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Interview with Karen Bender, December 5, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Karen Bender, December 5, 2007
December 5, 2007
Karen Bender, author of the Washington Post Best Book of the Year award-winning novel "Like Normal People" and editor of the anthology "Choice," discusses her literary career, her writing life, and the path that led her to persue writing.
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Interviewee:  Bender, Karen Interviewer:  Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview:  12/5/2007 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes


Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues. Today is Wednesday, December 5th, 2007. I am at the Randall Library with short story writer and novelist, Karen E. Bender. Karen's debut novel, "Like Normal People", was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes and Noble Discovery Book for the year 2000. Publisher's Weekly called the novel a remarkable narrative of three generations of a woman that has the wisdom of mature insight and the grace of empathy and understanding. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Ecotone, Witness, Zoetrope, Story, Granta, to name a few. In 2006 her short story, "Refund", which is set in Manhattan in the days immediately following 9/11, won a Pushcart Prize. Most recently Karen has served as the coeditor of the non-fiction anthology, "Choice", which was published in October of this year. Welcome Karen.

Karen Bender: Thanks, thanks for having me.

Rodrigues: Let's begin by discussing your short story "Refund", which appeared in the literary journal Ploughshares in the Fall, 2005, and went on to receive a Pushcart Prize. Is this something you began to write immediately after 9/11, or years later?

Karen Bender: Yes. In fact, often with short stories you start writing them after some time has passed after an experience, but 9/11 was so intense and we essentially lived two blocks from ground zero, though we were actually here. I was teaching here when it happened. So we were in this kind of surreal situation of being away from home when it happened. But then we went back, and we were suddenly in a war zone, and it was just so powerful I had to start writing about it. I just couldn't not. And it actually sort of helped kind of focus me. And it took some time. It took about a couple of years to write the story. I would write some. I mean, it just was basically taking notes about a lot that was going on. I mean, it was just such an odd moment, you know. I remember how like even National Inquirer did not have celebrities right after 9/11. They had like the firefighters on the front page and everything was kind of focused on people connecting in a powerful way. And I felt that our neighborhood, there was kind of a real warmth. But what I wanted to capture in that story is how then that warmth ended, you know, actually that people suddenly became themselves again, and the character in that story, his demanding a refund in kind of a crazy way I thought kind of show how people then become themselves even in the wake of a tragedy, you know. Yeah.

Rodrigues: For an essay that you wrote for The Southeast Review, you discussed the curse of the aspiring messiah, which I thought was interesting. What exactly is the aspiring messiah, and what lessons did you learn from that experience?

Karen Bender: Yeah. That is a good question. The aspiring messiah is a section I wrote for a workshop when I was at Iowa. It was supposed to be part of a novel. And it was about a fantasy actually I had had when I was a kid, which was that I was the messiah, which I think apparently a lot of kids secretly have, you know. And in Judaism the messiah is such an open kind of concept like you are not really sure who's it going to be. So as a kid it is easy to think could be me, you know. So I wrote this fantasy of this, I think she is 11-year-old girl, 12-year-old girl, or she is maybe 9. And she has this fantasy that suddenly the rabbi says it is, you know, you are going to the messiah. It is funny. And so I got a lot of acclaim in workshop. People really wanted to know more about it. They thought it was good. So it was a section they wanted to keep putting into my novel, "Like Normal People", but it did not fit. I kept trying to push it in. I kept trying to kind of rearrange the novel to accommodate it, and it never worked, so it became a curse, because I was trying to fit the novel around a piece that really should have been part of something else. So it is about if you have something that people give you a lot of approval for, sometimes it is best to not try and fit it in somewhere else, even if you want to.

Rodrigues: You also talked about in that essay that in somewhat sometimes it is safer in workshop to write things for approval.

Karen Bender: Yes.

Rodrigues: Can you discuss that a little bit with us?

Karen Bender: True. I think it is true, because a workshop is this group of people, you know, who are going to, you know, give you criticism on your work, and it is easy science to think what will they all like, as opposed to what do I want to write? I think it is really hard to make that distinction sometimes, and it is one relief for me about being out of workshops is trying to just do what I want and not worry about what other people think. Yeah.

Rodrigues: You received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award based on a short story that was part of your first novel. What opportunities did this award afford you?

Karen Bender: Well, the Rona Jaffe Award was like kind of not a huge chunk of money, but enough money so that I could not. I did not have to do part time work, which I was doing freelance part time work to support my novel at that point. And it gave me a chance to take a break from that for two months and just work on my novel. So that was good.

Rodrigues: And how important are these awards and fellowships to the up and coming writer?

Karen Bender: Yeah. I mean, I think as a writer you are just on this road that is totally blank. You do not know. You are just thinking am I writer? Am I not a writer? Will someone tell me this? And I think it is hard to sort of feel it inside of you. You have to really just believe, so this outside approval can help, though I think ultimately you have to kind of figure it out for yourself. I think ultimately fellowships or money just are time, you know, and everything as a writer is time and figuring out how you can get the time to work, so it is how they can be helpful.

