Webchat with author Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender joined our book club discussion in November 2011, to discuss her book The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. She answered questions on fantasy fiction, character development, the value of empathy in relationships and her own literary style.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is the story of Rose Edelstein, an unremarkable nine-year-old who one day discovers she can taste people's feelings and emotions through food. Her talent impacts every aspect of her life as she uncovers buried family secrets and comes to terms with her own flaws.
Q. RiffRaffeta: I found the depiction of the mother/son relationship very interesting, especially in relation to the mother/daughter one. I also found the mother an interesting character outside this, a mother who seemed, on many levels, to break the traditional stereotypes. Did you draw on personal experiences in either of the relationships the mother has with her children or their characters?
A. Aimee: There isn't a one-to-one experience that I'm using—meaning there isn't one person who I mold into that character. It's more that I sort of sit down at the computer and see what/who shows up. But of course the core of these relationships has to be familiar in some way or they wouldn't feel like people. I can see a few people I know in the mother, but she's also an invention, and I wanted to explore how she seemed to feel so differently towards Rose and Joseph and how that impacted each so differently, too. That she really looked to Joseph for a kind of guidance that didn't fit his age/role, and Rose was the observer of that — she was left out in a good way - and also of course felt envious at times too.
Q. gailforce1: Why did the grandmother not visit/was not visited?
A. Aimee: Let's see - I did write a scene where they went to visit, and it was fun to write, but in the end it seemed to make more sense to me that she was kind of a non-presence. Maybe she's the lineage of Joseph in a way, in that she seems more connected to the family via these objects than in person. It did feel important to me that he picked her chair. And that the mother might not have been adequately mothered by this grandmother.
By the way - since the book is now done please don't take my answers as the 'right' answers - they're just my opinions/thoughts and may or may not fit with your reading, of course!
Q. NYmomma: Did you script the entire book before writing it? Did you have a road map, or did the direction change at any point? Also, I'd love to hear more about Joseph. He's never labeled - which I loved - and this seems intentional. What informed this decision?
A. Aimee: Totally road mapless. I have tried that and just can't do it. It's all intuitive - I am following whatever seems to have a kind of charge to it, and seeing what happens. This means I am often totally frustrated! And then there are these surprises that keep me in it.
Yes - very deliberate not to label Joseph. Some people say he seems autistic, and others say he's just like their schizophrenic brother. I think I wanted to describe behavior, to describe him, and let people see where he fit - one of the advantages of any kind of magical storytelling is that the road into the character is a little different. He may be autistic or he may even appear autistic because he's so armoured up against the world but is very soft inside.
Q. MmeLindor: It is interesting to hear the reasoning behind your characters actions. I like the fact that there is more to them than we have been told, like meeting someone new and thinking that you have them sussed then being told something that makes you reassess your opinion. How do you decide what details go into the book and what is your personal knowledge (or feeling) about the character?
A. Aimee: To be honest, a lot of what I've just said about the characters came once the book was done and I was doing readings and having to articulate it. So while writing, it's more about feeling out the story, and reading it, and groping along, and feeling what gaps feel ok to me and what feels like it's off. And having friends read it, my editor, and all that. So while in the book it's much more physical - like the scene with the dad revealing his skill was just me really trying hard to imagine how that conversation would play out, and what it was like for Rose, and what he knew about and was willing to know about and was closed off to, too.
Q. southlondonlady: George is a lovely character, were you tempted to have him and Rose get together? It was more realistic I think that they didn't!
A. Aimee: I was tempted, but I knew that it was unlikely. She just in no way seemed ready. He was so much more connected to others than she was and she's on her way but he was ready to get close to someone.
Q. mymuchness: I think I wanted to know 'why' Joseph behaved the way he did... was it down to his reaction to his mother's affair? Plus what significance did the door in his room have? Was it supposed to represent a way of getting out? What was special about that particular chair that made him ring his grandmother?
A. Aimee: Good questions. I guess the way I think of it is that he was somehow overwhelmed. He was her point of guidance, even as a baby, and it was too much for him. The splinter removal being a way for him to exit her body, literally. The door - I think the mom built it in the hopes that he would behave like a 'normal' teen and sneak out but he wasn't one to sneak out - he left in a much more insidious/disconnected way. But of course the person who ended up sneaking out that door was likely... her. And that chair - I'm not sure, but it felt useful to me that it was machine made, also a chair like his mom made but not one of her chairs, and from the detached grandma.
Q. mymuchness: P.s. I was convinced he was teleporting or time travelling! Would never have guessed he was changing into objects..!
