Graver, Elizabeth 1964-
GRAVER, Elizabeth 1964-
PERSONAL: Born July 2, 1964, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Lawrence (a professor of English) and Suzanne (a professor of English; maiden name, Levy) Graver; married James Russell Pingeon; children: Sylvie, Chloe. Education: Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, B.A., 1986; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, M.F.A., 1990; doctoral study at Cornell University, 1990-92.
ADDRESSES: Home—47 Old Sudbury Rd., Lincoln, MA 01773. Office—Department of English, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3806. Agent—Richard Parks, R. Parks Agency, 138 East 16th St., Suite 5B, New York, NY 10003. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Freelance journalist, 1984-87; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, instructor in creative writing, 1989; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, instructor in creative writing, 1991-92; Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, visiting assistant professor, 1993-95, assistant professor, 1995-99, associate professor of English, 1999—, coordinator of Creative Nonfiction Program, 1999—, director of Creative Writing Concentration, 1999-2000, founder and director of "Fiction Days" reading series, 1995—. Emerson College, member of adjunct graduate faculty, 1992; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, visiting writer, 1993; PEN Prison Writing Project, writing mentor, 2002—. "Share Our Strength" (annual reading series), organizer, 1993-95; Somerville Gardens Oral History Project, chronicler, 1995; gives readings from her works; teacher of community writing workshops.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, Associated Writing Programs, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1986; Fulbright grant for Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, 1987-88; competition winner, Massachusetts Writers' Exchange Program, 1991, for the short story "Around the World"; Drue Heinz Literature Prize, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991, for Have You Seen Me?; fellow of National Endowment for the Arts, 1992; grant from Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, 1992; fellow at MacDowell Artists' Colony, 1994, 1998, and at Blue Mountain Center Artists' Colony, 1996; shared first-place award, American Fiction Contest, 1996, for "Islands without Names"; selection as "best book of the year" by both Chicago Tribune and Glamour, 1997, for Unravelling; named among Notable Books of the Year and Notable Paperbacks, both New York Times Book Review, 1997, for Unravelling, and 1999, for The Honey Thief; Guggenheim fellow, 1997; Cohen Award, Ploughshares, 2001, for the short story "The Mourning Door."
Have You Seen Me? (short stories), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1991.
Unravelling (novel), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1997.
The Honey Thief (novel), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.
Awake (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 2004.
Work represented in anthologies, including Street Songs I: New Voices in Fiction, Longstreet Press (Atlanta, GA), 1990; Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991; Sacred Ground: Writings about Home, edited by Barbara Bonner, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1996; An Intricate Weave: Women Write about Girls and Girlhood, edited by Marlene Miller, Iris Editions (Laguna Beach, CA), 1997; and Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors, edited by Jeffrey Skinner and Lee Martin, Sarabande Books (Louisville, KY), 2001. Contributor of articles, short stories, poetry, and reviews to periodicals, including Ploughshares, River Styx, Tikkun, Shenandoah, Antaeus, Southern Review, Southwest Review, Seventeen, Story, and Prism International.
The novel The Honey Thief was been published in German, Hebrew, and Chinese.
ADAPTATIONS: One of Graver's short stories, "The Boy Who Fell Forty Feet," was performed in Chicago, IL, at Organic Theater and also broadcast on the Chicago-area public radio program, Stage Readings, both 1993. Another piece, "Surtsey" was performed as a reading in New York, NY, at Symphony Space, and broadcast on National Public Radio, both 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: With two English professors for parents, it might seem inevitable that Elizabeth Graver would take an interest in literature from an early age. In an interview for Contemporary Literary Criticism, she noted the influence of works by Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Toni Morrison, and others; but her own personal experience, she said, had little effect on her work. She has sought instead to write from the points of view of others, to experience vicariously worlds other than her own. "I guess my primary aim as an author," she said, "is to never repeat myself, but rather to push the boundaries of my work and my imagination each time I write something—to take risks and be as fluid as possible, so that each new story suggests new things to me, rather than being yet another turn around the same circle."
The stories in her award-winning first book Have You Seen Me? often center around bewildered, alienated children who use fantasy to make sense of a troubled world. Hence Willa in the title story, its name taken from the question which often appears on milk cartons along with a photograph of a missing child, postulates an alternative reality for those vanished boys and girls: "To call those children missing, Willa knew, only meant that they were missing for somebody, even though maybe they were found for someone else. Just because they were not at home did not mean they were wandering the earth alone. There were too many of them, just look at all those cartons … soon there were masses of them, whole underground networks. When she went to the supermarket with her mother she spotted them sometimes, kids poking holes in the bags of chocolate in the candy aisle or thumbing through a comic book—kids in matted gray parkas that once were white. They had large pupils and pale skin from living inside the earth." In Willa's imagination, the term "underground" takes on a literal meaning, signifying a world of caves that house the lost children.
Problems of communication abound in these stories: the protagonist of "The Counting Game" simply refuses to speak; the narrator in "Music for Four Doors" finds in her autistic neighbor's dreamlike world a mirror of her own; and a young girl in "The Experimental Forest" finds that an older man mistakes her desire for intimacy as an offer of sex. Fortunately he declines the apparent advance, but she fails to make her true needs known: "I wanted to tell him that all I needed was a little something, a tiny bit of change to poke a pinhole through my summer so that I could see through it—a small hole so that some air could reach through the heat and clear things out." Quoting this sentence, Dean Flower in the Hudson Review observed, "Graver's stories are full of such eloquent moments as this, and it's only her first book."
Graver followed Have You Seen Me? six years later with a novel, Unravelling. The title itself is a pun of sorts: the protagonist, Aimee Slater, has worked in the yarn mills of nineteenth-century Lowell, Massachusetts. At fifteen she goes to work against her mother's wishes, and quickly finds herself on her back atop a bolt of cloth, the mill's mechanic atop her. Pregnant with twins from this dalliance, Aimee returns to her mother, who forces her to give up the children. Afterward Aimee removes herself to a shack on the edge of her New Hampshire town, where she lives alone for years, not merely ashamed but embittered as well. In time she finds solace in the company of another outcast, "the village cripple," Amos, who becomes her lover; but her anger at her mother remains unresolved until Aimee—now thirty-eight and well aware that the older woman does not have long to live—crosses her woods to her family's home.
A reviewer in Publishers Weekly, while noting that "the narrative strains too obviously for poignant moments" in places, nonetheless concluded that "its depiction of the dissonance between what Aimee's heart tells her and what her world expects of her is genuinely haunting." John Gregory Brown of Chicago's Tribune Books likewise pointed out "a few moments when the novel falters—Aimee's obsession with an incident of childhood sexual exploration with her consumptive brother, for instance, introduces an element to the story and to Aimee's character that isn't quite convincing"; but, he concluded, the book as a whole is "an absolutely affecting portrait of adolescence."
Graver's research of her subject matter won her praise from several critics, including Brown, who called her description of factory life "utterly convincing." He quoted this passage, taken from Aimee's first day at the mill: "Threads hanging like a steady sheet of rain before my face, to be coaxed through the tiniest of holes. My task sounded as if it came out of the stories my mother used to tell me, of princesses locked up in towers and told to make golden cloaks out of piles of flax. But the place—the place was worlds apart from the still, stone rooms of those old tales." Unravelling, wrote Benjamin DeMott in the New York Times Book Review, "creates a home-on-the-margins beyond cant—a kind of exiles' utopia, intensely imagined, right-valued, memorable." Grace Anne De Candido of Booklist concluded that "Graver's mastery of emotional resonance carries the reader along."
Recently, Graver told CA: "The Honey Thief is a contemporary novel about a mother-daughter relationship and the way the past defines—and deforms—the present. The summer that eleven-year-old Eva is picked up on her fourth shoplifting charge, her mother, Miriam, decides that the only solution is to move from Manhattan to a quiet town in upstate New York. There, she tells Eva, they can have a 'normal' life. But what Miriam doesn't tell her daughter, or anyone else, is that Eva's stealing scares her for a different reason, one related to a past she has been trying to ignore. As tensions mount between mother and daughter, it is, oddly enough, Eva's secret friendship with Burl—a reclusive beekeeper who lives down the road—that ultimately helps the two find their way back to each other.
"Awake tells the story of a mother who seeks freedom for her young son and rediscovers her own need for it in the process. It began as a story about a family with a child who has a rare disease that means he can't be exposed to sunlight. Quickly, though, it became something else, in that process of transformation that makes writing so astonishing for me. The novel is, at heart, an examination of a woman's identity as—given sudden breathing room—she looks around at her life and finds that she has lost track of essential pieces of herself. What, exactly, are safety and freedom? And at what cost—to one's self and to the people in one's life—should they be protected and pursued?"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 70, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Booklist, July, 1997, Grace Anne De Candido, review of Unravelling, p. 1796.
Book Report, March, 1992, p. 331.
Boston Review, October, 1991.
Hudson Review, summer, 1992, Dean Flower, review of Have You Seen Me?, p. 337.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2004, review of Awake, p. 53.
Library Journal, February 1, 2004, Beth E. Andersen, review of Awake, p. 122.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 21, 1993, p. 11.
New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1997, Benjamin DeMott, review of Unravelling, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, June 23, 1997, review of Unravelling, p. 69.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 7, 1997, John Gregory Brown, review of Unravelling, p. 4.