TCR Talks with Karen Bender

BY: A.M. Larks

Karen E. Bender is the award-winning author of Refund, A Town of Empty Rooms, and Like Normal People. Her latest work, The New Order, is a collection of highly political short stories that discuss tragedy, isolation, and terror. The New Order dives headfirst into the current cultural milieu by addressing sexual assault, gun violence, the perils of social media, and the life of Jewish Americans.

Karen took the time to speak with The Coachella Review about her latest collection, teaching, and creativity.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: What do you hope your collection achieves?

KAREN BENDER: I hope it does what I always hope my fiction does—helps someone feel understood, or understand the world in a new way. The collection engages with the current moment, but in a way that is emotional. It’s a way of reflecting on the current world in a way that is different from reading, say, an editorial or Facebook post. One thing I’ve been struck by in the last couple of years is the powerful emotional response one has to the loss of country. The shock and grief I felt after the 2016 election was profound. Perhaps this collection can help those with similar reactions feel connected or understood. Fiction is always a way to help another person feel less alone.

TCR: The stories in this collection range from realism to surrealism. Why cover sexual assault both realistically and surrealistically? What does one offer that the other does not?

KB: I think that all of our experiences in the world may feel both grounded in realism and also surreal—our dreams feel real at times, and they are happening only in our minds. In the story “The Elevator,” which feels to me both real and also a bit surreal in the extended scene in the elevator, I wanted to explore the way responses to a traumatic incident may reverberate over time, here dramatized in the later scene in the elevator. Exaggeration didn’t feel necessary in this story—the situation did enough work in the real world to be dramatic. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” I wanted to explore a real-life situation that seemed absurd–nondisclosure agreements. In my mind, these agreements literally buy a woman’s silence after she is victim of a crime, which seems quite unjust. I wanted to embed this idea in the government as a whole, and look at the ways in which sexual harassment charges are devalued by our society. So I was taking a real life situation and just pushing it.

I personally don’t think realism and surrealism are actually that different. When I read, I look for writing that has clear, powerful emotion, that is grounded in specific, believable detail, and that involves a world that is unified and makes sense to the reader. Poe, in talking about plot, speaks of “the unity and totality of effect.” A good story, no matter the genre, needs to feel like a unified whole. I hope to create what John Gardner calls “a vivid and continuous dream” in every story, to keep a reader engaged in the story’s vision, whether it’s more realistic or not.

TCR: In your interview for First Draft on Aspen Public Radio you discussed how to end a story, specifically that a good ending should evoke both hope and despair and should leave the reader with a sense of unease. Why leave the reader uneasy?

KB: Because that is how life feels—both hopeful and sad. Which can, sometimes, make people feel uneasy. So many endings in popular culture try to wrap things up in a neat way, to tell us to feel just one thing. But that always felt false to me. To embrace multiple feelings makes,for an honest ending.

TCR: You are currently a visiting professor at Hollins University. How does teaching affect your writing?

KB: I feel so lucky to teach creative writing. Each time a student walks into my office, I am privileged to hear about a distinct world and world view, and I so enjoy helping them hone and develop their visions. You never know what small piece of advice, or what book you tell them to read will help them see their work in a new way. You never know what will be an “aha” moment, and it’s so exciting when work starts getting more honest or deeper or more vibrant. And teaching has helped me articulate technical issues in my own writing. In trying to explain to students issues such as plot and creating urgency in a narrative, I’ve needed to figure out these technical issues for myself.

TCR: In addition to teaching, you are also the Fiction Editor for Scoundrel Time. How did that come about and why did you choose this publication?

KB: Working as Fiction Editor for Scoundrel Time has been an incredibly nourishing and helpful activity during this turbulent time. After the election in 2016, I was contacted by Mikhail Iossel, who had the initial idea for the journal, and then Paula Whyman, who is our fantastic and tireless Editor in Chief. The journal was (and is) entirely volunteer and grassroots (our poetry editor is Daisy Fried, our publisher is Peter Trachtenberg, and we have a great crew of editors and editorial assistants.) The idea was to post creative responses to the current political era. They asked me if I’d like to be the fiction editor and I said yes—it seemed a productive activity that would help me grapple with what was going on. We contacted writers who said they would contribute to our launch, and then we’ve just been adding work each week—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction. One of my favorite projects was the brainchild of our contributing editor Robert Anthony Siegel, a feature called “How it Ends,” in which we asked a range of writers to imagine how the administration would end and got some really creative responses. We had a reading in New York last summer with writers reading from their work and to be in the room with all of the creativity and feeling and hope was truly energizing. The mission of the journal is broadly defined, so it has been wonderful publishing work by new authors, by established ones, seeing how strange, personal, deeply felt fiction can engage with social issues. And we’re always looking for new work!

TCR: Recently, you spoke with Poets and Writers about creativity. You cited this Martha Graham quote:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

Why does the world need to hear our stories? Everybody’s story?

KB: I love this Martha Graham quote because it speaks against fear, against the impulse to hide and declare: “I have nothing to say.” This cripples many writers. There are some writers, like Flannery O’Connor, who said, famously, “I’m asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” I find that a damaging, sadistic comment. The truth is—you never know when you will find your story. You never know what treasure, what beauty a writer may find if they keep the channel open. I see this again and again. I believe that if people are honest with themselves, if they describe the world the way they see it, not the way they are told to see it, that they have some sort of story that others will connect with and appreciate. Certainly, telling a story in a way that is memorable takes work—but the first step is keeping the channel open, not censoring yourself. Speaking. Saying something honest—because our culture does so much to diminish and suppress honest and complex stories. And in my mind, honest, well-told stories are key to healing and connection and progress.

AM Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review and contributes reviews and interviews to, and is a reader for, TCR. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.