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A Conversation with Aimee Bender

Courtesy of Christine Baker-Parrish
May 10 2018
Sara Button

A girl who can taste the emotions of whoever cooked her food. A little boy in a family of pumpkinheads born with an iron for a head. A woman whose husband has no lips. These are only a few of the characters that sprout from writer Aimee Bender’s untamed imagination, which was the topic of discussion at the Crown Law School on April 30, 2018. Bender, an award-winning fiction writer and faculty member at the University of Southern California, is the author of two novels and multiple short story collections, most recently The Color Master. She visited Stanford thanks to the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Creative Writing program as part of the Frankenstein@200 celebrations taking place across campus to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s famous novel.

As such, Bender kicked off the evening in appropriate style with a talk about Frankenstein. In true Bender fashion, she transformed themes of the 19th-century novel—creation, monstrosity—into relatable, thought-provoking matter. The big questions she asked were these: What is the difference between something alive and something made? Why is it such a horrifying idea to animate the inanimate? In her interpretation, she did not see the monster as a mistake of science but as a piece of art that longed to be received.

Throughout the rest of her talk, Bender revealed more about why she was prone to see such humanity in the inanimate. “It’s not a given for me that things don’t have consciousness,” Bender told the audience. As a child, she said, she had befriended many lamps, and even as an adult she still occasionally struggles to detach emotions from objects. Even the most simple instance of a blueberry falling into the garbage disposal can turn into a saga of emotion and speculation: the blueberry has been separated from its family and will not achieve its destiny of living life as a yogurt mix-in! It is lost and alone! The exceptional compassion and creativity evident in this kind of thinking shone through in Bender’s interpretation of Frankenstein, and they manifest themselves as she crafts her fictions, too, especially in how Bender deals with protagonists who find themselves to be quite different from those around them.

A large part of the conversation with Jones lecturers and former Stegner fiction fellows Kate Petersen and Mark Lebowskie revolved around the notion of the grotesque, and the body; indeed, many of the characters that populate Bender’s stories have unique physical differences. Bender reminded the audience that in traditional fairy tales, physical traits served as a shortcut to signify personality traits. Anyone who is beautiful is also kind; “you don’t have to spend time saying ‘they looked like a regular person,’” Bender said, noting Beauty and the Beast as a big exception. If her stories were more realistic, Bender said, dwelling as she does on the physical could be more problematic. But that’s where fairy tales also have some leeway. If the tone is mythic, it’s easier for readers to allow themselves the freedom to picture that ironhead kid, or a boy who has keys as fingers. “What’s so appealing to me subconsciously is I can spend the whole time of the story talking about the logistics about what it means to have a hand of fire,” she said. Considering those ramifications are part of the fun.

During the Q & A with the audience, Bender offered more insight into her writing process. She finds it important to structure her writing time, not necessarily in terms of content, but more along the lines of time or word count. Another important element in her process? Boredom. Boredom is the predecessor to creativity, and in the era of the smartphone, boredom itself requires some cultivation. When it comes to revision, rather than focus on theme, Bender adjusts her writing based on musicality and pacing. “I don’t think I’ve ever added a sentence for thematic value," she said.

And when asked to self-identify her genre, when so many terms have been applied, including slipstream and speculative fiction? “I welcome all the terms,” she said, but ultimately declined to label her genre in order to give herself the freedom to tell whatever stories feel necessary. Given the originality of her writing, we wouldn’t want her to stifle herself, either.  

Sara Button

SARA BUTTON is a writer and editor. She lives in Menlo Park.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.