Rodrigues: Excerpts from your first novel, "Like Normal People", have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta and Story magazines. Your chapter, "Eternal Love", was chosen by Annie Proulx to appear in the Best American Short Stories in 1997, and then was read by Joanne Woodward to a sold out crowd at Symphony Space in New York. And that recording of the reading aired on NPR's Selected Shorts. As an author who has long been hard at work on her craft, what is it like when your efforts culminate into this type of critical acclaim and attention?

Karen Bender: Right. I mean, that was really an amazing moment, but I will give you a little background how I got to it, is I was working on my novel. I really had no idea how to write a novel. I spent seven, actually at that point I was four years into first draft. I showed it to some of my friends. They said, "It's a good start." I was basically like, okay. I got really frustrated. I was like I can either continue this novel, start another novel, or jump into the Hudson River. And it was a really hard time. I had no idea how to revise it. It was very scary and tense. So what I did is I thought, well, I do know how to write short stories. Okay. So I looked at my novel, and I figured, okay, maybe I can put parts of these together to make an arc, and I found these two sections of the book, which were Lane and Bob getting married in Las Vegas, and a little background on that. And I figured out how to kind of put them together. And it kind of gave me a lesson in conciseness and scene, and I kind of figured out how to form an arc, which was a problem in the plot. So I put the story together, and then I sent it out to different magazines, and getting it taken by Granta was just this peak experience. I mean, that was really the peak thing, because it was like, oh, I have been recognized by a magazine where I really admire the writing. And that was really nice. Then I got an agent and then, you know, these other things happened. I worked on my novel for three more years before it was really done, but it was interesting. I mean, I think it was this wonderful moment of luck, you know, because I think it was, everything sort of came together in this one story. But it was a culmination of so many years of trying to figure out how to write a novel, and it was still hard.

Rodrigues: Afterward. What is it like, though, to have, to be sitting in the Symphony Space in New York and listening to Joanne Woodward read your work.

Karen Bender: It was just really moving, because I think writing is so isolating. You sit and you work and your work is on the pages, you and your work and maybe a couple of other people read it, and here were a lot of people responding to something you have written, and read by her. And she brought things to the character I had never intended necessarily, but were really funny and were nice. So it was just wonderful to share it. It was wonderful to share it, have people like it. Yeah. I mean it is a great feeling to have people.

Rodrigues: Did you teach you a lesson about how, as a writer, what you intend and then what it becomes are totally different things?

Karen Bender: Oh, yes, absolutely, right, because you write a certain way and then other people bring things to it as they read it, you know, both out loud or in privacy.

Rodrigues: Was that a hard letting go? Is that a hard letting go process?

Karen Bender: Oh, letting go?

Rodrigues: For you to have happen?

Karen Bender: No. Because I think it is just great to get read, you know. You just want to be read as a writer. I think that is such a huge impulse, because you really want to communicate.

Rodrigues: And then later when it was aired on NPR, tell us about that moment. Did you sit at home and listen to it, or did you call family and friends?

Karen Bender: I think I called family and friends. I think it was just funny to hear the words on the radio. It just seemed like what is it doing in there? It was on my computer. How can that be? So, yeah, I think, again, it is just like publishing. It is like it is in your computer. It is only yours and suddenly it is public in this really great way. So it is nice to have it go out in the world.

Rodrigues: And you said that after these short stories, these excerpts which were published as short stories and these magazines came out. Is that what brought you the agent?

Karen Bender: Yeah. Yeah. It was actually an interesting thing where I had a couple of these stories out, and they got read by different people, you know. And I think literary agents and editors do read these magazines. It is great to publish any magazine. Yeah. And then the agent I went with, Eric Simonoff, was just a really good match. He just really seemed to be writing the same way I did, so it was nice.

Rodrigues: So the agents actually contacted you then.

Karen Bender: They did, yeah, for that story.

Rodrigues: Was that surprising to suddenly have a few agents knocking on your door?

Karen Bender: Yes. It was totally surprising but really nice and also confusing, because you just sort through what you want and what an agent is. You need to find someone you really click with.

Rodrigues: Were you surprised being a short story writer moving into this world of writing a novel at the need for an agent?

Karen Bender: No. I think I knew. I mean, Iowa people were constantly talking about agent, you know. I mean there was a lot of talk about what are some good agents. How do people get agents? I think writers at a certain point are very interested in that, because it is sort of like your gateway into getting your work out. So it was not, yeah.

Rodrigues: And was the agent instrumental in helping you shape? You said you spent three more years on the book afterward. Did the agent take a hands on approach with you? Was that helpful at all?

Karen Bender: I actually did not show it to him for another year and a half or so after I decided to go with him, and so I just worked on it myself, and then sent it to him. And then I think we worked on it like another couple of months before I sent it out. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Speaking of Iowa, you are a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. What role did your formal education play in the development of your craft?

Karen Bender: Iowa was a great experience, and also a complex experience in different ways. I think it was great in that I felt like it was great to be in the community of writers, and Frank Conroy, who was the head then really made writing the most important thing in the world, and it made you see how writing is not considered then other places, and people are like, you know, why aren't you going into some career that will make money? I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about writing and the importance of it. And there you really felt like writing was almost religious. It was great. And you were with other disciples of it, you know, other people who loved writing. So I loved that, and I loved what I learned, you know, the different books I was exposed to. I learned about a lot of new writers I had not known about, and then a lot of the students in the class were just great writers, including Robert, my husband, Robert Siegel. So it was great. I think the negative part of it was that at that point they did not have financial aid for everybody, and so it became kind of a ranking system who got financial aid, and that caused a lot of tension. So that I felt was maybe unnecessary. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Do you think that all writers benefit? There is kind of a debate on that. Do you think that all writers benefit from having a formal education?