A. Aimee: Others have said that too and I'm fine with that, but it's definitely a more hopeful read.
Q. MegnMog: I found Joseph's retreat from the world incredibly moving. Is Joseph's gift that he picks up people's emotions through touch, or is it by just being around them? Does he try to cope by disappearing or merging with objects that have no feelings as a way of avoiding other people's feelings and feeling nothing for a while?
A. Aimee: I'm not really sure what his gift was, but I imagine he was inundated and had no limits like Rose did by choosing her meals. He was, possibly, more porous, in that way. And yes - what you say about disappearing/merging with objects rings very right to me.
Q. southlondonlady: If Joseph had managed to get into college with George do you think things would have been different for him?
A. Aimee: Possibly - I sort of imagine George being someone who would've checked on him in his dorm room so he couldn't totally isolate. But at some point George had to move on, so maybe it was inevitable and just would've been delayed.
Q. Mrsoverreaction: I wondered why Joseph's skill enabled him to make actual physical changes, whereas Rose's didn't. Is it because he worked so hard at it over the years? After all, he's clearly a physics whizz and very focused on his skill; was he trying to explore the possibilities and boundaries of his particular skill?
A. Aimee: Yes, I think so - that he knew something molecularily that Rose couldn't. So he did have a certain kind of amazing skill this way, and George sort of knew it and was mad that he wasn't sharing it.
Q. MmeLindor: Have you noticed a difference between the way that your novels are received in UK to the US, particularly in your native state. Are readers in some states or countries more willing to suspend logic and simply enjoy the unbelievable?
A. Aimee: I haven't really noticed a difference in the two countries, but I do seem to hear that some readers don't go for some of the magical elements, particularly with Joseph, which I respect, but it means they may be frustrated, and other readers will go with it and find something in it. I guess what I hope is that somehow the story revealed will stir a feeling in the reader, even if they don't understand how to fit the feeling into the story right away. I'm especially interested in feeling/image over meaning; I want to give a reader an experience, and make her feel something, and what it means can open up over time.
Q. oldenglishspangles: What was the emotion Rose tasted in her own food that she didn't recognise?
A. Aimee: Ah, so I think the one you mean is the factory taste. Which relates a little to a previous question, about getting a break from a skill. The way I imagined it, Rose tasted some factory in herself, something machine-like and detached in herself, because she HAD withdrawn from people somewhat to cope with all the information she was getting from people. She needed to, but it had a cost. And she sees this big-time in her brother, which is why, in my mind, she is so disturbed by seeing his total exit from the world into the inanimate. She has this in her too - just to a much smaller degree. And possibly it's the reason she can start to go out and find people who do nourish her.
Q. Mrsoverreaction: I found parts of the book confusing, the section in the brother's flat was very eerie. I thought he had somehow inserted the chair into himself and like the narrator was worried that it was going to be gruesome and that he would be hurt and bleeding. I enjoyed reading it but ultimately didn't find it totally satisfying as I felt that there were a few loose ends: the grandma's behaviour; the father's failure to share his knowledge (fear?); and the long term fate of the brother. I also found the overall tone of the book quite bleak because of the lack of friends and social life of the entire family; they seemed quite introverted and isolated and I often felt sorry for the narrator despite her lack of self pity.
A. Aimee: I know it's not for everyone and that's ok with me. I think I am a fan of gaps and holes and finding pieces to fit together over time - and I like bleak books, too! So there you go. But I appreciate what you say, it is a very isolated family. And yes - I'd say the father's not sharing is from fear. But don't you know people like that? I definitely do.
Q. mymuchness: Did you have to edit this novel a lot? I ask because I felt frustrated at not knowing enough about some characters - the father, the Grandmother and Joseph. Are there 'deleted scenes'..? Or was this deliberate?
A. Aimee: I did edit a lot, but usually not information - basically, since it was first person, I was in Rose's POV and could only access what she could. And she, via the food, can access a lot! But not all. And the father doesn't want to know himself so he just can't possibly share that. Joseph is also an enigma to Rose to some extent, but I know people often have questions about him.
Q. Mrsoverreaction: I love the line about the negative salad. This has also really made me think about projecting feelings, such as when I say to my husband, "our daughter has been a bit grumbly today" and then, reflecting on that, I've realised that I've been the grumbly one and wondering how much my emotions affect her behaviour. A lot I think!
A. Aimee: Exactly! What felt crucial to me was that Rose wasn't tasting the feelings the person was aware of - she was tasting the unconscious/unknown/tucked away feelings that do creep in outside of our awareness. And when she'd ask her mom, 'are you sad?' her mom said no. But it was kind of obvious that she was unhappy.
