Karen E. Bender

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when I was six years old and hit on the head by a rock. This experience is covered in more exhaustive detail in my essay, “The Accidental Writer.”  

After the rock incident, I started many stories and novels with great enthusiasm and then quickly abandoned them. I didn’t know what I wanted to say but I loved the feeling of writing, the rush of expression, the power of creation. I started finishing stories and revising them when I was in college.

I think “becoming a writer” is a problematic term—you are a writer when you write. You become a better writer after revising and pushing and reading and envisioning a beautiful work that you want to create. At some point, I realized that becoming a writer was all about denial--I pretended I was a better writer than I actually was, and then, with patience and ox-like stubbornness, did get better. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I’m influenced by whoever I read and fall in love with at any moment. Some writers who have been important to me: Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, Paula Fox, James Baldwin, Vladmir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Martin Amis, Jayne Anne Phillips, Cynthia Ozick, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Isaac Babel, Junot Diaz, Alice Munro. More recently, I’ve been loving Yan Lianke, Grace Paley, Craig Nova. I love characters who I understand and somehow understand me, and great, vivid sentences that illuminate the world in a new way. 

When and where do you write?

I write whenever I can—usually I try to schedule teaching in the afternoon so that I can write a bit in the morning; I also write when our children go to sleep. I write on a desk in the bedroom.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m playing around with new stories and a longer piece of fiction. I’m living in Taiwan for the year, and am taking notes, trying to absorb as much as I can; living abroad also highlights all of the peculiarities of America, so it’s helping me see what I want to focus on next. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I stopped writing once in my life, for three months, after a class with a charismatic but terrifying instructor who tended to encourage his students to sound like him. I wasn’t cooperating, so I wasn’t getting a lot of affirmation in the class, and when the class ended, he gave the students the option of re-enrolling, with the chance to reach literary glory by learning his method, etc. I decided not to take his class again, and for three months, I took a break from writing. Did I want to sound like this teacher, or did I want to sound like myself? I decided that I wanted to sound like myself, whatever that meant. It was an enormous relief, actually. And then my writing got better.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Know that the deepest, strangest things that you want to say are not to be hidden but shared, and that other people will understand them and be reassured by them. Trust patience and the process that a story may take in finding itself. What you say matters; think about how you want to join the conversation.

Karen E. Bender is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms, which is now available in paperback. A story collection will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2015. Her stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Narrative, and The Harvard Review, and reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize series. You can read some of her work at www.byliner.com, and visit her at www.karenebender.com.