Bender received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at San Diego, and a Master of Fine Arts from the distinguished creative writing MFA program at University of California at Irvine. While at UCI she studied with Judith Grossman and Geoffrey Wolff. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California and heads a class in surrealist writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has been a senior artist at the non profit theater workshop The Imagination Workshop, helping mentally ill and at-risk individuals write, direct and act in their own theatrical creations. She has named Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and Anne Sexton as influences on her writing. A native of Los Angeles, Bender is a close friend of fellow UCI alumni Alice Sebold.
Her first book was The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection of short stories, published in 1998. The book was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and spent seven weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own was published in 2000, and was named as an L.A. Times pick of the year. In 2005 she published another collection of short stories, Willful Creatures, which was nominated by The Believer magazine, owned by McSweeney’s, as one of the best books of the year. Her novella “The Third Elevator” was published in 2009 by Madras Press. Her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was published in 2010 by Doubleday.
Bender has received two Pushcart Prizes, and was nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2005. Her short story, “Faces” was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist. In 2009 Bender became the sitting judge for the Flatmancrooked Writing Prize, a writing award from Flatmancrooked Publishing for new short fiction.