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Novelist Karen Bender - Like Normal People

I call her Thursday evening, August 18, 2006.

Karen (the eldest of three sisters, including Aimee Bender, the youngest): "I wanted to be a writer from age six. I was at a birthday party for a little boy. It was wild. All the kids were running after him, trying to put him through a spanking machine. He ran away from them. He threw a big rock that hit me in the head. I fell backwards. I had to be put on the birthday cake table. They had to move the cake so it wouldn't get blood on it.

"It was horrible. I got bandaged. I couldn't do anything for a while so I started writing. It just felt fun.

"Writing was a place where I could be honest even when I was young."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Karen: "The honors group [at Palisades High]. I remember feeling intimidated by the people going to Ivy League schools."

Luke: "What's it like being a Jew in Wilmington, North Carolina?"

Karen: "I'm often the first Jewish person a lot of people have met. That's odd. It's especially odd being the mother of two small kids (age seven and three). Robert [Anthony Siegel] and I feel a pressure to make sure that their Jewish identity is strong. So we've joined a temple. As a result, we end up celebrating every holiday known to the Jewish religion in a way we hadn't growing up."

Luke: "Is your other sister [Suzanne] a writer too?"

Karen: "She's a child psychiatrist, which is what our father is [mother is a dancer/choreographer]. She's written nonfiction."

Suzanne's the coauthor of Becoming a Therapist: What Do I Say, and Why?

Karen: "I went to therapy first when I was 13. If there was any religion I had, it was psychoanalysis. That was what got me through a lot of hard times."

When I ask Karen to describe her own personality and Aimee's, she passes on the question.

[Later, Karen emails: "I think I'm creative, obsessive, determined, generally optimistic; writing is grounding for me but I also need to get out and interact with the world. I'm also hopefully, each year, evolving."]

Karen majored in Psychology at UCLA, graduating in 1986.

She met her husband at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. "We circled each other for a long time before we ended up dating."

Luke: "Who asked who out?"

Karen: "He did, though I was dropping a lot of hints."

Luke: "Have you been a loner or a social person?"

Karen: "I was stereotyped as a loner growing up. As I've grown older, I've become more social. I'm one of the members of the social committee at the temple.

"Writing is so isolating. One thing about having kids, you are forced to be social. My kids tend to be incredibly social and they force Robert and me to be more outgoing."

Luke: "How did you come to write Like Normal People?"

Karen: "I was very close to my grandmother who was like Ella. I also wanted to write about an aunt who was similar to Lena [the retarded granddaughter of Ella]. In writing, I work out emotional issues such as how to grow up. Growing up and separating was hard for me. Lena was interesting to me because she could never really grow up. I also knew I wanted to be a mother and I wanted to imagine what that would be like."

"My aunt couldn't come to our wedding because she was in the hospital. She was getting a shot. I asked her if she wanted to hold my hand. She said, 'No. Why don't you hold Robert's hand.'

"She was smart and sweet. She made you want to be a better person."

"You usually get your first [teaching] job on the basis of publishing one book and you get tenure after publishing two books.

"I'm not on tenure track. I'm part-time."

"The challenge with the [Wilmington] students is to get them to think more like New Yorkers. To think more deeply. Their reading is appalling. Often, all they've read is thrillers. My new plan for this semester is to get them to buy a new book of contemporary fiction, read it, and write a report. They don't know who to read. They're reading Dan Brown. That's not literary fiction.

"When they start [reading literary fiction], it can open them up. They can think about things in a new way and be honest about the world in a way they hadn't before. They can think beyond cliché."

Karen Bender wrote this essay, "Listening to my son talk about God."

Luke: "What are some of the stupidest things people [in Wilmington] have said to you as a Jew?"

Karen: "This little boy came over and he was eating some lentil chili. Suddenly he says, 'Is this a Jewish dish?' It was one of those sentences that was a door to open up all this stuff.

"I wondered if his family was discussing us. Are they viewing us as Jewish people as opposed to people who happen to be Jewish?

"That was weird. I suddenly felt like someone who was other."

"We had one weird thing with our neighbors. I wrote a story about it. It was in Granta last year.

"Her daughter would always come over to play at our house. They never asked Jonah to come over. They used as free baby-sitting. There's an elaborate code with mothers to keep things on common ground. It's like a trade agreement. It's weird when someone doesn't.

"It was our first mysterious Southerner experience."

Luke: What was your primary interest in writing your novel?

Karen: "Characters and language. Plot was a nightmare. I had to learn what plot was in the process of writing the book. My first draft was a 600-page mess of no plot."

Luke: "Did you notice many people were not comfortable with the material?"

Karen: "In what way?"

Luke: "One of the major characters is retarded. I know that makes me feel uncomfortable."

Karen: "Why?"

Luke: "As a man, I naturally orient above me in social status. The people who are weak and retarded, it's not natural for me to be interested in them."