Thursday Apr 18

DorothyBendel Dorothy Bendel is a writer, poet, and defender of the Oxford comma. She is the author of Expatriate (Finishing Line Press). Her most recent work can be found in Green Mountains Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Microchondria II: 42 More Short Short Stories Collected by Harvard Book Store. She currently lives in Washington, DC where she writes, teaches, and ingests alarming amounts of caffeine. Follow her here.

Dorothy Bendel Interview with Karen Stefano

With beautifully crafted prose, “What Have You Done?” envelops the reader, giving a glimpse of the complexities of a mother’s love:

“…I listened to the branches of our oak twitch in the autumn wind.”

“You grabbed my wrists, reminding me you are a man.”

“I would work my index finger into one soft, tight nest until you released and let me in…”

“At the Window” seizes the reader with its quiet yearning:

“My wheelchair is planted, facing the pot full of leaves that splinter from a thick center stalk and burst out into a firework of green. I have forgotten what type of plant it is and I haven’t the means to ask.”

“I was perfectly content to stay in place, unnoticed, until this girl in a lime green dress extended her hand –a knife cutting into my orb of safety. I have never seen anyone stand so straight.”

“At the Window” so artfully captures a sense of longing, from the point of view of someone trapped inside a failing body. What was the inspiration for this story?

Many years ago, my grandfather suffered a series of strokes that left him bedridden for quite some time. His ability to communicate deteriorated drastically, but when I looked into his pale blue eyes I knew that an active life existed within him. I often wondered what he might be thinking or re-living in his mind. I think that a sense of longing lives within us regardless of our ability to express it. When I thought about this, the distance between seemed to diminish.

“What Have You Done?” has such a strong voice. I’ve read it several times and after each reading I find myself saying, “Just one more time,” and I go back and savor it again. The writing is so clean, spare, and yet the emotional trigger is stunning. A mother’s unconditional love, a mother’s unconditional struggle, a mother’s unconditional guilt. What prompted this piece?

“What Have You Done?” stems from very primal fears that we all experience as parents. Am I doing enough? Am I going about this the “right” way? There are no clear answers and that compounds our fears. We want to be in control but feel guilty when we are not. I wanted to shine a spotlight on that unique bond that exists between a parent and a child, and explore how our hopes are often at odds with the daily challenges we face.

Have you had any experience with violence?

I am no stranger to violence although, unfortunately, my experience is all too common, particularly for women. Violence is a large spectrum that exists in many forms. I think that the position that the narrator of “What Have You Done?” finds herself in is, in a sense, a form of violence, albeit less obvious than the physical violence in the story.

Do you believe in unconditional love?

Absolutely. Writing that examines our fears forces us to ask difficult questions. Would I have done the same? Each reader’s response would depend on what they felt was best for their child, but it all hinges on unconditional love.

The endings to your stories are terrific. They pack just the right amount of emotional punch. How do you do it? What are the “rules” for writing a strong ending?

I have always admired stories that leave me wondering about what happens next. (There is a bit of Carver/Lish influence there.) I don’t want to wrap everything up in a tidy little box, but I also don’t want to end on an ambiguous note that makes the reader feel like I’ve just “dropped the mic” and walked out of the room. An ending should serve the story but leave a thread that the reader can follow into the next room of their imagination. It can take a lot of work to find the right balance.

You live in Washington, D.C. What’s the writing scene like there? Do you feel a sense of community with other writers?

I came to DC after nearly a decade living abroad and I was delighted to find an eclectic and supportive writing community here. We have incredible resources (from legendary bookstores to the Library of Congress) and a long list of literary events throughout the year. Perhaps there is a bigger writing scene here than most people realize. I know at least three other writers and poets living just down the street from where I live.

Why do you write?

Writing, for me, feels instinctive. It is a natural extension of how I operate, how I see the world, and how I try to challenge myself to see an experience from as many perspectives as possible. I’ve always been very analytical and the simplest decision can sprawl out into a network of possibilities. Putting pen to paper gives me permission to explore and discover.

Why does fiction matter in our society? Why should people read it?

I’ve heard people say that they don’t read fiction because it is not “real” but that kind of thinking limits our idea of what is “real.” Haven’t we all felt a very real emotion captured in a story? Perhaps we may not have (or could not have) experienced that in another form. When fiction is at its best it connects to our true inner lives. We can connect to characters living very different lives from our own. When this happens, we don’t feel so alone. (And let’s not forget the value of expanding our imaginations and the joy of escapism!)

What are you reading right now?

I tend to vacillate between “classics” (shout out to Austen and Woolf) and contemporary work. I’m just wrapping up E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey because, somehow, it slipped by me at some point. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is next in the queue, along with some Kelly Link and Ben Percy, to mix things up.

What are your aspirations as a writer? And how do you plan on getting there?

My aspiration is simple: Don’t stop. After a few years of stops and starts, I’ve committed myself to carving out time that is dedicated solely to writing (even when it seems like everything in the universe is pushing back against me). I was “writing” in my head for so long, it felt wonderful to finally get everything out on the page.

Dorothy, thank you so much for sharing your work with Connotation Press! We are so pleased to feature you in this month’s issue!


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