Q. BodyOfEeyore: I love the idea of the negative salad. Did she just think bad thoughts as she made it?
A. Aimee: Ha! I think so. Which sounds actually a little fun, on the right kind of day...
Q. NYmomma: I'm a fan of the understated, so I enjoyed having to fill in the blanks with Joseph and whatever Rose didn't know. I liked the room that the narrator gives to the reader, and I think that must be hard as a writer. You want to tell the reader everything to make sure they're getting what you're trying to express, so you must have had to be quite restrained. You say a lot by not saying too much - if that makes sense. I enjoyed that power as a reader.
A. Aimee: Truth is, I'm not holding back - I'm stepping away from meaning too and trying to just convey a feeling. I'm trying to shut down the analytical side of my brain. And I do trust that if I make the scene solid enough, then meaning will creep in at some point, but maybe not right away. In fact, I think it can be a disadvantage if I fully understand the book I'm writing. Then it's all unpacked already, you know?
Q. BodyOfEeyore: Why the chair? Why that chair? Why not another piece of furniture? And, if her brother can turn into a chair, could Rose turn into food one day?
A. Aimee: Good question! In a way, doesn't she? When she tastes the factory, isn't she kind of seeing in herself the facets she doesn't want to see? It's not turning into food, but it's seeing herself reflected in food.... Also I don't think she'd want to leave as much as he wanted to leave. That chair - I guess it goes back to it being this ordinary object. Kind of a way to pay tribute to his mother and also rebel. If he'd picked a chair made by her, it would've been total absorption into her, in a way. But this was an exit for him, albeit a kind of brutal one.
Q. mymuchness: I found the comment about sensitivity really interesting - I thought that Rose and Joseph particularly have this kind of empathy with others but EXTREME empathy. Do you consider yourself to be a particularly empathic friend or do you see disadvantages in very close connections?
A. Aimee: Extreme empathy, yes. I do think of myself as empathic and I value that but it can be tricky at times - I can forget how I am feeling or tune out to get a break. Apparently I was pretty tuned into adults and others as a kid but I also daydreamed A LOT and I imagine it was also a way to get a little headspace to myself. Also of course sometimes I am totally empathically off and miss things completely.
Q. oldenglishspangles: I loved the way the book allowed me to empathise with Rose, in that there are certain feelings/emotions in people I feel/sense which makes me uncomfortable. I can't always stop thinking about them, it's almost like a sensory overload. Interestingly I liked the way my emotions conflicted in respect of Joseph. I felt confused and frustrated that he shut himself off but at the same time envied the fact that he could find peace in escaping from the world when it all got too much.
A. Aimee: That's exactly what I intended - sensory overload. It is part of what makes you you, but can also be a burden. A woman I know said she got to the end of the book and said, "Ah! I am a chair, too!" and was a little overwhelmed by the thought and it was unbelievably meaningful to hear. Maybe part of sensitivity is having a little chair/escape inside, and it's complicated to figure out when that's ok and when it's a retreat or removal from the world in a less helpful way. Complicated. I don't have clear answers here.
Q. RunforFun: I really enjoyed the book, although I sometimes had to read then re-read the page to try and get clear in my own mind what was happening. It was very well written and reminded me of The Time Traveller's Wife which was another odd story I wouldn't normally turn to but was captivated by in the end. What gave you the basic idea for this novel? It just seems so off the wall and unusual I cannot comprehend where I would begin to make up a story like this.
A. Aimee: I did a lot of reading and rereading while writing it so it makes sense, what you say. The basic idea is kinda hard for me to pinpoint but I was thinking a lot about what it means to be sensitive. What is good about that, and what is hard about that, and how people fall on a spectrum of sensitivity - the 'too' sensitive, the 'insensitive', and on and on. I was wondering how we all cope with our varying degrees of porousness to the world.
Q. OliviaMumsnet: What gave you the idea for this story? Do you have The Time Travellers Wife as it reminded me in some ways of that book.
A. Aimee: I actually haven't read The Time Traveller's Wife yet though I'd like to - I've heard good things. Also, re the idea - I have a close friend who is always talking about how she's digesting a conversation she had, or metabolizing it, or processing it - and so in my mind there was a link made between our emotional lives and the good old G.I. tract.
Q. BodyOfEeyore: The lack of speech marks was frustrating to me at first, but I got used to it. Why did you choose not to use them? What effect were you after?
