“There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal. The girls first met in elementary school and were friends for about three weeks. Their parents were delighted; the mothers in particular spent hours on the phone describing over and over the shock of delivery day.
I remember one afternoon, on the playground, the fire girl grabbed hold of the ice girl’s hand and - Poof - just like that, each equalized the other. Their hands dissolved into regular flesh - exit mutant, enter normal.”
- from “The Healer”, a short-story from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
IF LANGUAGE WERE AN INSTRUMENT, AND STORIES WERE MUSIC, THEN AIMEE BENDER WOULD BE A ONE-WOMAN, OLD WORLD GYPSY ORCHESTRA, TRUMPETING MODERN DAY FAIRY-TALES SO UNUSUAL THAT YOU END UP SINGING THEM TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW, TO REASSURE THEM THAT IT'S STILL POSSIBLE TO TRAVEL TO OTHER WORLDS BY WAY OF 26 LITTLE LETTERS.
Vinnie: Do you remember the first story you ever heard?
Aimee: Good question. Let's see,.. my mom used to read to me from A.A. Milne's book Now We Are Six, and there was a great poem about two raindrops in a race down the windowpane. Supposedly, the first book I really read was The Wizard of Oz. There's a whole series of Oz books that are lesser known than the first one, But they are equally wonderful. In one of them, Glinda of Oz, the people are flat-headed and carry their brains around in jars, and people in power steal brains and get smarter. Finally, Glinda empties the brains into the flat-heads and sews them up around the brain so that everyone has equal brain-age. Great stuff.
V: Do you remember the first story that left its mark on you?
A: Well, I guess that one did. I loved so many stories as a kid. Fairy-tales from all around the world, Oz books, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Little Prince, Peter Pan; I reread A Wrinkle in Time about every month for a few years and, like clockwork, cried at the climactic moments. Lately, I've been feeling like J.K. Rowling really dropped the ball by selling her film rights. I think the movie took a bunch of steam out of the books somehow. And she could've literally altered an entire generation of kids if there had been no movie, and the only way to be with these characters was through reading.
V: Do you remember the first thing you ever wanted to be when you grew up? I always wanted to be a clown. It was my only career ambition until my senior year of high school.
A: Clowns are very important. I think I wanted to be an actress/singer/writer/vet.
V: Have you grown-up yet? Did you get "that job"?
A: Yup. I grew up. And I got part of "that job", yes! I sort of forgot I wanted to be a writer for the longest time. By the time I became one, I remembered the kid part. It was so intense to realize that I'd even liked saying the word "writer" to myself as a nine-year-old. It felt like some kind of excellent circle.
V: How arduous a task is getting work published?
A: You have to really embrace your inner secretary and send out all the time, and get steeled to rejection notes. Keep working, working, working at your writing, and keep digging up your joys and horrors. And then it's tolerable.
V: Is it possible to earn a living doing it?
A: No. It's rare. Most writers I know do something else, too.
V: Is there an element of celebrity to it, or is it pretty low-key?
A: There's a tiny element of celebrity, which is kind of fun. A couple weeks ago I got recognized three times off a credit card, which NEVER happens. It was incredibly fun and funny. Generally, it's very low-key and anonymous.
V: Is it easier to get short stories published, or is it just as hard as getting a novel out?
A: Some say it's harder. But short story collections are in a decent place these days, and so there is a little more room for them. But generally publishers want you to start with a novel. They say more people buy novels to read.
V: People used to say that books were a dying medium, and that no one reads anymore. As a writer, is that even something you worry about, or is it just a load of horseshit?
A: A load of horseshit. Apparently the publishing industry worries about this about once every three years, and some great mind of the moment publishes a giant incredible essay called "The Death of Reading" or something like that, and then everyone keeps on reading. A book has no real counterpart. TV, movies, and the Internet are just new mediums to add to the soup. There's more to pick from. Books are definitely less central, but they are still being read. There still is nothing quite like the particular intimacy of one person and one book; sitting somewhere and talking to each other.
V: Did you see Amelie? That movie has a wonderful fairy-tale air about it, as do your stories. The thing is, it's pretty rare. Why do you think something so magical, that's been around forever, is such a rarity in our art and entertainment market?
A: I liked Amelie’s magical quality and I wonder why there isn't more magical stuff, too. I'm teaching a fiction class with a magic realist slant and am surprised at how hard it is to find a fitting anthology. Magic in fiction seems so crucial to me, and it took awhile for me to find the writers that used magic in "adult" fiction in addition to the bounty of it in kids’ books. I think there's an emphasis, or has been, in America, on a certain “gritty realism” and people forget that other countries are writing tons of magical pieces. I don't really know why. Some people say it has to do with oppressive governments, that an oppressive government will create more magical fiction, because you find escape and freedom in metaphor. Or that we're based in Puritan religious thought, and that's not so magical versus Catholicism or other religions where the stories are bigger. But it's hard to know. It just feels to me like a basic need that I now hunt for, and am so happy when I find it.
V: Okay. This is a question we ask everyone we interview. It's all based on a friendly debate that started late one night three years ago or so: Do dogs have lips?
A: Doesn't it depend on the dog type? Maybe not. They have such fabulous gums, maybe it sort of takes over the lip part. I think I'll vote “no”.
V: Another off-subject question: this month's cover story was written by President Bush. He gave us a list of things he'd like to blow up. What's one thing you'd like to blow up? (I, personally, would choose to blow up a Granny Smith orchard, so it would rain applesauce.)
A: Nice choice. I wouldn't mind blowing up some of these hideous corporations out there, but only if the people weren't in them. But for fun? I guess I'd like to blow up something full of water so the water would spray everywhere. A big ball of water in the air? A spontaneous fresh rain in the L.A. desert!
V: Now, this might seem like a really odd question, but I'm curious: One of the short stories in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is titled "Fugue". It's my favorite one of the whole book. What I'm curious about is, where on earth did you pick up the word "Fugue"? It seems like a pretty obscure word.
A: I'm very glad you liked "Fugue". I had taken some piano as a kid, so I knew the term “fugue” from music, as two hands playing two different melodies. But it has this other meaning in the dictionary, which is “a dissociated wandering,” that I didn't know at all, but it fit the story exactly.
V: Three pieces or art (films, pieces of music, whatever) you recommend for everyone?
A: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (novel), When I was a Boy by Jane Siberry (music), and Life is Sweet by Mike Leigh (film).
V: What's your fondest memory?
A: Here's a fond memory, just not the fondest, which is too hard: I have a very fond memory of being at summer camp as a counselor and sawing off a moose head in the auditorium and hanging it from a tree as a prank. It was a God-awful moose head. I NEVER would have done such a thing on my own, but I had a group of camp friends who were much bolder than I was. It was very fun.
V: And lastly, for the kids, what's in store? More stories? A new novel? Action figures?
A: More stories! And first a new novel! Think 2004. That's my hope. And I am always up for action figures if anyone wants to go for it.
READ MORE! CHECK OUT AIMEE'S BOOKS: AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN AND THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT.