Wonderful Strangeness: An Interview with Karen E. Bender

By Kelsey Leach, assistant editor, The Fourth River

Karen 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. Her other works include two novels, Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms and she was the co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. Her short fiction, widely published in literary magazines, has also appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. A Los Angeles native and past resident of New York City and Iowa City, she currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with her husband, writer Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.

The Fourth River: How did you start writing and who were your early influences?

Karen Bender: I started writing because I was hit on the head with a rock when I was six. I was at a birthday party for a little boy and all the kids were trying to put him through a “spanking machine”, which was when all the kids lined up to make a tunnel through which the birthday child was supposed to crawl. He didn’t want to go through the spanking machine, so he was running away and he picked up a rock and threw it. The rock soared over everyone and hit me. I fell backward and some adult picked me up and put me on the birthday cake table, and all these kids were surrounding the table and staring at me and I was bleeding. And what I remember is that they had to move the birthday cake so it didn’t get bloody—that is the detail I remember. So I started writing my first stories after that incident, when I had this big bandage on my head. I believe that was my first insight I had as a writer, because I was trying to impose narrative on chaos. And that’s actually what I think stories, or work, does, because the world is so chaotic, and there are all these rocks thrown at us all the time, in various ways. Writing is a way to try and control the chaos. As a child, I wrote many novel beginnings but never finished. I didn’t know how to finish them.

TFR: When you were in elementary school? Even at that age, you would tell people you were writing a novel?

KB: Yeah—I wrote a lot.

Interestingly, when I was eleven or twelve I decided that I wanted to be published. So I wrote to—I just had so much chutzpah—I wrote to an editor at Knopf, a children’s book editor. I said, “I’m a child and if you take children seriously you have to look at my novel,” or something like that, and she said, “Okay.” I sent her twelve pages of a novel—a “novel”, quote on quote—and she wrote me this quite nice letter back, that basically said, well, you know, there are many strengths to your novel, but there are also weaknesses, and I think you should keep writing and keep a journal. It was a lovely letter; I still have it somewhere. But then I got peevish, and I decided not to continue writing. It was a terrible response.

And I stopped writing in junior high school and focused on ballet and cello. But I just was not that good at either, ultimately. I really wanted to dance, but I just didn’t have the right body for it.

I got back into writing when I was in high school and I wrote for the school paper, Tideline at Palisades Charter High. I wrote some editorials and humor pieces and I really enjoyed it when people read them and responded to them. I really liked the interaction between reader and writer, and so I thought maybe I wanted to go into journalism.

When I went to college I took workshops, and they were always hard, but I just kept taking them. I didn’t feel that I was honestly that good at many other things. I always loved writing. I wasn’t good at math, I wasn’t science-y, and writing a story was where I always felt comfortable. This was in the 1980s and there was this great Renaissance of short story writing. Deborah Eisenberg, Ann Beattie, Peter Cameron, Joy Williams, David Leavitt, Jayne Anne Phillips—there were so many great collections out there and I read and read.

TFR: How do you decide which subjects are more suited for a novel and which are more appropriate for a short story? In other words, while you’re writing something, how do you begin to figure out what it is?

KB: I started writing short stories in college and then in grad school and I felt some pressure to write a novel, you know, because people said it was hard to sell story collections. Both my novels started as novellas. I didn’t want to say they were novels; I was too afraid to call them novels. They began as stories—they were actually 70-page things—but then they just kept exploding and, as I worked on them, I found they brought up many questions. So they kind of became novels despite me. They evolved because they just grew too big for the space.

TFR: It seems like that’s how a lot of people have to approach it. As if you have to trick yourself into writing a novel.

KB: Yeah! Writing a novel is often too scary to think about.

Right now, I’d like to write a short novel— a 200 page novel, and to think of it as a long story. But I don’t know. People are different. Some people find writing novels easier. It’s such a commitment; a novel is such a commitment. You’re really doing it for years, and you’re always wondering “is this the right project, am I wasting all this time?” And that’s a really frustrating feeling.

TFR: You were recently talking about how you originally had a 600 page novel manuscript, and how you ended up using that material to jumpstart your career. Can you talk more about that process?       

KB: In editing the 600-page manuscript that became my first novel, Like Normal People, I created a story, “Eternal Love”, and I sent that out. And that story got a good response. So then I thought, “Well, this is a good way of helping me edit.” I carved out a couple more excerpts, and then two others were published.

