Q&A: Karen Bender on her short stories that confront hot-button issues
Some writers turn to fiction as a way to escape the nonstop onslaught of (mostly bad) news that Americans are subjected to constantly these days. Karen E. Bender, the novelist and short story writer, is not that kind of writer.
Bender’s new short story collection, “The New Order,” takes on a host of hot-button issues, including xenophobia, religious intolerance and toxic masculinity. In “The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” a woman feels betrayed by acquaintances who voted for a reactionary political candidate. And in “The Elevator,” a woman who was once threatened with rape in an elevator panics when, years later, an elevator containing her and a man she doesn’t know gets stuck.
Bender’s previous books include two novels and a short story collection, “Refund,” which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for fiction. Bender spoke to The Times from Roanoke, Va., where she lives and teaches creative writing at Hollins University. This interview has been condensed and edited.
The stories in “The New Order” deal with a lot of difficult issues that keep cropping up in the news: school shootings, anti-Semitism, the toxic political landscape. What made you decide to write a collection that tackles these issues head-on?
I tend to write about things that are just really upsetting me, or that I want to figure out in some way, either internal things or something out in the world. These stories I started writing around 2014. The first ones were “On a Scale of One to Ten” and “Mrs. America.” I just wanted to think about some things that were in the air, and then Trump started his candidacy, and everything was just so horrible. It’s hard to remember when things were kind of boring. [Laughs] So I just would read things and get so upset, and I’d be furiously doing Facebook posts, but I just felt like I had to keep myself sane by writing about it. If I keep things inside, they just they get bottled up. For example, “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” which was actually one of the last ones I wrote, was in response to these nondisclosure agreements, reading about Bill O’Reilly and all these guys, and I just thought, this is insane, and how is it even legal? I guess it is, but it just seems so odd. I thought I should really write about this in a world where it’s actually part of the government. So I think it’s just a way of trying to express my own frustrations about everything.
Do you think writers of fiction have something approaching a moral obligation to deal with these issues in their work?
That’s interesting. What does that mean, a moral obligation?
Well, it’s so different for each person, so I guess it’s hard to generalize.
What can fiction do? Fiction can change people from the inside. When people sometimes read my work and say, “I felt these things differently because of what you wrote,” I’m like, “Oh, my God, that’s the best thing ever.” It’s sacred, it’s this wonderful thing, because it shows you’re not alone. I think that may be one reason I wrote the book, I had all these feelings that were just bursting out. I know a lot of other people who feel the same. So one nice thing about having the book out is when people are reading it, they’re feeling understood. It’s trying to voice something that others feel as well. So if that’s a moral obligation, then maybe.
The first story in the book, “Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” follows two women who are trying to develop a plan for their congregation should an attack happen. Your book came out 10 days after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I’m guessing that had to be difficult for you to deal with.
It was really upsetting. When I heard about it, I just thought “Oh, no, oh, no.” And then I also thought, “Of course.” Because I actually wrote that story after right after Charlottesville. It actually kind of incubated for a few years. It started when my daughter, and this was after the Aurora massacre, she and her friends were talking about, if there was a shooting, would you hide under the seat, or would you run out? Which is better? And I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this is horrifying.” What is this kind of fear that’s so prevalent that kids are talking about it in the carpool? So I started writing it that way, and then after Charlottesville, there was this article I read where there was a temple there with a guy that was armed standing outside of it, and they had to go out the back from their services on that Saturday, to avoid dealing with God knows what. So I thought, “This really needs to be set in a synagogue,” because I just felt afraid. People said, “This is a prescient story,” but actually it just felt like my eyes were kind of opened, and that’s the job of a writer, that you’re supposed to be aware of what’s going on. When I heard about the synagogue shooting, I just thought, “Oh, no.” And I was just so mad that day. It was completely shocking, and also I thought that all of this leads back to the comment that Trump made that Mexicans were criminals. When he said that, and when he couldn’t disavow the KKK, it was like, all of this is going to something really bad.
Two of the stories in the book, “The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot” and “Mrs. America,” address politics head-on, but neither story is polemical. Is it difficult to write fiction about the American political landscape these days, when reality seems to be outpacing fiction so quickly in terms of how outrageous things are?
It’s true! One writer that I wish was still here was Philip Roth, though in a way he predicted all this with “The Plot Against America.” I think the thing that makes any fiction not message-y is, [the question of] is this going to emotions? Because in a way ,emotions about political situations are just as valid and alive as emotions about anything. Ultimately, the emotions are about personal connections. In “The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” it’s about the feeling of betrayal from these women that are friends, which I think is powerful. And “Mrs. America” was trying to look at this character, and think about how her own feelings, how her own narcissism affected her choices, or her ability to compartmentalize. I think if you look at it and try to excavate what’s human, the human longings and feelings and weaknesses of characters, then I think, I hope, it isn’t message-y.
Your story “The Elevator” deals with both male paranoia and violence, and female fear. Was the story at all inspired by the #MeToo movement?
Totally. I think I wrote that right after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. I was thinking about how shocking those were, and how we thought, that was it. That was it, Hillary would win, [because] people would not put up with that. So I thought of that, and I saw all the pictures of gold elevators in the Trump Tower, and I just thought, “God, an elevator is a really a powerful container for this story, for a story about someone who’s been traumatized.” So I think that was definitely a response to that. [#MeToo] has been this startling awareness in the culture, but I also remember the Anita Hill hearings, and then things didn’t really change enough. But now here’s such a new awareness of all that, which for me as a writer, has been tempting to look at.
The last story, “The Cell Phones,” brings the stories in the collection together in this really surprising way, and it seems to raise an important question about how we need to stay engaged with other people, even when it’s difficult. Was it important to you to close the collection with a message that’s a little bit hopeful?
Totally. Deep down, actually, I think I am hopeful. I think in some ways, a lot of the toxicity in America has always been there, but it’s really been unleashed in a new way by Trump. It’s been terrifying, but just seeing how people also have come forward against it, I think I am hopeful. One thing I like to do is canvass during elections, knock on doors and tell people to go vote. Generally people tend to be nice. And I do think what’s underneath a lot of the bad choices in terms of voting is a lot of fear. It’s fear. I think actually learning about that, there’s a way for people to talk about what’s underneath it, there’s a way that maybe they could change. I’m hopeful of that.
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
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