Interview with Aimee Bender, author of “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.

Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own, Willful Creatures, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. 

Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and many more places, as well as heard on PRI’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. She has received two Pushcart prizes, and was nominated for the TipTree award in 2005, and the Shirley Jackson short story award in 2010. Her fiction has been translated into sixteen languages. 

She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?

Aimee Bender: I was probably seven or eight, at a family Seder.  My parents had (and still have) these very short Passover Seders, and a necessary part of the Seder table is the presence of wine.  The standard American easily accessible kosher wine is called Manischewitz. It was the ideal introductory wine for a child because it tastes just like an alcoholic version of a Jolly Rancher, and I think I took a few sips from my mother’s glass that had Concord Grape or Cherry in it. These are four-dollar wines with screw tops before cork was an endangered material.  Most adults find them repellant.  I loved it.

How did/does your family treat drinking?

My grandmother always requested her ‘two finger’ scotch and drank it happily while my sisters and I romped around her.  She set a certain kind of example of alcohol as a pleasurable possible part of a dinner. My mother follows her lead and loves a good cocktail but my father’s side barely drinks at all, or less so.

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?

I drink a beer or a glass of wine a couple times a week. Beer seems to sit with me better. Occasionally I’ll have a fancier drink, which can be fun, celebratory.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

After college I actually became looser about drinking. Growing up, I knew a lot of people who chose not to drink, for various reasons, and so I went through most of high school and college without really figuring out the possible pleasure of social drinking. It was a surprise for me after college to realize I didn’t hate beer, which I had assumed I hated, which cut off a lot of options. I was living in San Francisco and it was a microbrewery renaissance. It felt greatly liberating to participate in the world of drinking instead of always staying on the outskirts–much like a friend of mine at the time who always wore sports clothes in college and decided post-college that she liked ruffles and skirts.  There was a certain conservatism I felt in myself when younger and that loosened up through my twenties and after.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

I really love Guinness. It is so delicious and hearty and bitter and chocolaty and full of history and special accoutrements, like a can you have to open in a distinct way.

Tell us about the worst time you had, drinking?

There was a time in high school and a time in college where I felt very determined to get really drunk to try it out. I approached it, tellingly, like a test to take–mostly dutifully, with determination and some joylessness.  In high school, I sat with a group of friends in a house and downed horrific wine coolers and kept testing to see if I could balance on one foot or not.  Of course eventually I got really sick and that was awful.

Then, repeat in college.  Those were both such miserable experiences I think they were the low points.  But I also don’t have the system to get repeatedly really drunk; it makes me feel crappy pretty easily and I get headaches from too much wine and all that.  So I have to monitor it for those reasons.

Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?

I’m from a Jewish family, where food, at least in ours, was the main drug of choice.  But there was a kind of friendly warmth toward alcohol as this fun other thing on the table that was not to be chewed.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?

I loved Leaving Las Vegas— something about Nicholas Cage bringing the whiskey bottle into the shower and placing it next to the shampoo bottle that I found very powerful and painful and explained to me visually something resonant about alcoholism.  I also love Hemingway’s terse yet lavish descriptions about drinking in Paris in A Moveable Feast, and Raymond Carver’s expert use of alcohol affecting conversation on the page in the story, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”

What do you like most about drinking?

The great languorous buzz from drinking something good and the right amount for that night and the loosening that can feel enlivening, like the world is opening up.

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