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Making a Myth in the Space of a Short Story

Books: With her debut collection, 29-year-old author Aimee Bender is winning raves for her ability to weave magical fables.

September 09, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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