The Interview Slump & The Year of the Short Story

Brenda Starr reporter 6a00d8341c684553ef0148c74fc819970c-300wiThis is the time of year when I usually interview writers.

As a former freelance writer/”girl reporter,” I have no qualms about flipping open a notebook and asking questions.

Writers are surprisingly generous with their time.  At this blog, I have interviewed Karen E. Bender (shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award for fiction), D. J. Taylor, Michelle Huneven, Peter Stothard, Lionel Shriver, and Robert Hellenga,

This fall I haven’t gotten around to it.  Like Oblomov, the hero of Goncharov’s famous novel, I am slothful.  According to my doctor, I have jet lag. (Still?)  Sleep…sleep…sleep… is the cure.

When I wake up perhaps I’ll interview somebody, but meanwhile…

I can refer you to other interviews!

This has been the Year of the Short Story.

I am addicted to the novel, but this year, for the first time, I have read better short story collections than novels.  Here are recommendations:

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories1. Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories, Refund, is shortlisted for the National Book Award.  The stories are linked by the theme of money.  In “Reunion,” a woman with a failing home appliance repair business has an affair with a con man. In “The Third Child,” the financial responsibility of raising the two children is more than enough for a struggling couple:  the heroine. a  freelance editor,  decides to have an abortion.   In the title story, two artists dream of sending their child to an expensive pre-school, but 9/11 gets in the way of the easy money of subletting their New York apartment.

You can read my post about Refund here, and there is also a fascinating interview with her at The Lost Angeles Review of Books.

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories is an exceptionally brilliant book.  Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with humor, his verbal pyrotechnics are incomparable, and his stories utilize elements of fantasy and magic realism.  In the surreal story, “Procedure in Plain Air,” the umemployed hero, Stevick, sees two men in jumpsuit uniforms jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man wearing a jumpsuit into the hole. After Stevick complains it will rain on the prisoner, they hand him an umbrella. Holding the umbrella becomes, in a way, his job. In “Traveler Home,” a dark fairy tale, the hero deals with snow, wolves, and a foundling.  But the most dazzling story in the collection is “Lucky Alan”:   the narrator, Grahame, an actor, gets acquainted with Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director, because they both go to the movies every day . When Grahame realizes Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down to find out why he left his rent-controlled apartment.  It all centers on a nerdy neighbor named Alan.

You can read my post about Lucky Alan here, and there is an excellent interview with him at Salon.

DJ-Taylor--Wrote-For-Luck-Frontboard3. Wrote for Luck is a masterly collection by  D. J. Taylor, the novelist, biographer, and critic.  In the hilarious story, “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings.  The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.” Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup.  China is broken, but Mrs. Underwood is surprisingly tough.

I am a fan of stories about work,  and some of Taylor’s best stories deal with the demoralization in the workplace. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…

My post about Wrote for Luck is here, and you can watch a  video of a very good talk he gave about Cyril Connelly at The World Literature Festival 2015.

Get in Trouble Kelly Link 51UpA-MbcYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble is another stunning collection.  Does Link write literary fantasy? Magic realism? Horror? She has burst out of the SF ghetto and is now reviewed at The New York Times and The Guardian.  I loved this collection, though I lazily didn’t write about it.  You can read an interview with her at NPR and a review at the Guardian

Karen E. Bender’s Refund

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-storiesThe theme of money unifies Karen E. Bender’s extraordinary new collection of short stories, Refund.

In her brilliant 2013 novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, a Jewish family must relocate to the South after the grief-stricken heroine, Serena, shattered by her father’s death, charges $8,000 of jewelry on the company charge card. Like Serena, the impecunious characters in Refund are too confused, exhausted, and overworked to find security in poorly-paid jobs. In these wrenchingly realistic short stories, people barely get by as they miserably struggle to provide for their families.

Bender’s style is forceful but simple as she shares her ironic, compassionate insights into money, security, and family life.

In “The Third Child,” Bender describes the numbness of family life after the Goldmans move to a small city in South Carolina where they can afford a house and car.  When Jane Goldman, a freelance editor for technical manuals, gets pregnant with a third child, she decides to have an abortion.  The financial responsiblity and love and boredom of raising the two children they already have is enough. And in a way she has a third child:  their eight-year-old neighbor, Mary Grace, the daughter of Baptists, is the only person who ever knocks on their door.

Jane’s view of the neighborhood and family from the front porch is humorous and compassionate.

The screaming was the sound of children protesting everything:  eating, bathing, sharing toys, going to sleep….  This was her life now, at forty.  She had married a man whom she admired and loved, and after the initial confusion of early marriage–the fact that they betrayed the other simply by being themselves–they fell into the exhausting momentum that was their lives.

