Aimee Bender's critically acclaimed short-story collection, "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," isn't the only book published so far this year by alumni of UC Irvine's prestigious and highly selective graduate program in writing.
In addition to Bender, eight fiction workshop graduates--some familiar, some newcomers--have had books published since January:
* "Caucasia" (Riverhead Books), a first novel by Danzy Senna, class of 1996.
* "The Tattooed Soldier" (Delphinium Books), a first novel by Hector Tobar, class of '95 and a Los Angeles Times staff writer.
* "The Persistence of Memory" (published in England by Peter Owen), a second novel by Gordon McAlpine, class of '83.
* "Dispatches From the Cold" (Black Heron Press), a second novel by Leonard Chang, class of '94.
* "The Odd Sea" (Harcourt Brace), a first novel by Frederick Reiken, class of '92.
* "Good Night, Nebraska" (Random House), a first novel by Tom McNeal, class of '75.
* "A Thousand Wings" (E.P. Dutton), a first novel by T.C. Huo, class of '94.
* "Cholos and Surfers: A Latino Family Album" (Capra Press), a memoir by Jack Lopez, class of '87.
Meanwhile, "Lou's," a short story by Bruce McKay, class of '90, is being made into a short film being submitted to the Sundance Film Festival.
All of which makes 1998 something of a banner year for UCI's 33-year-old writing program, which offers masters of fine arts in fiction and poetry. It is widely regarded as among the best in the nation. Many writers consider it second only to the University of Iowa's writing program, the nation's oldest and best-known graduate-writing workshop.
"It is an impressive year, but things are compounding," said fiction workshop co-leader Michelle Latiolais, a 1988 graduate of the UCI program. "What's happening is people are publishing second books like Leonard Chang. Tom McNeal is somebody from the '70s getting a first book done, and Rick Reikin went through the program when I was there."
UCI's two-year fiction program continues to be a magnet for writers, and competition for the six first-year openings each fall is stiff. This year, Latiolais and program director Geoffrey Wolff received 280 applications for the fall quarter, which begins Sept. 28. By contrast, the two-year graduate writing program at the University of Iowa receives about 800 applications from writers each fall for 25 first-year openings.
Among UCI alumni: award-winning novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford (class of 1970) and Michael Chabon (class of '87), who created a stir when his novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," sold to William Morrow even before it was approved as his thesis.
Chabon's book brought the UCI program national visibility virtually overnight; the following year, applications doubled to 200.
By the mid-'90s, UCI could boast a dozen alumni whose master of fine arts theses wound up in bookstores. Among them: Louis B. Jones ("Ordinary Money"), Marti Leimbach ("Dying Young") and Whitney Otto, whose "How to Make an American Quilt" spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1991.
By 1992, Newsweek magazine was calling the workshop "the hottest writing program in the country." Today, the presence of Wolff has added much to the workshop's luster.
"Geoffrey Wolff is one of the best teachers in writing in the U.S.," said Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa workshop, who once taught writing with Wolff at Brandeis University in Boston. "The guy is absolutely aces. I wish I could have gotten him here."
"I can't say it's the best program in the country, but I know we compete straight up with Iowa and Michigan," Wolff said. "Those are the two we feel we compete with most, and a lot of people come to us who could have gone to Iowa."
Latiolais leads the workshop this quarter, with visiting writer Ann Patchett taking over in the winter. Wolff, who is on leave through the fall to finish his biography of writer John O'Hara, will conduct the workshop in the spring.
Wolff replaced Thomas Keneally, the Australian author of "Schindler's List," as director in 1995.
Keneally followed the late Donald Heiney and Oakley Hall, who retired in 1990 after nearly 20 years as co-director. Hall is being awarded the PEN West lifetime achievement award in Los Angeles on Oct. 28.
Hall, who will do a reading at UCI the day after he receives the award, divides his time between San Francisco and Squaw Valley, where he runs the Squaw Valley Writers Community, an annual fiction writers workshop. His latest novel is a mystery, "Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades" (University of California Press).
In January, the UCI writing program will host another visitor: short-story writer Ann Beattie, who will spend four days on campus teaching classes and doing readings.
But it's the workshop members themselves who are the stars, said Wolff, a novelist and nonfiction author best known for "The Duke of Deception," his bestselling 1979 memoir of his con-man father.
"I have never taught a group like this in my life. . . . They're extraordinary," Wolff said. "The other thing is . . . they're not just getting published, but they're being published with extraordinary enthusiasm and eagerness."
The workshop shows no signs of flagging, either.
"There's a lot in the pipeline right now," he said. "Quite a few books are in the hands of agents."