Karen E. Bender is the author of the new story collection Refund. She also has written the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms, and co-edited the nonfiction anthology Choice. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Granta. She lives in North Carolina.
Q: Over how many years did you write these stories, and do you feel your writing style changed at all during that time?
A: These stories were written over about 10 years (I also wrote my novel A Town of Empty Rooms in that time). I do think my writing evolves as I have conversations (on the page) with writers I am reading at the time.
My writing also changes with life experience-- I think my voice has become perhaps both darker and more wistful. The first stories were written in close third person, and I found myself drawn to a first person voice later in the process.
Q: What are some of the common themes that you see running through your stories?
A: Some of the themes that kept coming up--money, of course, the complexity of family, especially with small children, random violence, economic insecurity, envy, the desire to connect and the odd and beautiful ways in which people connect.
And cats--who say so much, in their unique way, about being human. Our own cats kept jumping up on the desk when I worked, so naturally they found their way into some stories.
Q: Some of the stories are written in first person and some in third person. How do you decide on the approach you’ll take as you start a new story?
A: Stories dictate themselves to me in different ways. Some characters announce themselves through a third person perspective, which I find can be very flexible--a close third is almost like a first person perspective, Ginger Klein from "Theft" came to me that way--I saw her taking the bus and not knowing where she was, and boarding the cruise ship.
Other characters just start speaking in first and I wan to know what they say, how they interpret the world. First person feels more poetic to me, third more logical, as I write.
Q: Why did you choose “Refund” as the title not only for one story but for the whole collection?
A: "Refund" is one of the stories that I hold closest to me in this collection, partly because it was one of the mot difficult stories to write. It was hard because of the subject matter (New York right after September 11) and my goal in writing it, which was to explore characters' reactions to the event that were not the "typical" responses.
The story was also a challenge because I wanted to write about many issues in it--the horrors of September 11, but also parenting in the shadow of that, economic inequality in New York, social envy, fear.
The refund requested in this story is a metaphor for other deeper longings, and I thought it would be a good title for the collection for that reason.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on new stories and taking notes on a new novel. Sitting down in front of a blank page is always hard, but also wonderfully centering.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Karen E. Bender, please click here.