Strange Horizons' introduction of Benjamin Rosenbaum:
Ben lives in Basel, Switzerland with his wife and daughter. He's a Java programmer and rugby player who writes speculative fiction and poetry. His work has appeared in F&SF, The Infinite Matrix, Vestal Review, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Harper's.
Ben is great at describing the essence of a situation, a setting, or a character in just a few words in his flash fiction pieces. Even within these tight spaces, though, his stories retain a focus on philosophical concerns, a focus which is also on display in greater depth in his longer fiction. His language displays a connection to the folk tale and other, older forms of literature; but even when he draws on the fable's form, he avoids the easy moral: instead of a pat answer to life's problems, somehow Ben always leaves the reader with a wry smile of knowing wisdom at the end.
Ben Rosenbaum's introduction of Aimee Bender:
Aimee Bender is a literary writer. She publishes short stories in places like GQ, Esquire, and The Paris Review. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. She's a wordsmith; one of those authors who cares passionately about the shape of words and the precision of feelings, whose phrases are so delightful you have to read them three times, whose characters you get to know better than your siblings.
So why is her work full of imps on stilts, mermaids with sensitive hair, mutant girls with hands of fire and ice, men turning into turtles? Even when it's not explicitly fantastic, it's too strange to be comfortably normal: a man who loves mathematics so much he wears a different large wax number around his neck every day; a kindergarten teacher who eats soap to wean herself from desire and brings axes to show-and-tell; and so on. And all so marvelously, marvelously done.
I spoke to Aimee in cyberspace. It was cold and dark and snowy outside, well before dawn, in Switzerland. It was a hot and windy evening in L.A.
Ben Rosenbaum: So, thank you for agreeing to this. . . .
Aimee Bender: No problem. I'm glad to do it.
BR: Part of my plan here is to get you some crossover readership, because there are a lot of people reading the more literate and non-naturalistic stories in the fantasy and science fiction world who I think would love your work and who are not going to run across it in the usual course of things. . . .
AB: That'd be great. I am a fan of fantasy and science fiction even though I haven't read tons of it, so I like that idea a lot. And, I'm always struck by how weirdly realistic things seem to get past a certain age, book-wise, and how that can be distressing to someone who loves to read about magic, etc.
Tell me a bit more about Strange Horizons.
BR: Well, for most of its history SF and modern fantasy have been wed to a very naturalistic mode; the world is different from ours, but it is a very concrete world which is very analytically and clinically described. This got loosened up a little in the '60s "New Wave," and then there was a retrenchment, and now there's another period of wackiness.
AB: Yes, sort of like the difference between magic realism and surrealism maybe. More concrete vs. more dream-like. I'm glad to hear there's new wackiness happening.
BR: Strange Horizons is a pretty new (about two year old) online magazine, and while they are open to all kinds of speculative fiction, their tastes run to the odd and surreal. They're known as "notorious style monkeys."
AB: Sounds like a good set-up.
BR: So since I'm going to sell this to an SF/F market and you mentioned liking some SF/F, that's a good segue . . . what things have you read or do you like?
AB: I just read the whole Phillip Pullman series, His Dark Materials, which I think counts as fantasy. That was incredibly fun. And as a kid I remember hunting down Bradbury and Asimov and just always really liking the changed world. The idea that one shifted consequence would trickle down to the smallest details. I never played Dungeons and Dragons but I should've.
BR: Pullman definitely counts as fantasy. And yes, you should have -- boy, an Aimee Bender role-playing campaign! I'm in! 🙂
AB: And Marion Zimmer Bradley.
I'm soon to marry a big science fiction fan, and so recently I read The Man in the High Castle. Really good.
BR: So you read Man In The High Castle as engagement homework?
AB: I taught the book for a weird WWII books class I was teaching, and of everyone we read -- including Vonnegut and more -- PKD had the most web connections by far. Which I found kind of fun. And then on the last day of class I took the I Ching out of the library because he refers to it a lot in the book and we looked up some stuff.
So it wasn't really engagement homework but maybe in some subtle way it was. . . . I know he was really glad I read it.
BR: You have a mystery story in the upcoming "genre" issue of the whacked-out literary magazine McSweeney's, and you're sharing the Table of Contents with Kelly Link. She is somebody who is very far out there in terms of non-naturalistic storytelling in fantasy & science fiction, as well as being stylistically accomplished and inventive. There are certain Kelly Link and Aimee Bender stories which you could switch the names on and fool their fans, I expect. . . .
AB: Nice to hear! I have to read her whole book -- I think I only read one story but I liked it a lot. I keep hearing such good things about her. And I hear her McSweeney's story is terrific. Mine is a mystery; I forget what hers is. It's going to be really fun to read that whole issue.
BR: Yes, I'm looking forward to that issue a lot. One of the wonderful things about reading your collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, is the way it mixes the fantastic with the superficially mundane. To what extent do you feel like you're creating a world when you write something like "Drunken Mimi," where the imp and the mermaid are in high school, or "The Healer," where you have the two mutant girls with the hands of fire and ice?
AB: The world sort of creates itself, but I have found it's really satisfying to make everything happen inside the world, vs. inside the character. That way you can allow the landscape to speak for you! And when I'm making up the world, then I get a kick out of the tiny details, because that's fun for me as both reader and writer. If a girl has a hand of fire, then how does she brush her teeth? That didn't come up in the story, but it is something fun to consider. I suppose she'd use some kind of iron. Or use her flesh hand.
I have tons of stories with 'changed worlds' that don't have any resonance or umph to them. So they don't progress past the first few sentences.
BR: One of the things that works so well in those stories is that the fantastic is handled in this absolutely matter-of-fact way, and so it retains its power to startle and bemuse. People talk about "sense of wonder" a lot in fantasy and science fiction, but for me in a lot of fantasy the world is sort of set up and closed, so once you accept the premise there's little sense of wonder left.
On the other hand, many of your stories in which nothing overtly fantastic happens contain characters that are so wild, and take such startling turns, that you have the feeling you're reading something fantastical. Like "Fugue." The muttering man who mixes pills in bottles and steals the mirror of a handsome man in the hopes of looking handsomer. . . .
AB: I think a sense of wonder comes, though, from feeling held, too. Feeling like the writer has some control over the magic, instead of being subsumed by it. You can make your reader mad and antagonistic if the rules don't make sense, or aren't satisfying, because I think we like to see the logic of magic too. Logic and magic, besides sharing three good letters, have this crucial connection.
BR: Hmm, yes. Do you think your stories without more fantastic elements get to be more dreamlike in their logic for that reason?
AB: It seems to me so far that the wilder the character, the less magical maybe the setting. Because those are more voice-driven, and then it's more about voice and less about the world created.
There's also the naming factor -- the muttering man gets no name, so he lives in the more mythic land, vs. Haggie, in that story, who has a name and is more in our world, real world-world.
BR: There's a similar tension I think in the eroticism of your stories. Some of your stories that are the most knock-your-socks off, must-put-book-down-and-get-glass-of-water-now erotic, are the ones without anything necessarily externally recognizable as sex in them -- "Drunken Mimi," "Call My Name." Whereas in the ones that are explicitly sexual, like "Fell This Girl" or "Quiet Please," sex is overshadowed by pathos.
AB: That's really good to hear. I was reading, of all bizarre things, some summary of post-modern thought and it was going over the idea that now that there's sex everywhere there is sex nowhere, so it makes sense, on those lines, that the more overt stories would be less about actual sex, more about something else. I can't believe I just used the word post-modern in an interview. Shit.
BR: Uh oh. We're toast.
There are a bunch of bald guys in black sweaters with clove cigarettes surrounding my house now. See what you've done? But I can hold them off for a while, I think.
AB: Ha! Tell them . . . I don't know what to tell them. Perhaps they will drift away. . . .
BR: "Skinless" -- another one of my favorites -- is an example of this. There's a moment at the end which is superficially erotic, but that's not really what it's about, I think. What's there for the reader is not lust, but this very deep and almost blank and featureless kind of love -- not falling-in-love, not family or fellow-citizen love, but like weary humans taking a break from hating and resisting each other, into pure acceptance. . . .
Do you have a theory of eroticism? Or of pathos?
AB: That's a really nice way to see "Skinless." Let's see. A Theory of Eroticism. Not really. I just think sometimes it's a way for me to access character -- again, through something really overt as a way into the more subtle stuff -- and sometimes it's about actual sexuality or pathos, and other times about something completely different.
