PERSONAL: Born in CT; daughter of Mary Durant (a writer); partner of Mitch Clogg.
CAREER: Writer and artist. Worked variously as a house painter and writer for radio.
(With Daniel Altieri) The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'ang Dynasty, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
(With Daniel Altieri) Deception: A Novel of Murder and Madness in T'ang China, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Daniel Altieri) Shangri-La: The Return to the World of Lost Horizon, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Daniel Altieri) Shore of Pearls: A Tale of Seventh-Century China, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Eleanor Cooney grew up in Connecticut with her writer mother Mary Durant, a progressive woman whose circle of friends included artists and writers, and who, as Cooney recalled on her home page, was "a cool person, certainly sexually liberated, very hip." Coming of age in the 1960s, Cooney attended art school in Boston, but did not finish, instead going west to Boulder, Colorado, where she led a "hand-to-mouth, cash 'n' carry, hedonistic artist-type life, taking peyote in the mountains and running around irresponsibly. It was fun though, let me tell you." Cooney sold her art and painted houses until she was nearly thirty, at which point she packed up and went further west to northern California. She began her writing career penning human interest stories for a local radio station. She had covered a variety of beats for several years when friend Daniel Altieri, a scholar of Chinese language and history, approached her about collaborating on an historical novel. They completed the book and went on to write several more together.
The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'ang Dynasty is set in eighth-century China. Lady Wu, the conniving consort of Emperor Minghuang is banished in the aftermath of the assassination of the emperor's young son and charged with practicing witchcraft. Minghuang falls into depression when he learns that his empress has committed suicide, and his chief minister takes control. In order to revive the emperor, friend and head eunuch Kao Li-Shih sends him the beautiful Precious Consort, but as love takes hold, the emperor neglects his duties even further. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the sisters of Precious Consort, the Yangs, "are a delicious parody of the three graces as they glide through the palace with their bitchy, amusing chatter hiding swift intelligence."
Library Journal critic Joan Hinkemeyer called The Court of the Lion "spellbinding," an "intricate tapestry" that "unfolds as slowly and artistically as a lotus blossom."
Deception: A Novel of Murder and Madness in T'ang China is set in the seventh century, and is also based on fact. The central character is Empress Wu, the only female emperor of China, who takes control by seducing the emperor and by implicating his passive empress in a murder that leads to her death. Wu weakens the Council of Six, advisors to the emperor, and then dissolves the group altogether.
Meanwhile, across the country in the port city of Yangchou, magistrate Dee Jan-Chieh becomes suspicious of the activities of the monks of a gold-filled temple, thus leading to his meeting with a magician and involvement in the murders of wealthy people, where the only clue is the bloody footprint of a horse. Dee, who tries to remain true to his Confucian principles, investigates a series of related murders. His path ultimately crosses that of Wu, who herself will dispose of anyone standing in her way. He discovers that her plan is to replace the ancient T'ang dynasty with her own Chou dynasty, one that is founded on a corrupt form of Buddhism that involves magic and superstition. Dee is also dealing with two sons who make his life difficult.
A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that the various subplots in Deception come together "to create a sophisticated tapestry of intrigue and ambition…. Historical novels of this quality are few and far between." At the end of the book, the authors have included notes that explain which aspects of their story are true and which are fiction. Lorrie K. Inagaki wrote in Armchair Detective that the novel is "intriguingly written and intricately plotted…. Despite its length (632 pages) and despite its historical subject matter, this is one of those books which is difficult to put down until the end."
Shangri-La: The Return to the World of Lost Horizon is written as a sequel to the novel by James Hilton that was altered and adapted as a film directed by Frank Capra. In the original novel, British diplomat Hugh Conway discovers Shangri-La, a city hidden high in the Himalayas that serves as a spiritual paradise where inhabitants live in peace and without aging. At the end of Hilton's story, Conway, afflicted with amnesia, is left wandering the world, searching to return to this land, but in the updated version by Cooney and Altieri, he did return to become High Lama.
