AIMEE BENDER'S NEW NOVEL is about a young girl, Rose, who discovers that she's a "food psychic"—whenever she takes a bite of food, she can taste the emotional state of the person who prepared it. In order to avoid tasting the unhappy feelings of her family and friends, she spends her childhood eating processed food, finding that, paradoxically, food made with less care is much easier to eat. We interviewed Bender about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, mind reading, and young-adult novels.
MERCURY: Lemon Cake is a book about a girl with a really screwed-up relationship with food—she basically has an eating disorder—but you don't go the obvious direction and talk about body image stuff. Was that a deliberate omission?
AIMEE BENDER: 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.
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.
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.
In a lot of 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.Click here to read the Mercury's complete interview with Aimee Bender.