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Kasischke, Laura 1961-

Kasischke, Laura 1961-

PERSONAL:

Born December 5, 1961, in Lake Charles, LA; daughter of Edward (a postal worker) and Suzanne (a teacher) Kasischke; married William Abernethy, August, 1994; children: John Sullivan Abernethy. Education: University of Michigan, B.A. (with high honors), 1984, M.F.A., 1987; graduate study at Columbia University.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Chelsea, MI. Agent—Lisa Bankoff, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

CAREER:

Writer, novelist, poet, and educator. South Plains College, Levelland, TX, writing instructor, 1987-88; Eastern Michigan University, visiting lecturer in creative writing and literature, 1989-90; Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor, MI, instructor of creative writing and literature, 1990—; University of Nevada, Las Vegas, associate professor, 1994-95.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Hopwood Awards, for poetry, 1982, for fiction, 1982, for essay, 1984, and for drama; Cowden fellowships, 1982-83; Michael Gutterman Poetry Award, 1983; Arts Foundation of Michigan grants, 1983-84; Warner Communications fellowship, Columbia University, 1985; Marjorie Rapaport Poetry Award, 1986; Michigan Council for the Arts Individual Artist grant, 1990; Ragdale Foundation fellowships, 1990-92; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers, 1991, for Wild Brides; MacDowell Colony fellow, 1992; Bread Loaf fellow in poetry, 1992; Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award, 1993; Pushcart Prize, 1993; Creative Artists Award, Arts Foundation of Michigan, 1993; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1994; Barbara Deming Memorial Award, 1994; Poets & Writers Exchange fellowship, 1994; Juniper Prize, 2002, for Dance and Disappear; Beatrice Hawley Award.

WRITINGS:

POETRY

Brides, Wives, and Widows, American Studies Press (Tampa, FL), 1990.

Wild Brides, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Housekeeping in a Dream, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.

Fire & Flower: Poems, Alice James Books (Farmington, ME), 1998.

What It Wasn't: Poems, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2002.

Gardening in the Dark, Ausable Press (Keene, NY), 2004.

OTHER

Suspicious River (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.

Woman in a Circle, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1999.

White Bird in a Blizzard (novel), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.

The Life before Her Eyes (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 2002.

Dance and Disappear, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 2002.

Boy Heaven (young adult novel), HarperTempest (New York, NY), 2006.

Be Mine (novel), Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2007.

Feathered (young adult novel), HarperTeen (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor of poems to periodicals, including Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea, Epoch, Georgia Review, Graham House Review, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Plum Review, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Seneca Review, and Witness.

SIDELIGHTS:

Laura Kasischke is an award-winning poet and novelist whose verses have been widely published in literary journals and gathered in numerous collections. In addition, when her first novel, the dark and violent Suspicious River, was published in 1996, it introduced Kasischke to an even wider readership. Suspicious River, narrated in the first person, tells the lurid tale of Leila Murray, a twenty-year-old married woman who works behind the desk of the Swan Motel in the small town of Suspicious River in western Michigan. For some unstated reason, Leila decides to become a prostitute and offers her favors to the motel's clients whenever her husband is out of town on business. The night she provides her services to Gary Jensen, a charismatic stranger in town, marks the beginning of Leila's obsession with the brutal stranger and the spiral that could lead to her death. As the story unfolds, Leila suffers flashbacks from her childhood, when her mother, a prostitute, was stabbed to death by a client, who happened to be Leila's uncle. Leila appears to be reliving her mother's past, moving to embrace an identical fate in a reading experience that George Stade writing in the New York Times Book Review likened to "driving too fast on the Pacific Coast Highway."

Suspicious River elicited much praise from critics. Boston Globe reviewer Diane White called it "an extremely intelligent novel, intricately constructed, beautifully written," and Erika Taylor, writing for the Los Angeles Times, labeled it an "impressive first novel" and "a story that is profoundly disturbing but also resonant with hope and rebirth." Moreover, in a review for the Seattle Times, Johanna Stoberock declared that Kasischke has written "a work of such eerie beauty, such immediate and vibrant imagery, that it will haunt readers for years." In the words of Stade, Suspicious River "is written with the skill of an old hand, though not with skill only. The novel's past and present spiral around and condition each other like the strands of a double helix. Chains of imagery, visual, olfactory and tactile, link up scenes in unexpected ways. The peripheral characters, the physical setting, the claustrophobic horrors of American small-town life are evoked with austere precision." Stade noted that "Lila's case got to me in spite of my resistance to all it reveals of what I don't want to face in human nature, for Ms. Kasischke's characters are all too convincing." He concluded: "I truly and immensely admire this novel, but I am not sure I like it."

