What Girl in the Flammable Skirt has Taught Me about Fiction
By Susan Woodring, author of “Traveling Disease” and “Springtime on Mars: Short Stories”
It’s impossible to separate me, the writer, from me, the reader. They are like the two ends of breathing—inhale, exhale, various mysterious exchanges of input and output happening someplace unsearchable. I can’t tell you exactly how it happens, only that reading changes my writing and writing changes my reading.
Though Aimee Bender’s imaginative and poignant collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, was published ten years ago, I’ve just discovered it for myself in the last year or so. I think, though, that sometimes books find you at the just precise moment you need them—this book knew I needed it. I picture it sort of bobbing to the surface in the middle of the ocean, me hanging onto a scrap of wood. The floating book is attached to a big ship—now I can really go somewhere. I don’t have to hang out here in this boring ocean of sameness.
That might be overstating it just a bit, but I definitely feel like these stories have offered me a sort of buoyancy and light that I was missing, as a reader and as a writer. I began writing a decade or so ago with the idea that what I really wanted to do was show the poignant in the ordinary, the beauty in the commonplace. My characters did things like iron clothes and talk about carrots. I valued subtlety and believability above all else. And, it seemed, everything I was reading—so much “literary” fiction—had a death-grip on reality. I think it’s a suffocating hold. We need some oxygen, something that doesn’t strictly obey the law of gravity.
It took me years to realize the obvious—a fiction writer’s greatest tool is imagination. Seems simple enough, but this epiphany has completely changed me, freed me. I still value subtlety, and I believe in coaxing the brilliant out of the ordinary, but I have also learned the power of simply making stuff up. It’s just plain fun, making it up.
Aimee Bender’s debut story collection gives testimony to what happens when a writer is gifted and confident enough to let the bizarre happen. She employs the great paradox of fiction: one has to make-believe to tell the truth. The stories in this collection are powerful and funny, sparse and surreal. They have given me a powerful gift: permission to let my stories take me to whatever crazy sort of parties they want to go to, let them show off their dance moves, their ability to levitate, to go astray. Thank you, Aimee.