Exerting Control Over Chaos: An Interview With Karen E. Bender

There’s a kind of willful blindness that’s prevalent in the culture. We can pretend not to be Jews. Yes, for me a story is a way to try to figure out some kind of unrest. It’s also about skepticism, though, and the contrast between Judaism and the evangelical Christianity of the story’s missionary school, which is all faith and the promise of love. But at the same time, he’s a Jew surrounded by Klansmen, so he’s vulnerable. For me, writing isn’t really a logical decision, it’s a way to struggle with questions I have about the world, about people. “The Elevator,” for example, was a response to the Access Hollywood tapes, and “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement” began when I started to think about nondisclosure agreements. I wanted to give this form a try. — is “Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” which is about two women discussing an escape plan for their synagogue in the event of a mass shooting. How purchasing silence is, of course, a destructive form of power. Not like a threat but a generalized anxiety. The Jewish character is able to go to Klan meetings because he can pass as white. To a Jew like me, that promise seems intriguing, but it also seems completely false. How do you decide which characters — especially destructive ones — you are willing to write about? This collection has a very white, very Jewish viewpoint. I also think there’s something vulnerable in everyone, and I was curious about what her vulnerability could be. And that’s what a story should be: a mirror, a window — or both. I think that Carol Forrest’s white-supremacist outlook in “Mrs. We have privilege, but privilege with permission, and permission can be revoked. He said, “What makes literature art is precisely its depiction of life as it really is. I recently read a quote by Chekhov to students in a story seminar. How did you get there from NDAs? ¤
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, DC. It’s puzzling to be a Reform Jew as I am — both interested in certain values in Judaism and skeptical of the concept of faith — and interact with that evangelicalism. NOVEMBER 8, 2018

WHEN MOST READERS think about the American Jewish literary tradition, they’re thinking about Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. That feels like a story springing from the question of what Jews are, or what makes a non-religious Jew a Jew — am I right? I wanted to identify with her as a parent, and so I thought about her on the campaign trail, away from her kids when her kids need her — what is that like? Do you always have something you want to understand when you begin a story? It is a cruel practice and in terms of freedom of speech it seems quite absurd, even in the private sector. Some stories were direct responses to the election. It comes immediately after “The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” a story specifically about grief after Trump’s election. As a writer, you try to get into a character’s head, not knowing if you’re doing it correctly, not knowing what you’re leaving out. It’s highly focused on Jewish identity and on white American self-examination. She’s always got an elbow in the reader’s side, nudging us to look closer at the world we live in. How do you wake people up? This form seemed particularly right for this era and its particular form of untruthfulness. After Charlottesville, I began writing that conversation as a Jewish story. Bill O’Reilly, all those men asking women to sign nondisclosure agreements — it seems so strange to me that it could be legal to pay women for their silence. Let’s return to “Mrs. I started it as a more general story about hiding. She writes secular American Judaism so well that I, a secular American Jew, feel often as if her stories are mirrors. What I love really the most about writing is the way it can connect across experience, culture, time. What about “On A Scale of One to Ten”? Very much so. BENDER: It’s not true. Or do you have a point you want to get to? America” before the election, but still: How did you get yourself into the protagonist’s head? That story had been in my mind for a long time. Where do you situate yourself as a writer on the spectrum of Judaism in America, of whiteness in America? In this book, it felt interesting and relevant to write, in particular, about being Jewish, which hasn’t always been the case for me. How close is that to true? As a writer, I’m motivated both by what is going on in the world around me and by what is happening inside my mind. ¤ 
LILY MEYER: The stories in The New Order are nearly all political, and nearly all contemporary, to the point that I think most readers would assume you began the book after the 2016 election. America,” which is about a Republican political candidate. So I thought about how the practice is already normalized in our culture, but I wondered what it would be like if the government directed it. Reading should help you see a different point of view or express your own outrage. In a way, writing a story is a way to exert control over chaos — stories, novels, anything. I wake up, move through the world’s chaos large and small, and then I try to shape a narrative to contain it. Because she feels small or unimportant within her own family, because she somehow feels power will heal her, she decides to degrade the candidate Mr. Who are we, as Jews? Massoud. Both are ways of exploring truth. She recently answered questions via Skype and email about the stories’ origins in current events, the refractions of Jewish identity, and our era’s damaging lack of empathy. Bender’s stories are both. But of course, this story relates to fear at any other public place. “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement” is such an upsetting story. Whether it’s through realism or surrealism or science fiction or fantasy, the clear depiction of human behavior in all of its perplexity is what, I believe, literature should do. Maybe Bernard Malamud comes up or, more recently, Joshua Cohen and Michael Chabon. I was told about danger, and I knew the danger of antisemitism was there, but it felt surreal. And how did you empathize with her? One thing that recently spoke to me about Jewishness is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in which a Jewish cop infiltrates the Klan, acting as a front for Ron Stallworth, the black cop who, in the true story, initiates the investigation. Its protagonist, who’s a teenager, laughs at the idea that her Hebrew school could be the target of an attack. Was that story a form of activism for you? To me, the collection’s angriest story — angry in a good way! While a reader who is white, Jewish, and female may have an insider view of some of the issues raised, the book is not written “toward” that group. I was horrified, but then I wanted to write about it. Her behavior, and the behavior of so many politicians, is monstrous, but I wanted to see if I could figure it out. I wanted to understand it better. America,” which feels the most related to the campaigns, but I started writing that story early in 2015. The first stories were “On A Scale of One to Ten” and “Mrs. It can be a way to transport me as a reader, briefly, into another person’s thoughts and feelings in a way that is, of course, different from any other sort of art. That double identity is always the question. It’s a way of trying to understand all things human, including the ugly aspects of human behavior. Karen E. It started when I heard a child talk about where to hide during a shooting in a movie theater: Should you play dead? How do you show them a point of view? I’ve always wanted to write about growing up Jewish in a safe environment — in that story, and for me, it was West Los Angeles in the 1970s. “This Is Who You Are” speaks to Jewish safety in a very different way. I teach creative writing at Hollins, and some of my students write speculative fiction. She wrote such great stories, but she always translated her passion into political activism. Its charge is the unconditional and honest truth.” Yes! But I did want to explore how a character compartmentalized terrible behavior. Look at Grace Paley! The character in that story clings to her white Christianity as a way to prop herself up in a world that feels out of control for many reasons. And it was fun, you know? What I love about literature is when a writer from a background that is superficially different from mine connects deeply with a character. I’m also interested in ways in which literatures create empathy. It’s the most Jewish story in the collection, I think. But later, after reading, I hope readers can express frustration at the failings of this country through action. I wanted to write about the new phase of violence toward Jews in this country. Where did that come from? I know you wrote “Mrs. How does her own enormous narcissism propel her to this lie? KAREN E. Think about all of the men who have bought women’s silence on sexual harassment and assault. Empathy forces you to see other people in a full, complete way. I want the stories in this collection to make people see, but I want them to lead to action as well. With a character as destructive as Carol Forrest, the candidate, it was particularly challenging because I didn’t want to condone her behavior. But there’s another tradition: the tradition of Grace Paley and Deborah Eisenberg, of the great Jewish women short story writers. Should you run out? What’s happening in our culture now is a great failure of empathy, of reading. What communities do you most want to write toward? There were children debating this in the back seat of my car. It’s a transcendent form of connection. Bender (Like Normal People, Refund) belongs to that close-knit, fiery canon. America” is also a form of narcissism. At first, what I found in her was blindness and desire, and ambition. I was thinking about realism and surrealism and how they exist on a kind of a spectrum. How did Carol rationalize the lie she told? I think about that when I think about the rise, or rising visibility, of anger toward Jews. I look at some problem I want to understand in myself or in the world. But I also remember that most Jews can pass. It’s about government workers in a dystopian world where they offer one-time-only payments to anyone who suffers at work, and it’s horrifying. In her new story collection, The New Order, Bender takes on our greatest fears: terrorism and mass shootings, sexual assault and sex discrimination, joblessness and hopelessness and shame. Beyond that, the idea of silence is interesting to me. She is as politicized as Paley, who famously split her time between parenting, writing, and protesting, and like Eisenberg she excels at sneaking in a joke when least expected. Generally, I start with something I want to grapple with. I don’t have a particular community in mind when I write. It’s about the terrible strategies we create in our minds when faced with the frequency of mass shootings and violence. I wanted to push that idea as far as I could.