This Year’s Charming National Book Award Underdog: Karen E. Bender
On Money, Craft, and Characters Who Can’t Stop Stealing
According to herself, Karen E. Bender feels “more natural” as a short story writer, and, according to me, she’s a fantastic one. The stories in her first collection Refund aim directly at their targets, the prose clean and sharp, unobtrusive but startling—in other words, she’s the kind of writer who employs her language in the service of her characters and her situations. Authors of this ilk—Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, Antonya Nelson, Rebecca Lee—possess a confidence that may seem undercut by the lack of flash, but make no mistake: it takes a great deal of self-belief and skill to focus on a story’s content (and content that, it should be noted, pursues real human moments rather than histrionic drama) rather than its presentation.
Publishers, though, operate under the (mostly true) belief that story collections are less lucrative than novels, so Bender, like many a short story writer before her, had written two novels before releasing Refund: Like Normal People in 2001 and A Town of Empty Rooms two years ago. Despite Bender’s self-proclaimed preference for stories, her novels are not merely creative capitulations but instead provide narrative breathing room, more space for her to spend time on details, to explore interiority, and to follow the reverberations of her characters’ choices as they echo through the years.
Also like many other writers, Bender has taught creative writing at various universities, including Chatham University, Antioch University LA, UNCW, and Tunghai University in Taiwan; she is currently Visiting Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University. For her own education, she studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the crème de la crème of MFA programs.
Which makes it less of a surprise that the short story form is where Bender lives most comfortably, and why I have to imagine it must have been extremely validating when Refund was long-listed for the National Book Award, and an even greater confirmation when she made the short list a few weeks later.
I interviewed Bender via a series of emails and (at least a little bit) cribbed from a reading she gave a few weeks ago at Old Books on Front, an institutional used book shop in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Karen lives with her husband, the writer Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.
Jonathan Russell Clark: What was it like finding out you were long-listed for the National Book Award?
Karen E. Bender: The long list is announced to the public over the Internet; I found out at the same time as everyone else. I knew that the NBA was announcing the fiction long list on Thursday at 9am, and I was curious who was on the list, so I clicked on my phone. When I saw the cover of Refund, the cover of my book, I thought I had gone insane. I was in Virginia, where I am teaching at Hollins University part of the week, so I called my husband Robert and asked, “I think Refund is on the long list. Can you check—is it there? Is it real?” and he said, “Yes, it’s real!” I just started laughing, pure joy.
JRC: And what about the short list?
KEB: We heard that the finalists would be announced on October 14 on NPR. On the 13th, I got a call from the director of the National Book Foundation in New York. He said, very calmly, that Refund had been selected as a finalist. I screamed so loudly Robert ran upstairs and then we jumped around the house, screaming, for a while. It was a great day.
JRC: At Old Books on Front last week, you talked about how you feel like you’re a short story writer rather than a novelist, but that you were compelled to write novels because that’s what the market wants. How does it feel to have your first story collection be short-listed for the National Book Award? Long overdue validation? And do you now feel as if you can confidently pursue story-writing without having to write novels?
KEB: Recently, I was thinking: what if the mantra going around graduate schools from editors and agents were, “Please! Send me your story collection!” as opposed to, “Please! Send me your novel!” which is often what you hear. Would the landscape of literature be different then? It seems that in the last 20 years or so, there has been a reluctance to publish story collections. I hope that is changing, with many recent collections getting good attention; I was excited to see three books of stories on the NBA long list—Edith Pearlman and Adam Johnson and me, and then two on the finalist list.
So while I’ve written two novels, and am proud of both, and will attempt to write more novels, writing stories does feel more natural to me. I just feel calmer writing them somehow, even though they are also very hard. My mind accommodates ideas and narratives that often feel better expressed in a story form.
How does it feel to have this collection short-listed? I’m stunned and happy and all of those words. Validation is an interesting word; to validate means to “give evidence for.” So does this mean now I have evidence that I should write stories? The NBA Finalist is a long dreamed-of honor, but is it validation? I was writing these stories quietly for years—I had to write them. I would continue to write them even if this hadn’t happened. It feels more like a huge, magical thing to be included on this amazing list; it is moving to be part of this great tradition.
JRC: As a writer of stories, how do you approach putting together a collection like Refund? Since ostensibly you focus on each story as you wrote it, without worrying about thematic continuity or stylistic resemblance among other stories, and since these stories were written over the better part of a decade (with one even going back two decades), how do you cohere all those disparate elements into a satisfying whole? In more general terms, what do you think makes a successful collection?
