By Ann Mayhew '13Guest Writer
On Tuesday, April 5, acclaimed writer Aimee Bender read from her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Introduced by Pomona professor and author Jonathan Lethem and brought to campus by Mary Chair Endowed Chair of Writing David Treuer, Bender’s reading took students, faculty and staff into the magical world of a young girl who can taste people’s emotions through food.
Ann Mayhew (’13) caught up with the Los Angeles native on campus to discuss The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Samuel Beckett and Bender’s advice for students interested in writing.
Ann Mayhew: You use a lot of magic realism and surrealism in your stories, yet still manage to create strong, real and very human emotions. Why would you say you are drawn to this kind of content?
Aimee Bender: I’m really glad when you say the emotions come through because I think that’s the driving force. It’s not even that I’m particularly aware of it, but there will be some emotional piece that I want to try and capture, and then it feels like I will use whatever tool I can possibly find in the fiction writer’s toolbox, which is really big! There are so many, like building a realistic world, magic, dreams and metaphor. So, I think for me, it’s taking any one of those or all of them to try and get a truthful portrayal of some kind of emotional experience. That’s the goal. As opposed to any of this being like strangeness for the sake of strangeness; it’s strangeness in the service of trying to get something honestly.
AM: In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, your narrator is a young girl. Was there any particular reason you decided to have all of the book’s events happen to such a young protagonist?
AB: I guess I felt like, in order for her to get walloped by this new power she has, she has to be young enough that she couldn’t kind of rail against it and maybe articulate it. She just couldn’t have her words clear enough at that point. She’s kind of looking back but then she’s also kind of getting invested in the memory again. She can talk about it more clearly in the book… but if I think about that age, it just feels like it would be most overwhelming right around then.
AM: What sort of writers did you read growing up? Was there anyone especially influential?
AB: I read a lot of fairy tales, which I loved, and a lot of ‘magical land’ books. In junior high, my mom was giving me a lot of theater of the absurd writers. She gave me Beckett plays and poetry by Anne Sexton… she was good at giving me stuff that was really inventive. And even though I didn’t really understand Beckett, I also, in an eighth-grade way, could appreciate it. Like, ‘Ah, Waiting for Godot—this is a weird play.’ And I think, what she did too, is that she made Beckett not intimidating. Because later, you see how Beckett is the name that gets wielded around, this ultra-intellectual name to talk about even though Beckett’s kind of funny and strange. But, for me, it felt like, ‘Oh, but I read that in eighth grade!’ I didn’t understand it at all, but I felt entitled to read it.
AM: What sort of advice do you have for a college student interested in writing and going into other literary-related fields?
AB: The main thing I would say is a little bit of a ‘follow your nose’ thing, in that I think so much of it is also figuring out what you particularly love. Having a broad interest is so good, because that just means you’ll get exposed to a lot. And some of that stuff will just hold on to you, and that’s the stuff you should invest in more. And it’s the same about reading, too. You’re in your classes and you want to read a lot of stuff, but also you should try to just find things to read that you love. That when you’re reading it, you’re just like ‘Ah, I am so happy to be reading this right now.’ I think that reading does get overloaded with a lot of “should”s and a lot of obligation, and I think that harms reading. So, wherever the joyousness is—find that.
For more information, visit Aimee Bender’s website, http://www.flammableskirt.com.