The story takes place in 2007, and is narrated by Ma Li, the pro-Tibetan daughter of Chairman Mao's General Zhang. Zhang is attempting to find Shangri-La through maps used over centuries by pilgrims who had made their way there. His purpose is to steal Tibetan art, of which there is said to be a considerable cache. In order to thwart the general's plan, Conway must leave his utopia, risking aging if he does not return with ten days. While away from his paradise, Conway meets Ma Li, and they fall in love.
New York Times Book Review writer David Guy noted two episodes that take place in the last third of the book, "Conway's account of the first time he left Shangri-La and Zhang's entrance into a kind of anti-Shangri-La, that are beautiful and subtle." A Kirkus Reviews critic wrote that "Zhang's unwitting evil quest rivals The Hobbit in its power and agony, and Conway's recollection of how he returned to Shangri-La is splendidly realized." In conclusion, the critic deemed Shangri-La "as good as sequels get."
Cooney documents her mother's tragic mental decline in Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's. Cooney acknowledges that she is a writer because her mother was a writer, and that with her several husbands, many lovers, and bohemian lifestyle, Mary Durant's life alone would have made a wonderful book. In writing about that life, Cooney emphasizes how much was being lost as the disease changed and reshaped the elderly writer. Booklist critic June Sawyers wrote that Cooney's book "is neither sentimental nor depressing. Indeed, she leavens her grief with black humor."
Cooney relates how she and her partner, Mitch Clogg, moved her mother from Connecticut to California to live with them when they realized her short-term memory was failing. They found her a nearby apartment, but soon realized she needed closer care. The garage of Cooney's home was converted into an apartment, but her mother soon required more, and Cooney writes of her difficulties in finding a good and affordable facility. The author's anguish and inability to handle the stresses of her mother's dementia led her to increased dependence on alcohol and Valium and caused stress in her relationship with Clogg. Her grief caused her to miss her own deadlines. What emerges from Cooney's account is her love of and pride in her beautiful, glamorous, and accomplished mother. The book ends with a previously unpublished story by Durant, a fitting tribute to a life well lived.
The book also provides a glimpse into the challenges that will be faced by more families as Alzheimer's impacts the lives of aging adults. At the time of the book's publication approximately four million Americans were affected, and as people live longer and the number of people living into old age increases, Alzheimer's will be the major test of the strength of families to endure and of the healthcare system to provide adequate care.
Book reviewer Penelope Mesic wrote that Cooney "creates that eye-of-the-hurricane feeling, of life destroyed and made meaningless by loss, that this topic deserves…. She isn't weighing her words; she's flinging them overboard from a sinking ship—and it works. Her manner suits the desperate nature of her topic."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cooney, Eleanor, Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Armchair Detective, winter, 1994, Lorrie K. Inagaki, review of Deception: A Novel of Murder and Madness in T'ang China, pp. 121-122.
Book, March-April, 2003, Penelope Mesic, review of Death in Slow Motion, p. 68.
Booklist, May 1, 1996, Roland Green, review of Shangri-La: The Return to the World of Lost Horizon, p. 1487; January 1, 2003, June Sawyers, review of Death in Slow Motion, p. 814.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1996, review of Shangri-La, pp. 241-242; November 15, 2002, review of Death in Slow Motion, p. 1668.
Library Journal, November 15, 1988, Joan Hinkemeyer, review of The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'ang Dynasty, p. 82; April 15, 1993, Mary Ann Parker, review of Deception, p. 125.
New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1996, David Guy, review of Shangri-La, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, November 11, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Court of the Lion, p. 41; April 5, 1993, review of Deception, p. 64; March 25, 1996, review of Shangri-La, p. 62; November 18, 2002, review of Death in Slow Motion, p. 49.
Time, March 24, 2003, Lev Grossman, review of Death in Slow Motion, p. 65.
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (May 20, 2006), Alison Hood, review of Death in Slow Motion.
Eleanor Cooney Home Page, http://www.deathinslowmotion.com (February 11, 2004).
HarperCollins Online, http://www.harpercollins.com/ (February 11, 2004), author's note and interview.
Press Democrat Online, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/ (February 11, 2004), review of Death in Slow Motion and interview with Cooney.