Reading Life Editor

N.C. novelist explores small-town experience

pkelley@charlottobserver.comJanuary 20, 2013 

Whether you hail from Hickory, High Point, Greenville or any number of smallish American cities, chances are you’ll recognize Waring, N.C., the fictional setting of Karen Bender’s engaging new novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms.”

In Waring, one of the first questions asked of newcomers is what church they attend. If you don’t choose to observe Christmas and Easter, residents may be genuinely puzzled, even hostile.

The newcomers in this story are Serena and Dan Shine, a Jewish couple trying to make a new life after Serena loses her job in New York City. Dan has taken a public relations job with the Chamber of Commerce. His aim: Putting Waring, N.C., on the map.

Though their Jewish identity is more cultural than religious, the two often feel like outsiders in this former Civil War port city.

“It was a city of pickup trucks perched on tires the size of inner tubes, of SUVs humming along ribbons of asphalt,” Bender writes. “There were the billboards by the highway… Jesus says: I will make my home with you, Free Coffee: Everlasting Life, Don’t be so Open-Minded: Your Brains will Fall Out.”

Bender, who teaches creative writing at UNC Wilmington, felt like an outsider herself when she moved from New York to Wilmington in 2002 with her novelist husband, Robert Anthony Siegel, and their children.

After growing up in Los Angeles, where Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were school holidays, Bender, 49, wasn’t accustomed to the friendly questions about church that came from her new Wilmington neighbors.

It was an instructive experience – feeling for the first time like a minority, an outsider, she says. That experience provided the kernel that became “A Town of Empty Rooms” (Counterpoint, $25).

So yes, there are real elements of Wilmington in the book, including the aphorisms Serena spots on church signs. But most of the world of Waring, including the creepy Boy Scout leader who lives next to the Shines, are fabrications.

“As a writer,” Bender says, “you can take something real in your life and explode it.”

This is Bender’s second novel. Her first, “Like Normal People,” published in 2000, was a Los Angeles Times best-seller that was excerpted in The New Yorker.

She reports, by the way, that Wilmington, like many N.C. cities, is more diverse and cosmopolitan than it was in 2002, when she arrived. The town is now home to a center for Hasidic Jews. And, also, to a Whole Foods.

Kelley: 704-358-5271

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