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Interview: Writer Karen Bender on her recent work, her time in Taiwan and the power of an honest sentence

Posted by Mallory Hellman | Mar 4, 2015 | Arts & Entertainment
Karen Bender

Karen Bender

On March 4 at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights, Karen Bender will read from Refund, a new collection of stories that speak to our economically anxious times. — illustration by Cheryl Graham

Acclaimed fiction writer Karen Bender’s recent work Refund features scam artists, starving artists, subleases, lockdowns and cons in a series of stories that engage money and its ramifications in tender and powerful ways. These are subtle tales of human gain and loss, set in a society that evermore compulsively pins its citizens to their capital value.

Bender graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1991 and has since published two novels, Like Normal People (2000) and A Town of Empty Rooms (2012). She also co-edited Choice (2010), an anthology of essays about reproductive rights.

Bender will read from Refund on Wednesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights.

Little Village: Your story collection, Refund, is over a decade in the making—

Karen Bender: Yes, at least. Actually, “A Chick From My Dream Life” was the first story I turned in to my workshop with Meg Wolitzer, when I was a student at Iowa, so it goes farther back than that. But most of them have been from the last 10 years, yes.

In the interim, you’ve published two novels and a book of nonfiction. Why is now the moment to put out a collection of stories?

I always wanted to write stories—they were my first love as a writer. And when I was in the Workshop, I started with what I thought was going to be a novella and turned into my first novel, Like Normal People.

After I finished Like Normal People, I really did want to write stories, so I started some of the ones in this collection, but it seemed like the market wasn’t great. This was around 2007. So I started the novel A Town of Empty Rooms then. And when I sold that novel, I told my editor, Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint, that I had these stories, and he said “Oh! Send them along.” And when he took them, it was a relief, because it’s not easy to sell a story collection.

What do you think are the particular American anxieties that have emerged from this financial era, and how did they work their way into the book?

Last year, my husband had a Fulbright to teach creative writing in Taiwan, and so we were there for a year, which was incredible. And there they have national health insurance. So I went to the doctor with our daughter, who had a cough—and this was actually before the health insurance kicked in—and he gave her some medicine right there. We didn’t fill out any paperwork, really. They put the medicine on the counter and told us it would cost 15 U.S. dollars, which is far less than it would have been in North Carolina.

People in Taiwan would go to the emergency room with a cold. There was not the same stress about health insurance, which informs so many decisions over here—where you live, what you do—I think it informs the lives of Americans in so many ways we’re not aware of. But that’s just an example. We also have the worst maternity leave policy of all industrialized countries. There are all kinds of things that affect the middle class—expensive college as well. In other developed countries, college is free. These affect your stress level on a daily basis, and that, maybe, is what I was trying to convey in the stories.

I’m curious about Choice because it’s the single book of nonfiction in your oeuvre. What moved you to work on that project.

Actually, it was linked to my story “The Third Child” that was in Granta and was about abortion. My co-editor, Nina de Gramont and I were discussing it and thought, “What would it be like to have an anthology that focused on abortion?” And then we thought, “Well, what if it’s not just abortion? What if it’s all these other issues—giving up a child for adoption, etc.”

My thought is that literature can save the world by showing individual experience. People can become small-minded or biased or come up with philosophies that are limited because they don’t know the whole story. You can say, “Oh, no one should have an abortion,” but then you hear all these incredible stories of why people need to have that option and why some people don’t want to have it—the individual experience of it should make choice essential. Through looking at subtlety, looking at nuance of a person’s life and feeling, hopefully, people can come up with a less black-and-white view of the issue.

What a refreshing outlook.

Well, so many books really can help change the world. I do feel like, in this culture, writing an honest sentence is a political act. Because we have so much that’s false, right? So much we’re told that’s just cliché—that’s part of what Americans are told to think and want and be. Writing something that’s actually honest clears away the fog, and that is deeply political to me.

Do you think another project like Choice lies in your future, or are you focused predominantly on fiction for now?

In March of 2014, when we were living in Taiwan, a treaty was going to go through the Taiwanese legislature that would allow them to open up trade to China. Many of the Taiwanese thought China would take over then, and naturally, they were very worried about freedom of speech.

Students and other people in Taiwan organized when they thought this treaty was going to be railroaded through without any discussion, and they climbed into the legislative building and occupied it for three weeks. It was incredible—it was like seeing people in the United States just climb into the Capitol Building and live in it. The whole nation was riveted.

One of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had as a writer was taking these people’s stories down. So it was similar [to Choice]. I thought learning these people’s individual stories really shows why they believe Taiwan should be independent from China. And the experience of living in that building was just so odd and interesting. I thought that would be another way of using story to change people’s minds. Or just to educate people. I don’t know about a whole book of nonfiction in the future, but there will certainly be more projects like that.


A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mallory Hellman teaches Writing With Purpose, a literary service-learning course at the University of Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared on the Forbes Booked Blog and in the Indiana Review, and her short story “October, Forest River” was a finalist for the Room Of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. She’s currently at work on a novel.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 172


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