Bookforum talks with Karen E. Bender

A Town of Empty Rooms BY Karen E. Bender. Counterpoint. Hardcover, 352 pages. $25.
Cover of A Town of Empty Rooms

It felt a little odd sitting in a cafe in Taichung, Taiwan, waiting for my wife, the novelist Karen E. Bender, to arrive. We usually come to this café together from our house down the road, carrying our books for Chinese class, but that day we wanted to treat this interview with a measure of formality: two writers in conversation about a new novel and the practice of novel writing.

Bender’s most recent book, A Town of Empty Rooms, is a big, intricately plotted work of realism, the sort that manages to draw connections between the personal and the political without artificiality or strain. It follows two protagonists, Serena and Dan Shine, who are forced by a minor scandal to leave New York and move to Waring, North Carolina, a place where church billboards tell passing motorists that “Democracy Was Great, but Now the King Is Coming!”

As in her first book, Like Normal People, Bender’s new novel encompasses big themes: love, death, compassion, existential loneliness, and the yearning for connection.

A few minutes after I arrived, Bender showed up at the café and ordered an iced coffee in her forthright Mandarin. We then discussed some of the questions facing a novelist interested in love and politics.

Bookforum: As a witness to some of the real events that have surfaced in your novels, I know that your fiction draws on life in odd and unpredictable ways. How do you negotiate the balance between fact and fiction?

Bender: For me, fiction exists in the intersection of fact and dream. We walk around being nourished by random events we encounter, and those events are filtered through a dream state and come out wholly new. For example, there’s a scene in Town of Empty Rooms about a derby organized by the Cub Scout troop that Dan and Serena’s son Zeb belongs to. As you probably remember all too well, we went to a derby with our son, Jonah, a few years ago. So the scene was based on real life, but the derby in the novel has been filtered through a sort of anxiety dream about envy and revenge. When Zeb wins the race, the result is disastrous and wounding in ways that no one could have anticipated.

Bookforum: The North Carolina setting is crucial to Empty Rooms, and in your first novel, Like Normal People, you wrote about the freeways and strip malls of Los Angeles. What role does place play in your work?

Bender: Setting matters because it can quickly lead to emotional questions. When we moved to North Carolina, I noticed how the churches all have billboards saying things like “His Blood’s For You!” or “God Answers Knee Mail.” It’s as if they’re entering into silent, strange conversations with the drivers passing by. I wanted to explore those conversations, and as I continued to write, Empty Rooms became about communication, miscommunication, silence, and loneliness. A specific physical detail led to the themes I wanted to explore.

Bookforum: Both of your books concern religion in some way or another. Why is that?

Bender: Religion was a large part of my life growing up, even though I experienced a weird, L.A. version of Judaism. I always loved it when the Torah was removed from the Ark: the organ music soared, and everyone stood up in nice outfits and high heels. It was almost a form of theater, but one in which we were the actors. It didn’t feel at all false or hypocritical: We were enacting something. I found it thrilling, really, a moment of hope, of agreement.

Bookforum: But you’re also interested in the discord that religion can cause.

Bender: Religion is interesting to me as a writer because there are so many wonderful, irreconcilable conflicts within it. The character of Rabbi Golden in Empty Rooms embodies some of these. He’s a font of generosity, energy, and kindness, but he’s also angry and arrogant, and is not above doctoring photos to get his way. People often say that religion is hypocritical, which it can be, but I’d rather say that the people involved in religion are complicated. That complication, for a writer, can feel like a form of holiness.

Bookforum: When the novel was going around to publishers, a number of editors were cautious about the Jewish material.

Bender: A number of editors—most of whom were Jewish, by the way—had reservations about the Jewishness of the book. Some seemed to feel it might limit the audience, and others may have been concerned that the story showed its Jewish characters in a less-than-flattering light. This was frustrating to me, and made me wonder why writing about Jews in the South might be viewed as limiting. Isn’t it exciting to be immersed in the craziness of a particular world? Isn’t it fun to be an eavesdropper? It’s what I love about the work of James Alan McPherson and Junot Diaz—the sense that I’m being let in on the unique dynamics of one group or another.

Writing Empty Rooms definitely made me think about identity. How do I view myself? As a writer? A woman? A Jew? A Californian? Someone who loves potato chips and onion dip? Often, we forget about these elements of ourselves until someone else notices them. That’s what Serena and Dan experience: They forget their Jewishness until other people call attention to it.

At the same time, when people ask if I consider myself a Jewish writer, I wonder if the term highlights the Jewish part of me at the expense of the writer part. It might be more accurate to say, “A writer who is a Jew.” The writer part of me is the lens through which I see everything.

Bookforum: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the kind of novel—realistic, fabulist, documentarian, etc.—that will keep the form relevant in these distracted times. Do you see yourself as working within a specific theory of what a novel should be, or what it should do?

Bender: I don’t think I have one set theory, except that a novel should be deeply honest, and that it should speak to all the complicated, troubling, hopeful feelings that roll around inside us. A good novel will shake you up and help you see the world in a new way, no matter what the form.

Bookforum: One of the things Empty Rooms does supremely well is give us a portrait of a marriage under strain—from the points of view of both participants.

Bender: I only started exploring the Shine’s marriage toward the end of my writing process. I really wanted to write about temple board meetings and the internal dynamics of a small, embattled synagogue in the South, but the novel needed to go deeper. So I was trying to figure out why Serena would be drawn to the temple, and what was troubling her, and I linked it to her father’s death, and when she and Dan began to misunderstand each other, I delved into that.

I wrote a draft from Serena’s point of view, and then a friend who was reading it said, “Well, how does Dan feel about all this?” and I thought, “Now I have to understand what is troubling him.” I started thinking about marriage, and close, deep relationships in general, and how within these relationships people answer questions for each other. What question did Serena answer for Dan when they first met? And what question did he answer for her? And how did those answers help or hinder them as they moved through life?

Bookforum: What kind of question does being married to another writer answer for you?

Bender: I wanted to marry a writer because I wanted someone who would be down in the trenches with me. I think I realized early on how hard writing is, and how scary it can feel, and how lonely it can be. I wanted someone who would understand. A partner.

Bookforum: You’re in Taiwan for the year, teaching at a university and studying Chinese. How is it affecting your writing?

Bender: Everything here feels new, whether it’s dodging motor scooters zooming down the sidewalk, or picking up a Durian fruit with a potholder to avoid the spikes, or seeing a pet bunny pushed in a stroller. There is something wonderful about participating in a culture bit by bit—the transformation from knowing nothing to understanding. We’ll see where it goes.