, and I wrote four pages about him, and then every time I tried to return to him...I finally realized I had nothing left to say about him. I've written out his whole arc. That was a good lesson.

You can write a sentence, and the sentence will have tunnels inside of it, and you don't know how deep each tunnel will go, but a certain noun might be a tunnel that could last the length of a novel. The only way you know is that you're vaguely curious about it. It's an intuition about where you need to go, and it is a bit like groping through caves in the dark.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Amanda Davis | Complete Interview Index | George Saunders

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan