Tilghman, Christopher 1946–

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Tilghman, Christopher 1946–

PERSONAL: Born September 5, 1946, in Boston, MA; married second wife, Caroline Preston (an author); children: three sons. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1968.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, 219 Bryan Hall, P.O. Box 400121, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4121. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Writer, novelist, and educator. Lecturer in creative writing at Emerson College, 1990–92; member of faculty, Aspen Writers' Conference, 1992, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993, Napa Valley Writers' Conference, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005, Yale Summer School, 1995, St. Mary's College, 1996, and Fine Arts Writing Center, 1997; Rea Visiting Fellow in Fiction, University of Virginia, 1996; writer in residence, Emerson College, 1996–2001; University of Virginia, professor of English and fiction professor in M.F.A. program, 2001–. Lecturer, Washington College's Center for the Environment and Society. Has worked as a carpenter, in a sawmill, renovating buildings, and writing copy for corporate reports. Military service: Served in U.S. Navy, 1968–71.

AWARDS, HONORS: Massachusetts Artists Foundation fellowship in fiction, 1987; Emily Clark Balch Award, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1989; Denise and Mel Cohen Award, Ploughshares, 1989; Whiting Writers Award, 1990; Guggenheim fellowship, 1992; Ingram Merrill Foundation Award for fiction, 1993; National Endowment of the Arts literary fellowship, 1994.


In a Father's Place (short stories; contains "On the Rivershore," "Loose Reins," "Norfolk, 1969," "Hole in the Day," "A Gracious Rain," "In a Father's Place," and "Mary in the Mountains"), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.

Mason's Retreat (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1996.

The Way People Run (short stories), Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

Roads of the Heart (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

Work appears in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories series.

Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Yale Review, Southern Review, Boston Globe Magazine, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review, and New Yorker.

Coeditor, Ploughshares, 1992. Advisory editor of Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Meridian.

SIDELIGHTS: "Christopher Tilghman's collections of short stories, In a Father's Place and The Way People Run, have been praised for mature character voices, detailed settings, and precisely crafted plots that guide his characters toward life-affirming epiphanies," according to Kelli Wondra, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Family history and geographic location provide the common ground for many of his stories. Insisting on 'event and consequence and people' as the essential elements of storytelling, Tilghman has written stories that have led reviewers to compare him to Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, and Anton Chekhov." An essayist for Contemporary Southern Writers described Tilghman's work in these terms: "Characterized by a focus on family and place, Tilghman's narratives usually begin with a strong visual image evoking locales he knows intimately, especially New England, Montana, and Maryland's Eastern Shore. Perhaps because he is the scion of an Eastern Shore family dating back to the seventeenth century, Tilghman's stories are usually set in rural areas, but during the mid-twentieth century; some critics have seen his well-plotted stories as old fashioned as the rural landscapes and lives they chronicle."

Tilghman began writing when he left the U.S. Navy in 1971. He had to support himself with odd jobs, however, including carpentry and writing copy for corporations, because he did not sell his first story until 1986. Tilghman's first book-length publication is the acclaimed 1990 short-story collection In a Father's Place. He followed this critical success with another in 1996—his first novel, Mason's Retreat. In 1999, his second story collection appeared, The Way People Run, and in 2004, his second novel, Roads of the Heart, was published.

Though he writes about other locations as well, the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland features strongly in the stories gathered in the collection In a Father's Place. The story "On the Rivershore" is about the tension between Maryland watermen and farmers, and how these tensions are played out and resolved when a handyman kills a fisherman who had molested his daughter. Richard Eder, critiquing In a Father's Place in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called "On the Rivershore" a "beautifully drawn" story. Ann Hulbert, writing in the New Republic, also cited the tale as memorable, calling its use of description "metaphorically as well as physically telling." Robert Towers in the New York Review of Books marveled over how, in "only twenty-two pages" of "On the Rivershore," "a small society, with its occupations, its class structure, and its codes … has been revealed."

"Loose Reins" concerns a grown son revisiting the ranch he grew up on after his widowed mother has married a once-drunken ranch hand. Eder found the story to be too "stiffly arranged around its point, although it boasts one shining scene." John Casey, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "Loose Reins" "has some of the abrupt complexity of comedy," and summed up the tale as being "about what all of these people have worked out with one another, the way the place works them loose from the predestinations of family and class." Towers applauded the fact that "the Montana landscape [is] evoked carefully and knowledgeably" and "so are the language and attitudes of the old ranch hand."

"Norfolk, 1969" describes a marriage that comes apart after the husband is drafted into the Navy and the wife joins the peace movement. In Eder's opinion, the story "arranges its characters woodenly," but he conceded "there is some lovely writing in it." Casey, by contrast, found it "plausible and intelligent." Hulbert praised the subtle ways in which "the political contours" of the couple's "trouble emerge" in "Norfolk, 1969," as well as how "just as subtly they are complicated by a deeper, unideological perspective."

"Hole in the Day" portrays a woman's attempt to run away from her marriage when she learns she is pregnant with a fifth child, and details her husband's quest to find her. Eder praised "Hole in the Day" as "touching and comic," explaining that in it, "Tilghman has accomplished what only a true storyteller can do: make the impossible inevitable." Casey labeled "Hole in the Day" "elegantly balanced," while the same tale prompted Thomas D'Evelyn in the Christian Science Monitor to declare that "Tilghman is wonderful with children." Similarly, Towers assessed that in "Hole in the Day" the author "dramatizes the situation of the desperate young couple without condescension and the children are remarkably real."

"A Gracious Rain" gives readers the thoughts of a young married man who suddenly dies. This story came in for criticism from Eder, who found the focus on a character who had passed to the afterlife "contrived." Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times did not care for that tale either, labeling it "an awkward ghost story." Casey wrote favorably of "A Gracious Rain," however, and added that "it leads to a vision that is more than worth the jolt." Hulbert enjoyed it as well, and observed: "This unusual story … nonchalantly steps into the afterlife as though barely a doorsill stood in the way." Similarly, D'Evelyn affirmed that "Tilghman manages the transition from this character's life to his afterlife without skipping a beat."

Malcolm Jones in Newsweek praised "In a Father's Place," the title story, for its "almost Dickensian sense of drama and possibility," while Eder lamented that the obnoxious girlfriend of the piece, Patty, "is not simply a mean effigy; she is a regular Guy Fawkes stuffed to the sneer with gunpowder." Similarly, Casey described the same character as an "onstage villain," but judged that the tale is "still riveting in its progress." Hulbert, interestingly, praised Patty as "quite comically drawn." Towers, however, singled out "In a Father's Place" as the only tale in the collection in which "Tilghman's touch seems less than sure."

"Mary in the Mountains" is the tale of a woman conveyed predominantly in letters to her ex-husband. D'Evelyn praised the letter-writer heroine of this final piece of In a Father's Place: "She writes with the vehemence of [twentieth-century American poet] Sylvia Plath and the aching wisdom of [nineteenth-century American poet] Emily Dickinson."

"In a Father's Place is a moving and pictorially vivid collection—a collection that signals the appearance of a gifted new writer, blessed with an instinctual feel for the emotional transactions that make up family life," wrote Kakutani. Casey summed up the collection as "a wonderful surprise," while D'Evelyn, citing the author's wide range of experience as well as his maturity, concluded that Tilghman's "eloquent stories are works of intelligence, craft, and time."

"The contents of Tilghman's second collection of short stories, The Way People Run," Wondra asserted: "aptly attest to Tilghman's ability to synthesize complex characterization and concise plot structure…. Where geography and history were influential narrative elements of the stories in the first collection, the stories of the second collection rely more heavily on the lyric mode. This time Tilghman seems more concerned with mapping the emotional geography of his characters' crises rather than evoking the grandeur of the places they occupy. While images of water and land are still powerful, they have more poetic resonance and less immediate impact on plot or character development."

The essayist for Contemporary Southern Writers commented on The Way People Run's title story: "The opening paragraph of the title piece … reveals Tilghman's dense writing technique as we learn that a tired Barry, father of two daughters, after driving for days is approaching a Western town he knows something about. The town is where his Grandfather, affectionately remembered by townspeople as 'an old parry dog' but detested by Barry's mother for his desertion, found contentment, leaving behind a junkyard of cars as a monument. Barry came west on job interviews after his Wall Street firm closed; he, too, seeks contentment and permanence, which he tries to find at the town's Virginian Cafe and with May, its waitress. Barry uses his earlier rescue of a child during an accident as an excuse to stay in town rather than push on. After his liaison with May, he admits to himself that he has left his wife and daughters behind; again on the road he wonders if this experience is the way things happen, 'the way people run.'"

Family relationships figure strongly in the stories gathered in The Way People Run. In "Room for Mistakes," a Boston banker returns to the family ranch in Montana to settle his late mother's estate. But he also goes to reconcile himself somehow with the mother he could never please and to find work more satisfying than what he currently does. Wondra noted that the stories "'Something Important' and 'Things Left Undone' present two men who work to maintain their equilibrium in the face of family crisis. Peter in 'Something Important' must confront his wife's desire for a divorce, a fact he learns from his brother, Mitch. In 'Things Left Undone' Denny and Susan nearly destroy their marriage in the aftermath of their infant son's death. The day-to-day battles that Peter faces in rebuilding his relationship with his brother and that Denny and Susan face in accepting their son's death are the rocky terrain of rejection and loss that Tilghman's characters must traverse as they try to remap and redefine what it means to be a family." In a review of The Way People Run, a critic for Publishers Weekly concluded that "the six rich and complex stories here will add to the reputation Tilghman [has] established."

Mason's Retreat seems to have fulfilled critical expectations for Tilghman's first novel. It uses a contemporary frame and a narrator looking back upon his own family history to tell a story that takes place during the late 1930s. Edward Mason has inherited a two-hundred-year-old Maryland estate from a maiden aunt and decides to leave his floundering manufacturing business in England to take up life as a rich farmer. With him, he brings Edith, the wife he has promised never again to be unfaithful to, and their two sons, thirteen-year-old Sebastien and six-year-old Simon. Though he is resistant to the move at first, Sebastien soon comes to see the estate as his long-lost spiritual home. Edith finds happiness there as well; in fact, the only one who cannot adjust, let alone prosper, is Edward. His plans to return to England and his family's subsequent resistance bring about a tragedy that changes the family forever.

Thomas Mallon, discussing Mason's Retreat in the New York Times Book Review, observed that "Tilghman writes with the same authoritative elegance that he displayed in his earlier stories," and went on to praise the novel as a "finely imagined book." Nicholas Clee, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, asserted, "Tilghman writes prose that is lyrical, alert, and warm; he is engagingly unafraid to let it swell, risking sentimentality." Similarly, Gene Lyons in Entertainment Weekly appraised it as "beautifully written" and "fully imagined." Mason's Retreat prompted Paula Chin in People to call Tilghman "a master of mood and atmosphere," while Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World concluded: "In all respects, Mason's Retreat is exemplary."

"Tilghman is hopelessly out of step with the times," Gary Krist commented on Salon.com. "I mean that as a compliment…. Not that there's anything quaint about his work; he is no Charles Kuralt, nostalgically celebrating the virtues of small-town folks. But while other serious writers seem focused on the noise and rootlessness of contemporary life, Tilghman writes about people who are still profoundly affected by the quiet pull of the past."

Speaking of the role of fiction writers, Tilghman explained to Marcia C. Landskroener in the Washington College Magazine: "Fiction writers share a commonality of experience…. What is different for each of us is the process—how we relate to ourselves, how we understand our own history, how we answer the question 'who is that person in the mirror?' Literature is really about that moment of discovery, that moment of astonishment. It has to go to a higher plane—to some political, spiritual, or emotional place that's nonverbal. All the arts are approaching this point through different avenues. Made-up stories about made-up people seem to get us there sometimes."

Roads of the Heart is Tilghman's "estimable second novel," commented Carol Herman in the World and I. Eric Alwin, the novel's narrator, is a middle-aged New York advertising executive whose life is plagued by discontent and the repercussions of long-ago family disappointments and infidelities. His thirty-year marriage is in the throes of disintegration, with himself and his wife both having had extramarital affairs. Eric's career is unsatisfactory, and year by year he sees an ever-shrinking selection of possibilities in his future. On the weekends, Eric cares for his eighty-two-year-old father, Frank, a former politician rendered nearly unable to speak or move after the debilitating effects of a stroke. Frank's own career was cut short years early in the wake of a sex scandal.

As Frank sees his mortality creeping ever closer, he decides that he must make amends for the mistakes he has made and the injuries and insults he has brought upon others throughout his life. He convinces Eric to take him on a road trip throughout the South to reconnect with lost family members, including his ex-wife Audrey, their youngest child Poppy, and their grandson, Tom. Accompanied by nursing attendant Adam, father and son embark on their cleansing journey. As the trip progresses, however, Eric finds himself reflecting on his own life and transgressions, and he and Frank come to terms with ignoble acts and unsatisfactory resolutions from the past that have haunted their present. "Though each character in this tale of familial regret and redemption somehow manages to disappoint a spouse, a child, a colleague or a friend, no slight here goes unmended," Herman remarked. Pressured under the weight of years and forged by individual redemption, two wounded families stand to be reborn.

A Publishers Weekly critic found the novel to be "heartfelt but clunky," with some writing that "lapses into mawkish melodrama." However, Herman assessed the book as "beautifully written and engagingly so," as well as "steadily paced and quietly sensual." The author tells his story "with bittersweet warmth and understanding, loving and forgiving his characters even as he reveals their flaws," observed Booklist reviewer Misha Stone.



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

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Booklist, April 15, 1996, Roberta Johnson, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 1423; November 1, 1996, Whitney Scott, audiobook review of Mason's Retreat, p. 522; May 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of The Way People Run, p. 1580; June 1, 2004, Misha Stone, review of Roads of the Heart, p. 1706.

Boston Globe, April 7, 1996, Gail Caldwell, review of Mason's Retreat; May 23, 1999, Matthew Gilbert, review of The Way People Run.

Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 1990, Thomas D'Evelyn, review of In a Father's Place, p. 13.

Entertainment Weekly, June 7, 1996, Gene Lyons, review of Mason's Retreat, pp. 52, 55.

Library Journal, May 1, 1999, Shannon Williams Haddock, review of The Way People Run, p. 116.

Literary Review, winter, 1995, Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, "Places and Visions: An Interview with Christopher Tilghman," pp. 244-255.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 29, 1990, Richard Eder, review of In a Father's Place, pp. 3, 7.

New Republic, June 4, 1990, Ann Hulbert, review of In a Father's Place, pp. 40-41.

Newsweek, April 2, 1990, Malcolm Jones, review of In a Father's Place, pp. 59-60.

New York Review of Books, August 16, 1990, Robert Towers, review of In a Father's Place, p. 46.

New York Times, April 3, 1990, Michiko Kakutani, review of In a Father's Place, p. C17; July 4, 1999, Rand Richards Cooper, review of The Way People Run.

New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1990, John Casey, review of In a Father's Place, p. 12; April 28, 1996, Thomas Mallon, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 13; July 4, 1999, Rand Richards Cooper, "An Idea of Home: These Stories' Vision of Family Life Has a Black Hole at the Center," p. 22.

People, August 19, 1996, Paula Chin, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 33.

Ploughshares, winter, 1992–1993, Don Lee, "About Christopher Tilghman: A Profile," pp. 228-231.

Publishers Weekly, February 12, 1996, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 58; April 5, 1999, review of The Way People Run, p. 222; June 21, 2004, review of Roads of the Heart, p. 43.

San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 1999, David Weigand, review of The Way People Run.

School Library Journal, October, 1996, Jackie Gropman, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 164.

Times Literary Supplement, July 5, 1996, Nicholas Clee, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 22.

Washington College Magazine, fall, 2001, Marcia C. Landskroener, "Visiting Voices: In a Writer's Place."

Washington Post, May 16, 1999, Wendi Kaufman, review of The Way People Run.

Washington Post Book World, April 7, 1996, Jonathan Yardley, review of Mason's Retreat, p. 3.

World and I, September, 2004, Carol Herman, "Redeeming a Family's Heavy Sins," review of Roads of the Heart.


Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (May 20, 1999), Gary Krist, review of The Way People Run.

University of Virginia Web site, http://www.virginia.edu/ (August 21, 2001), "Authors Ann Beattie and Christopher Tilghman Join U. VA's Creative Writing Faculty"; (January 8, 2005), biography of Christopher Tilghman.