Wonderful Strangeness: An Interview with Karen E. Bender

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.

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