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Bender’s characters have to be flexible in their work and their expectations..  In the title story, “Refund,” one of the best 9-11 stories I have read, two artists realize that their art is an extravagance. Clarissa and Josh are almost 40, they are soon to lose their rent-controlled apartment, and they realize they need full-time jobs. Clarissa suddenly wants to send their son to an elite pre-school, Rainbows ($10,000 a year). How can they afford it? How can they pay their bills? They find teaching jobs for three weeks at a university in Virginia and sublet their apartment in Tribeca near the World Trade Center to a Canadian woman, Kim. But they are away on 9-11, and when they return,  Kim sends them crazy letters saying she wants a full refund. While ash and dust coat their neighborhood, Josh finds a full-time job, Clarissa discovers the shallowness of the  mothers at the pre-school, and learns that Kim’s plight is not as simple as it seems. All of them could use a refund, whether of the monetary or emotional kind.

Many of Bender’s characters are similarly beleaguered by violence. In “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” the narrator, a teaching assistant in a kindergarten class, describes the experience of being in lockdown when a shooter invades the school.  Most of the teachers are poorly-paid and work a second job to survive; but now survival seems unlikely as they listen to the unidentified noises in the school. The police tell the children to close their eyes and walk  with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them down the hall, but most of them see the tracks in blood and their dead principal .. The narrator comforts herself by taking a student to see wounded sea turtles at a “sea turtle hospital.”  When they return to Keisha’s neighborhood, the police are there because they feared more violence.

In “Reunion,” the narrator, Anna Green, attends her 20-year high school reunion to distribute business cards for her failing home appliance repair business.  One of her classmates takes out a gun and starts shooting, and Anna’s now obese ex-boyfriend, Warren, a realtor, leads her out.  She doesn’t immediately tell her husband, a social worker who is having a small breakdown and lending money to his clients.  Unable to pay the bills and concerned that their daughter refuses to sleep, Anna escapes her life by visiting Warren in his shoddy office, and is so confused she buys a property from him.

One of the stories, “Anything for Money,” is about ostentatious wealth. Lenny Weiss is the host of the game show “Anything for Money.”  His guests must  humiliate themselves for money: singing in a phone booth filled with bugs, etc..  Lenny  came up with the concept for the show when his daughter had an ear infection and he had no money to take her to the doctor.  Years later, there is a parallel situation when his grandchild comes to visit while her mother is in rehab.  She steals meaningless personal objects so she feels she is in control and can reconstruct people’s stories.  When she becomes ill, Lenny’s money cannot help her.

The arrangement of the stories in a collection is important, and I have one criticism.    Two of the showier stories, “Anything for Money” and “Theft”  are anomalous, yet appear near the beginning of the book. Perhaps one of the more effective stories about lower middle-class people struggling. would have worked better there.  Overall these stories are almost as connected as chapters of a novel.

I loved reading Refund .  It made me question how  people end  up living in houses in developments with thin walls “slapped together with drywall and paste” and “the bullish SUVs parked in the driveways, testament of dreams of safety and endless oil.”  Well, it’s because they have nowhere better to go, and they’re afraid, yes?  Bender doesn’t despise these people, but she doesn’t want to be where they are.  Nor do her characters.

Interview With Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender, novelist

Karen E. Bender, author of A Town of Empty Rooms, agreed to be interviewed by email.

In her remarkable novel,a Jewish family moves to the South after the heroine, Serena Hirsch, steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate credit card in Manhattan during a breakdown over her father’s death.  Serena is fired and blacklisted, and her husband, Dan, finds a job in Waring, North Carolina, which feels like a foreign country to them.

Mirabile Dictu:  What inspired you to write the story of Serena and her family?

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender:  To misunderstand someone and be misunderstood are such common human experiences; We all live with such different narratives and histories rolling through our heads, we all process our immediate interactions very differently, and it can be difficult to step back and think about what someone else is saying or feeling. How do we reach out through our solitude? I wanted to delve into the ways people don’t connect and also how they do, both looking at people who are very close to each other, and also between people who are mostly strangers.

Mirabile Dictu:  Religion is a refuge for Serena, though not for her husband, who attempts to be super-conventional and even disavows his Judaism. Was it difficult to write a novel “about” these different attitudes to religion?

Karen E. Bender: I love writing about religion because people’s attitudes toward it can be so
particular and strange and interesting. Within my own family, I see an array of ways people connect to their Judaism and can find it comforting or disavow it. Religion evolved, partly, to help us process life cycle events—birth and adolescence and marriage and aging and death. Serena and Dan both experienced recent losses, and I thought it would be interesting to see how each used a different sort of religion or institution to comfort or distract them. For Serena, it was the Temple, and for Dan was the Boy Scouts; but each strategy had its own complications.

Mirabile Dictu:  When and why did you begin writing?

Karen E. Bender: I began writing when I was six years old, after a rock flew through the air and hit me on the head at a birthday party; writing became a way to process this rather upsetting event. Writing then became a way to release feeling, to shape an experience, to invent the world in a wholly new way. And writing is one of the few places in our culture where we can be completely honest, even (in fiction) while lying. To me, that is the most sacred element of great writing; the fact that honesty gives you a way to connect with another person; a good story is this amazing bond with someone. I find that so moving.