A. Aimee: Ah, the quotes! Okay. Well, I'd actually read books that hadn't used quotes - Cormac McCarthy and Jayne Anne Phillips and Judy Budnitz - and I just always really liked the feel and the look. Or Jose Saramago's book Blindness - he doesn't use quotes OR paragraph indentations! So it is a bit of work but I kind of like that. I did feel like it was a way to show how her internal and external worlds were meshing, but it's also just a visual choice - when I would occasionally add quotes to see if I liked it better, they just looked wrong.
Q. TillyBookClub: I didn't even notice the quotes weren't there until reading this thread! It all flowed naturally for me. I thought the dialogue between the family was brilliantly done, so believable. I particularly loved the struggling-to-communicate scenes between Rose and her dad, in front of the telly or on the classic driving lesson. Do you find dialogue hard to do? Was it a particular challenge with this book, given the extraordinary occurrences that the characters are dealing with? And did you always plan to do it as first person narrative, or did you try other styles?
A. Aimee: It really started as first person - that scene with the cake at the start was my starting point too and so it felt really solidly in first person, in her voice. The dialogue - mostly it felt okay, but I think there was more dialogue in this book than any other book I've written. Lots of talking! And that took a while to pace - dialogue is so much about getting the pace of the scene right so the information slips in in a way that a reader can, well, digest it.
Q. MmeLindor: When you mentioned earlier that you write "road mapless," did you mean you had no idea while writing how it would progress/end? I am trying to write a book at the moment and find that I make it up as I go along, without having a plan of what is going to happen. I had the impression that this was somehow doing it wrong. That I should have index cards and a proper plot all planned.
A. Aimee: Oh, I could spend pages answering this! You are not doing it wrong!! There's a weird pressure to plan books and many, many writers I know do not. The great wonderful advantage to making it up as you go along is that you will stumble into places that surprise you, (I did not know what the deal was with Joseph and when people describe it as eerie it was very eerie for me too). Robert Frost has this great quote: "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." Which to me means you have to go launch into the soupy unknown with your little flickery lamp and later we will follow you and see what you find there. Toss the cards!
Q. TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
A. Aimee: Generally, my first piece of advice is often about non-advice - there's A LOT of prescriptive advice about how to write a story, what a story needs, what should happen by the end of a story, and a lot of that can get in the way of actually telling the story you want to tell in the way you like to tell it. Fiction is a beautifully flexible form and can do all sorts of gymnastics. I love fairy tales, and it took me years to really embrace that and trust it as a true influence. So I tell people to admit what they love about other writing, what words they're drawn to, what kinds of stories, what type of storytelling, and not to try to be a different kind of writer than they are. Of course this sounds easier than it is! It takes time to sort through.
Q. mymuchness: Which 'special skill' would you like to have?
A. Aimee: A hard question! I'm not sure. I guess I do think it's helpful when a person can "turn off" his/her skill the way Rose can by occasionally eating machine food or just in between meals. So a skill that has some built-in limits. But I do like to try to be tuned into people. That's something I try to cultivate. And I think any kind of creative activity is appealing to me as a way to process what it's like to be a person.
Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
A. Aimee: I loved (predictably) the books about magical lands/places, like the L'Engle books and the Oz books. I must've read A Wrinkle in Time yearly for a good while. And The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, a gem by Julie Andrews (same one) completely charmed me.
Q. mymuchness: How long did the novel take to write?
A. Aimee: It took about three and a half years. It takes me awhile to figure out what I'm writing about - there's a lot of wandering/cutting.
Q. OliviaMumsnet: What are your thoughts on E-books? (I read this on the Kindle which was a very non-sensual experience).
A. Aimee: I guess they're here to stay, or for awhile, right? I am a fan of the pages still but it seems like people are still reading, which is good. I feel slightly panicked about E-books but am comforted when I hear that people are reading away.
Q. MmeLindor: Perhaps the cards and plot planned on the wall is procrastination of kinds? For those (like me) who are scared witless of the soupy unknown (that phrase gave me goosebumps btw).
A. Aimee: Happy about the goosebumps. I think we are all (or most?) terrified of that soupy unknown but of course it is around us and part of our lives constantly! So writing, in a way, can be an exercise in exploring it. That's why I think if people want to write they should write, and publishing is a side dish.
Q. TillyBookClub: What are you reading at the moment? And are you working on another book?
A. Aimee: I'm working away, and it looks like mostly short stories at the moment but I do have some little starts of what could be another novel. It takes me awhile to find a novel. And I really like writing stories, too. As for reading - I've just read and reviewed Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox - so good! And I'm rereading Hans Christian Andersen for a fairy tale class I teach. I love rereading those. The students are always shocked to discover how the real "Little Mermaid" ends.