Interview: Karen E. Bender, Author of Refund: Stories

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shelfunbound What’s a typical starting point for you in writing a story, for example unhappy thirty-something Anna Green, who survives a shooting at her high school reunion only to be defrauded by her first boyfriend?

karenebender For me, a story is the collision of something in real life that interests me, and my desire to figure a feeling out. In “Reunion,” I wanted to write about a high school reunion, perhaps because I had been to two of my own, and found them so enormously odd and moving; every ten years, a group of people come together, because they share this incredibly deep bond: they grew up together. I loved it because it was such a unique American ritual, a strange way to measure time. The shooting became part of the story partly because I think fear of random shootings is now, unfortunately, part of the American psyche; it’s something that I believe we all carry, in some way, with us. It came into this particular story, perhaps, because it was a literal way of dramatizing the sense of mortality one feels at high school reunions. 

The boyfriend, Warren Vance, walked into the story and started talking and wouldn’t stop. He was the past, and seductive because he was the past, and he defrauded Anna because our conceptions of the past are sometimes a way of defrauding our sense of the present. That was what I learned from the story, and I had no idea that it would lead me there. I started with the balloons and the spangled light and that was where I ended up. 

shelfunbound How do you develop your characters, such as the girl whose younger sister has a “bad hand” in “Refund”?

karenebender Each character introduces his/herself in different ways. That story began with the first line: “I loved helping my sister Betsy hide her bad hand.” I wrote it one day and then thought—who is this? Why is her hand “bad?” and I began to write scenes trying to learn about her. Then, by describing the older sister hiding the younger sister’s “bad hand” with a tube top, I learned more about the relationship between the sisters.

Each character is a form of theater for the writer. Every day, when I sit down to write, I become a sort of actor. I think, what would this person on the page think or say? It is the freedom to create a persona that is not my own. The character may have thoughts and ideas that are very different from my own, or I can take something from my own thinking and exaggerate it in a dramatic way. Creating a character is both a way of escaping from yourself, and simultaneously deeply inhabiting yourself; both hovering and diving. 

shelfunbound All of the stories in this book have to do with money—what interested you in this theme?

karenebender I didn’t consciously chose money as a theme in the stories. I wrote these stories through two recessions—in 2002 and 2008, and financial struggle and all the emotions that that entails, was active in my mind. I also wrote these stories while my husband (Robert Anthony Siegel, also a writer) and I raised our children and taught and wrote, which is essentially a crazy juggling act of money and time, so issues of money are always prominent. During this time, income inequality was increasing in our country, and jobs more unstable; fear and frustration and envy about money have increased, I think, in recent years, and it has made me consider—how do we deal with this uncertainty and how do we define worth? 

shelfunbound How do you find the entry point for your short stories, such as the first line of “The Loan Officer’s Visit”: “For the first sixteen years of my life, my father was a vigorous man.”

karenebender I tell students that a story should pose a question to the reader. The act of reading is, at its most basic, one of answering questions—and your opening should create a question that creates an urgency, a desire to read on. When a reader reads one of your sentences, the response should be, yes, to the language, the perceptions, but also, more basically—“and then what?”

shelfunbound A short story is like … 

karenebender … a door into another person. 

shelfunbound What is the appeal for you of writing short stories?

karenebender As someone who has written both novels and short stories, the true and perhaps embarrassing answer is: they are short. For me, novels require ox-like determination and patience over years. They are like running a marathon. Stories require the same diligence and patience, of course, but, well, they are shorter. It’s easier for me to try different characters out, different techniques or voices in a story. The relative brevity of the length is calming for me. For me, when I am writing a novel I feel like a Writer, (capitalized) which can feel like pressure, and when I am writing a story, I feel like a writer, (not capitalized) which sometimes makes me feel freer. I think that aiming to write as a writer instead of a Writer is generally healthier and makes the process more fun.  

shelfunbound If you were teaching a course on short story writing, what is the primary piece of advice you would offer?

karenebender Ha! If I teach any course on writing, I say: Patience is what makes a great writer. Good writing happens over drafts. Let the story get better. Don’t be afraid to throw out. There’s more good stuff inside you. 

shelfunbound What’s a favorite book you read in 2014? 

karenebender I can’t list just one. Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas and stories “Love in a Fallen City,” translated by Karen Kingsbury, has prose that is just extraordinarily beautiful, about love and longing in Hong Kong and Shanghai post World War II; “Archangel” by Andrea Barrett weaves science and human relationships with incredible metaphors; “Rainey Royal” by Dylan Landis is a completely riveting exploration of adolescent girls in New York City in the 1970s. 

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