It’s actually not a bad way to think about editing or publicizing your book: when it’s done, carving out a couple pieces from it and trying to get them out there. So I did that with the 600-page manuscript, and when I finished my novel, Like Normal People, then I started working on stories.

TFR: In Refund you weave in and around the topic of money and what that means today, in our world. You also just said that people don’t feel seen or heard in the literary world. What kind of role do these ideas play in terms of the literary climate, and how they affect us?

KB: So how do people value themselves in the literary world? Oh, my god… I feel like that actually affected a lot of the stories in Refund. Honestly, the story “Free Lunch”—which is about a person getting fired—really is about my first novel going around for a year and a half without being published. You know, I felt fired.

The literary world is very confusing. I think it’s a huge house of mirrors, where you can have two books which both have value, and one sells for a billion dollars and one sells for nothing, or it doesn’t sell. It’s maddening, as a writer, to deal with that. I think what you need to do is just keep working, keep trying to get your work to places that will value it, and try not to take any of it that seriously. It is hard when some things are valued in these sort of crazy monetary ways. Or even in critical ways. I see books that are getting amazing reviews and I think the book must be amazing and then I wonder “Really? Is it really that good?”

You have to do your own thing and try to shut out the noise. And there’s a lot of noise. But I also think you can, kind of surprisingly, make your own luck, if you just keep writing and doing your work. It’s also about finding your place—I really feel fortunate that I found Counterpoint. They are on the same wavelength as me, in terms of my work. So that just feels like where I belong. Some magazines never take my work and some of them do. So, just find your pond. Find the place that values you. There are so many ponds. And this is great: you should be able to find something. There isn’t just one.

TFR: Your characters, I’ve noticed, often possess a strong sense of responsibility. To their families, their passions, their careers. The women in your short stories often have children who need to be fed and/or spouses who want attention, and all the while there is so much is going on inside their heads that they have to balance with these things outside of them. How do you, as a writer, balance your own personal and professional responsibilities, and what do you see as your responsibility as a member of the literary world?

KB: It’s just an on-going juggling act that never ends. You write when you can. You find the hours and the times that you can do it and I think ideally you do it every day. It doesn’t always happen.

When our kids were little they had actually quite early bedtimes, and they’d be asleep and my husband and I would be writing constantly. I think you have to be very disciplined and the extraneous things fall out. I don’t go out to lunch very often with people. I don’t do social things during the day so much. So I think that’s part of it—you just have to be very streamlined.

And responsibility as a writer. I feel responsibility to try and be kind; I think many writers are kind and aware of others and know that we need to help each other; some writers are not. There’s a lot of narcissism. There are many people who are very involved with themselves and don’t want to acknowledge other people and that’s a problem in the writing world.

I think trying to share my knowledge is really important. And with students, I feel like I do have a responsibility to connect them with people that can help them. I just remember so clearly that blank screen of oh my god, how do you get there. You don’t know. And [I want to say] okay, here are some names of agents. Or, here’s a place that maybe would be interested in that essay. I feel a responsibility to try and connect people—I think that’s important. I’ve had numerous people open doors for me too, and have been very grateful to them.

TFR: You were talking about “the octopus moment” in your craft lecture—a way to create reach in short fiction—and how you use that metaphor to help build your plot in different directions. Do you have any other tricks that you use in terms of plot?

KB: The whole idea of questions. The idea of questions and information have been really helpful for me as a writer in order to structure material. Also, thinking of things as urgent. My writing, for a long time, was not very urgent, because I was just creating beautiful settings or scenes or characters.

And as a reader I’ll start something and know if it just doesn’t feel urgent to me at all, and I know almost immediately if I want to keep reading or not. And I think it’s because of a situation or a scene that’s been set up to be really compelling. In my tutorial at Hollins, we’re reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is an amazing book—one of four novels—about growing up in Italy in the fifties. It spans a lot of time but it starts out with the main character’s friend vanishing, when she’s older. So that informs the plot. The novel then goes back to when they were kids, but you have that urgency running through the whole book. And it’s a brilliant opening. As a writer, you have to think, what is something really simple that can get the story going? And this urgency doesn’t even have to be super dramatic. It just needs to be something that the reader wants to know more about.

TFR: Going along with that, what is one of the best pieces of advice someone has given you? And what is the best piece of advice that you give?

KB: I think the best advice was that a teacher told me to be honest.

My first writing teacher ever was a wonderful man named Eric Wilson, who I’m still friends with. During my first class at UCLA Extension when I was sixteen, he said, “you have a wonderful strangeness in your work”. And you know, honor that. And that really was great advice because I didn’t know that strangeness was good and in writing it is good. It may be harder to manage in regular life, but writing is about everyone revealing his/her strangeness in a new way.

TFR: Something that you probably carry with you.

KB: Yeah, totally. And that’s something I value in my work, and I know my work is good when it’s finding that strangeness. And when it’s not hitting that I feel like something is wrong.

So then, the best advice I give. I have my Ten Commandments, where I share some ideas about writing. I also think that valuing honesty as a bridge between people is important. And knowing that writing can help you feel that you’re not alone—what other art does that the same way? I don’t know.

TFR: In terms of keeping your creativity alive and keeping yourself on that track, what kinds of activities outside of writing do you do?

KB: It all depends on time. Right now I have a ten-hour commute to Hollins and back.

I’ve realized that I have such a gigantic capacity for day-dreaming. I really have just been thinking my thoughts for five hours at a time–does that really get me through the drive? And it does, oddly.

You know, you go on walks. Reading, cooking. I think cooking is really helpful because it’s very sensory. I was just talking to Sherrie Flick about that.

I think anything that gets you out in the world, doing something new, is always good. It’s helpful to shake yourself up in some way.

TFR: Could you talk just a bit about your recent experience (2013-2014 academic year) in Taiwan?

KB: Actually, I was just about to say—learning Mandarin while living in Taiwan was an amazing experience because I went from knowing nothing in Chinese—not any words at all—to being able to communicate a teeny bit with people. And the feeling of being understood by someone in another language was so profound. Going there, I really felt like a baby. And then when I asked a question, I could just see the moment a person understood me. It was so powerful.

I also feel like being in a new country or a new environment shakes you up in a great way as a writer.

TFR: What kind of writing have you done about that experience?

KB: I wrote some non-fiction about Taiwan and I’m working on some fiction now. I’m trying to figure out how to do that. So that’s been kind of fun. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to approach it.

TFR: You were saying that it’s sort of a strange experience to get some high-caliber recognition for Refund and that you feel a weird kind of pressure proceeding from it. How do you plan to move forward? How should writers attempt to navigate between the recognition and the privacy?

KB: It’s wonderful to get recognition. You work so hard and you’re just trying to get your work out. And then to have recognition is a wonderful and nourishing experience.

But just like you don’t want to take the bad reviews seriously, you want to both enjoy the good and not become obsessed with it—which is a struggle. You actually need to say, this is great, but I need to focus on the work and what I want to say. So going back to the process and thinking, what do I want to say, what can I offer, what has not been written that I want to read is important. The world is so fickle, you know. It really is. You might have a work that you think is amazing and it gets ignored. So you can’t invest too much in the external. You absorb the good from it, and feel encouraged, but move forward.

And it’s interesting, too, because I think that a lot of my energy with my writing comes from being mad. That’s very energizing for me. And so I think I need to access that, in some way, too. What am I mad about now?

TFR: Whereas before, perhaps you were mad at the frustrations surrounding publishing and recognition and you can’t be mad about those things in this moment.

KB: It’s true. And I just feel so fortunate, it’s so fortunate to have that. So I need to focus on what I want to say. Recognition and awards can be somewhat arbitrary. A book will be picked in one situation and not another. A writer has to be aware of that.

TFR: Even on a micro level, with journal publications, I can imagine.

KB: There’s a certain point where there is so much good work, so many good stories. It’s like dating—this editor, this reader. You never know what’s going to happen, so you just need to persevere.


Kelsey Leach is a writer currently living in Pittsburgh, PA where she is an MFA candidate and Margaret Whitford Fellow at Chatham University. Her freelance journalism has been published by Salt Lake magazine and Salt Lake City Weekly, and her creative work has most recently appeared in apt literary magazine. She is a reader for Midway Journal and the co-curator of the Hay Street Reading Series and Chatham University’s Word Circus Reading Series. When she isn’t writing, she practices yoga, makes bagels, folds origami, and wanders around in Pittsburgh’s beautiful parks.