For Aimee Bender, growing up the daughter of a psychoanalyst meant that Halloween was no ordinary festival. Her older sister dressed up with her friends as Id, Ego and Superego. 'I didn't really get it, but I still thought that was so cool,' she says. Bender's mother, a dance choreographer, also nurtured her children's belief in the powers of the unconscious, with her injunctions to 'trust the process'. 'The unconscious was the sixth member of the family.' So, it's small wonder that Bender became a writer of modern-day fairy tales - warped, darkly satirical stories that trade in the surreal, seemingly random imagery of dreams. With the publication of her second collection, Willful Creatures (Doubleday) - following her debut collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own - Bender is the first to admit that she owes a lot to her unconscious. Her best work flows when she's least aware of it - when her thoughts become non-verbal. 'There's our 'talky' language, or 'thinky' essay language, which is conscious - words like 'ubiquitous', or 'pedagogy',' says Bender. 'Then there's a well of language where we're not forming thoughts formally - words like 'spaceship' and 'magnificent', that won't stick unless there's some unconscious attachment to them.' Bender rarely has a conscious agenda when she writes. Her themes emerge spontaneously. Job's Jobs was an exception. Bender set out to explore the issue of 'creativity, and how we squelch it'. As she writes, in her usual matter-of-fact style: 'God put a gun to the writer's head. 'I'm making a rule', said God. 'You can't write another word or I'll shoot you'.' The premise of Death Watch, which opens: 'Ten men go to ten doctors', occurred to Bender after she conducted a joke-writing exercise with her students at the University of South California, where she teaches creative writing. 'It just seemed to me that jokes are so plot-based,' she says. 'They're like fairy tales that way - swift and economical.' Bender traces her love of metaphor to the experimental dance performances her mother introduced her to as a child. 'I remember responding in such a visceral way to unusual metaphorical choices - a nude woman, wearing an accordion, in a field of carnations,' she says. Yet when Bender started taking writing seriously in her late teens, she turned away from magical realism to more traditional forms. 'I wrote what I felt would be more acceptable writing, but it was a bad imitation,' she says. Watching a surrealistic rendition of an August Strindberg play helped Bender legitimise her passion for the absurd. 'I wasn't sure if I was allowed to like it,' she says. 'It took a long time for me to know, or admit, that I wanted to write outside of realism - writing that I had assumed wouldn't be taken seriously in the literary world.' Bender's Jewish heritage is reflected in the style, if not the content, of her work. 'So much modern Jewish writing surges off into the surreal - Kafka, Freud, Bruno Schultz - although I don't write about Jewish themes so much,' she says. Her stories share similarities with the Talmud - 'tiny stories, open for varied interpretations'. She works for two hours in the morning, six days a week, and stops writing on the minute. 'I like the rigidity,' she says. 'It's calming.' Bender, who teaches in the afternoons, says she can't imagine writing full-time. 'Even if I could afford it, I need people,' she says. Teaching helps her hone her craft. 'If I'm preaching some tenet about writing, I can't go home and do the opposite.' Bender recently contributed to The Secret Society of Demolition Workers - a collection of 12, anonymously written pieces by leading American short story writers. She considered using her anonymity to write an autobiographical story, but decided against it. 'The writing just seems to go better when I step away from what's actually happening to me,' she says. The book is a success because, she says: 'I keep trying to guess who's who in it and I have no idea'. Bender is close-lipped about her second novel. But it's clear that it's not coming easily. 'It's tricky to find the story that will go the distance of a novel,' she says. 'Often I'll find pieces turn into [short] stories, and I have to keep relocating the thread that has 200-plus pages in it.'