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
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
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
RH: How long have you been writing stories,
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
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
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
RH: Like "Electric Wizard" in your collection. It's bizarre,
it's extreme, but it feels like it's still well within the realm
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
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
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
RH: Like "Junior," the dog psychic story. There's enough
emotional power in there for a novel, but it all fits into 25
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
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.