A reading is a special kind of entertainment. Over the last decade, I’ve landed at perhaps a dozen stand-alone readings, and many times that in catching authors at various panels, including those at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books each April. My trips to readings have been well-selected, the way I select plays or beers—delights that I don’t often do. I’ve been able to converse with such favorite novelists such David Mamet, Tim O’Brien, Carolyn See, Garrison Keillor, Tobias Wolffe, John Irving, Walter Mosley, and Jane Smiley.
I also love hearing how poets play with language because stories should have a sense of play, too, so I’ve heard poets Aram Saroyan, Carolyn Forche, Mark Strand, Derek Walcott, and our now new U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, among others.
Add to that list of writers Aimee Bender, who performed well at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena the other night.
Typically, an author will read a short selection from a new work, then take questions about the new book and older ones as well as answer questions about process. People love to hear how the magic happens. Ms. Bender, who is also a professor at USC, did that all.
She read from her new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which had originally been titled I’ve Been Here the Whole Time. She explained to her audience of about seventy—standing room only—that the publisher, Doubleday, didn’t think her original title would be memorable. She said coming up with a new title is tortuous. She had a poster board on her wall with many possibilities, which she’d stare at and consider every day. The final one is a variation on a title her agent gave her. The lemon cake proves important in the story.
Because I’m so caught up in restructuring my present novel, I wanted to know if she worked with an outline. As I wrote in a previous blog about the process of three novelists, Janet Fitch, Caroline Leavitt, and Lynn Hightower, there are those who write by daily inspiration, “following the pen” as Fitch says, and those who plan the whole thing out first, such as John Irving and J.K. Rowling do. I was the former, and now I’m the latter with my rewrite. For me, daily inspiration helped create believable characters, but the daily muse did not necessarily lead my characters to do surprising things. By outlining, I can follow a line of an action to its end and consider if that’s awesome and interesting or not.
As Michael Chabon said in a reading I saw in Denver in April, “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.” There is no one way to get there, and Bender said she writes for two hours to the minute every day. If she has nothing to write, she sits there for the two hours, but more often than not, she comes up with things. Some days, she swears, she’ll never be able to finish or write again.
A deep fan of her short stories and her previous novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, I can see “story” beats within her, and she accepts nothing less than interesting, tales that build scene by scene. Her process has her sometimes throwing out hundreds of pages that just don’t add to the story. In a previous novel that she abandoned, she realized that she kept thinking she had a novel in her mind that wasn’t matching what she was writing. However, “There’s no book in your mind. All you have is what shows up on the page. The page is all you’ve got.”
In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, young Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers a magical gift. Rose can taste her mother’s emotion in the slice, and it reveals that her happy-go-lucky mother swirls with despair. This gift of finding the cooker’s emotion in the food follows Rose the rest of her life, and it becomes a threat and peril.
With an expressive voice and a sense of whimsy, Bender read an early chapter that revealed Rose at age eight lives with her slightly older brother, Joseph, and parents in Los Angeles. Mom takes out her genius son from elementary school often under the guise of doctors’ appointments to whisk him on shopping expeditions because school bores Joseph; it isn’t challenging. Being in Joseph’s shadow is hard for Rose.
Bender said she started the book exploring Rose. People came into Rose’s life, and she followed them. “Through Rose’s voice, I was hearing everyone else.” While she’s known for use of magical realism in short fiction, she says she never thinks of it as a mere device, something odd to throw in. Rather, unusual things just happen.
As she says, “Fiction is a million times more flexible as a form than some people let it on to be.” When she writes, “The more you can do to trick yourself to not think, the better. Just follow the story.” She says it’s akin to dreaming, and “inside your mind are all those images. Go with the strange if it’s happening. Know your own intent."
After I read her first novel An Invisible Sign of My Own ten years ago, I knew I wanted to teach it. I’m always looking for stories that my college students might connect with, and that story of an obsessive-compulsive young woman who finds out she loves teaching math to children starts out with the sentence, “On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax.”
As my students were loving the humor and pathos of the book, I decided to write Ms. Bender, who I knew lived in Los Angeles, to see if she’d visit with my class. It was a long shot, and I had no money to pay her, but she came and delighted the class. No questions were out of bounds for her, and my students, many of whom had never read a full novel before, perhaps became readers for life. Such can be the magic of meeting an author.
So go to a reading. It can change you.
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