As would be expected of a poet's work, Kasischke's use of language in Suspicious River attracted the attention of reviewers. The author's style is to follow a plain short statement with several poetic sentence fragments. According to Molly E. Rauch, in the Nation: "Luscious, disjointed images pile upon one another until the novel is teeming with phrases—looping, frenzied words, breathlessly pounding toward a frozen white winter and the story's inexorable conclusion." "Her fine sense of the nuance of language is obvious on just about every page," White added. "The images she chooses are original, unexpected, unclichéd. In less skillful hands Leila's would be just a depressing story about a very troubled young woman. Kasischke's writing endows it with universality and elevates it to tragedy. It's an amazing first novel." Stoberock concluded: "Suspicious River tells a difficult story, one borne by painful images that give Leila's journey no easy ending. It is also a novel of depth, beauty and insight, hauntingly told by a powerful writer."

In her second novel, White Bird in a Blizzard, Kasischke tells the story of sixteen-year-old Katrina Connors. Teetering on the edge of womanhood, Katrina struggles with aspects of her life in an Ohio suburb. Overweight and socially awkward, Katrina is an outcast among her peers. Still, she is as preoccupied with sex, dating, and other rites of adulthood as any other teenager, and she strains against the oppressive home atmosphere in which her brusque, demanding, and insulting mother makes daily life miserable for her and her father. While struggling with the physical and emotional turmoil of her late adolescence, Katrina suddenly faces the abrupt disappearance of her mother on a cold day in January. At first bucking up stoically and calmly, Katrina comes to realize that she feels a new sense of freedom, and even some relief, in the absence of her frequently unpleasant mother. Even so, many questions remain unanswered, such as why her mother would suddenly vanish without a word or trace; where she went; and, if she would ever be back. Dreams and strong emotions begin to trouble Katrina, and over time, the difficult truth about her mother's disappearance emerges. Finally, Katrina must not only face the circumstances of her mother's departure but must also take the final steps that overcome her circumstances and transform her into an adult. "Kasischke's heroine is a fully rounded, distinctively portrayed character—a self-centered, typically hormone-crazed teenager who painstakingly develops into a self-aware young woman," observed a critic in Publishers Weekly. Other critics commented favorably on the quality of writing and language in the novel. The "soft, almost ethereal language makes the horrifying reality at the core of the book shockingly powerful," commented Eleanor J. Bader in Library Journal. Grace Fill, writing in Booklist, remarked that "Kasischke's writing is so seductively rich in sensory imagery that reading is pure pleasure."

A terrible, irreversible choice lies at the center of The Life before Her Eyes. Maureen and Diana, both good friends, are two teenage girls who encounter random, life-changing violence in their school. In the school washroom, they hear the distant sounds of gunshots; soon, the shooter storms into the room, where he threatens the two girls. He gives the two an agonizing choice: he will kill only one of them, and asks the two to decide which it will be. In that moment, Maureen offers herself to be killed in order to save her friend; at the same time, Diana hears herself ask the killer to slay Maureen instead of her. At this pivotal point in the narrative, the story travels backward in time to the beginnings of the girls' friendship, then shimmers forward twenty years to Diana's happy suburban life as the wife of a professor, mother of a delightful daughter, and owner of a charming house. Gradually, darkness creeps into this idyllic life as Diana begins to see her life slowly crack and fall apart. As the story continues to unfold, the reader has the opportunity to consider whether Diana's diminished circumstances are the result of long-held guilt, the inevitable effects of entropy, or something more sinister. Lisa Shea, writing in O, the Oprah Magazine, called the novel a "tour de force by Kasischke." Kasischke's story "plays teenage Diana's youthful illusions of immortality and beauty against the shifting, uneasy reality of middle age," commented Reba Leiding in Library Journal. "This song of innocence and of experience reads like a fairy tale gone drastically wrong, the sensibility heightened by Kasischke's emphasis on language," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist critic Joanne Wilkinson concluded, "There's no denying that Kasischke is a fearless writer."

Boy Heaven, Kasischke's first novel for young adults, embroils protagonist Kristy Sweetland, a seventeen-year-old cheerleader, in the eerie circumstances of a local legend. While attending a cheerleading camp, Kristy, her friend Desiree, and new girl Kristi sneak away to go skinny dipping in local Lost Lake. On the way, they flirt daringly with two young local men in an adjacent car, giving them a quick flash of their breasts. The event seems to be little more than an instance of youthful sexual bravado until the girls realize that the creepy yokels have been seen lurking around their cabins at night, whispering in the dark and mounting an ominous presence. Circumstances worsen when Kristi begins to fall apart psychologically, refusing to eat, sleep, or take a bath. Kristi also mutters forbidding warnings about troubles to come. Soon, the girls realize that their taunting game with the two locals has led to problems and potentially deadly consequences. "Kasischke's writing imbues the book with such an eerie sense of apprehension that the pages keep turning," commented Susan Riley in School Library Journal.

Sherry Seymour, the protagonist of Be Mine, is an English teacher at a community college in Michigan. She is reasonably happy in her relationship with her husband, but she is struggling with empty-nest syndrome after her son Chad's recent departure for college. When she receives an anonymous Valentine in her school mail box, she is intrigued and flattered, as well as pleased by the possibility of having a secret admirer. Soon, she receives more admiring notes, each more explicit than the last. She tells her husband, Jon, about the notes, and he finds them stimulating, resulting in an increase in the couple's sex life. Soon, Sherry believes she has identified the writer of the notes and, with the encouragement of her husband, embarks on an affair with the man. However, she comes to realize that the man she thought was the note-writer was not. Too late to back out, she becomes embroiled with her controlling lover even as her relationship with Jon sours—he did not think she was actually having an affair, believing instead that her stories were simply a tactic to add spice to their love life. Death looms menacingly in the narrative as Sherry, Jon, and the other characters struggle to break the grip of obsession, bad judgment, and irreversible actions. With this novel, "Kasischke has proven herself again to be a bold chronicler of dark obsession," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor. Kasischke "aims toward tragedy, using delicate, elegant prose to expose the psychological and moral rot that can lie beneath the most normal facade," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews.

Kasischke once told CA: "The narrative of Suspicious River grew out of the writing of a poem, and the image which suggested the novel to me simply mushroomed until it could no longer be contained by that poem—an image of a young woman buried in red raked leaves at the side of a road. As cars blew past, the leaves rose briefly around her nude body like bloody baby-hands, then settled over her again, a grave. That was everything I needed to know in the beginning about Leila—the public violence of her life, a glimpse of her naked shame, and the season that contained her.

"The first draft of the novel did come very quickly, and I attribute this to the season. I began writing in mid-September, and ended in October—a very dramatic time in Michigan. Color, death, fury. As I wrote, it seemed to me that Leila's voice was part of that frantic change. An end or a beginning was approaching for her almost too quickly to record, and the trees, the gardens, the sky, the air seemed to be taking part in—or were victims of—the same violation and disorder Leila was experiencing. Every morning before work and every night after, I felt I had to hurry to write about that experience, had to get the season into the novel before it was over, and had to reach the end of Leila's story before she did."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 1, 1998, Grace Fill, review of White Bird in a Blizzard, p. 651; December 1, 2001, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Life before Her Eyes, p. 628; November 15, 2006, Maria Hatton, review of Be Mine, p. 34.

Boston Globe, July 4, 1996, Diane White, review of Suspicious River, p. 63.

Kirkus Reviews, November 21, 2001, review of The Life before Her Eyes, p. 1570; October 15, 2006, review of Be Mine, p. 1036.

Kliatt, May, 2003, Francisca Goldsmith, review of The Life before Her Eyes, p. 18.

Library Journal, December, 1998, Eleanor J. Bader, review of White Bird in a Blizzard, p. 156; December, 2001, Reba Leiding, review of The Life before Her Eyes, p. 173; December, 2006, Karen Kleckner, review of Be Mine, p. 111. (close)

Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1996, Erika Taylor, review of Suspicious River, p. 6.

Nation, April 22, 1996, Molly E. Rauch, review of Suspicious River, p. 35.

New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1996, George Stade, review of Suspicious River, p. 11.

O, the Oprah Magazine, February, 2002, Lisa Shea, review of The Life before Her Eyes, p. 115.

Prairie Schooner, summer, 2001, Jenny Factor, review of Fire & Flower: Poems, p. 183.

Publishers Weekly, October 19, 1998, review of White Bird in a Blizzard, p. 52; January 14, 2002, review of The Life before Her Eyes, p. 39; May 27, 2002, review of Dance and Disappear, p. 51; October 2, 2006, review of Be Mine, p. 39.

School Library Journal, September, 2006, Susan Riley, review of Boy Heaven, p. 209.

Seattle Times, July 14, 1996, Johanna Stoberock, review of Suspicious River.

Time, May 9, 2005, Lev Grossman, review of Gardening in the Dark, p. 70.

ONLINE

Arborweb,http://www.arborweb.com/ (May 7, 2007), Keith Taylor, review of The Life before Her Eyes.

Ausable Press Web site,http://www.ausablepress.org/ (May 7, 2007), biography of Laura Kasischke.

Boston Review,http://www.bostonreview.net/ (May 7, 2007), Joanna Klink, review of Fire & Flower.

Curled up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (May 7, 2007), Luan Gaines, review of Be Mine.

Harcourt Trade Publishers Web site,http://www.harcourtbooks.com/ (May 7, 2007), interview with Laura Kasischke.

January Magazine Online,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (May 7, 2007), Tony Buchsbaum, "Be Better," review of Be Mine.

Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing,http://www.cmsu.edu/englphil/pleiades/ (May 7, 2007), Jonathan Weinert, "So Much Charm and Destruction," review of Gardening in the Dark.

Whistling Shade,http://www.whistlingshade.com/ (May 7, 2007), Joel Van Valin, review of The Life before Her Eyes.

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