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The Reading Life

Talking with Karen E. Bender about 'A Town of Empty Rooms'

February 07, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Karen E. Bender's new novel is "A Town of Empty Rooms."
Karen E. Bender's new novel is "A Town of Empty Rooms." (Counterpoint Press )

Karen E. Bender’s second novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms,” (Counterpoint: 292 pp., $25) is a story of divisions, in both a marriage and a community. Revolving around Dan and Serena Shine, a couple who move, with their two young children, from Manhattan to rural North Carolina, it traces a culture clash that takes place as much in the family room as it does in the street. The Shines are, if not estranged, then distant, harboring resentments and old hurts. These play out in unexpected ways after Serena connects with her Jewish roots at a local synagogue while Dan becomes involved with their next door neighbor, an elderly conservative.

Bender, who grew up in Los Angeles (her sister is the writer Aimee Bender), is the author of one previous novel, “Like Normal People,” and co-editor of “Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion.” Recently, we corresponded, via email, about her new book.

“A Town of Empty Rooms” takes place in 2002, a heightened moment in America. Why did you set it then?

2002 was a time when it felt to me like the nation was spinning out of control. The nation was in an intense state of paranoia and fear after Sept. 11, and with Bush, with the Patriot Act, with the decision to invade Iraq despite numerous protests around the globe, it felt like the government was engaged in miscommunication, or the desire not to listen, on a massive scale.

I was interested in how communication had fallen apart because I was seeing it in a more micro level in my daily life. It also seemed a good time to set the novel because of Serena’s father’s paranoia as a Jew who had left Germany right before the Holocaust. He was very distrustful of government, the ways in which it could spiral out of control, and I imagined he’d have strong reactions to the Bush administration.

The book begins in New York but quickly shifts to North Carolina. You, too, moved to North Carolina around that time.

We ended up in North Carolina in 2002, when my husband Robert and I got teaching jobs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The jobs and writing community were great, but as the rest of our families were in New York and Los Angeles, we had a feeling of exile here at first. Wilmington is an odd place. It had Old South elements that we found totally perplexing (the Azalea festival, where teenage girls dressed up as antebellum belles and stood, twirling parasols, in front of houses that hosted garden tours), but the city has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, so there are a fair amount of “immigrants” from the Northeast, California, etc. drawn to the low-cost housing and easier life. We don’t feel like outsiders the way Serena and Dan do, but I don’t think we’ll ever feel like insiders either, which is good for a writer — to be poised in a place of observation, displacement, so we can absorb and reflect on what is going on around us.

Also, the experience of being Jewish in Wilmington, a Bible Belt city, was something I wanted to explore. Growing up in West Los Angeles, where Rosh Hashanah was a school holiday, I was surprised that often I was the first Jewish person someone had ever met. In fact, it was newsworthy — both of our kids have been photographed celebrating one Jewish holiday or another, for the annual newspaper article on Rosh Hashana or Hanukkah. What did it mean that this felt like an important new part of my identity? What did I have common with other Jews here?

At heart, the novel is about family — Serena’s connection to her late father; her consuming love for her kids; her estrangement from her husband Dan.

The family is the emotional landscape from which we all arise! I wanted to explore how family dynamics and longings can be projected onto communities and organizations outside a family — in this case, the way the rabbi or the neighbor Forrest become false father figures for Serena and Dan, respectively. How do we struggle with the unique nation that is our family and how do we search for it? Those are some of the issues I wanted to explore.

Serena and Dan are estranged in that quiet way of so many couples — longing for something they feel has gone missing, yet also trying to make it through.

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