Gess, Denise 1952-

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GESS, Denise 1952-


Born July 19, 1952, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Joseph Vincent (a newspaper compositor) and Mary Rita (a gift shop manager; maiden name, Catalano) Piccoli; married Wayne Donald Gess, June 2, 1973 (divorced, July 26, 1984); married William Dennis Lutz (a professor of English and writer), September 27, 1987 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Austen Leigh (daughter). Education: La Salle College (now University), B.A., 1974; attended Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing, 1976-77; Rutgers University, M.A., 1984. Politics: "Liberal." Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Yoga, roller-blading, dancing, theater.


Home—Philadelphia, PA. Agent—Jean V. Naggar, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, 216 East 75th St., New York, NY 10021. E-mail[email protected].


La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, instructor in English composition, 1984; Rutgers University, Camden Campus, Camden, NJ, instructor in English composition and creative writing, 1984-88; Temple University, Philadelphia, instructor in creative writing, 1987—; Camden County College, Blackwood, NJ, writer in residence, fall, 1992. Workshop instructor, Trenton State Writers Conference, 1985, and Stonecoast Writers Conference, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993; University of North Carolina, Wilmington, visiting assistant professor of fiction writing, 2001-02; Rutgers University, visiting assistant professor of English, 2002-04; Story Quarterly magazine, advisory editor, 2004.


National Book Critics Circle.


Grant from New Jersey State Council of the Arts, 1984; book endowments from East Brunswick Friends of the Library and Brandeis University National Women's Committee, both 1984; honorable mention, creative nonfiction category, New Millenium Writing Awards, 2003, for "An Honest Orgy."


Good Deeds (novel), Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1984.

Red Whiskey Blues (novel), Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1989.

(With William Lutz) Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History, Holt (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals, including Philadelphia, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Writer's Digest. Contributor of essays to Scribner's American Writers series, 2002, and to Remarkable Reads, Norton, 2004. Contributor of book reviews to the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, Raleigh News and Observer, Book, Fiction Writer, New Jersey Life, San Jose Mercury News, and Washington Post.


Trespasses, a novel; Traveling through the Flesh, an essay collection.


Denise Gess's body of work includes novels about troubled families and a nonfiction account, written with her ex-husband, William Lutz, of a devastating fire in a rural Wisconsin community in the nineteenth century. Some critics feel her experience as a novelist may contribute to the dramatic style of her nonfiction work. Gess once told CA: "I don't know exactly what motivates me to write, and I don't think I'd want to understand the motivation. I write because I feel I must. What interests me more is what motivates people in strained, absurd, or even quiet daily situations, what makes their hearts (and that is always foremost) and their minds work."

Her first novel, Good Deeds, is set in her native city, Philadelphia. The central character is a young artist, Dana Cogan, who is unable to leave her family's problems behind even after she moves out of her parents' home. Dana has sympathy only for her mother, who has to put up with a hypochondriac, unemployed, philosophy-obsessed husband and a grown (but immature) and hostile son. Shortly after Dana moves away, her mother dies in a fall, and Dana returns to the family home to take care of her father and brother and try to help them make something of their lives, which she finds is no simple task. "Denise Gess writes with fluid grace, but her quirky characters, however charming at first, quickly grow tiresome," remarked Diane Cole in the New York Times Book Review. Christian Science Monitor contributor Ruth Doan MacDougall, however, found Good Deeds "a vigorous, spirited first novel, both funny and touching in its examination of the rigors of family life."

Red Whiskey Blues tells a story of a life marked by loss. Emily Hansen, a writer of children's books, is a young widowed mother. When she was in her teens, her mentally handicapped younger sister died; then her father abandoned the family, and her mother began obsessively searching for him. Now her husband has died of Hodgkin's disease. Overwhelmed by grief, having trouble with her writing, Emily starts to neglect her six-year-old daughter. Eventually, she finds reasons to care about life again: her love for her daughter and an attraction to the playwright who rents a room in her house. Gary Krist, critiquing for the New York Times Book Review, deemed the love affair with the playwright too predictable and called the book "evocative, sensitive, but ultimately too facile." Chicago Tribune commentator Carol Kleiman, on the other hand, thought "Gess has a special gift: She involves you in the story so quickly that… before long you care deeply."

Gess collaborated with Lutz on the nonfiction book Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History. This fire took place the same day—October 8, 1871—as the far more famous Great Chicago Fire. Because Peshtigo, a northern Wisconsin town of 2,000, was small and rural, and because the telegraph lines that carried news from the town had been a casualty of previous fires, its story went largely unnoticed. But its disastrous fire wiped out the town in less than an hour and killed 1,800 of its people, along with hundreds more in the surrounding countryside. The authors describe both the natural and political climates that fed the fire. The weather had been unusually dry, and forest fires had sprung up on the town's outskirts; high winds then carried the flames into Peshtigo, a community where logging and mining were the main industries. Loggers unwittingly contributed to the fire by leaving debris for it to feed on. But growth-minded town leaders and journalists, the authors contend, may deserve a greater share of the blame, as they had downplayed information about the drought and wildfires for fear of scaring off potential residents.

Gess and Lutz "provide a compelling account of the disaster within the context of the brash expansionism that ruled the age," observed Mike Snyder in the Houston Chronicle. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, however, thought they spent too much time on Peshtigo's history and politics, but added that "they render a chilling, absorbing account" of the fire itself, with the style "perhaps due to Gess's background as a novelist." Drawing on survivors' diaries, newspaper articles, and other sources, Gess and Lutz describe, for instance, a father cutting his children's throats to spare them the even more painful death by fire; people consumed by spontaneous combustion; and a boy kneeling to pray just before the flames reach him. The story is "heartbreaking" and "gripping," noted Chicago Tribune Books contributor Dan Santow. Similarly, Booklist commentator Gilbert Taylor wrote that Firestorm at Peshtigo is sometimes "gruesome" but is "ably crafted" and "a moving narrative." A Kirkus Reviews critic summed up the book by saying that Gess and Lutz tell their tale "with an operatic quality it richly deserves."

Gess told CA: "When I was twelve, my maternal grandmother died of colon cancer. She had been living in our home for a year before her death. During that period, I read [Albert] Camus' The Stranger and was instantly compelled. I think the combination of her death, reading The Stranger with its remarkable first sentence, and a desire to create order out of the chaos of loss was what got me started writing. Somehow my home felt lonely. I think I began writing fiction to fill the empty space that death created.

"My writing process has changed over the years. As a young writer I had the energy to work full-time, then simply stay up most of the night writing fiction. I have less of that kind of personal time now as my life is split between teaching full-time, reviewing books, editing, and writing. Plus, I'm on my own—after the bills get paid, that's when the writing kicks in. I wish it were the other way around. Well, all writers do the best they can under all types of circumstances.

"The most surprising thing I've learned as a writer is that it never gets easier—not if one is working at her best or trying new things with narrative, story. I'm also surprised that creative nonfiction has now become part of what I do, that essays have been published and a nonfiction book. It's a very difficult territory from fiction, one I didn't think I'd be very good at or interested in, but I love both writing it and teaching it.

"My favorite of my books is still Good Deeds. I think I'm not supposed to admit that, a novelist liking her first book best, but it has held up over time. I think that's important, to have written something that still registers nearly twenty years after its publication. Then I'd have to say my third novel which has not been published yet.

"I want my books to reach readers on a level that they themselves weren't aware of; to enter the novel and come out on the other side feeling that they've been somewhere different with new people they couldn't have known any other way. That the stories linger on long after the reading is done. Transport, I suppose, but without shoddy sentimentality or easy outs."



Booklist, July, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History, p. 1818.

Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1989, Carol Kleiman, "Daughter Punished for Mother's Sin," Tempo section, p. 3.

Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1984, Ruth Doan MacDougall, "Renovating Family," p. B5.

Houston Chronicle, September 27, 2002, Mike Snyder, "Creeping Death," Zest section, p. 21.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2002, review of Firestorm at Peshtigo, p. 716.

Library Journal, March 15, 1984, interview with Denise Gess; July, 2002, Edwin B. Burgess, review of Firestorm at Peshtigo, p. 96.

New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1984, Diane Cole, review of Good Deeds, p. 20; April 16, 1989, Gary Krist, review of Red Whiskey Blues, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly, June 24, 2002, review of Firestorm at Peshtigo, p. 50.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 18, 2002, Dan Santow, "Natural Calamities," p. 4.