Karen Bender: Right, an MFA. No. I mean, a lot of people don't. I mean, I think the key is a community, and also you need an MFA to teach, and teaching is really great. So if you want to teach, I think it would be important to get one. I mean, I think for me, it just was great to find other writers who felt the same way about writing that I did, and I think writing programs offer that. You want support.

Rodrigues: Before that, had you been a part of any other writer communities, or had you spent a lot of time focusing on your writing?

Karen Bender: I had taken writing classes before. I took them as an undergrad at UCLA. I took them in New York at the Writers' Voice when I was there. So it was another way. I found different writers. But I think an MFA program is another step forward. It is like people who really want to dedicate their, some amount of time to writing. So it felt a little different in that way.

Rodrigues: What led you to that point to deciding that you wanted to just submerge yourself in this culture of writing?

Karen Bender: In the writing? I mean, I always wanted to be a writer from age six really. I think there were certain writers I had known how had gone to MFA programs. I was a big fan of Jane N. Phillips, and she had gone to Iowa. Linda Simpson had gotten an MFA. So a lot of writers who I loved I saw had gotten MFAs, so I was like, oh, that would be a way to go.

Rodrigues: Good for you. And at that time you knew that you were interested in teaching writing?

Karen Bender: Yeah. I thought I would love to teach writing. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Speaking, you said that you knew you wanted to be a writer from the age of six. I was online and I read a very interesting story about that, and I am wondering if you could share that with us.

Karen Bender: Sure. Sure. It is funny. I tell my kids this story, because they think it is sort of funny. I was about six, five or six, and I was at a birthday party of a little boy in my class who was turning six. Everyone was sort of running around. It was a little bit wild. And I think the kids were chasing him and trying to put him through this spanking machine, which is this thing where you spank the kid how many birthdays they have. Anyway, he is running away, and he picks up a rock and he throws it, and it sails over all the kids' heads, and it lands right here on me. And I sort of fall backwards, and the parent picks me up and puts me in the middle of the birthday cake table with birthday cake so it does not get bloody, and I have to have a bunch of stitches. And I had a bandage around my head for, I don't remember. It felt like a long time. And somehow I started writing then. And I started writing my first story, which about a girl who was sick and drank so much orange juice she turned orange. And they were called the Carrie stories. And my parents were like, whoa, they were so excited. And it was like I was really, it felt like something I could do that was fun and they seemed to like the fact I did it, which was nice. So I just kept doing it. It was something that was fun for me and easy for me, so I liked it at that point.

Rodrigues: You continued writing then from the age of six constantly or was it sporadic?

Karen Bender: It was not constant. No. It was interesting. I mean, I wrote a lot in elementary school. I loved writing in elementary school. In fifth grade I had a great teacher who had an open structure classroom. This was in the 70s in LA, where you could sort of organize your day however you want it. And I basically finished all my work by like Tuesday, and I wrote the rest of the week, just wrote stories, which was so much fun. I wish the rest of my education could have been like that, but no. And then in junior high school, I actually got very into ballet, and I really wanted to dance. And so I stopped writing then, because I just wanted to focus on that. And then that actually was not going to work, because I just did not have a ballet body and I was too short, and I was not that good. So that ended. And I started writing again in high school, and I started writing poems, and I was on the school paper. And that was fun. And then when I went to college, I started writing again more seriously.

Rodrigues: With your writing at that early age, was it always tied into having an audience? Did you always want your work to be read by someone either in your family or your friends, or was it more an outlet just for you personally, or a combination of the two?

Karen Bender: It was both. I mean, I think I wrote in my diaries a lot. I wrote stories a lot. I wrote stories for school, which I loved. And then I started writing a novel when I was nine or ten, which I typed on the manual typewriter, you know. And it was like 70 pages. I have to find it some day. And then I actually wrote. Scarily I wrote a letter to a children's book editor at some publishing house, and I was like, "You should read this. Kids can write, too. You should read my novel." And so she said, "Okay." So I sent her a note. And she wrote me a very nice note back. It was like, "Well, it is not. You do not have actually the distance yet from the parents, I think. But still, you know, there is many nice things and keep writing." And I was so insulted she did not just want to buy it. I was like, "Well." But I think actually that was not a good impulse. I mean, I think it was sort of funny that I actually went out and tried to kind of get out there. But I think actually I should have just been focusing on the process, which has actually been a struggle for me and something that I have tried to turn toward more as I got more into writing.

Rodrigues: Of course, that was at the age of nine.

Karen Bender: Or actually I was 12, or something.

Rodrigues: Twelve.

Karen Bender: Right. I mean, it was kind of grandiose, you know. It was funny.

Rodrigues: Did you grow up in a creative home? It seems like your parents were very encouraging of you. What did you parents say?

Karen Bender: Yes. Yeah. My father is a psychoanalyst, and my mother is a dancer, or choreographer and teacher. And so they were actually very supportive of all of us being creative in a good way, and that really helped, I mean, the creative. We were always encouraged to make our own presents, you know, and Halloween costumes we would sort of put together from various things. We did not buy them. We were focused on making things. We also did not. We were not allowed to watch very much TV, which we really were mad about growing up, but now looking at it, I think it was probably good.

Rodrigues: What books were you reading at that age. When you started writing at six, were you reading a lot? What were some of your favorite authors?

Karen Bender: At six I do not remember what I was reading, probably Dr. Seuss. The books I just loved that were really, I loved "The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler." At age nine I really wanted to run away at certain points, and I loved her books. I am trying to think of other books that I loved. Oh, I loved Roald Dahl, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "James and the Giant Peach." Those were wonderful books.

Rodrigues: And as you got into your teens, what became?

Karen Bender: Teens. The books I did not like, I have to say, were the Judy Bloom books, because I felt like they were telling me how to be an adolescent, and I did not feel like I fit into that mold of what she said, so I found those very aggravating in a way. I mean, I loved. It is hard for me to think about what I liked in junior high, and that is actually when I kind of was not writing so much. In high school, Salinger. I mean, "Catcher in the Rye" was just a peak book. I just loved that book. Anything to do with adolescence was really important.

Rodrigues: You are a professor here at UNCW. As a teacher, what are some of the lessons that you hope your students will take away from your class?

Karen Bender: That is a good question. Well, I tell my students there are three things that helped me in terms of becoming a writer. And one is honesty, that great writing is really honest. It is a bridge between people, and we are all kind of alone in our own selves, and through honesty we can find out what it is like to be another person, and that is really key. The next is craft. You need to know like the funnel to put the honesty through, whether it is sensory detail or dialogue or scene, you need to find out how to kind of organize your thoughts. And the last is patience. It took me seven years to write a novel, and it was a long process. And I felt like the more I kind of waited and tried to make it better and better, the better it got, you know, as opposed to just rushing out. And I think that is actually something that really, I felt, was valuable for me, the patience.

Rodrigues: Do you think that most young writers start with the honesty, maybe an abundance of honesty, and that becomes a problem? What are you seeing the classroom?

Karen Bender: Oh, interesting. I do not see as much honesty as I would like actually, and I think part of that is because people. I think there is a lot of students reading more genre work, you know, which I am not as familiar with. It is more kind of plot driven than character driven. I think the more honest they get, the better. Yeah. So I think the more they can kind of delve into themselves or their characters, and find out what they really feel, the more they learn about themselves, which is nice.

Rodrigues: Do you think that our society has kind of become a plot driven society?

Karen Bender: Oh, interesting.

Rodrigues: Particularly with television shows, like CSI, and then a lot mystery and crime novels becoming quite popular.

Karen Bender: Yeah, absolutely, right. And I think writing or literature is one of the few places where you can be really honest, and you can see what is it like to really feel these things? Yeah.

Rodrigues: What are some of literary novels that you would recommend for your students to read?

Karen Bender: Oh, wow, that I love? My favorites right now. I am reading, teaching next semester, teaching a novel by Paula Fox, who I think is amazing, and stories by John Cheever, who is just great. I love Laurie Moore. I mean, in terms of short stories I love Laurie Moore. I love Allison Rowe. I love Deborah Eisenberg, Salinger. I mean, there are so many in terms of recent novels. I love Martin Amis. "The Information" is like a great novel about writing. I love anything by Philip Roth. He is just god, you know. I think he is like the greatest writer.

Rodrigues: When you are teaching your students, do you notice they are coming in reading, having read more full length manuscripts versus short stories? Do you find that there is a deficiency there as far as being educated as to what the short story writer does and the craft that goes into writing a short story versus writing a novel?

Karen Bender: Writing a longer piece. I am not sure. I mean, I think they are reading more novels than short stories, which is a little tricky because, right, the short story form is what you kind of teach in workshop because it is short, you know, and it is kind of what you can workshop more easily. I think they do come in with longer, kind of having read longer things, and they just kind of train. And then essentially you teach a lot of short stories, too, so you show them how to kind of encapsulate the novel ideas. Well, the novel and short story are actually, I think, different structures ultimately, but some of the same issues that you would use in writing a longer piece.

Rodrigues: Do you feel it is important for a student to try to master the short story before they move on to something novel length?

Karen Bender: I think it really depends on the student, because some students are just immediately. I had a student this semester who was a wonderful writer, who, everything she wrote was a chapter, felt like a chapter of something. She was clearly a novelist, so you do not want to pressure her to doing something shorter.

Rodrigues: In your ten commandments for becoming a writer, No. 2 is create a writing schedule for yourself. Try to stick with it. Watch your work grow. Most writers seem to struggle with a writing schedule.

Karen Bender: Oh, it is so hard.

Rodrigues: What type of writing schedule have you maintained for yourself?

Karen Bender: Over the years. Oh, God. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Throughout the years, and I am also curious how maybe that writing schedule has evolved for you as you have gotten married and had children, and become a teacher.

Karen Bender: Yes. Yeah. It totally has evolved. Well, I think it started. The idea of a writing schedule sort of started with Carolyn See, who was one of my teachers at UCLA, and said write four pages a day, which was a lot. I mean, I tried that, and I think that was too much for me. I think I could not write that many. But I like the idea of, you know, if you do keep some sort of like schedule, whether it is time or whether it is pages, it adds up, you know. You start. Things start developing, I think. I tell my students that is important, because then you do not have your one day a week that you write, and then you sit down and you are suddenly, oh, my God, I cannot write. I am panicked, you know. If you have a schedule everyday, or three times a week, or something that is regular, you start taking yourself serious as a writer. So let's see. I mean, it depends. When I had 9:00 to 5:00 jobs, I would come home and write at night. And that I found hard, so I really tried to get freelance or part time work, and then I would write the times when I was not doing that in the mornings or at night, or whenever. And then let's see. And then as I stared teaching more, I would write. I would try to teach at night, and then I would write in the mornings, because that is my time more. And then when we had kids, then it just all went, you know, it was all shot. So then I really had to focus my writing time when we had babysitting, or when Robert and I were like split days. So basically having kids has been helpful in terms of making me not sit and just sort of like, oh, what am I going to write about. I don't know. I am anxious, da da. It would be like, okay, I have to write something. So that actually has helped me focus.

Rodrigues: I have heard a lot of mothers actually say that, that are writers, that once they have children, they become more proficient.

Karen Bender: Yeah, yeah. I think so.

Rodrigues: With their time.

Karen Bender: I think so. I think I have, because your time is so precious when you get your time that is your own, that is your writing time, you sit down and you do something.

Rodrigues: How difficult is it for you living in a household where there is another writer who also needs his time? Does that ever conflict with your writing time, or is that a carefully constructed schedule that you two put together to maintain the peace?

Karen Bender: Well, I think basically time is just like sort of a commodity that we both need, you know. So we have our things where we split times, and we are always negotiating it, you know, so it basically is like what we yearn for is just time we both can work. So basically, you know, we will set up some babysitting so that is time when we both can work, you know, and then otherwise we will split days. But it is hard, I mean, and there is often, you know, you have to think you need to have your time and you also need to share. The other person needs time, too. So it is always a balancing act.

Rodrigues: So with other couples, where babysitting becomes time for a Friday night out, for you it becomes time for you both to sit in opposite rooms and write?

Karen Bender: Well, it was both. I mean, I think we need more babysitting ultimately. But, yeah, we have our babysitting that is work babysitting, and then babysitting that is date babysitting. So, yeah.

Rodrigues: Interesting.

Karen Bender: It is a big juggling act.

Rodrigues: Despite your early inclination to be a writer, you majored in psychology as an undergrad at UCLA.

Karen Bender: Right.

Rodrigues: Can you tell us why that choice, and then also how those studies, though, have played into your life as a writer.

Karen Bender: Sure. Well, it is interesting, because when I went to college my father, who is a psychoanalyst, was kind of, you know, did not really know kind of what the writing world would entail in terms of actual paying career, and I did not either. It seemed kind of like what do you do? So he was like maybe you could be a psychologist, then you could be a writer. And so I thought, oh, well, I did not really necessarily want. I was very interested in psychology and psychoanalysis. But I was really kind of moving toward writing. And so then it was interesting, because then I started. I had a difficult time where I dropped out of school, and I had trouble. It is actually sort of a sad thinking about it. I had a lot of anxiety about bluebook tests, like I just did not want to do them. The idea of having to write under pressure was just like very anxiety provoking. So I essentially chose a major that had multiple choice tests. So that was part of why I chose psychology. It had multiple choice, which I felt okay about. And then I could spend my other classes taking creative writing workshops. And then it also left. Psychology left the door open if I wanted to become a psychologist. But then I started, you know, it was interesting. I started writing. I was doing the newspaper at UCLA a little bit, and then I thought maybe I could do some journalism, and then I moved to New York, and I worked in magazines a little bit. So I was thinking what are different ways you can piece together an income and how can you incorporate teaching? So then psychology fell by the wayside because I was like I really, this is what I want to do. And then you see, you know. In certain ways I see now, you know, it is really hard financially to be a writer. You cannot depend on your books to make money usually. And teaching is not the hugest paying job. So I look now, and I see, well, you know, psychology just might have been more financially, but writing is what I love, so.

Rodrigues: Do you find yourself drawing on any of the classes that you had in psychology or any of the studies that you might have done on different conditions when you were developing your characters in your novels, or in your short stories?

Karen Bender: I mean, I think not as much my classes, but I grew up in a very psychologically minded family. My father is a psychoanalyst. My mother is very pro therapy. I was in therapy from like a pretty young age because it was just something like there was like a value in the family. And I really got a lot out of it. So I think that was more. It was just like a world view that helped me. And I think that is something I have really interesting in my characters period is their psychologies and how complex they can be.

Rodrigues: Do you find that young writers sometimes lack an understanding of the complexity, the psychological complexity, of their characters?

Karen Bender: Um hm. Yeah, yeah.

Rodrigues: And where beyond taking psychology courses, where can a young writer learn to find that knowledge?