KEB: This is a good question. In 2002, my first novel had just come out, and I was trying to figure out what to write. I received an NEA grant and had to describe what project I would work on with the grant. This is funny—I just went to the NEA site and saw this:
My new collection, Anything for Money, explores the interconnections between the desire for money, the yearning for status, and the inability to forge human connections. Having (or not having) money, yearning for it or shunning it is one way we define “worth” in our culture. I want to examine how this cultural obsession affects our attitudes toward ourselves and towards others.
This text is very similar to the content on the book jacket of Refund. So clearly I was thinking about this in an organized way back in 2002!
I wrote some of these stories with these ideas in mind until 2007, then wrote my novel A Town of Empty Rooms. When the novel was done, in 2010, I wrote more stories. Each story did address something that was compelling to me at that moment. Some obsessions emerged—parenting, family, money anxiety, worth, status fear, isolation, random violence, the desire to connect with others and the complexity of it, and cats. How do these create a whole? I think the stories do try to address various elements of what is going on in American life in this decade; like all my fiction, the stories attempt to excavate the strangeness of being human.
Perhaps staying true to one’s obsessions at the moment creates a kind of theme—it is the way a writer’s subconscious drives the narrative, it echoes what a writer finds important at the time.
In terms of bringing the collection together, some stories were cut that were repetitive or didn’t relate to the theme of money; others were tweaked in ways to make them relate. For example, the story “Free Lunch,” which had been titled “Sent” when it was published, was retitled with this theme in mind. It reframed the focus of the story.
JRC: Your previous novel A Town of Empty Rooms opens with Serena’s Manhattan spending spree and its results. What is it about money specifically that makes such a compelling theme for you? What is it about one’s actions regarding money that reveals so much about one’s self?
KEB: Actually, I can’t seem to stop my characters from stealing things. In Like Normal People, my first novel, 14-year-old Shelley and her aunt Lena steal items from Sav-on, in A Town of Empty Rooms, Serena uses her employer’s credit card as a way of dealing with grief, and in the story “Theft,” Ginger Klein swindles everyone in her path. The act of stealing works beautifully in stories as shorthand for a character’s interior state, an action that reveals a tangled longing.
The words we use to talk about money—investing, borrowing, loaning, hoarding, etc. can be applied easily to emotions. These words work well as metaphors for love, sorrow, all emotional states. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Ginger Klein throws all of the money in her purse at the crowd at the cruise ship talent show. It is a rare moment of generosity for her, and also a way of announcing the end of her life, as it is all the money she has.
JRC: The stories in Refund switch between first- and third-person. The third-person stories have a directness to them, an interest in getting right to the heart of the story. In fact, they often begin with both the protagonist’s full name and the primary concern of the narrative (i.e., “Each Monday at eleven o’clock Lenny Weiss performed his favorite duty as executive producer of his hit game show, Anything for Money: he selected the contestants for that week’s show.”), while your first-person stories begin with more ambiguous lines like “Let me say right at the beginning: it wasn’t the cat’s fault,” in which the real meaning of the line isn’t clear until much later. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between first- and third-person? What does each allow or hinder? Why the directness in third but the coyness in first?
KEB: Good question. It points to the issue—how do you create urgency for the reader? The process of beginning a story is a seduction, an argument, a hand bringing the reader in. It is the writer making the case that this story is what the reader needs to be engaging with, this one, at this moment. And there is much competing for the reader’s attention. So I tell my students they should create a question at the beginning of a story. A question creates an urgency that keeps the reader reading. The first line is very important.
So why are my first lines in third more direct and less so in first? It has to do with the urgency, the question being posed. In third, I’m creating the question through action or thought. In the line you mentioned, why is Lenny selecting the contestants? And why is it his favorite duty? What is this show? In the other story, the line, “Let me say at the beginning: it wasn’t the cat’s fault,” the idea is to bring the reader in through the voice. The voice sounds like it going to explain something complicated—“at the beginning” implies this. This contrasts with the comment about the cat, as the reader may expect something more significant. “It wasn’t the cat’s fault” creates the question—well, what wasn’t the cat’s fault, and what is so important about this cat? So this is a question that is brought in through the voice. Perhaps I’m posing a different sort of question to the reader in first—one in which they want to follow the voice, its peculiar way of expressing itself.
