I Interviewed Novelist Aimee Bender
I got to tell her: "You're freakin' gorgeous."
It was a great moment in literary history and a turning point in relations between the sexes.
If I had been blogging in 1992, there would never have been the L.A. Riots.
Let's go to the audiotape.
Noon. Aug 29. Aimee Bender phones me as scheduled.
Luke: "What are the qualities of the best and worst interview experiences you've had?"
Aimee: "In the best ones, I go with the flow as it happens and it deepens as it goes. It can be easy to have a quick answer and then jump to something else."
Luke: "Your writing is so surreal, you're a bit more of a challenge."
Aimee: "It's a challenge for me to know how to talk about it in a way that can connect to someone. Often I'll end up talking about my writing routine and how I sit down to write in the morning. The process of how stuff happens on the page is hard to pin down."
Luke: "How much do you have to do with your website www.flammableskirt.com?"
Aimee: "I set it up with my boyfriend of the time."
Luke: "I remember the moderator of your panel [on the Jewish Guilt book at the People of the Book Festival 2006] said that to Aimee being Jewish may be number ten on your list of priorities."
Aimee: "And I said, maybe it's number five.
"If I'm the only Jew in the room, I'm aware. That's a form of identity."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Aimee: "A writer at times, but I also wanted to be a singer and an actress."
Luke: "Are you a good singer and actress?"
Aimee: "I'm a bad actress and I'm not a good singer but I really like it."
Luke: "I've seen you on a few different panels and there's a vulnerability to you that wouldn't be there if you had become a lawyer."
Aimee: "I don't think I could've been a lawyer. A lawyer is a protector. What interests me in writing is vulnerability and pushing for something underneath the surface, exposing something."
Bender went to Pacific Palisades High School. "I was with the nerdy honors crowd. Then the drama group was the counterpoint. I was enamored with their enthusiasm for performance."
"I viewed writing as a hobby until graduate school when I began writing every day."
Aimee got her BA in Literature (with an emphasis on Creative Writing) in 1991 and her MFA from U.C. Irvine in 1997.
"In general, I'm an optimistic person. I'm friendly. I like people. The people who didn't know me well were surprised by the dark stuff in my writing. I have people who've known me since highschool who don't know where that stuff comes from."
Luke: "What do you do with your nervous energy?"
Aimee: "I don't smoke but I get the appeal. Walking is good. I can over-think things. I'll structure things. Make lists. On a good day, I can talk myself through it and see what's under it. Usually there's something complicated."
Luke: "Are you at peace with yourself?"
Aimee laughs. "No. There's tons of conflict."
Luke: "Where is being Jewish in your list of priorities?"
Aimee: "It's become more important. There are ways that I deal with my nervous energy that feel Jewish. The ways that I'm attracted to Hebrew."
Luke: "When did Aimee Bender become cool? You're on a good trajectory."
Aimee laughs. "In graduate school, I typed up that I want to be in a bookstore and I want loyal fans."
Luke: "When do you get the most animated? You seem not animated."
Aimee: "I feel animated. I'm pretty calm. I get that a lot. Interviews are a particular form where you try to articulate things that are often hard to articulate. My style in general is low-key."
Luke: "When you want to take charge of a room, what do you do? Do you speak louder?"
Aimee: "Does it feel like I'm speaking quietly?"
Luke: "I'm just curious."
Aimee: "I can't tell if you mean..."
Luke: "Your voice seems flat. I don't know if you are tired or if this is just your interview voice..."
Aimee: "It's hard for me to know.
"To command attention, it's not usually a problem."
"I don't usually dominate a discussion or a room."
Luke: "Do you enjoy performing at a reading?"
Aimee: "Yes, but it's not like I am going to take on a character's voice. What you may experience as flat, I think something else is going on. I want the words to convey it and to read it in a way that goes under the words."
Luke: "Can you do voices?"
Aimee: "Not really."
"This American Life reads things that can seem like a deadpan but I really like it.
"I'm feeling a little defensive of the word 'flat' but that is my manner."
Luke: "You've never done phone sex as a profession."
Aimee: "No, but even if I had, I wouldn't tell you."
"I'm often called 'calm,' which I prefer over 'flat.'"
Luke: "You're freakin' gorgeous. How has your body affected your writing?"
Aimee laughs. "I get a little insult. Now I get a little compliment.
Luke: "It'd be hard to write your librarian story without the confidence that beauty brings."
Aimee: "It's about inhabiting that feeling of being attractive."
Luke: "Have you experienced not being taken seriously as a writer because you are cute?"
Aimee: "Some people don't take my stuff seriously because they think it's weird."
Aimee's published three essays.
Luke: "How do you like writing under the constraints of being factually true?"
Aimee: "I find it really hard."
Luke: "Do you fear that your muse will leave you?"
Aimee: "No, because I don't believe in the muse."
Luke: "Is Halloween still your favorite holiday?"
Aimee: "Yes, because it's about imagination and fantasy and going to an unconscious expression of something."
Luke: "That essay you read at the Heeb reading [in June 2005]..."
Aimee: "Have we met?"
Luke: "Yes. There. It was brief."
Aimee: "It hasn't shown up yet in Heeb. They haven't done something with those talks. I'm not sure I want to push it."
Luke: "You wrote about..."
Aimee: "A failed marriage."
Luke: "Anti-Semitism. Your husband defended the swastika."
Aimee laughs. "I like how that's boiled down."
Luke: "He said it was an ancient pagan symbol."
Aimee: "The reverse swastika was the Native American symbol at his family's house. I just wanted them to turn it around. It was about Jewishness and the end of the marriage and that's why being Jewish has felt more important to me over the past few years. I felt like it was going to drift away and then I got divorced and there was a resurgence of interest in me about valuing it."
Luke: "What does that mean behaviorally?"
Aimee: "Going to synagogue more..and being more aware of what is going on in Jewish LA in my age group. I went to this thing called Reboot, a bunch of Jews getting together and talking about their Judaism. I did the San Francisco Jewish Book Festival twice."
Luke: "What do you find inspiring and depressing about Jewish life?"
Aimee: "I find the questioning and depth of thought inspiring. I've always liked the symbols.
"Any religion can get depressing when things are taken in a closed way."
"Figuring out the relationship of American Jews to Israel is complicated. People shut down around that topic. That's a big problem because it should be a lively and engaging debate."
"I've never been to Israel."
Luke: "How do you feel about being a part of God's Chosen People?"
Aimee laughs. "I have some trouble with that."
Luke: "How would you like to be tattooed?"
Aimee: "I would not like it, but I like it when other people are tattooed. I like seeing what people pick."
Luke: "Why would you not want to be tattooed?"
Aimee: "I do feel a little thing about the Jewish cemetery thing [the myth that a Jew who has a tattoo can not be buried in a Jewish cemetery as Jewish law forbids getting a tattoo]. It would bother me if I couldn't be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But it's more about you make a choice and you having to stick with that choice and it feels too concrete a choice."
Luke: "How often is 'literary' writing just a code word for despair?"
Aimee: "What interests me about your question is that 'literary' is such a charged word. It can feel snooty. I hope that 'literary' means going into something with depth, and when you go into depth, you're going to find despair."
Luke: "Is there some force that pushes 'literary' people to write despair?"
Aimee: "Sometimes it is the honest place people go when they push themselves. When it is fake despair to join the club, that is even more despairing."
"One of the reasons people like Charles Bukowski is that he puts voice to these [despairing] feelings and it gives release and freedom."