Aimee Bender has written numerous works of magical realism and we were lucky enough to chat with her about it. In this interview, Bender discusses women in magical realism, her use of this construction, and the power of magic in stories. Thank you Aimee, for letting us share your words.
Interview: Aimee Bender
Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?
There are many—and I do love the magical realists: García Márquez, Cortázar, Borges, Leonora Carrington (more of a surrealist), Calvino, Barthelme, Murakami, if you’d call him that. Kelly Link. Then those into the grotesque: Katherine Dunn, Flannery O’Connor. Then the straight up realists: Marilynne Robinson, James Baldwin, Salinger. And more! Reading Jesse Ball’s new book right now and it’s beautiful.
To me, it seems like the magical elements are organic in your stories because they grow out of your characters’ emotional lives—they are built and bolstered by these worlds. Does this seem sound to you? Does it in any way reflect your experience writing them?
Yes, thanks! Good to hear. I think the emotional life is the core and seed of the story—that’s where the story lives and breathes. So the magic is a way to access that, and I will happily use whatever way I can to get to the emotional stuff. For me, for whatever reason, I like to go to it indirectly, and via metaphor, but hopefully not metaphor that’s too easily unpacked. I don’t know the meaning as I go in, so my hope is it (the magic) isn’t a quick and easy meaning, but instead a pathway in.
One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Rememberer.” (I used to teach it and it was always a class favorite.) Would you mind describing the relationship between the magical and the real in this story? The narrator’s lover is experiencing “reverse evolution,” but both the narrator and her de-evolving lover also seem to be struggling with what it means to be human, to think and to lose. What was your inspiration for this story? We’d love to hear anything about the process of writing it.
I mean, every story has to be real, has to be contending with realness in order to be a story. We don’t want something so out there that we can’t relate at all. In that story it was a way for me to write about/think about what loss is and what it means to lose someone. At the time I was going through a breakup, my grandmother was dying and my mother kept talking about how it was like watching someone go back to infancy, and I’d had a dream years before about reverse evolution and I think it all coalesced to some degree. But I don’t think up the idea and then transfer it to a metaphor—instead, it’s going with an image, a word, a moment, and letting that guide the story. Then the mix of real and less real comes from the writing itself—maybe the clearest way to say it is that I like it if there’s a fluid permeable line between real and less real so then it’s not a big leap to find myself in the realm of magic. It just is allowing the story to go there if it seems like a good place to go.
In recent years, there has been a wave of popular women authors who write largely (though not exclusively) magical realist fiction. You, Russell, Ausubel (also out of Irvine), the other authors in Tin House‘s Fantastic Women anthology…Would you consider yourself part of a movement? Or, would you even want to?
I do think it’s a bit of a movement! I’m thrilled about it. Also Julia Slavin, Judy Budnitz, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Kelly Link, and more and more. And some men, too—Kevin Brockmeier, Manuel Gonzales. But more women. I like how folk tales are often called old wives tales and so there’s a history of these kinds of storytellings coming, often, from women. Not necessarily old, not necessarily wives, but something, at root, in the feminine.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser