By Rachel Kaufman, Assistant Editor, The Fourth River
Karen E. Bender, the Chatham MFA Program 2015 Melanie Brown Lecturer, is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent collection, Refund (Counterpoint Press, 2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story prize. She is also the author of two novels, Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms, and a co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many literary magazines. She currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with her husband, writer Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.
The Fourth River spoke with Karen as part of our celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series.
The Fourth River: You are a Los Angeles native who currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina and has resided in New York City and Iowa City. Since Fourth River is a place and nature based journal, how has place affected your work? Are there particular places that you reoccur in your writing?
Karen Bender: Place definitely affects my work. I feel that all writers are outsiders, in some way, in the place where they live, and especially perhaps where they grow up, so your own personal engagement with that place is important. I grew up in Los Angeles, and that environment, and how I interacted with it, how I felt at odds with it and also connected with it, has been important in my work. I lived for many years in New York and currently in North Carolina, and these places have influenced my writing as well.
FR: Your most collection, Refund, has earned a lot of recognition. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story prize. What is your favorite short story in Refund and why?
KB: I think I like different stories in the collection for different reasons. I especially enjoyed writing some of the stories with somewhat flawed characters—Warren Vance in Reunion, Ginger Klein in Theft, Lenny Weiss in Anything for Money—because it is so much fun as a writer to explore these characters. Writing characters who are not, superficially, like you, as a person, is engaging because it feels like acting. You find some connection with that character within yourself and then just explode, exaggerate it. The title story was a difficult story to write, as it dealt with New York after September 11th, but it was an important story for me to write as well, to try to bear witness to what was happening to the city and nation at that time.
FR: I’m interested to see if your answer to the next question is the same as your answer to the previous question. What short story in Refund did you work the hardest on and revise the most?
KB: Perhaps the story that went through the most revision was “A Chick from My Dream Life,” which I wrote actually when I was in graduate school, and I count as my first story that I stuck with and revised until I got it right. I just was very stubborn with it. I find that stubbornness has been helpful to me in trying to push and improve my work.
FR: Speaking of revision, on your website there are your commandments for becoming a writer and suggestions for revision, such as “#3: Feel how it feels when the writing’s going well. Remember that feeling. It will come back.” Have these changed over the years and how?
KB: I wrote the Ten Commandments for myself when I was just starting to become a writer; I wanted some tools to help me along the way. They actually haven’t changed over the years–sometimes I still touch base with them.
FR: How does your process for writing a short story differ from writing a novel?
KB: A short story differs from a novel in that you can see the end of it more quickly, which I find comforting, even though the end may take a while to get to—some of these stories took a year and a half or two to write. But novels are more of a marathon, really.
FR: I was present at your Melanie Brown series lecture at Chatham University last year. I remember specifically your explanation of “octopus moments,” as you call them, which are brief departures from scene that give background without taking away from the urgency of the story. In fact, if done correctly, they add depth and intrigue to the storyline. It’s a concept that still comes to my mind when I write. That is how the Melanie Brown series encouraged me as a writer. What did it mean to you to be a part of the Melanie Brown series?
KB: I really enjoyed being part of the Melanie Brown series—I loved meeting the students, answering their questions, and it was great meeting the Browns and seeing their special library of books. Reading, writing and treasuring books is so important, especially now, when our culture seems to be going in a direction that demeans clear and truthful language. Being part of the Brown series renewed my faith in readers, writers, our community of words.
Rachel Kaufman is an essayist and travel writer. Hoosier born and bred, she has lived in Finland, South Africa, Myanmar, and Thailand. She has contributed to Expat Life in Thailand magazine. An MFA candidate at Chatham University, Rachel teaches creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as a part of the Words Without Walls Program. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.