LOS ANGELES — Karen E. Bender’s second novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms” 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), wrote one previous novel, “Like Normal People,” and co-edited “Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion.” Recently, we corresponded, via email, about her new book:
Q: The book begins in New York but quickly shifts to North Carolina. You too moved to North Carolina around that time.
A: 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. ... 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 Hashana 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 in common with other Jews here?
Q: 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.
A: I think marriage is a topic that could be explored so much more in fiction. Mostly we get writing about the beginning of a relationship — falling in love, etc. — or dramatic breakups, or widowhood. But what about the texture of a relationship, the ways people find ways, or don’t, to negotiate the difficult times? I like observing marriages to see what makes them work, how they evolve or not. I wanted to explore the question a person answers for us — what Dan answers for Serena and what she answers for him — when we fall in love. But sometimes those answers don’t work when we hit bumps in life. I wanted to show how people talk past each other.... It’s such a common issue, I think, and I wanted to heighten it between Dan and Serena so the reader could see how each was stuck in an “empty room.“
Q: Throughout the novel, big issues — anti-Semitism, discrimination, insularity — emerge from the fabric of daily life. How did these connections come about?
A: I love the Eudora Welty quote, “Once you’re into a story, everything seems to apply: what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.” That is definitely true for me. You never know how the most mundane experience or interaction can help you with your work.... In a way, all interactions are about big issues on some level, some power dynamic, some longing.... I think I wanted to explore the interaction between actual menace, which obviously does exist, and internal perceptions of it. When do things really go wrong and when do they subside? I guess the answer is that one doesn’t really know, but it is important to be alert.
Q: “A Town of Empty Rooms” ends with Serena preparing to speak, out loud and from the heart. It’s a telling image, since part of what the novel is about is the necessity of stories as a way to connect and identity.
A: I always wanted the ability to be someone else. What did other people really think? Did they have the same thoughts/experiences as I did or were they different? When a person told a clear, honest story, it was the closest I got to being them. And when you hear a story or insight that echoes one’s own feelings, it’s really, in my view, sacred — as though we inhabit each other for a moment. It’s a deep and powerful bond.
About The Book
TITLE: ‘A Town of Empty Rooms’
AUTHOR: Karen E. Bender
TYPE: hardcover, 352 pages
AVAILABLE: Amazon.com; Barnes & Noble