Born: May 1, 1940, Mayfield, Kentucky
Bobbie Ann Mason’s literary landscape is the hopes, dreams, and challenges of working-class people in her native Jackson Purchase region of western Kentucky. Many of her stories place characters at transitional points in their lives where they are forced to make hard decisions. She tells their stories with spare language and realistic dialogue she says “comes out of a way of hearing people talk.”
“Loss and deprivation, the disappointment of pathetically modest hopes, are the themes Bobbie Ann Mason works and reworks,” David Quammen wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “She portrays the disquieted lives of men and women not blessed with much money or education or luck, but cursed with enough sensitivity and imagination to suffer regrets.”
Mason grew up on a Graves County dairy farm. She attended grade school with other farm children in the rural Cuba community. “In eight years of being with the same kids every day at school, they form a strong impression, so you remember them,” she said in a 2016 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, adding that those classmates helped inspire many of her fictional adult characters. “I think I was just wondering how they turned out.”
As Mason recounted in a 1986 essay in The New Yorker, her writing career began as a teenager when she became national president of fan clubs for The Hilltoppers, a 1950s singing group whose members were students at what is now Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1962 with an English major and journalism minor, she moved to New York City to write for movie magazines. She then earned a master’s degree from State University of New York at Binghamton and a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Connecticut.
Unable to get a tenure-track teaching job, Mason began writing fiction. She pitched 20 stories to The New Yorkerbefore the magazine finally bought one. Her 1982 book Shiloh and Other Storieswon the 1983 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for first works of fiction. Her first novel, In Country, was published in 1985 and made into a 1989 movie of the same name starring Emily Lloyd and Bruce Willis. Her 1999 memoir, Clear Springs, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Mason has published five novels, several collections of short fiction, a memoir, a biography, and two works of literary criticism. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Southern Reviewand other major magazines. Her other awards include The National Endowment for the Arts Award (1983), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), Pushcart Prizes (1984, 1996), O. Henry Awards (1986, 1988), the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award (2010), and the Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts (2012).
Robert Towers, writing in The New York Review of Books, said, “Bobbie Ann Mason is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader.”
Nabokov’s Garden (1974)
The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (1975)
Shiloh and Other Stories (1982)
Spence + Lila (1988)
Feather Crowns (1993)
Midnight Magic (1998)
Clear Springs: A Memoir (1999)
Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail (2002)
Elvis Presley (2002)
An Atomic Romance (2005)
Nancy Culpepper (2006)
The Girl in the Blue Beret (2011)
Patchwork: A Bobbie Ann Mason Reader (2018)
Dear Ann (2020)