SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: AIMEE BENDER
Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and spent seven weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own, named as a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, Willful Creatures (tapped by The Believer as one of the best books of 2005), The Third Elevator, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and The Color Master. Her stories have been published in Granta, GQ, Harper's, Tin House, Opium Magazine, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, The Coffin Factory, and several anthologies; her work has also been broadcast on This American Life and Selected Shorts. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, has been nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.
Aimee Bender! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
Yes, absolutely. Most literary journals or zines don't — can't — pay much these days. And, it's still worth it to get work out there, and to be a part of this dialogue.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
I have never expected that writing fiction would pay my bills, and that has been liberating. I just don't think a person sits down and thinks, “now, what job will make me some money?” and comes up with writing fiction. Or, if they do, it's probably not the most useful thought. Occasionally someone will come into my office hours bursting with ideas for bestsellers, but how does a person sit down to write a bestseller? I don't understand how it would work. I've always figured I'd have another job, and I like teaching, and so that's been a great pairing for me, and the lack of financial pressure means I can write the work I want to write without trying to guess at marketplace interest. When I have made money with my writing, it has been an incredible thrill.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?
Yes — I teach in the afternoons, so mornings have been protected that way. I have kids now so finding time is harder, but even fifteen minutes a day makes a difference, truly.
How do you know for sure when something in your work truly needs revision?
When I can't stand rereading it. Though, sometimes, that means it should just sit on the side for a while. I don't think revising works well when the writer feels like attacking the piece and hates it — it is not the best position from which to get work done!
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
When I want to show it to someone else, and I can't see any changes to make in the moment.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I've always felt anxious about the word “calling.” I can talk myself out of nearly anything, and when writers would stand at podiums and say: “you have to need this, you have to not be able to do anything else,” I would think: “I need water. I need food. I need people. I could do another job, I guess.” So. I took it very very literally. But, in truth, I don't stop doing it, even when it is way easier to stop, so something is driving the choice, something mysterious to me.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
I don't think it really haunted me, but I read A Farewell to Arms at twelve, and what could I have possibly gleaned from it then? I did like reading his style, so maybe, surely, that was what I took. But major loss, war, great love, etc.? Impenetrable to me at that time.