Aimee Bender's fascination with the unconscious mind has made her modern-day fairy tales all the more surreal
By BEN NAPARSTEK
For Aimee Bender, growing up the daughter of a psychoanalyst meant that Halloween was no ordinary festival. Her older sister dressed up with her friends as "Id," "Ego," and "Superego."
"I didn't really get it," she recalls, "but I still thought that was so cool." Bender's mother, a dance choreographer, also nurtured her children's belief in the powers of the unconscious, with her injunctions to "trust the process."
"The unconscious was the sixth member of the family," says Bender.
So it's small wonder that Bender became a writer of modern-day fairy tales - warped, darkly satirical stories, which trade in the surreal, seemingly random imagery of dreams. With the publication of her second collection of stories Willful Creatures - following her debut collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and her novel An Invisible Sign - Bender is the first to admit that she owes a lot to her unconscious.
Bender says that her best work flows when she's least aware of it - when her thoughts become "non-verbal." As she explains: "There's our 'talky' language, or 'thinky,' essay language, which is conscious - words like 'ubiquitous,' or 'pedagogy.' Then there's a well of language where we're not forming thoughts formally - words like 'spaceship' and 'magnificent,' that will not stick unless there's some unconscious attachment to them."
Bender rarely has a conscious agenda when she writes. "Job's Jobs" was an exception, though, as Bender set out from the start to explore the issue of "creativity, and how we squelch it." As Bender writes, in her usual matter-of-fact style: "God put a gun to the writer's head. 'I'm making a rule,' said God. 'You can't write another word or I'll shoot you.'"
The premise of "Death Watch," which opens: "10 men go to 10 doctors," occurred to Bender after she conducted a joke-writing exercise with her students at the University of South California, where she teaches creative writing. "It just seemed to me that jokes are so plot based," she says. "They're like fairy tales that way - swift and economical."
Bender traces her love of metaphor to the experimental dance performances her mother introduced her to as a child. "I remember responding in such a visceral way to unusual metaphorical choices - a nude woman, wearing an accordion, in a field of carnations," she says.
Yet when Bender started taking writing seriously in her late teens, she turned away from magical realism to embrace more traditional forms. "I wrote what I felt would be more acceptable writing, but it was a bad imitation," she says.
Watching a surrealistic rendition of an August Strindberg play helped Bender to legitimize her passion for the absurd. "I wasn't sure if I was allowed to like it," recalls Bender of the performance. "Afterwards, a graduate student said, under his breath, 'Oh, this is what really gets me.' I remember thinking, 'Really? We're allowed to choose this over something more realistic? A piano on fire is OK - even preferable?' It took a long time for me to know, or admit, that I wanted to write outside of realism - writing that I had assumed would not be taken seriously in the literary world."
Bender's Jewish heritage is reflected in the style, if not the content, of her work. "So much modern Jewish writing surges off into the surreal - Kafka, Freud, Bruno Shultz - although I don't write about Jewish themes so much," she says. Her stories share similarities with the Talmud - "tiny stories, open for varied interpretations."
She works for two hours in the morning, six days a week, and stops writing on the minute. "I like the rigidity," she says. "It's calming." Bender, who teaches in the afternoons, cannot imagine ever writing full-time. "Even if I could afford it, I need people," she says. Teaching helps Bender hone her craft. "If I'm preaching some tenet about writing, I can't go home and do the opposite," she says.
Bender recently contributed to The Secret Society of Demolition Workers - a collection of 12 anonymously written pieces by leading American short story writers. Bender considered using her anonymity to pen an autobiographical story, but eventually decided against it. "The writing just seems to go better when I step away from what's actually happening to me," she says. Bender thinks that the book is a success because, she says: "I keep trying to guess who's who in it and I have no idea."
There's a second novel in the works, which Bender is remaining close-lipped about. But it's clear that it's not coming easily. "It's tricky to find the story that will go the distance of a novel," she says. "Often I'll find pieces turn into [short] stories, and I have to keep relocating the thread that has 200-plus pages in it."