The real joy for me in writing is the surprise

On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose asks her mother to bake a lemon-chocolate cake. Instead of enjoying her favourite cake, she discovers that she can taste the feelings of her mother, and by extension, of anyone preparing the food she eats. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is the second novel written by American author Aimee Bender.

Rose’s gift is quite peculiar: she can feel, in the food she eats, the emotions of the people who cooked it, but she can also make out the origin of the food. How did you come up with this idea?

One of the sources was a mindfulness exercise by Jon Kabat-Zinn who teaches a course on it; he has you eat a raisin and think about how far it traveled to get into your hand. The grape, the raisin, the box, the truck. It was such a good exercise! There is also a play by Wallace Shawn, “The Fever”, that talks about what we see in a magazine and how many steps are needed to bring us the image. I hadn’t thought much about steps like this before, and I wanted Rose to have this ability to see deeply into the food and track its course. For the emotions— I wanted to talk about the way we pick up things from one another, unspoken, and without really planning it, food seemed like a good way into this.

The novel may be associated to Magical Realism. Do you acknowledge this genre as one of your influences? In any case, who are your literary influences?

Yes, absolutely. I love 100 Years of Solitude, and Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities by Calvino, and Kakfa, and Isabel Allende, and Breton and the surrealists in the ’20’s. For whatever reason, I respond well to storytelling that is not exactly direct, but takes a side door into the emotional world of the story.

Rose is the narrator, but her voice in the novel seems to belong neither to an adult nor to a child. What do you feel was the right balance?

Thank you for noticing that! I was trying to strike that balance, but some people seem to think it’s a child’s point of view. But she uses words that a child wouldn’t use. I thought of it as her looking back, and as she looked back, she would get involved in the memory and she and her voice would regress somewhat. A child usually can’t articulate what she is feeling as much— so I imagine actual Rose at nine being flooded with feelings and not quite able to put names and words to these feelings until later.

In terms of fiction, you write novels and short stories. When you have a story in mind, do you know immediately what form it will take?

The opposite— I know very little. The real joy for me in writing is the surprise, but it also means I do A LOT of wandering around. With this novel, I had no idea where it was going, and halfway through I felt the brother take a larger role, and then he became as central to the book as Rose. This surprised me but it felt right, too.