Mirabile Dictu:  Do you write on paper or on computer?

Karen E. Bender: I write on a computer.

Mirabile Dictu: Who are your favorite writers?

Karen E. Bender: There are so many! Some who I read over and over are Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Cynthia Ozick, JD Salinger, Stanley Elkin, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley. For A Town of Empty Rooms, John Cheever, Paula Fox, and Richard Yates were especially nourishing. I love those beautiful, dark realists.

Thank you for the interview, Karen!

Born in L.A., Karen went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met her husband, the writer Robert Anthony Siegel. She is the author of two novels, Like Normal and A Town of Empty Rooms, and is co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion.

She and her family live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

You can read more about her at her website:

“Gal Up!”

Woman reading clip art vintageThis is Gal Lit Week at Mirabile Dictu.

What do I mean by Gal Lit?

It is a feminist thing.

Gal Lit embraces many genres.  It can be pop or literary women’s fiction that doesn’t get widely reviewed, a biography that falls out-of-print, or simply a book that doesn’t make The New York Times “Summer Reading” list.

Ideally fiction helps us identify and empathize with the problems of different kinds of people.  This year I have tried to read almost gender-blind:  male, female; who cares about the sex of the writer if the book is good?

Naturally I recognize elements of myself in my favorite women’s novels.   I am not a pantomime artist, nor do I have any dramatic talent, yet I  identify with Renee in Colette’s The Vagabond: I imagine myself chatting with her Music Hall Friends, walking the bulldog, Fossette, and her exasperation at the persistence of her fan, “Big Ninny.”   When I read Willa Cather’s tragic novel Lucy Gayheart, I understand the disconnect between living in Haverford, Nebraska, and Chicago. Lucy’s passionate devotion to her music in Chicago sets her apart from her friends in Haverford, and the depression that follows the death of a musician she loves is inexplicable to them.

Last year I read 68.5%  books by women and 31.5% by men.  This year, oddly, gender equity has struck.  I’m astonished to find that 44% of the books I’ve read so far are by men.  Perhaps it is related to my reading more reviews more carefully from a wider variety of publications, instead of just skimming book news and book gossip in Publishers Weekly and The Guardian.  (Usually I am better informed about the e-book price-fixing lawsuits than is strictly necessary for the common reader.  It’s far, far better to read reviews.)

I do like to declare a week of Gal Lit occasionally, even if there’s no reason, even if it’s just because it’s the second week of July, and what else do I have to do this week?  The post-feminist generations won’t have the faintest idea what I mean when I say I haven’t noticed significant changes for women  except in the workforceand that I believe women have moved sexually backwards, judging from the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight.  Reading  Gal Lit can strengthen our understanding of the direction of our lives.  Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest books, Sheila Ballantyne’s short stories and novels,  and Erica Jong’s novels still have much to say to us.

As Erica Jong says in Parachutes & Kisses.

Things were tougher now, however, because the girls had more things to do, heavier responsibilities.  Babies to raise and incomes to provide.  Isadora’s generation of affluent Jewish girls from central park West had liberated themselves, she often thought, right into being as burdened as  the black women who took care of them in Central Park when they were kids.  They had to earn the bread, bear the babies, and at the same time pretend to their wandering studs that they were merely courtesans, hungry for love….The men hoped from flower to flower, and the women, having insisted on their right to be superwoman, now had that firmly thrust up their asses (or upon their breaking backs).

Please tell me about your own favorite Gal Lit.  And, just to get started, here are two Gal books I’ve very much enjoyed.

book-atownofemptyrooms Karen E. Bender1.   Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms. I wrote here:   “Bender’s poignant novel (is) about a Jewish family who moves from New York to a small town in the South,… After her father’s death she has a mini-breakdown and steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate charge card.  Fired from her job and blacklisted, she moves with her husband, Dan, and two children to Waring, North Carolina.  Everywhere there are signs like:  If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats.  They are one of 100 or so Jewish families in town, and Serena is drawn to religion when she drives by the Temple.  But Dan, who doesn’t want to be viewed as Jewish, longs to be accepted and won’t go ro Temple.  He becomes a Boy Scout leader.”

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke2.  Birgit Vanderbeke’s graceful novel, The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch.  I wrote here:  The mercilessly observant teenage narrator, her brother, and mother await their father’s return from a business trip.  The mother is preparing a feast to celebrate his much-vaunted dream of promotion, which is expected to coincide with the trip.  And so Mum prepares a mussel feast, though she doesn’t much like mussels. The narrator dislikes mussels, too…  Time passes, and their father doesn’t come home. …They begin to drink the wine, and as the hours pass, they get drunk.  Gradually they express their hatred for the father.”