Aimee Bender Talks About The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Emotional eating has never been so sweet.

Posted Apr 22, 2011

Aimee Bender's second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is both fantasy and so emotionally real that it made me think about emotional eating in an entirely new way. Here's more from Aimee:

Jennifer Haupt: I love your novel and the unique spin on emotional eating. Did you do any research into emotional eating to create the character of Rose?

Aimee Bender: I didn't do research on eating, but had learned a little about the concept of ‘projective identification' from a close friend who, years ago, was in school for clinical psych. The way I understand it, (which is limited), a person can transfer unspoken, unacknowledged feelings to another without the real owner of the feelings knowing it. These feelings wind up in the second person, kind of unannounced. It's considered a highly unconscious, primal process of communication, and not even necessarily common, but what a delicate dance we can do with each other! This is a layperson's understanding, but the idea stuck with me, and I thought it was both fascinating, and unsettling, and it seemed ripe (no pun intended there...) for fiction.

JH: How did you decide what emotions foods tasted like? Are there foods that tastes of a particular emotions for you?

AB: In the book it's all based on who made the food, so throughout the writing, I was able to learn a lot about Rose's family and friends due to what they made and what she found in the different meals. It turned out to be kind of a surreptitious way to get an inroad into their internal lives. In terms of foods for me, I think I have more of the usual associations-foods from childhood that I associate with care and love, from relatives or special restaurants like the kind elderly man who dusted seasoning salt on french fries at the corner burger joint. I was a very picky eater as a kid, and took a lot of solace in the familiarity of peanut butter sandwiches, which I think I ate, solely, for about a year in there.

JH: Your writing has been described many interesting ways, my favorite being American fabulist. How do you describe your writing?

AB: I like that description too! I have trouble describing my own style, since it's sort of like describing my own eye color or something. But I tend to say it's contemporary fiction strongly influenced by fairy tales, or myth, and that I seem to be drawn to tell a story through a skewed lens-I don't write it straight-forwardly and then skew it-the skew shows up right at the same time as the characters. It is through some kind of twist or distortion that I am trying to get at something that feels emotionally true to me, and for whatever reason, I feel more able to go at something honestly when it's not based more firmly in our daily reality world.

Once, I wrote a story about a big man who goes to a store to purchase a little man. When my agent was sending it around, he got a response from an editor that said something like, ‘we like the story, but the choice to make one a big man and one a little man seemed arbitrary.' My problem with that was not that they rejected the story; I'm used to getting stories rejected. But it was the assumption tucked in there that all stories begin real, are born real, and if something is told through a magical lens, it must have been an arbitrary choice or a deliberate morphing by the writer. Instead, I think we all see the world in all sorts of ways, and that can change from day to day, or from era to era, and I'm glad to get at the interior lives of the characters any way I can.

JH: What might people be surprised to learn about how you find your characters?

AB: I write on a very strict 2-hour a day schedule, and I really respond to structure and invented rules. So even if I'm finding out good information on a character, I will stop when I'm set to stop. It seems to me most important to invest in a structure rather than counting on content. So my characters emerge in bits-2 hours makes it easier for me because it's not too long and if something is unsettling to me, while writing, I can kind of dip in, go as deep as I can, and then get out.

JH: What do you do, where do you go, what do eat for inspiration?

AB: I love all the arts-- so museums, theatre, music, walks near trees or by the ocean, time with people, psychological readings. (Not something I usually remember to mention, but it's fun to be in Psychology Today! My father and sister are both psychiatrists. Thinking psychologically has massively shaped my world-view.) For a writer, the nice thing is it's all research, really. Struggle is research. Sunlight is research. What to eat for inspiration? I love to eat. Anything, really. Often it makes me sleepy. That's why I write in the morning.

JH: What's the one true thing that Rose learns from food?

AB: That some kind of awareness of one's own emotional state is valuable and helpful to other people.

JH: What did you learn from Rose?

AB: I think I learned that everyone falls in a different spot on a scale of sensitivity, and some, like Rose, take time to figure out how to navigate it. That we are all, in some way or another, balancing when we tune in and when we tune out.

Aimee Bender is the author of the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own and the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her work has been widely anthologized and has been translated into ten languages. She lives in Los Angeles.