Karen Bender: About complexity? I mean, I think through reading and discussing characters. I mean, I know in my class this semester, we started out with a revision course, advanced fiction revi. And we focused on developing a story from one draft to another, and my students were. It was interesting. I was really pushing like how do we layer this character? And some of the students sort of automatically knew what I was talking about, and some kind of did not. But they were slow. I saw some slowly get it toward the end. It was really great, because it is like essentially when they are looking how to make their characters complex, they are looking how to see the world in a more complex way, too, and talking about motivation of the character, you see motivation in their friends or in their relationships or whatever. So that was really great to see them evolve that way.

Rodrigues: When you are developing your own characters, do you write notes on them? Do you create charts? Are there any techniques that you use to make sure that your characters, you have a grasp on the characters that you are writing?

Karen Bender: Yeah. I mean, I think it is all process, like it is layering. Like right now I am writing a character who is. Ellen, I remember in this way, too. Right now she is kind of, she is going through a certain amount of grief. She is feeling kind of unanchored and so her character is kind of a little bit dark and a little bit sad right now. And I can see what I need to do to layer this character, make her a little bit more funny and a little bit more mad, you know. So I think over drafts, your characters evolve, and they develop all the layers that people. People have so many layers. So I think it is just like over the process of writing drafts the characters get more complex.

Rodrigues: I noticed in the short story, "The Refund", or "Refunds", and also from reading the excerpt of "Aspiring Messiah", and even from reading portions of "Like Normal People", humor seems to be really important, but it is humor in difficult situations. Is that an intentional thing that you do within, or is it something that perhaps is a part of your own personality that seems to come out in your stories?

Karen Bender: Yeah. World view. I mean, I just think it is interesting. I think my writing from when I was little tend to be funny sort of naturally. Like I really liked sort of being funny in my writing. And then I think that was actually saying that I wanted to, as I became more serious then I wanted to become deeper, you know. And so then my writing, I think, became a little bit more felt. I think I was using science humor to not deal with the feelings. But I think actually the best writing, to me, is both funny and really felt, because humor comes out of feeling, and comedy and tragedy are really linked. So I think, yeah, I think it just comes out naturally, and essentially when you are having fun, too, I think as a writer that is when it is really working. When it is really feeling hard and depressing, I think that is actually often when it may not be working. It is nice to get to the heart of a character. It is hard and there are parts in "Like Normal People" that were really hard for me to write, because they were sad and they were dealing with sad things. But I think if you combine it with also how people cope and how people use humor to deal with things, it can be fun.

Rodrigues: Do you feel that your readers, it makes difficult situations easier to also digest as far as your reader is concerned, because for example, with "Refund", dealing with something as tragic as 9/11. then you have these really humorous letters back and forth from the narrator, and then the woman demanding.

Karen Bender: The tenant.

Rodrigues: Demanding her refund, but at the same time at the heart of the story is really this moving story about the surreal world of Manhattan afterward, and people talking about price fixed menus while they are also wearing facemasks.

Karen Bender: Right, right, right, right.

Rodrigues: Did you know? Did you realize when you were sitting down to write that particular short story that you needed to have something to really break the tension for people, especially because it is appearing, because many people who are going to read the stories will be New Yorkers who have actually lived it.

Karen Bender: Sure.

Rodrigues: Was this a very, very conscious choice on your part, or was it just the way that it came out?

Karen Bender: How it came out. I mean, I think it was just sort of part of my world view, like I remember going to my son's preschool, which was just a couple blocks from these fire. You know, still the fires were going, you know, while I was writing the story, and you are at this preschool, where the mothers are coming kind of all dressed up in their blue leather jackets and talking about where there was a really good deal with a restaurant, you know. And just the combination of them was so surreal, and I feel like life. It was just such an example of life being totally surreal, and life is surreal in all other situations, too, but this was such an intense one, I needed to see how to put those together, because living it was putting them together. Yeah.

Rodrigues: And with "Like Normal People", one of the words that you use in "Like Normal People", which I found interesting, which I feel in our politically correct world seems to be complicated now, is when you area describing the character as retarded or she was retarded.

Karen Bender: Yeah, Lena, yeah.

Rodrigues: And I noticed in another interview that you did that one, I do not know who the interviewer was, but it was a male interviewer, and he said that he thought put off maybe perhaps.

Karen Bender: By that word.

Rodrigues: By that word. Did you find any in this politically correct world where words like that become exceptional, or exceptionally challenged? Did you find a struggle with that, an internal struggle in using the word, or did you feel that that was the word that best described your character and needed to be there?

Karen Bender: In the text.

Rodrigues: Right.

Karen Bender: I mean, I think it is how people talked about characters that were challenged or, I mean, I do not see necessarily the problem with the word "retarded" because it really just means slow. I mean, I think maybe it has become an insult on playgrounds and stuff, but mentally retarded is just sort of mentally slower, you know. And actually that is what the character was in the book. And sometimes she was really smart and sort of ahead of the game in interesting ways, but in certain ways her development had been retarded. So I think I did not see a problem with it but, you know, I can see how people would.

Rodrigues: Were you surprised at all by how people? I was surprised when I read that interview where the question was more or less brought up.

