As a girl growing up in Santa Monica in the early 1980s, Aimee Bender got an unusual sixth-grade assignment: Write a story about two blood cells.
Her classmates may have been daunted; not Bender.
"I remember thinking, 'That's an incredible assignment!' So that really opened me up," said Bender, who "wrote a ton" as a child.
Now 29, Bender still is writing and embracing the unusual.
In "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" (Doubleday, $21.95), she has assembled a "wise, highly original" debut collection of 16 short stories that "take place at the intersection of fairy tale and everyday life, of hilarity and heartbreak," Publishers Weekly said.
It's hard to resist opening lines like these from the World According to Bender:
"There were two mutant girls in the town: One had a hand made of fire, and the other had a hand made of ice."
Or: "I fell in love with a robber, and he took me on his rounds."
Or: "My lover is experiencing reverse evolution." Indeed. Within a month, he goes from lover to ape to sea turtle, which the narrator keeps on a counter "in a glass baking pan filled with saltwater."
" 'Ben,' I say to his small protruding head, 'can you understand me?' and he stares with eyes like little droplets of tar, and I drip tears into the pan, a sea of me."
Bender's collection, which she sold two weeks before finishing UC Irvine's graduate program in writing last year, has been generating near-universal critical acclaim.
"Once in a while, a writer comes along who makes you grateful for the very existence of language. . . . Her prose bristles with the thrill of make-believe," wrote a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
"She spins fables, fey on the outside, poignant at the core," said the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"Her stories are fierce and true," said a review in the Los Angeles Times, where "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" has spent five weeks on the bestseller list. (The title is taken from a story in which a girl's dress is torched when she dances too closely to a party candle.)
Bender is pleased and just a bit stunned by the reviews.
"I just read one in the Miami Herald," she said on a recent afternoon, then giggled confessionally: "I was surfing the Internet looking for them."
Bender is seated on the edge of a rust-red velvet living room chair, as if poised to greet her promising future as a writer. Actually, she's feeling the late summer discomfort of her '50s-vintage, one-bedroom apartment sans air conditioning in West Hollywood.
Wearing a long, floral print brown dress and leather sandals, with her dark brown hair pulled back into a clip, Bender apologizes for the heat and offers her visitor a glass of water.
Bender's domain has the feel of a grad student's. A small electric fan sits on the floor next to a guitar propped against a wall near a rack of CDs. A lump of plaster--her assignment from a figure-sculpting class--sits on the floor next to the kitchen table. The table is covered with student papers from the UCLA Extension class she teaches on the "short, short story," along with stacks of promotional postcards listing her book signings.
In mid-September, Bender will leave on a book tour that will take her to San Francisco, Boston and New York. The publicity tour is testament to the stock Doubleday has placed in her. She is under contract for a novel.
"Collections don't often get the same [promotional] punch as a first novel," Bender said. "But they've definitely been really good with my book."
A Creature of the City
During her two years in the UC Irvine writing program, where she wrote all but two of the 16 stories in her book, Bender lived on Balboa Island. But she's a city girl at heart. After earning a bachelor's degree in English at UC San Diego in 1991, she moved to San Francisco, where she lived for three years and taught reading in an elementary school in a neighborhood heavily populated with Russian immigrants.
No sooner had she finished her last writing workshop at UCI in June 1997 than she fled suburban Orange County for urban West Hollywood, even though that meant commuting to UCI, where she had a one-year fellowship to teach creative writing and composition and to serve as a managing editor of Faultline, the campus literary journal.
Bender is clearly in her element in West Hollywood, a real city neighborhood offering an array of ethnic restaurants and delis within walking distance.
"It feels alive," she says.
There's even a newsstand at the end of her block where she loads up on the New Yorker, Time and other magazines. She sets them in overlapping orderly rows, as in a doctor's waiting room, on a coffee table below raised living-room windows that don't do much for the heat problem.
Bender writes in the mornings, before things warm up. Her fictional world has its origins in the fairy tales she loved to read as a child. By age 7, she was writing her own stories; by 9, she had become more ambitious.
"I had a big red folder with unicorn stickers on it--you know, very girlie--and a lengthy start of a novel about a unicorn and a fox," she recalled. "I wrote a lot. I really loved it."
Then what Bender calls "puberty lethargy" set in, and her writing went on hiatus.
