Sjoholm, Barbara 1950- (Barbara Wilson, Barbara Ellen Wilson)

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Sjoholm, Barbara 1950- (Barbara Wilson, Barbara Ellen Wilson)


Born October 17, 1950, in Long Beach, CA.


E-mail—[email protected].


Writer, editor, and translator. Seal Press, Seattle, WA, cofounder, 1976, publisher, 1982-94; cofounder, Women in Translation Press, director, 1989-2004.


Columbia Translation award, 1984; British Crime Writers Association award, and Lambda Literary award, both 1991, both for Gaudi Afternoon; Lambda Literary award, and PEN Center USA West nominee, both 1997, both for Blue Windows, 2004, for The Pirate Queen; fellowships from King County Arts Commission, 1979, and Seattle Arts Commission, 1988; Danish Arts Fund, travel grant, 2007.



Murder in the Collective, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1984.

Sisters of the Road, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1987.

The Dog Collar Murders, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1989.

Gaudi Afternoon, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1990.

Trouble in Transylvania, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1993.

The Death of a Much-travelled Woman and Other Adventures with Cassandra Reilly, Third Side Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.

The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 2000.


Talk and Contact, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1978.

Thin Ice, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1981.

Walking on the Moon: Six Stories and a Novella, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1983.

Miss Venezuela, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1988.

Salt Water and Other Stories, Alyson Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1999.


Cora Sandel: Collected Short Stores, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1985.

Ebba Haslund, Nothing Happened, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1987.

Liv Finstand and Cecelie Hoigard, Backstreets, Temple University (Seattle, WA), 1992.


(As Barbara Wilson) Ambitious Women, Spinsters Press (New York, NY), 1982.

(As Barbara Wilson) Cows and Horses, Eighth Mountain Press (Portland, OR), 1988.

(As Barbara Wilson) If You Had a Family, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1996.

(As Barbara Wilson) Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood, Picador Press (New York, NY), 1997.

(As Barbara Wilson) A Clear Spring, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2002.

(Editor) Steady as She Goes: Women's Adventures at Sea, Seal Press (New York, NY), 2003.

The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2004.

Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer, Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2006.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, Shoemaker & Hoard (Emeryville, CA), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals and journals, including New York Times, Slate, Smithsonian, Los Angeles Times, Anitoch Review, American Scholar, and Harvard Review.


Barbara Sjoholm's (previously published as Barbara Wilson) early careers as the founder of a feminist publishing company and a novelist come together in her series of mystery stories featuring strong professional women—one a printer, one a translator—who are led to investigate murders. Wilson's protagonists are often lesbian feminists whose intrigues frequently address political issues, including the role of Americans abroad, pornography, and racism. Though her books often have a strong agenda, readers have appreciated them for their humor and intelligence, and their adventurous heroines.

Sjoholm's first investigator is Pam Nilsen, who is, like Sjoholm, a printer in Seattle. Nilsen first appears in Murder in the Collective, thrust into the midst of a murder investigation when her male coworker is murdered. Nilsen also makes public her sexual identity in the course of the novel and is compelled to question what it means to be part of a lesbian community. Nilsen again finds herself unwittingly close to a murder in Sisters of the Road, when she happens upon a dying prostitute and her friend. When the friend disappears, Nilsen feels compelled to search for her, and in the process learns much she did not know about the underground world of teenage runaways and sexual exploitation. Sexuality is also an issue in the next Nilsen mystery, The Dog Collar Murders, when a group of lesbian sado-masochists are suspected of killing an antipornography activist.

In her prize-winning book Gaudi Afternoon, Sjoholm introduces a new amateur detective, the translator Cassandra Reilly. Reilly, because of her fluent Spanish, is enlisted by Frankie Stevens to help find her husband Ben, who may have fled to Barcelona. Throughout the twists and turns of the novel, Cassandra discovers that Ben is actually Bernadette, Frankie's ex-wife, and that Frankie is a transsexual; Ben's disappearance is in part the result of a child custody dispute made more complicated by Frankie's sex change.

Cassandra became a successful character for Sjoholm, especially popular among feminist and lesbian readers. Writing in Lambda Book Report, reviewer Lee Lynch summed up Cassandra's appeal: her "offhand references to her innumerable flings characterize our heroine as a feisty, gymnastic, non-monogamous, fun-loving, dauntless, daring, unmodest, sophisticated, fancy-free, and faithless dyke…. She carries with her the early feminist phenomena of communal housing and the unerring eye for misanthropy, yet she never becomes part of any movement other than that of traveling sister translators and writers who descend on conferences and fairs with shrieks of recognition as they connect their webs across the globe." The chronicles of Cassandra's career continue in Trouble in Transylvania, The Death of a Much-travelled Woman and Other Adventures with Cassandra Reilly, and The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists. The last novel, set in Venice, combines a modern-day mystery—did Cassandra's friend Nicola really steal a valuable antique bassoon?—with a historical intrigue involving a group of eighteenth-century women musicians.

In addition to her long and successful career in crime fiction, Sjoholm has also established herself in other genres and has worked to support women writers around the world, as founder of Women in Translation, which translates the writing of women who are exiled or otherwise marginalized. Sjoholm has published five short story collections, in addition to the Cassandra Reilly stories of The Death of a Much-travelled Woman and Other Adventures with Cassandra Reilly, and she penned a well-received memoir about growing up in a Christian Science home. Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood begins with her mother's drawn-out death from cancer, due in part to the fact that she refused treatment until it was too late. Her mother attempts suicide when she feels she has failed in healing herself by faith, but she ends up burned and scarred. From there Sjoholm turns to her father's remarriage and her controlling stepmother.

Sjoholm had told a similar story in an earlier novel, If You Had a Family, about a Christian Science family and a mother who dies of breast cancer. In an interview with Lucy Jane Blesdoe in Lambda Book Report, Sjoholm discussed the long process of coming to write her own story in Blue Windows: "I couldn't have imagined years ago that I would ever write a revealing book like that, because part of my whole way of being in the world was to close off certain areas and to protect my mother…. And so I began really slowly, writing things and throwing them in a drawer and thinking, I could never say that, I could never tell that…. But as I got more comfortable with revealing who I was, I began to be less afraid."

In 2000, Sjoholm began looking into changing her name. Her father has always indicated that the name Sjoholm came from his own adoptive father and was therefore not truly the family name. His Swedish mother had died in childbirth, and so, an orphan, he had been unable to trace his roots. Sjoholm felt a strong affinity to her Swedish heritage, but as she had long been publishing under the name she grew up with, was hesitant to make a change. Then during a trip to Sweden she was collecting a series of stories about women lost to the sea, and the word sjoholm, which means "sea island," struck her as something very personal and connected to her on a visceral level. On her fiftieth birthday the following year, Sjoholm took the name Sjoholm as her own, holding an elaborate renaming ceremony with a number of her closest friends. She has continued to publish under her new name, including titles such as Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer and The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland.

Incognito Street is a recounting of some of Sjoholm's experiences when she took off to travel through Europe for several months when she was just twenty years old. It proved to be the first of many such jaunts, as she loved traveling and exploring and opening her mind to new places and people and cultures. That first trip allowed her to travel from country to country, finding work where she could in order to support herself in a simple manner as she explored the countryside and the cities. Living side by side with people from other cultures gave her true insight into their ways of life, and she also learned a great deal about her own abilities and interests as she moved from place to place, directed by her own curiosity. The skills she built—of delving deeply and noticing all the details around her—served her well as she developed her writing career through the years. June Sawyers, in a review for Booklist, found the work to be an "entertaining if somewhat overlong memoir." Nina Donnelly, reviewing for Lambda Book Report, commented that "while the book never quite answers ‘how’ travel made Sjoholm a writer, it is a remarkable memoir of an era." However, a Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that "aspiring writers will be encouraged by Sjoholm's modest beginnings and honest writing style."

In The Palace of the Snow Queen, Sjoholm depicts life in the Arctic during the winter, focusing on the beauty and marvels of Lapland. She writes about the extended period of darkness, the intriguing architecture that makes the most of the icy landscape, and the culture that reaches even to the most frigid of locales. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews found the book to be "an enticing entré for those in search of extreme weather in a scenic clime."

Speaking both as an author and as a writers' advocate, Sjoholm told Blesdoe that she believes strongly in the importance and power of writing. Although books seen as "lesbian literature" may be marginalized in contemporary culture, Sjoholm said, "I do take the long view and I really do think that the work that we're writing now will be seen in the future to have been really important."



Sjoholm, Barbara, Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer, Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2006.

Walker, Ronald G., and June Frazer, The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, Western Illinois University Press (Macomb, IL), 1990.

Zimmerman, Bonnie, The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1991.


Advocate, November, 1993, Mimi Freed, review of Trouble in Transylvania, pp. 74-75.

Booklist, October, 1993, Marie Kuda, review of Trouble in Transylvania, pp. 257-58; September, 1996, Whitney Scott, review of If You Had a Family, p. 223; March, 1997, review of Blue Windows, p. 1092; September, 1998, review of Death of a Much-travelled Woman, p. 72; November 15, 2006, June Sawyers, review of Incognito Street, p. 17.

Contemporary Sociology, March, 1994, Barbara Sherman Heyl, review of Backstreets, pp. 297-298.

Feminist Review, summer, 1990, Linda Semple, review of The Dog Collar Murders, pp. 119-121.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2007, review of The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland.

Lambda Book Report, November-December, 1993, Jane Troxell, review of Trouble in Transylvania, p. 15; November, 1996, Victoria A. Brownworth, review of If You Had a Family, p. 18; December, 1998, review of Death of a Much-travelled Woman, pp. 26-28; January, 1999, Katherine V. Forrest, review of Salt Water and Other Stories, pp. 13-14; February, 1999, Lucy Jane Blesdoe, "The Joy of Writing," pp. 8-10; December, 2000, Therese Syzmanski, "The Submerged Mystery," p. 21; January 1, 2007, Nisa Donnelly, review of Incognito Street, p. 12.

Library Journal, October, 1993, Rex E. Klett, review of Trouble in Transylvania, p. 130; October, 1996, Lisa S. Nussbaum, review of If You Had a Family, p. 128; March, 1997, Bill Piekarski, review of Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood, p. 80; August, 1998, Devon Thomas, review of Death of a Much-travelled Woman, p. 137; January, 1999, Ina Rimpau, review of Salt Water and Other Stories, p. 163; October, 2000, Rex E. Klett, review of The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists, p. 151.

Ms. Magazine, November-December, 1991, Barbara Findlen, "Bold Types," p. 78.

Publishers Weekly, March, 1989, Penny Kaganoff, review of The Dog Collar Murders, p. 90; September, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Gaudi Afternoon, p. 70; July, 1992, review of Backstreets, p. 245; August, 1993, review of Trouble in Transylvania, p. 62; July, 1996, review of If You Had a Family, pp. 81-82; February, 1997, review of Blue Windows, p. 79; September, 2000, review of The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists, p. 91; September 25, 2006, review of Incognito Street, p. 61.

Woman's Review of Books, January, 1995, Mimi Wesson, review of The Dog Collar Murders, pp. 22-23; November, 1997, Cynthia D. Schrager, review of Blue Windows, pp. 8-9.

Women's Studies International Forum, March-April, 1993, Nicole Decure, "Pam Nilsen, ‘Some Kind of Commie Feminist’: The Four-dimensional Detective of Barbara Wilson's Crime Fiction," pp. 181-191.