Karen Bender: Oh, right, right. Yeah. Was I surprised? No, because I think people are very aware of how people describe all different things, you know. I do not know. I did not really have a problem in the text. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Do you think sometimes honesty or the use of honesty for a writer is challenged by the ever changing need to be politically correct in our society?

Karen Bender: Oh, sure, yeah. And that is something you really have to guard against. This is something I love in Roth, you know, Philip Roth, is he is always, you know, he is always getting, I think, he is pushing the envelope in terms of politically correct, but I think he does it in a good way.

Rodrigues: Do you find yourself doing that, as well, trying to push the envelope?

Karen Bender: Yeah.

Rodrigues: Do these things come out just in a need to be honest in your work, or is it a combination of both?

Karen Bender: Mm. Interesting. I mean, I think I do need to be honest. I feel like honesty is a huge thing for me. I really feel like I need to be honest in my work, because literature is a place you really can be honest in a powerful and important way. And I feel like as a writer often you are kind of an outsider of a lot of different groups, and you are kind of trying to interpret them or really show them for what they are. And I think I may unintentionally push the envelope, but maybe I want to, too. It is probably a combination.

Rodrigues: Is it important for writers to try to push the envelope?

Karen Bender: Interesting. I think it is important to be honest and really show things the way you see them, because everyone is so individual. That is a great about writing, is to show your individual take on things. And if your take on things is a little different from sort of how you are supposed to see things, that is important, because that is how kind of dialogue continues and we start seeing the world all different ways.

Rodrigues: For you, what is the most difficult aspect of being a quote unquote writer?

Karen Bender: I think for me the struggle has been. You know, when I was younger, I really did it. I started writing from joy, and I really did not, though I did send the thing to the publisher, but liked the idea of looking at it for myself and not for outside approval, and I think separating it for myself has been key. And that, I think, is related to not being anxious when I work. And I think one thing I think, I think it actually has helped since I had a novel come out, and now I feel like, okay, you know, having a novel was a huge just goal for me for so many years, and it took a long time to do. And I think part of the reason it took a long time was writing a novel is hard period, but I think I had a lot of sort of anxiety about it, and so now I am trying to just have more fun with it, and sort of trust the process, trust that it is not going to be right the first draft because it takes more than one draft. And in that sense, the novel I am doing now has been much easier. I mean, it is still hard work. It takes time. But knowing that it will evolve is a relief.

Rodrigues: Do you set a timeline for your work? Do you say I am going to work on a short story and then want it to ideally be done in this amount of time? I am going to begin this novel, and I want it to be done in this amount of time?

Karen Bender: Yeah. I do, and it never is the time. My deadlines always get pushed.

Rodrigues: But do you think it is important to set these deadlines?

Karen Bender: If it helps you, if it is helpful in terms of motivating you in getting the work out. I mean, I think one thing for me that is important is pushing a little bit and sometimes not realizing it can be messy. Right now I am in the middle of a novel, and I kind of need to get, like one section is pretty much pretty good, and then I have two more sections I have to work on a lot, and I need to kind of just get through those in a little bit of a quicker way. I think, in a way, giving myself a deadline would help me move on, because I think one thing that is easy for me to do is fiddle with language. And that can, you know, kind of slow you down at a point where you may not know if a section may even still be in the book, you know, at another draft. So it is important to just push for me.

Rodrigues: Do you try to write a entire first draft and then go back and fiddle with language, or do you write chapters, fiddle, move on to the next chapter, fiddle some more. What is your process?

Karen Bender: I think with my first novel, I fiddled way too much in the process of writing the first draft, and that was a mistake, because then I ended up throwing so much of it out. So I am trying now not to fiddle.

Rodrigues: Just go first draft.

Karen Bender: Just try to do more of a messy first draft, which is really hard, because the joy of it for me, most of it, is in the language and the line by line. So it is this weird balancing act between moving forward and also enjoying the line by line.

Rodrigues: Is it the same process for you with a short story?

Karen Bender: Short stories, you know, I find short stories, I feel like I am more naturally a short story writer, like I love short stories and they just, I think I think in a more short story way. So I think with this story I will write. I will get to the end, and then I will go back and rewrite, write, write.

Rodrigues: How do you determine whether an idea is a short story idea, or a novel idea?

Karen Bender: I think whether it just keeps growing and you cannot contain it. Like this novel I think started as a story, and then it started. Then it was novella. And I said it was a novella for awhile, because I was scared to call it a novel. And then it was like, no. It is a novel. It just is exploding. And then I could see it contained so much that could not be held within a little story. It could be a novel.

Rodrigues: You come from a family of established writers. Your sister, Amy Bender, is a short story writer and novelist. Your husband, Robert Siegel, is also a novelist and a short story writer, and even your sister, Suzanne, a child psychologist, has a nonfiction book on the shelves. With so many writers in your family, does it become difficult to separate yourself from your craft?

