Tips from Karen Bender, author of A Town Of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint Press, 2013).
Karen Bender’s second novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, came easier than the first. She prefers the short story form and her first book, the novel Like Normal People, was spiraling in its first draft. She had thought that writing a novel was the same as writing pages. So she had many many pages with no narrative arch. She found herself asking: what is it that my character wants?
By book two she had learned to write only the scenes she needed to tell the story. Have a core question that you are aiming to answer, and write to that. Some examples are – is he going to get the girl? Or will he find his way home? Reduce the story to one question to find out what’s necessary to include.
In her most recent novel, Town of Empty Rooms, she began writing from the main protagonist’s point of view before expanding the scope to include the experience of the protagonist’s husband. Later she found that there was an opportunity to explore the theme of community if the members of the town’s temple had their say too. She recommends shifting at plot points though only when it’s important to the story. When do you really want to know about this person? As long as you establish the main character’s POV early on then the readers will stay with you when you shift.
The outside world, she said to me, is like a rock that comes at you. There are all these things you can’t control. So the wonder and joy of being a writer is the ability to transform this experience, this feeling, and put it to use for other people to relate to. [In Fiction] your feelings are valuable. Everywhere else in the world you’re told how you shouldn’t feel angry or sad or depressed. Feelings get in the way of productivity. In writing they are everything They are your bond to other people.
In her Ten Commandments, Karen reminds writers to use specificity to explore the life of the characters beyond the moment. What details of the character imply things about the way they live their lives when they aren’t on the page? In her recent book, for example, the myriad of badges on a young boys scout uniform tells us all lot about his family’s values.
At her reading at Greenlight, Karen mentioned she kept both John Cheever and Richard Yates on hand when writing her own story of suburban mishigas. When she signed my book she talked to me quickly about narrative design, the act of drawing out a shape for your plot’s trajectory. She also referred to me to a friend at UCLA who both writes and teaches and followed up with me while I was visiting the city.
She says the biggest challenge of writing is to let characters be who they are – in all of their strangeness and longing. She reads me a quote from the intro to the Cheever Journals: “He meant to show others that their thoughts are not unthinkable.” So the point of literature, she tells me, is to show people that their complicated thoughts are what other people have too.
Check out Town Of Empty Rooms for an ear into the roar of Serena’s Hirsch’s mind. In the wake of her father’s death she makes a decision that forces her and her family into exile. For the remainder of the novel all the characters seek to cut through their own isolation both in their family and their community at large.