It's impossible for me to maintain any kind of journalistic objectivity regarding Aimee Bender. I mean, first of all, I love her work. I literally don't care what she writes about—much-touted magical realism aside, her prose style is so resonant, I'd read Aimee Bender's 18th century parlor drama or Aimee Bender's science fiction novel or (fingers crossed) Aimee Bender's YA fiction. Second, not only did we recently have a great interview, but she sent me a thank you note after the fact. I mean... Whatever. I give up. I love Aimee Bender. Here's my review of her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, about a girl, Rose, who has the ability to taste feelings in food; and hit the jump for a complete transcript of our recent interview. (I'd recommend reading the review first, if you haven't read the book—not because it is awesome, though I assume that it is, but because it provides background that will help explain the interview.) If you don't want to read the whole interview, I will point out that Bender endorses Rebecca Stead's fantastic YA book When You Reach Me, which I will only stop proselytizing for after everyone I know has read it.
MERCURY: You’ve done so much work for Tin House, it’s hard for me to remember that you’re not actually a local author.
AIMEE BENDER: Which is great, ’cause I looove Portland, so I kind of like that thought.
Lemon Cake is a book about a girl with a really screwed-up relationship with food—the protagonist, Rose, basically has an eating disorder—but you don't go the obvious direction and talk about body image stuff. Was that a deliberate omission?
It was. I'm interested in those stories, but they do feel like the first leap someone will make if they know that [there's] a girl character and something is going on with food—I think they'll immediately go to anorexia or bulimia. I think I just wanted it to be different, and I wanted it to be about the food and not about the food at the same time.
Are there any foods that you associate specifically with particular emotions?
There are a lot of foods I associate with feelings. Often the old comfort food standbys, or certain foods from growing up—my grandma would make a great matzo ball soup, and that felt really loving. She would take all this time preparing it, and bring it over in these plastic bins, and mix it all up… So I have that, or growing up there was a hamburger joint that I could walk to with my sisters, and just knowing the person and going to the same guy, over and over, getting the same hamburger, felt great.
How about negative emotions?
It’s harder to pinpoint emotionally. I was definitely a picky eater, so there were a lot of foods I didn’t eat, but I think that was more of a palate-growing-up thing as opposed to food that felt uncaring, I don’t think I felt that.
Lemon Cake is full of some really great descriptions of food—have you ever written restaurant reviews?
I haven’t, but I really like to read them. I’m an avid reader of them. LA has Jonathan Gold, who’s a really great food writer, it’s so fun to read his reviews, and in other cities too, I just like reading what people have to say about food. And published food writing in books, MKF Fischer… I think Gertrude Stein said something like, if you’re going to write about a meal, you must tell what was in the meal. I like that. You don’t ever say “the characters had dinner.” Even if it was a story not about food, you still want to know what they had for dinner. Even on menus, as soon as someone says “crusty French bread” on a menu I feel compelled to order it, and it’s all because of the word “crusty.”
I read a review in Bookslut where the reviewer suggested that one way to approach the book is as a commentary on our current “Yelp-happy” food culture—where it’s impossible to eat food without considering the context of the food and where the ingredients were sourced and all that. Is that something that you intended to allude to, when you were writing the book?
Not really. I find the food culture stuff interesting, and this idea of tracking where the food came from, but I didn’t mean for any social commentary. I think maybe I was compelled by all the food information around, but there wasn’t any direct intent. And it felt really important to me that her real refuge was actually processed food. Processed food has become the villain, culturally, but there is a reason why we love it. Part of the reason we love it is because it’s so mechanical.
I saw Toy Story 3 recently and while I really liked it I also feel like if I had seen it as a kid I would have come away from it with a horrible guilt complex about ever throwing away a toy, because it imbues these inanimate objects with so much significance. And that actually made me think about your book—about the grandma, who sends her family those boxes of junk, and even Rose finding all this depth in food. Would you characterize Lemon Cake as a book about our relationship to objects, to stuff?
I think that’s kind of spot on, in a certain way. It’s maybe buried in there, and in some ways it appears to be more about food, but in some ways I think it’s maybe about food as a non-person. It’s a relationship about people and non-people, and all the gray area there is between a perfectly made meal and the processed Dorito. Like how that plays out on the spectrum of people is really interesting to me. But I will say too that I completely relate in terms of Toy Story, not even having seen it. As a kind I endowed objects with so much affect and feeling. It was a huge part of my childhood—toys, and even beyond toys. I remember there was a piece of a broken headlight that I just loved, and I felt like it had a personality. It was like a beautiful piece of red plastic… I think that’s part of childhood in a certain way.
Do you still have it?
I think it would be at my parents’ house. I bet I could find it. I don’t have it in my place now, but… It would take an effort to throw it away.
That’s what parents’ houses are for. Your mom’s not going to throw that away.
It’s really nice when that is available. There’s a desk that’s pretty much untouched, and I’m sure that little piece of headlight is tucked into a drawer.
The book had several fantastical elements that I responded to emotionally, but I didn't feel like I fully understood them. Which made me wonder how clearly you explain your metaphors to yourself, when you're writing.
The feeling that you got would be what I would want you to get. When I'm writing it feels like I'm really trying to push down or shut off that analytic side of my thinking. I generally really like thinking critically about things, but when I'm in the writing process it's all about an intuitive feeling that this is where the story should go, and not wondering, "What does it mean?" And potentially frustrating people because of that, but then also... I like that, as a reader. I like those open questions. And I don't like feeling like there's a one-to-one correlation or explanation. I like knowing that I have to sit with the feeling that comes across.
Rose's experience of psychic abilities is really different from the way mind reading is often depicted—it's a very visceral experience, rather than like reading a ticker tape.
When I imagine mind reading that I've read about, that ticker tape—it's so not my mind. I'm so rarely having coherent linear thought after thought after thought. It's much more fragmented. It'll be a clear thought, and then an interrupted thought, and then a feeling... I just don't think in complete paragraphs. And in terms of just kind of intuiting what other people are feeling, I think we pick up on other people all the time that way, [where] you'll kind of get a sense of what's going on with this person or that person. So it felt like a kind of mind reading that we all do all the time, only she has it times a thousand.
Your book reminded me of When You Reach Me, because it’s a realistic YA-ish novel that incorporates these fantastical elements.
Thank you! I loved [Rebecca Stead]’s book, and I loved that it was a tribute to A Wrinkle In Time which I also loved, and it was layered in this beautiful way.
In some ways, Lemon Cake is structured as a very traditional coming-of-age novel. Have you ever written for a younger audience, or considered it?
I've considered it, and I did one story—there was anthology that came out last year called Sideshow, by Candlewick Press, and it was a young-adult anthology about carnivals, and they said, would you write a story? And I wrote a story from the point of view of the bearded girl, and it was totally fun to write. It was a little bit more geared toward middle school and high school. What's the subtle difference between that and this book? It's hard for me to pinpoint. At some point I'd like to take a crack at writing a young-adult book. And a children's book, too.