Karen Bender: Interesting. I mean, for me, I am the oldest, and so really, the people that I knew in my family sort of above me were all doctors. My father is a psychoanalyst and a psychiatrist. All the relatives were doctors. My mother was a dancer, you know. So there were not other writers. So in a way, I mean, that is kind of how I sort of had to kind of like figure out myself. I felt a separation just to become a writer for myself. And then I think one thing about having Amy as a writer, and the Robert as a writer, and then Suzanne as a nonfiction writer, is you see. It is actually my 10th ten commandment, which is like only you can write your version of the world, which I think evolves out of that, in that you see that everyone has something totally different to say. And I could not write what they say, and they could not write what I say, and that is actually we need all the different voices. So that is a process. It has been kind of a process to figure that out, but I think that is actually a real relief to know that. That actually really forces you to see that.

Rodrigues: Do you guys collectively keep your writings separate? Is there a lot of sharing that goes on between the various.

Karen Bender: Contingents? Let's see. I mean, I do not. I see Amy's work when it is published, and she sees mine when it is published, too. And then we can read it and talk about it. And then Robert and I do read each other's work and critique it as we work on it. Yeah.

Rodrigues: When you go for big family gatherings like Thanksgiving, is there a lot of discussion on craft, or does everyone try to keep that kind of separate?

Karen Bender: Oh, no. Sometimes we talk about it, you know. I think we talk about different things. Sometimes we talk about it, and sometimes we do not, sort of. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Speaking of family, you recently collaborated with your husband to write a chapter entitled "The Light, The Sword and the Nintendo DS", in a holiday book called "How to Spell Hanukah and Other Holiday Dilemmas." Can you tell us a bit about this project, what inspired it and how was the process of collaborating, how that has been?

Karen Bender: That was fun. That was like the first time we have collaborated. An editor was looking for people to write an essay on Hanukah, and she wanted us to write it together as parents, because she did not have an essay, I think, of that in the book. So we thought, okay, we can do that. We sat down, and I think it was just essentially like I think Robert said at one point. It was sort of like an extension of date night. We would talk about the kids anyway all the time, and how to deal with their various issues and needs, and we were talking about Hanukah, and how to sort of suppress the whole consumerism. And it just was kind of fun talking about them. That just became the story. And he would write a paragraph. Then I would write a paragraph, and kind of fiddle with it. It was fun.

Rodrigues: You said with suppressing the consumerism, is that really what the point of the chapter is?

Karen Bender: Of the essay? Interesting. Well, I think maybe not suppressing it, but maybe dealing with it because, you know, the whole consumerism of Christmas and just the holiday season kind of can affect how you deal with Hanukah, which is kind of a minor holiday anyway. The essay is about how do you balance the meaning of Hanukah with the whole idea of the consumer culture, when you want to give gifts and, of course, the kids want a lot of gifts. And how do you explain Hanukah to them when we live in the south, and in Wilmington there was not a huge Jewish population. So I think it is about all those different things.

Rodrigues: Do you think your perspective as a writer has changed since you have had children, as far as what you desire maybe to write for them?

Karen Bender: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, I write about them a lot, because I guess one thing I felt. "Like Normal People" is about actually me trying to figure out what it would be like to be a mother, because I wrote that before I had kids, and I was really interested in Ellen, how she would deal with this kind of extreme situation of dealing with this child that had so many problems or issues. And then I had kids, and then I realized there is not a lot of literature written about parenting young kids, you know, really, you know, and the beauty of it and the darkness of it, and all the complexities of it, though Cheever writes beautifully about domesticity. I just love his work in that way. So I think that is something that has come, really been a part of my writing the last few years. Yeah.

Rodrigues: Along with Nina De Gramont, you are the coeditor of the anthology choice, True Stories of Birth, Contraception and Fertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion", which was published in October of this year. Can you tell us a bit about this anthology and why this project was important to you?

Karen Bender: Well, it was interesting. I think Nina and I were talking one New Year's Eve about, it started we were talking about the South Dakota ban on abortion. It was really supposed to be about all abortions, and we thought that seemed intolerant to us, and we wanted to see how we could use story and literature, and our writing to somehow bring a new way to discuss this issue and maybe change peoples' minds who seemed closed to discussing it. So it was really fun. It was interesting being an editor instead of a writer, because we, to find, you know, reach out to writers and ask if they would want to contribute, to deal with personal thing of agents and other people, which was actually kind of stressful dealing with that. Mostly they were fine, but then there were some prima donnas. I mean, there was definitely things that were a challenge. So we started putting it together, and it was really interesting kind of stepping back, and it was not my point of view now. It was all these other points of views, and all these other stories, and it was really moving. It was really a good experience to do as an editor, but it made writing look easier, I think.

Rodrigues: Do you think you will be taking on the role of editor again in the near future?

Karen Bender: I think not now. I would not say I would not do it again ever, but I think right now I really want to focus back on the fiction, because I can see that I have things that I want to say that I really want time to do, and my time is so limited now with the kids and finding writing time, I want to focus on that now.

Rodrigues: As my final question, I often like to ask the writer if they have any words of advice, if there is something that they wish somebody had told them along the way when it comes to deciding on becoming a writer or living the life of a writer, something that you wish somebody had really given you early on in your career.

Karen Bender: Oh, interesting question. I would say trust yourself, and trust what you have to say, and find what you have to say that is unique. Find what you can say that no one else can say, and then be patient.

Rodrigues: Thank you for your time with us today.

Karen Bender: Thanks, thanks. That was fun.

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