Aimee Bender is a bona fide logophile. Words are her best friends – a source of constant amusement, her greatest inspiration. She even speaks the way she writes, choosing her words with the fondness and care of a mother embracing her child.
The San Francisco Chronicle said of her work: “Once in awhile, a writer comes along who makes you grateful for the very existence of language.” Bender’s love of words is evident in her working style. She keeps a word list in her computer to serve as inspiration. Words like kerchief. Swamp is another personal favorite. “You can build a whole story around a word like that,” Bender laughs.
The 31-year-old writer, an alumna of UCI’s highly regarded graduate program in writing, bowled over the literary world with an eclectic short story collection titled The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and her debut novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own. Her writing style, by many critics’ definition, defies convention; her unique creations have been likened to fairy tales with a contemporary twist.
Not surprisingly, Bender names Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm as influences. Fairy tales, she notes, have long served as avenues for children to work out their darkest fears – for example, the death of a parent – “in a safe context.” Similarly, Bender uses them, playfully, to explore the dark themes of isolation, madness and death – as well as the lighter side of love and redemption.
The appeal of fiction, she notes, is that “there are no rules.
You’re absolutely free.”
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, her senior thesis, was accepted for publication before she graduated in 1997. It garnered lavish praise from coast to coast – it was named a New York TimesNotable Book of the Year, and a Los Angeles Times Best Pick for 1998. Her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own – an inventive kaleidoscope of isolation, loss and love as seen through the eyes of obsessive-compulsive Mona Gray, a 20-year-old elementary school teacher – occupied the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for several weeks.
In addition to her two books, she has also been published inGranta, GQ, Harper, Story and several other literary journals.
Bender is ecstatic that critics have, for the most part, “gotten” and appreciated her work. “It totally surprised me. It’s such a good feeling that sometimes I can’t even register it,” she laughs.
UCI’s writing program was “kismet,” says Bender, a Los Angeles native. She knew she belonged after seeing the required reading list for one of her first classes. “I was terrified to see all these books I hadn’t read,” she says. Then a title caught her eye:Lang’s Fairy Books, a popular compilation of gems from her old pals Grimm and Anderson.
The size of the program (six students are accepted annually into the fiction division and five into poetry) also provides for the nurturing of each writer’s unique style, says Bender.
“Judith Grossman, one of the heads of the program [with Thomas Keneally] when I first arrived, and Geoffrey Wolff were both amazing. I was trying out archetypal stories in a voice that I didn’t think people would take seriously. Geoffrey did, and he was such a great authority in the classroom. For him to encourage me to pursue that voice was incredible.”
Another big attraction of UCI’s writing program, she adds, is that each student has the opportunity to teach.
“Giving all students teaching fellowships levels the field competitively and economically – that feeling of equality carries over into the workshop. I believe this is a factor in the MFA students consistently turning out such interesting, unique work.”
Bender’s involvement at UCI has been extensive. She became a part of ArtsBridge in 1997 when it was just a fledgling concept, teaching creative writing through drama and storytelling to second graders in Dana Point. She also taught creative writing to schoolchildren in Corona del Mar through Humanities Out There (HOT), an outreach program sponsored by the School of Humanities in which UCI students tutor elementary, middle and high school students in creative writing, poetry, mythology and other literary pursuits.
Her efforts and achievements at UCI were formally recognized in 1999, when she received the Alumni Association’s Lauds and Laurels award for Distinguished Alumna. Interestingly, a librarian who was a fan of her first book nominated her for the honor.
Bender also taught writing and composition to UCI undergraduates and served as managing editor for Faultline, a UCI literary journal for MFA students. Teaching was a natural progression; she taught elementary school in San Francisco for three years after earning her bachelor’s from UC San Diego.
All of her characters are composites, but Bender acknowledges that her former students tend to surface in her work. “Certain weird qualities of my characters remind me of my kids. I don’t necessarily remember their names, but I do remember what their hair looked like,” she says in her typical irreverent fashion.An Invisible Sign of My Own is populated with a cast of quirky but loveable second graders such as the snarly haired and precocious Lisa Venus and seven-year-old Elmer Gravlaki, who has a penchant for fashioning guns out of inanimate objects.
Teaching is still a major part of Bender’s life. She currently teaches creative writing at USC and heads a UCLA Extension surrealism writing class.
“Writing is such an internal profession. It gets lonely. I appreciate the interaction teaching provides,” she remarks. “I used to worry that I’d have to live in a hermit cave, lose all contact with the world, scoff at everything. Then I realized there’s different kinds of writers, just like there’s different kinds of everything.”
When she’s not teaching, grading papers or writing, she’s catching up on her reading. She is currently reading close friend and fellow UCI alum Alice Sebold’s second book, The Lovely Bones.
Bender is at work on her second novel and a handful of short stories. This summer, she will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to serve as a faculty member in the Summer Literary Seminars, a program affiliated with Herzen University in Russia, and the University of Cincinnati. She will take her place among esteemed writers-in-residence Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States, and Mark Strand, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a UCI Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow.
Reflecting on her unique body of work, Bender credits UCI’s MFA program with helping her establish her voice and her confidence as a writer.
“I feel like a big cheerleader for UCI,” she says. “I finally found an environment where I could really hit my stride. It was this great blossoming time in my life.”