At Palisades High School--"this incredible surfer high school," she calls it--Bender didn't quite fit in with the blond, beach-going crowd.
"I was tame," she said. "I felt like the group I hung out with was sort of smart, nerdy, repressed."
Although she found a creative outlet in choir and drama classes, she didn't resume writing until she arrived at UC San Diego.
"In college, I remember writing really weird stories--mothers wearing tutus on their heads--and getting a lot of encouragement for that," she said. But then she reached a point where she felt she had to take writing seriously.
"I remember thinking, 'OK, now I have to stop,' and I did try to write more traditional things, but I didn't enjoy it as much."
Going Solo on the Short Story
When Bender entered UCI's graduate writing program in fall 1995, she was the only one of 11 students writing short stories and not a novel. Bender wrote a more traditional story about a son coming home to his father after his mother had died and another about a magic ring.
Classmates, she said, gravitated toward the latter, saying: " 'This one about the magic ring has emotional weight, but it also seems more fresh than the other.' That was an incredible relief; it was so liberating."
Bender also remembers workshop teacher Judith Grossman once commenting that Bender's story about a librarian who copes with the death of her father by having sex with male library patrons in a back room was moving toward surrealism and becoming more mythic.
Grossman, she said, advised her: "That is the right move for you."
"I hadn't thought of the word 'mythic,' " Bender said. "It was just like opening a door and gently giving me a little push, and then I sort of ran through the door! I felt so excited by that idea of myth. I just loved that idea, that that could be a style that I could write in."
Bender's creative liberation had an unexpected payoff. A story she sent to the Santa Monica Review, the Santa Monica College literary journal, wound up in its anthology, "Absolute Disaster: Fiction From Los Angeles," published by Dove Books in early 1997.
A few months later, the anthology was featured at a book festival where an editor from Doubleday picked up a copy and read it on his return flight to New York. He called Bender immediately.
Workshop alumnus Glen David Gold wasn't too surprised by Bender's sale to Doubleday. He not only always looked forward to reading Bender's stories in the workshop, but also copied and faxed them to friends.
"Her stories walk such an interesting tightrope between being set in the real world and set in what I call Planet Bender [or] Aimee Land: It's as if there's a coexistence between the quotidian like flossing your teeth and having a ring that turns the ocean red."
Said Alice Sebold, another workshop alumna who, like Gold, has become a close friend of Bender's:
"The thing I always say about Aimee and would say all the time in workshop was that even within that critical atmosphere, you have to kind of stand back: Her stories really bring joy. Even the stories that touch on difficult things. . . . I'm from the East Coast and was raised very much on the 'seriousness of literature.' She's just incredibly refreshing."
Not unlike Bender herself, say her friends.
Sebold remembers once visiting Bender at her West Hollywood apartment.
"I turned the corner, and she didn't expect to see me. She was coming down the stairs to go to the laundry room, and she was literally skipping."
It was one of those moments when you catch someone truly being themselves, said Sebold.
"I thought, 'Wow! I don't skip down to the laundry room,' " Sebold said.
In the Background Looms Anxiety
That isn't to say Bender doesn't suffer.
As a friend, "Aimee is extremely supportive because she understands anxiety," Sebold said. "The connotation of carefree doesn't often include that fact. And to be carefree in the face of anxiety is a greater achievement than to overtake anxiety."
Bender plans to continue writing in the style that is causing reviewers to rave--to create a fictional world in which an imp will go to high school on stilts so that no one will know he's an imp--"of course, he never wore shorts"--and fall in love with a sophomore who is a mermaid.
"I know that it makes me happy to write like that," Bender said. "It feels very free. So I'm sure in some ways I will continue, but it will probably take its own evolution."
Following the advice of one writing teacher to simply write what she would like to read, Bender said she never concerned herself with whether her writing would be commercial.
Still, she concedes, she always hoped other people would like what she wrote, and that's where "joyous" Aimee turns into "anxious" Aimee.
She has a three-year journal of her "worries" in her computer with musings like--here she takes on a girlie, singsong voice: "I got a million rejections in the mail, but I really think people will like these stories because I like these stories."
So far, her instincts have been correct.
Still seated on the edge of her chair, Bender flashes a broad grin:
"It's so gratifying."