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Interview with 2016 Fiction Prize Judge Aimee Bender

Our 2016 Fiction Prize Judge is Aimee Bender, author of five books including the short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a New York Times notable book. In this interview, she discusses writing process, the importance of sound, and words of advice for Fiction Prize submitters.


Aimee Bender is the author of five books,aimeebender2including The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House, and more, as well as heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at USC.


1. In your craft essays, you encourage writers to embrace the unknown and engage in writing as a process of discovery. Can you talk about how you grapple with mystery and the unconscious in your own writing? At what point in the first draft do you feel like you have the most at risk?

A lot of it is just hanging in there. The mysterious and unconscious material is there, will bubble up on its own, but being patient is so hard. Trusting that is hard, even five books later.  That’s why I’m so drawn to any other structures to use: time, page count, word count, whatever is more neutral so that the other material can swirl around and do its thing.  As far as most at risk, probably at the blank page stage. It’s so much easier for me when there’s something on the page to work with!

2. I’m always struck by the lyricism of the prose that runs through your stories. How does sound affect your writing process? I know you often memorize poems – do you have a current favorite line or turn of phrase?

I was realizing the other day that sound may govern a lot of what I read and even what I watch—that with TV or film, I’m sometimes as interested in the sound editing or music as anything going on plot-wise. So of course that impacts language too. I was always way better in music and language classes than I was in English or rhetoric. I think of Barthleme as someone who is so clearly sound-driven—who is using words but making a kind of sentence-by-sentence music. Reading his work aloud makes it so much funnier, and every line operates on its own rhythm. Gertrude Stein too.

And a current favorite line, what a fun question! I have many. A recent one I came across from Annie Dillard, about a man trying to teach a stone to talk: “I do not think he expects the stone to speak as we do, and describe for us its long life and many, or few, sensations. I think instead that he is trying to teach it to say a single word, such as ‘cup,’ or ‘uncle.’”

3. If you had to sum up your MFA experience in one sensory image what would it be?

Circling a track field with a friend after workshop (a friend who was in workshop) and going intently moment by moment over the comments to piece out what was helpful and what was not while other people ran around the track for their sports purposes.

4. What emerging writer should more people be reading right now?

Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves is soon to come out and it’s a marvel.

5. What words of advice do you have for our 2016 Fiction Prize submitters?

Send in something you feel good about—never try to anticipate what the judge might like. It is unknowable in advance, even to the judge.


The 2016 Fiction Prize will be open from September 1 to October 31. For full submission guidelines, click here.