Hearon, Shelby 1931-

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HEARON, Shelby 1931-

PERSONAL: Born January 18, 1931, in Marion, KY; daughter of Charles B. (a geologist) and Evelyn (Roberts) Reed; married Robert J. Hearon, Jr. (an attorney), June 15, 1953 (divorced, 1977); married Billy Joe Lucas (a philosopher), April 19, 1981 (marriage ended); married William Halpern (a cardiovascular physiologist); children: (first marriage) Anne, Reed. Education: University of Texas, B.A. (with honors), 1953.

ADDRESSES: Home—246 S. Union St., Burlington, VT 05401-4514. Agent—Wendy Weil, Weil Agency, 232 Madison Ave., #1300, New York, NY 10016; (lecture agent) Bill Thompson, BWA, 61 Briarwood Circle, Needham Heights, MA 02194.

CAREER: Freelance writer, 1966–. Visiting lecturer, University of Texas, Austin, 1978–80; teacher, Bennington College Summer Program fiction workshop, summer, 1980; visiting associate professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX, spring, 1981, and University of California, Irvine, 1987; writer-in-residence, Wichita State University, spring, 1984, Clark University, spring, 1985, and Ohio Wesleyan University, spring, 1989; visiting professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, spring, 1993; visiting distinguished professor, Colgate University, fall, 1993, University of Miami, Coral Gables, spring, 1994, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1994–96, and Middlebury College, 1996–98. Member of judging panel for numerous fiction and nonfiction awards.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN American Center, Poets & Writers, Inc., Associated Writing Programs, Texas Institute of Letters (president, 1979–81).

AWARDS, HONORS: Jesse H. Jones fiction award, Texas Institute of Letters, 1973, for The Second Dune, and 1978, for A Prince of a Fellow; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1983; PEN Syndication fiction prizes, 1983, for "Missing Kin," 1984, for "The Undertow of Friends," 1985, for "Vast Distances," 1987, for "Growing Boys," and 1988, for "I've Seen It Twice"; Women in Communications award, 1984; Ingram Merrill grant, 1987; American Academy of Arts and Letters fiction award, 1990, for Owning Jolene; University of Texas distinguished alumnus, 1993.


Armadillo in the Grass, Knopf (New York, NY), 1968.

The Second Dune, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, TCU Press (Fort Worth, TX), 2003.

Hannah's House, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.

Now and another Time, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.

A Prince of a Fellow, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.

(With Barbara Jordan) Barbara Jordan (biography), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1979.

Painted Dresses, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1981.

Afternoon of a Faun, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1983.

Group Therapy, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.

A Small Town, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.

Five Hundred Scorpions, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.

Owning Jolene, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

Hug Dancing, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

Life Estates, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.

Footprints, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.

Ella in Bloom, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including "Order," published in Her Work: Stories by Texas Women, edited by Lou Rodenberger, Shearer, 1982; "Missing Kin," published in Available Stories, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1985; "The British Museum," published in New Growth, edited by Lyman Grant, Corona, 1989; and "The Undertow of Friends," published in Common Bonds, edited by Suzanne Comer, Southern Methodist University Press, 1990. Contributor of short fiction to Southwest Review, Mississippi Review, Southern Review, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and Shenandoah. Contributor of articles and features to periodicals, including Publishers Weekly, Writer, Washington Post, Texas Monthly, GQ, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Family Circle. Contributor of book reviews to Dallas Morning News, 1979–, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Houston Chronicle. Member of advisory board and contributing editor, American Literary Review, 1991–, and Shenandoah, 1992–98; member of editorial board, Writer, 1998–.

ADAPTATIONS: Life Estates was adapted as the CBS-Hallmark Sunday night movie Best Friends for Life, airing January 18, 1998. Owning Jolene was optioned for production as a feature film.

SIDELIGHTS: Shelby Hearon's fiction focuses on upper-middle-class women and their search for identity. From her earliest novel to her more recent works, Hearon has introduced female protagonists who must delve through layers of appearance to discern the core realities of their lives. As Robb Forman Dew put it in the New York Times Book Review, Hearon "has done a fine job of getting at [the] inevitable conflict between mother and child, between mother and father. She holds it to the light, turns and examines it with a caustic eye. We are the beneficiaries of a clear-eyed view that catches the humor and poignancy of the evolution of a woman's life."

Much of Hearon's fiction is set in Texas, where the author lived for most of her formative years. Described as a "female Larry McMurtry" by Marilyn Murray Willison in a Los Angeles Times Book Review article, Hearon is a writer whose novels "come off full but somehow uncrowded," noted Dallas Morning News interviewer Mary Brinkerhoff, "despite all the mothers, daughters, grandparents, husbands, ex-husbands, lovers,… ancestral memories, adolescent crises, family rituals, professional 'do-gooders,' partly liberated females, [and] freshly integrated schools." Brinkerhoff added that "each novel is illuminated by a feeling for context which evades too many writers—what [the author] herself calls 'an enormous sense of place,' an equally powerful flow of time (domestic or geologic) and a vividness of physical perception—the way food tastes, the way skin feels, the way a garden smells." On this point, Hearon once told CA, "I always start a novel with place. I think to build a fictional world you have to walk where you have walked before: the building of a concrete and fictional world rests solidly on the grounding of remembrance and recollection. To rewalk the past is to rewrite the past. To return is to consider what might have been."

Born and raised in Kentucky, Hearon moved to Texas as a teenager. She graduated from the University of Texas—Austin in 1953, and soon thereafter married an attorney and began raising a family under the traditional mores of the era. By the early 1960s, however, she began to feel professionally unfulfilled. Realizing that she needed "a life's work," as she put it in a Houston Chronicle interview, she began work on a novel. She was thirty-seven when her debut fiction, Armadillo in the Grass, was published by Knopf. Since then, she told the Houston Chronicle, she has been primarily concerned in her writing with "what happens after the quadrille of courtship, when it's time for the choices and consequences of intimacy."

In Painted Dresses Hearon tells the story of a bittersweet romance between artist Nell and chemist Nick, two middle-aged characters who "have been stifled by early experiences in their family lives, and spend years trying to work them out," according to Washington Post Book World critic David Guy. "Like the lives she is describing," Guy wrote, "Shelby Hearon's narrative grows more satisfactory as it goes along; its early episodes can seem fragmentary and puzzling." And while he further criticized some of Hearon's characters—"Nell's family is too cutely eccentric to be believed"—Guy ultimately praised Painted Dresses as the work of an author who "writes with the buoyant, precise prose of a veteran novelist. If her story is unsatisfactory at first, it builds in momentum once her characters reach adulthood, and ends wonderfully."

"A feel-good book" is the way Carolyn Banks, in a Washington Post review, described Hearon's Group Therapy, the story of Lutie, a divorced Texas woman who moves to New York City to start a new life. Feeling out of place among the East Coast sophisticates, Lutie enrolls in a group therapy class that focuses on image. "Therapy saves Lutie," observed Banks. "She learns that what is appropriate garb in the South is overdressing in the North." And then Lutie falls in love with Joe, one of her therapists. "Their romance generates the story's suspense—is [Lutie] indelibly Southern or has she been seduced by the North?," asked Valerie Miner in the New York Times Book Review. Miner felt that Group Therapy is "intelligent, witty, and tightly written," although "if anything, it is too compressed and needs more description of Lutie's work and her complex family." To Willison, the novel leaves "a warm, soft feeling of having shared chunks of the characters' lives."

A Small Town is set in Venice, Missouri, a village on the Mississippi described by James Kaufmann in the Los Angeles Times as "the kind of place where what goes around comes around generation after generation." In fact, he indicated, "the burden of Hearon's novel is," as the main character tells it, "that 'history repeats.'" The book's narrator is Alma, who, according to Elizabeth Tallent in the New York Times Book Review, "grows from an abused child with a Huckleberry Finn spunkiness into a high-school Lolita, from a principal's dutiful wife into a trailer-park adulteress, handling each role with an equanimity she never admits to."

Janice Greene in the San Francisco Chronicle called A Small Town "a delightfully entertaining novel," while Kaufmann pointed out that the book alternates between "humor and quiet wisdom—it has a friendly and even tone." "Fey, funny and sometimes sad," the book "is recommended reading," wrote George Bulanda in the Detroit News. "It isn't without its faults, but the weaknesses pale in comparison to the strengths." In A Small Town, Greene concluded, "[Hearon's] writing is tight and clean and her craft so unobtrusive we hardly know it's there. She sets up a scene or builds a character as quietly as a weaving spider—a tightly drawn line here, a connecting thread there. Then light falls on the web and the whole pattern is revealed in its beauty and intricacy."

In Five Hundred Scorpions, a disillusioned husband leaves his family to join an anthropological expedition in Mexico that turns out to have a distinctly feminist agenda. The novel was described by Lowry Pei in the New York Times Book Review as a graceful mixture of "bittersweet domestic comedy," intrigue, realism, and the "magical and fantastic." James Park Sloan, in the Chicago Tribune, felt that "the price of heightened sensitivity" in the book "is a feeling of limited depth." Pei, however, concluded that, "if its narration sometimes becomes too benign … that is directly related to the risk Ms. Hearon takes which makes this book unique: the demonic and the domestic inhabit the novel together in a struggle that denies neither and intensifies both."

The title of Owning Jolene is a reference to the battle that a pair of divorced parents wage for possession of their daughter, the nineteen-year-old heroine of what James N. Baker called in Newsweek "another penetrating comedy of Texas manners." Baker contended that the novel "seriously explores how fragile human self-perception can be," while taking "some entertaining satirical swipes at several cultural artifacts of the 1980s." Jolene is described by several reviewers as a passive character, but, affirmed Tim Sandlin in the New York Times Book Review, "after 11 novels, Ms. Hearon has become very good at avoiding the pitfalls of passivity. Above all else, Jolene is likeable."

Hug Dancing, declared Penelope Rowlands in the San Francisco Chronicle Review, "seduces the reader with well-drawn characters who continually manage to surprise, yet remain believable, and a plot that may falter at times, yet always regains momentum." The story relates what happens when an old sweetheart returns to disrupt Cile Tate's marriage to a Presbyterian minister. "The entire experience," Dabney Stuart related in the Roanoke Times & World-News, "evokes the essence of Greek tragedy, lightened." "Despite the quality of [Hearon's] past books," Stuart concluded, Hug Dancing "surpasses them in balance, grace, and acceptance."

Life Estates follows lifelong friends Sarah and Harriet, both widowed in their fifties, as they reshape their lives without their husbands. While Sarah thrives, continuing as head of her own wallpaper business and beginning a new relationship, Harriet struggles to cope, terrified that she will become a stereotypical widow and at the same time unable to find purpose outside of the role of wife. A crisis forces the two to reevaluate their friendship. The book is "a wise, melancholy, glowing appreciation of middle age and after, a pleasure to read," Rebecca Radner commented in the San Francisco Chronicle. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found Life Estates "a thoughtful and honest book" that speaks "of grace under pressure, of carrying on after loss and grief, of affirming the day and looking bravely into the future." New York Times Book Review contributor Lee Smith concluded: "Life Estates is a quietly told novel of compassion and great charm."

Nan, the protagonist of Footprints, is a woman who must come to terms not only with her daughter's sudden death at age twenty-two, but also with her problematic relationship with her husband of twenty-five years. The distress in Nan's marriage is made evident by the daughter's death, but Nan had already been grieving the loss of her two children to their independent adulthood. While her husband seeks solace in an extramarital affair, Nan chooses the solitude of Sanibel Island, where she begins to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be. According to Robb Forman Dew, the novel "explores with precision and great delicacy that stage of a woman's life during which she is condescendingly thought to endure the 'empty nest syndrome.'" Booklist reviewer Nancy Pearl felt that the "compassionate" novel "conveys how marriages work—and don't work—in times of crisis and the various ways people deal with sorrow and loss." A Publishers Weekly correspondent likewise praised Footprints as a "thoughtful, compassionate exploration of the constant adjustments that marriage demands, and of the needs of women to find identities outside of the marital bond." Nan Edgerton, writing in the Virginian Pilot, was favorably impressed Hearon's multiple achievements, stating, "Hearon shifts between the present and Nan and Douglas' past as easily as she changes settings, constructing a complex exploration of the many compromises required in a long-term marriage. She also explores the need for women to have pursuits beyond their families, the ethical implications of organ transplants, the effects of adultery on marriage and the concessions women make" when they continually put their husbands' careers ahead of their own. In addition to all these subplots, Edgerton felt that Hearon was successful with her main theme, which is "how a parent comes to terms with losing a child, whether by accident or through the normal course of growing up. Footprints is a moving and evocative picture of one family's attempt to grapple with such loss."

Ella in Bloom is another "Texas novel," even though much of the action takes place in a run-down duplex in Louisiana. At forty-four, Ella is still living in the shadow of her prettier and more traditional older sister Terrell, the one her mother always favored. While Ella, as a younger woman, ran off and disgraced her traditionalist mother, Terrell became an outward reflection of everything her mother would have wanted: well-groomed, well-married, and in every way respectable. Ella now lives a hand-to-mouth existence watering peoples' plants, a job she hides from her mother. After Terrell's death, however, it becomes evident that she had a secret life. In fact, she died en route to a tryst with her lover. Jennifer Acker reflected in the Antioch Review: "Through a weave of struggling characters, Hearon skillfully illustrates how every generation has its fictions, every individual her own longings and regrets, and how, when intersected and unraveled, these crafted histories create family, and even love." Wilda Williams in the Library Journal contended that Ella in Bloom "is heartwarmingly sentimental yet also deals with such 'real issues' as sibling rivalry and mother-daughter relationships." In this novel, concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Hearon "has mastered the trick of weaving a compelling story from common life crises."

Writing in the Austin Chronicle, Tom Doyal compared Hearon to another female novelist of manners, Jane Austen. Doyal concluded: "Hearon's world is nuanced, subtle, surprisingly well-delineated, and engrossing. It is at once complex and simply told, dreamy and gritty, altogether a marvelous achievement." An essayist for Contemporary Southern Writers found Hearon's writing distinctive because she depicts a more realistic South than one often found in literature. In Hearon's writing, the South is not presented as "a region populated by mad aristocrats, bestial poor whites, and downtrodden blacks. Though there are eccentrics in her fiction, they are not grotesques; though there is rage, it is more likely to result in a slammed door or a discreet adulterous episode than a shooting; and though her characters sometimes have to face tragedy, they also find numerous occasions to laugh at the situations in which they are placed and at each other. In other words, Hearon writes about the South as it is experienced by most of those who live there."



Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Antioch Review, winter, 2002, Jennifer Acker, review of Ella in Bloom, p. 160.

Austin American-Statesman, March 31, 1996, review of Footprints, p. G8; March 19, 2000, Anne Morris, "Shelby Hearon's Bittersweet Homecoming," p. D6.

Austin Chronicle, February 16, 2001, Tom Doyal, "Shelby Hearon Reviewed."

Book, January, 2001, Ann Collette, review of Ella in Bloom, p. 75.

Booklist, March 15, 1996, Nancy Pearl, review of Footprints, p. 1239; January 1, 2001, Nancy Pearl, review of Ella in Bloom, p. 915.

Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1987, section 14, p. 6.

Dallas Morning News, March 6, 1976; October 13, 1985.

Detroit News, January 19, 1985, George Bulanda, review of A Small Town.

Entertainment Weekly, April 5, 1996, Megan Harlan, review of Footprints, p. 76.

Houston Chronicle, February 18, 2001, Fritz Lanham, "Shelby Hearon Seeks to Write about Real People, Real Problems," p. 19.

Library Journal, March 15, 1996, Starr E. Smith, review of Footprints, p. 95; December, 2000, Wilda Williams, review of Ella in Bloom, p. 188.

Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1979; November 27, 1985; May 5, 1996, Erika Taylor, review of Footprints, p. 4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 3, 1983; May 27, 1984; November 11, 1985.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 4, 2001, Geeta Sharma-Jensen, "Shelby Hearon," p. 7.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 1996, Sylvia J. Connolly, review of Footprints, p. 14.

News Journal, February 4, 2001, Leo Irwin, review of Ella in Bloom, p. G6.

Newsweek, July 3, 1978; December 2, 1985; April 17, 1989.

New Yorker, June, 1978.

New York Times Book Review, September 22, 1968; October 7, 1973; June 15, 1975; February 18, 1979; August 2, 1981; March 18, 1984; October 20, 1985; May 10, 1987, p. 7; January 22, 1989; February 13, 1994; March 31, 1996, Robb Forman Dew, "Modern Maturity"; February 11, 2001, Elizabeth Judd, review of Ella in Bloom, p. 20.

People, April 23, 1984; October 28, 1985.

Picture Week, November 25, 1985.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993; January 22, 1996, review of Footprints, p. 58; November 13, 2000, review of Ella in Bloom, p. 86.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), June 23, 1996, Nancy Pate, review of Footprints, p. E3.

Roanoke Times & World-News, January 12, 1992.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 13, 1985; February 2, 1992; February 13, 1994, p. 3; April 7, 1996, Rebecca Radner, review of Footprints, p. 8.

Texas Monthly, January, 2001, "Hearon in Bloom," p. 24.

Virginian Pilot, July 14, 1996, Nan Edgerton, review of Footprints, p. J2.

Washington Post, April 9, 1984; December 20, 1985; February 18, 2001, Carolyn See, review of Swept Away, p. T3.

Washington Post Book World, April 2, 1978; June 14, 1981; April 10, 1983; February 18, 2001, Carolyn See, "Swept Away," p. 3.

Writer, June, 2001, "Shelby Hearon," p. 66.


BookBrowser, http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (August 1, 2001), Harriet Klausner, review of Ella in Bloom.

January Magazine, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (August 1, 2001), Sienna Powers, "Linen Dreams."

Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/ (October 16, 2001), "A Conversation with Shelby Hearon."