And in all the commercials/movies/etc., the sex is really a stand-in for other stuff all the time, but it's such a quick way to get our attention we don't even realize it. I'm not trying to write commercials, though. Hmmm.
BR: One thing you consistently manage to do is pull off endings that surprise, not in a plot-oriented "he-was-the-killer" kind of way, but in uncovering facets of the character that make utter and deeper sense but weren't seen at the beginning. "Skinless" and "Fell This Girl" are both like that. Do the endings surprise you too?
AB: Yeah, the endings do surprise me. I think part of a writer's joy is not knowing the ending and finding out what it is. It's hard to bear, that vast unknown, but it's also rewarding. George Saunders does a wonderful thing in his stories, which is, as soon as I start to think I know where the story's going, he goes that way, and then that's out of the way, and he can move onto the next thing. So if I think I know the ending, it'll happen next, in the next sentence even, and then from there it's all a mystery again. I learn a lot from that.
BR: Wow, that's great, and I can see that in your work too. That maybe lends it some of the intensity and surprise.
How much of the shape of a story do you have before you start it?
AB: Usually with a story I just have first lines, or initial ideas which come out as first lines. And if there's something to it, it'll have a second line, and if not, it'll just be done.
BR: I often write that way too -- set myself an odd first line as a challenge, and try to make it make sense.
AB: Yes, I can see it with the stuff I've read of yours. And Judy Budnitz does it too.
Maybe we can play some kind of first line game.
First line with a rhino in it? We both write one.
BR: So you don't start ever with a character? The characters emerge from the voice. . . .
AB: Characters emerge from voice, yes. So something does start with character, but it's more, again, about the sentence itself, the way the words bump against each other and who it is comes from that.
BR: The rhino game sounds great. We could both come up with a first line and then see what stories emerge.
AB: "The rhino came to the zoo 100 lbs underweight."
BR: "A rhino had a feud with a mule."
AB: I did read comics, but not much of the Fantastic Four. But, I'm really really happy to hear it is evocative that way. I read some X-Men recently and think it's amazing. I just read Watchmen when a student insisted.
The funniest thing about "The Healer" is that someone sent me a page ripped out of a fashion magazine -- Sports Illustrated? -- with two girls -- one fire hand, one ice hand, in blue bikinis rollerblading or something. ha!
BR: Did you like Watchmen? I thought it was great, but partly it's a commentary on other comics. . . .
AB: I did like Watchmen. I think I probably missed some of the commentary stuff, but I just liked the dejected superheroes, and the feeling of sadness and confusion. How to help? Students kept coming in and telling me to go read The Dark Knight Returns. Batman, I think.
BR: Dark Knight is also a classic and has that superheroes as paranoid, disturbing people thing. Those two books reinvented comics in the late '80s. Renewed our vision of heroism, somehow -- made it much darker and more provisional and conflicted, which actually allowed it to survive in an age where it had become a joke, like the fat, goofy Batman in spandex on the TV show.
AB: Interesting. It's really true -- inside the conflict somehow you can believe in them again. And the character of Rorschach was great, because he was hard to take and also lovable.
BR: Yep. Rorschach rules. And the fact that you can see both his and Ozymandias's perspective, and both are horrible but also noble.
AB: I like your point of it as a way to contend with TV, too, since TV really made things too real, too human.
BR: Yes. TV doesn't work for superheroes.
AB: And the Dr. Manhattan character was pretty fantastic too.
BR: Dr. Manhattan was, as they say, the bomb. (Sorry about that one.)
How do you think your work's evolving? I was fascinated to see the new things you did in that Fence story, "The Meeting." For one thing it's the first one I've seen that's wholly from a male perspective. And it's also much more willing to be abstract and philosophical and not only deal with the strange concreteness of the moment; a little toward Kundera as opposed to Barthelme.
AB: Let's see. How is it evolving? I guess I just keep trying to push at the difference between the world of the specifics and the world of the mythic. And the male/female perspective stuff too. I'm working on a novel now from the POV of a teenage boy, and somehow it is incredibly fun and also daunting.
And there's something attractive in the abstract too, in the philosophical approach, sort of Lydia Davis style. But I can't pull it off for long. The concrete somehow sustains a longer piece. So that Fence story is very short, and I think that's probably why.
Someday I'd like to write a novel in third person, because I think that allows for more absolute magic, but this one now is first person, and so that's a later goal.
BR: Yes, that's what I thought was brave about the abstraction thing, because it's clearly not your natural mode. A brilliant thing about your work is the way you capture the way a moment occurs, even in real life, often as the most strange and mysterious thing. You pack so much power into particular lines. Like in "Fugue": "Same ugly man." I love that.
AB: Thank you! There's so much yelling about "show, don't tell" but sometimes telling is the center and key to a story. It's fun to just tell, tell, tell if it's right, or to save the crucial sentence of telling until it arrives on the page in its wrapped package.
BR: Yes, "show, don't tell" is one of those pieces of advice which is insightful on some level but has come to be so narrowly construed that it's banal and restrictive for the current generation of authors.
AB: "Show, don't tell" and all the other pieces of advice drive me up the wall. Though, happily, having something to push against and fight with is helpful, too. Feeling hostile towards writing advice is a major fuel that gets me to the table some days.
BR: Hah! That's great. Are there particular stories or parts of your novel An Invisible Sign of My Own that were written in defiance of particular rules?
AB: Mainly, I really fought with the idea that a character had to know what she wanted. That a novel was about that. I really really felt irritated with that, and tried to just give her things to want. Then I finally realized that her problem was she didn't want things, and so if I just backed off it would work out.
I hate novel advice most of all. So much of it is awful.
BR: Yes, that's sort of the core of Mona, that she doesn't want things, in fact refuses to want things. Will do anything to not want things.
AB: Yeah, so giving her an artificial want made no sense. But those books or pieces of advice are very convincing, so I really had to shake it off.
I have a friend who says she thinks most writers don't really know why their work is good and she wishes they would just shut up with all the advice already. I love that.
BR: Defiance of advice is a great engine for writing, I think. I read a science fiction book that said you can't write stories with only aliens, no humans, so I had to put it down and write one.
AB: Only aliens could be great! We KNOW what humans are like.
BR: Yes, although of course, when we write about aliens, we're mostly still writing about us. Egocentric critters that we are.
AB: Yeah. So all the more reason writing only about aliens should be ok.
BR: But it can allow you a distance which clarifies. Or obfuscates. Or whatever.
BR: You have, as I mentioned, these single lines that pack this intense power. They're like lines of poetry. Do you read poetry?
AB: I love poetry. Apparently as a kid I really liked hearing it too. Reading Etheridge Knight right now because a friend read a poem of his aloud and I loved it.
BR: Who are your favorite poets?
AB: Fave poets: I love Anne Sexton. She's very fairytale-ish. So great. [Garcia] Lorca. My friend Jeff McDaniel is an amazing poet. He's got 3 books that are all great reads. Gertrude Stein's poetry. Neruda has a book called The Book of Questions that is great. All weird questions that make little sense. Russell Edson.
I took a class in grad school and we read Ulysses, and I thought I would hate it. But I loved it because it's so much like poetry.
BR: Related to an earlier point -- one of the startling things that often is revealed about your characters, and one of the most moving things, is love. And often familial love, in all its conflictedness. As a father of a daughter I am particularly moved by the line where the little girl's father, who she's actually sort of irritated at at that exact moment, rests his hand on her head, and she thinks of it as "the heaviest, best hat."
AB: Thank you. Familial love. It is so complex and central. I wish there were more songs about parents.
BR: Yes, songs. Neglected sorts of love. Actually there are lots of country songs about parents.
AB: Interesting, I didn't know that. Country songs. I'll try to find some.
BR: When I got married I was suddenly able to listen to country music. Because pop music is mainly only about being young and more or less single.
AB: Interesting! Perhaps it is in my future.
Jane Siberry, a favorite of mine, writes songs about her mother that always are so moving. "My mother is not the white dove."
BR: All right, I'd better go get ready for work. . . .
AB: Thanks for doing this, and eat some fondue for those of us surrounded by fast food. . . .
BR: I will definitely eat some fondue, it's what redeems the Swiss winter.
Thank you for doing this. It was great fun.
AB: You're very welcome. I appreciate your questions and thoughtful readings and all that!
Copyright © 2003 Benjamin Rosenbaum and Aimee Bender