Otto, Whitney 1955-
OTTO, Whitney 1955-
PERSONAL: Born March 5, 1955, in Burbank, CA; daughter of William B., Sr. (an electrical engineer) and Constance D. Vambert (a professional public speaker; maiden name, di Silvestro) Otto; married John A. Riley, December 8, 1991; children: Samuel Morganfield Riley. Education: Attended Raymond College, University of the Pacific, 1973-74, and San Diego State University, 1974-75; University of California, Irvine, B.A., 1987, M.F.A., 1990. Politics: "Yes. Predictably liberal." Hobbies and other interests: Making boxes and screens.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Joy Harris, Robert Lantz-Joy Harris Literary Agency, 156 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Novelist and educator. University of California, Irvine, member of staff, 1975-78, instructor in creative writing and composition, 1987-89; bookkeeper in San Francisco, CA, 1980-86; Irvine Valley College, instructor in composition, 1990.
AWARDS, HONORS: Art Siedenbaum Award nomination for first novel, Los Angeles Times, 1990, for How to Make an American Quilt.
How to Make an American Quilt (novel), Villard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Now You See Her (novel), Villard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Passion Dream Book (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1997.
(Contributor of photographs, drawings, and essays) Margret Aldrich, editor, This Old Quilt: A Heartwarming Celebration of Quilts and Quilting Memories, Voyageur Press (Stillwater, MN), 2001.
A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
ADAPTATIONS: How to Make an American Quilt was adapted as an audiobook read by Judith Ivey, Random Audio, 1992, and was adapted as a film starring Winona Ryder; Now You See Her was adapted as an audiobook, 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: While working toward her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of California at Irvine, Whitney Otto wrote a short story that used the practice of quilting as a metaphor for events in the lives of its characters. On the advice of Donald Heiney, a university faculty member and writer, she eventually expanded the work into a novel, How to Make an American Quilt. The narrative relates the stories of a group of women that regularly meets in the small California town of Grasse—just outside Bakersfield—to sew. Their current project involves making a quilt that they intend to give as a wedding present to Finn Bennett-Dodd, the twenty-six-year-old woman who narrates the story. Finn's grandmother, Hy Dodd, and great aunt, Glady Joe Cleary, are among members of the quilting circle who tell about their marriages, their relationships with family and friends, and their connections to one another in separate chapters of the novel. Interspersed between each story are bits of information about the history of quilting and sets of sewing instructions.
David McLellan, in an article printed in the Los Angeles Times, referred to an interview in which Otto spoke about the use of the quilt in her novel: "It fascinated me—the idea that each patch, for example, has its own life or wholeness to it and when you join them together you get another sense of wholeness. Quilting also interested me as an urge, or impulse; people have to be joined in marriage, or friendship, or love, or to join clubs.... When I wrote the short story, I just sort of wrote it and didn't think about all these things. When I finished it, I thought it's like this metaphor of coming together and looking at each woman and talking about friendship, marriage, children, and lives that pull apart." Otto once told CA that "the impulse to join is countered by the equally strong impulse to be singular or solitary. And I feel that the lives of my characters are driven by these contradictory desires. A quilt, metaphorically, can be an illustration of fusion and separation." Barbara Fisher in the Washington Post praised the author for her use of the practice of quilting in her novel, stating that "Otto has made this metaphor personal and vivid. The quilting analogy seems so right, one wonders why it has never been made before."
Upon its release, How to Make an American Quilt elicited praise from several reviewers. Judith Freeman in the Los Angeles Times Book Review commended Otto for the economy and efficiency used in depicting the characters, noting that "one of the truly remarkable things about this novel is how powerfully, and succinctly, an entire life can be portrayed in just a few pages." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also lauded Otto, acknowledging that How to Make an American Quilt is a "remarkable first novel" that is "imaginative in concept and execution." In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Freeman also complimented Otto on her literary debut, pointing out that the novel includes "beautiful individual stories, stitched into a profoundly moving whole. There is a sense of history here, a feeling for quilting that elevates this somewhat arcane, feminine activity to a level of Zen-like wonder."
In The Passion Dream Book, Otto tells the story of Romy March, a young woman who drops out of college in 1918 to take a menial job at a movie studio. There she meets Augustine Marks, a black gardener with whom she falls in love. When Romy's family disowns her over the relationship, the couple head to New York where Augustine pursues a career as a photographer. Romy, too, pursues an artistic career and eventually the two separate as their careers become too consuming for each of them. Harriet Klausner in BookBrowser found that The Passion Dream Book "symbolizes the struggle of women to find a niche in a man's world" and praised its "story of an open bi-racial couple" for encouraging "readers to rise above the stereotypes expected of them by society and family."
Otto's 2002 novel A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity follows a group of twentysomething San Franciscans who are "floating" through their lives. Drawing the novel's title from a series of famous Japanese woodblock prints of courtesans and much of its structure from the ancient Japanese Pillow Book, Otto presents "changeable, unmoored young characters 'who are adrift in pleasure,'" as Janet Maslin explained in the New York Times. Otto claimed in an online interview with Ellen Kanner of BookPage that she has lived that life herself: "You're hanging out with your friends, in a job not a career. You know this isn't what you should be doing, but it's so pleasant to be doing nothing." Maslin found that the novel featured "thin, wafting characters who have little seriousness or ballast....Itall adds up to less than meets the eye." But Kanner believed that the book's "characters are awash in the joy and madness and terror that's all part of love."
Otto once told CA: "In terms of my writing style, I think I am a maker of collages, in a way. I tend to fashion things by juxtaposition, overlapping, working through the larger structure piece by piece. I love being a writer and agree with James Baldwin, who said, 'I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 70, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Atlantic Monthly, May, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 145.
Biography, fall, 1998, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 488.
Booklist, March 15, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 1204.
Bookwatch, August, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 12.
Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 13.
Detroit Free Press, March 17, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, April 14, 1995, review of Now You See Her, p. 61; May 22, 1998, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 63.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 6, 1991, p. C7.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 171; March 1, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 330.
Library Journal, January, 1995, review of Now You See Her, p. 176; April 1, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 130.
Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1991, Dennis McLellan, "A Thread of Brilliance in Novelist's Debut," p. E7.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 24, 1991, Judith Freeman, "Filling in the Blankets," p. 3.
New York Times, March 30, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. C23; March 6, 2002, Janet Maslin, "The Pleasurable Life Afloat in San Francisco," p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1991, Jill McCorkle, "Cover Stories," p. 10; April 23, 1995, review of Now You See Her, p. 32; July 27, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, February 8, 1991, review of How to Make an American Quilt, p. 46; January 24, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 38; March 17, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 74.
School Library Journal, November, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 148.
Times (London, England), July 18, 1991, p. 14.
Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 1991, p. 19.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 28, 1991, Roberta Rubenstein, "Discovery among Differences," pp. 6-7; May 1, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 6; July 13, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 10.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1997, review of The Passion Dream Book, p. 131.
Washington Post, May 27, 1991, Barbara Fisher, "Stories Stitched from Women's Lives," p. C3.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1994, review of Now You See Her, p. 46.
BookBrowser,http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (May 12, 1998), Harriet Klausner, review of The Passion Dream Book.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (March, 2002), Ellen Kanner, "A Modern Floating World: Whitney Otto's Beauties Set Adrift."*