I have had times in which I have only written in first and others when I prefer third. Some characters, such as Ginger Klein in “Theft” or Lenny [from “Anything For Money”], come to me in third. I enjoy using first when I can access a voice such as the ones in “This Cat” or “For What Purpose?”—they come, it seems, from a more intuitive place in me, and to write these stories can feel more associative. I was just reading about the neuroscience of creativity, how different parts of our brains are used when we create—it’s more complicated than right brain/left brain. Could different points of view arise from different parts of the brain, perhaps? I don’t know. And of course, third can be associative and first logical. But I often do feel different writing in third vs. first.
JRC: You just mentioned your students. How has teaching creative writing affected your own writing and your own ideas about writing?
KEB: When I sit in a class of creative writing students, I have an enormous understanding of what the students are feeling—I remember, vividly, what it was like to look at a piece of writing and want to know why it worked, how it got there, how to dissect its magic. So one priority I have as a teacher is to try to demystify the writing process, and craft—walk students through short stories and identify some of the elements that make the story work. And that has helped me figure out issues such as plot, or compression, in stories—articulating craft points to students helps me see how to do it in my own work.
Talking to writers about their work definitely helps me think about craft and the writing process, too. I think that writing requires psychological skills that are not always valued in our culture that we, as writers, have to nurture on our own. For example, patience—my work has gotten better over time when I have held onto it and really honed it, delved into it, so I really encourage my students to be patient with their work.
Students can also surprise you in amazing ways. You never know who will be the student who will listen and absorb the lesson—who may write somewhat clichéd stories at first and then find something incredible and unique in themselves and take a huge leap forward. It happens again and again. The writers who succeed are the ones who stay with it, who can absorb feedback, who keep marching, who don’t stop.
JRC: What short story writers are really exciting you now?
KEB: I recently finished Young Skins by Colin Barrett, an Irish writer. He writes about small town life in Ireland during the recent recession. His language is sort of a combination of Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, and I’m incredibly inspired by him. Otherwise, here are some stories that I treasure and I have been reading and/or teaching recently:
“Diamonds” by Colin Barrett · “Between Zero and One” by Mavis Gallant · “The Lost Order” by Rivka Galchen · “The Pura Principle” by Junot Diaz · “The Banks of the Vistula” by Rebecca Lee · “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander · “Hurricanes Anonymous” by Adam Johnson · “Save My Child!” by Cynthia Ozick · “Balloon Night“ by Tom Barbash · “Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell · “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe” by Stanley Elkin · “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio · “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri · “The Investigators” by Andrea Barrett · “Every Tongue Shall Confess” by ZZ Packer · “The Swimmer” by John Cheever · “Human Moments in World War III” by Don DeLillo · “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen · “Something That Needs Nothing” by Miranda July · “Tenderfoot” by Edith Pearlman
There are many, many others. But when I read these stories, I really wish I had written them. I am having conversations with these stories, in different ways.
I read for strangeness—the sense that the world is presented in a way that is not how you have been told it is, but that you know, instinctively, it can be. I read for the beauty of the language and sentences, and a sense of vision and real feeling. All of these stories have these elements. Go read them, now.
JRC: Are you nervous for the NBA ceremony? What is going through your mind about that?
KEB: I was nervous last weekend when I realized the ceremony was a black-tie event and not being exactly a black-tie person, I didn’t have anything to wear. I heard about a vintage store in Wilmington, Second Skin, and I found a unique 1940s dress there, which feels right because many of my favorite writers—Cheever, Salinger, O’Connor, Malamud, McCullers—wrote during and about that era. But I’m excited to meet writers whose work I love, and to be at an event that honors and celebrates those sacred items—books! What could be better than that, really? Plus, I am bringing a large family entourage to the ceremony—my husband, our children, my mother, mother-in-law, brother-in-law—which will be great. Hopefully not too raucous.
JRC: At a bookstore recently, I asked if they had any copies of Refund and they said they were out and that it might take a few weeks to get more in. Has the NBA given you a sales bump? Have you received more solicitations? Requests for interviews? Reviews?
KEB: It’s interesting—the book is the same book it was, but yes, there has been a sales bump, and more copies printed, and my writing activity for this week is doing four interviews. There has been an outpouring of wonderfulness from friends and family who have been there during my journey writing and placing this book; others who have come to it recently have been supportive, which buoys me up.
JRC: What are you working on now?
KEB: Getting my dress altered. Then, more stories and a novel.