Karen E. Bender’s Reading Life: Oh, that sentence

We’re delighted to bring you the second instalment in our Reading Life series, a look into the books at the heart of American author Karen E. Bender’s life and work.

Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a Finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is also the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, and Guernica.They have been reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and New Stories from the South. She is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University and Fiction Editor of Scoundrel Time magazine.


What author do you wish were more well known?

I’m always surprised that Carson McCullers, the great Southern writer from the 1940s, isn’t as well known as, say, William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor today. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a magnificent book-that she wrote when she was in her early twenties. In it, she inhabits a range of characters from a small town with so much compassion and insight. The Member of the Wedding is the deepest and most poignant portrayal of a young teenage girl that I’ve ever read—she takes Frankie’s concerns so seriously. She writes with enormous heart. Everyone should read her.

I also wish more people read the stories of Stanley Elkin; Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers is a fantastic, weird, satirical, story collection. He wrote from the 1960s to the 1990s and “I Look Out For Ed Wolfe” was really a formative story for me.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, because I needed to connect with her long, luxurious sentences. Can I just quote this paragraph? Clarissa Dalloway, sewing a dress:

“Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says it too. That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.”

Oh, that sentence. The best sentences are the writers’ words buoyant, floating on air. The air is the writer’s soul. The words are there, supported by that soul, that singular perception. As a reader, I can feel that tension when I read some beautifully constructed sentences. There are so many ways to create buoyancy. There’s this, from The Member of the Wedding, which I just mentioned:

“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.”

As a writer, I need to read sentences so I feel happy in the world. I’m drawn to work with the sentences that feel buoyant somehow. And I’m drawn into the characters and story, of course, absolutely, but what I want first is to pick up a book and read the sentences and feel that they are floating on the soul of the writer.

Also, of course, and especially now, journalism-The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, The NewYorker, Mother Jones. I read articles online. To connect with writing based on fact is essential. Everyone needs to be reading these–and all legitimate news sources–now. To be truly informed is to be a good citizen.

What do you most like reading?

In terms of form, I am most drawn to reading fiction, short stories and novels. I love the mysterious way in which fiction brings me into the world of a person very different from me in various ways, or perhaps living in a very distant time, and how I can be enhanced by or understand or be understood by a character. I was recently reading Don Quixote for the first time and I was struck by how funny he was in his self-delusion and how contemporary his grandiosity is today. But I also love reading nonfiction, and am especially drawn to personal memoir, to see how people survive a variety of situations. Maybe that’s another reason I read—to see how people endure situations, to inhabit, briefly, so many forms of courage.

When do you read?

I juggle many things in my life—my own writing, motherhood, teaching—so I read whenever I can. I bring books to read when I wait for my child at her various lessons. I read in the bathtub, I read at night, before I go to sleep. The calm when I read is the best thing ever. I feel everything slowing down, I feel centered by the words, the characters, the story, the sentences. The world can be going insane in its various ways, but it is so simple and calming, being here, in the quiet, with this wonderful being, a book.