Wiggins, Marianne 1947-

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Wiggins, Marianne 1947-

PERSONAL:

Born November 8, 1947, in Lancaster, PA; daughter of John (a grocer and preacher) Wiggins and Mary Klonis; married Brian Porzak (a film distributor), June 6, 1965 (divorced, 1970); married Salman Rushdie (a writer), January 23, 1988 (divorced, 1993); children: (first marriage) Lara Porzak. Politics: "My own."

ADDRESSES:

Office—English Department, University Park Campus, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Fiction grants from National Endowment for the Arts and the Whiting Foundation, both 1989; Janet Heiediger Kafka Prize, for best novel written by an American woman, 1990, for John Dollar; National Book Award nomination for fiction, National Book Foundation, 2003, and Pulitzer Prize nomination, 2004, both for Evidence of Things Unseen.

WRITINGS:

Babe (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1975.

Went South (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1980.

Separate Checks (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

Herself in Love and Other Stories (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

John Dollar (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

Learning Urdu (short stories), Harper (New York, NY), 1990.

Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone (short stories), Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 1991.

Eveless Eden (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.

Almost Heaven (novel), Crown (New York, NY), 1998.

(Contributor of essay) Adam D. Weinberg, From the Heart: The Power of Photography, a Collector's Choice, preface by Mark Haworth-Booth, Aperture (New York, NY), 1998.

Evidence of Things Unseen (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

The Shadow Catcher, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.

SIDELIGHTS:

Marianne Wiggins is the author of two collections of short stories and a handful of novels, the most highly acclaimed of which are John Dollar and Evidence of Things Unseen. Wiggins is known for writing novels about quirky characters, novels about ideas that loom large in the narratives, and novels full of symbols and grand gestures—in other words, panoramic novels of ideas.

During the 1980s Wiggins gained increasing critical acclaim with each of her works. Her first novel, Babe, is about the challenges facing a single mother with a young daughter. Went South, Wiggins's second novel, deals with a divorcee struggling to raise a child, and like Babe, it was not widely reviewed. Beginning with her third novel, Separate Checks, however, Wiggins began to attract considerable attention, and her success allowed her to support herself and her daughter with her writing. Separate Checks is structured around short stories written by the narrator, Ellery McQueen, a young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown. Critical reaction to Separate Checks was generally favorable. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Richard Eder, for instance, noted that "Wiggins … writes beautifully." Wiggins's increasing fame continued with her fourth work, Herself in Love and Other Stories, another collection of short stories. As in her previous books, most of the characters in Herself in Love and Other Stories are women searching for meaning in their lives. Reviewers praised Wiggins for the originality and diversity of her story lines and for her ability to make eccentric characters and implausible plots believable. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Alice McDermott commented that "Wiggins seems to challenge herself with each story, testing the depth and range of her fiction with each new piece she writes."

In early 1989, Wiggins's novel John Dollar received less publicity than planned because of the controversy that engulfed Wiggins's then husband, writer Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses, the 1989 novel that drew an extreme reaction from some members of the world's Muslim community. Branding the book as blasphemous, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran challenged Muslims to kill Rushdie. The threat forced Wiggins and Rushdie into hiding, and Wiggins had to cancel a tour promoting John Dollar. After spending six months in exile with her husband, Wiggins moved to London and lived under an assumed name. Four years later, she and Rushdie divorced.

The tale of John Dollar illuminates a myriad of themes: the sorrow of lost love, the consequences of imperialism, and the depths to which a civilized society can fall. Set in Burma during British colonial rule in the 1910s, John Dollar recalls the island literature of William Golding and Daniel Defoe. The protagonist, Charlotte Lewes, is a lonely English widow who decides to move to Burma. Once there, she becomes enchanted with its tropical charm and begins to live as the natives do, with simple clothing and a house built on stilts above the water. She falls in love with a mysterious sailor, John Dollar. The turning point in the novel occurs when Charlotte and John join a group of English citizens on a trip to one of the nearby islands. After a bizarre, violent night in which several of the men savagely destroy turtle eggs buried in the sand, an earthquake rocks the island. The resulting tidal wave leaves Charlotte stranded on one side of the island and eight young girls on the other side. The girls soon discover John, comatose and near death, and they revive and care for him because they see in him their only hope for survival. John, who awakens from his coma but is paralyzed from the waist down, teaches the girls to gather food.

Shortly after the tidal wave, another occurrence signals the novel's continuing descent into horror. The girls and John see a group of natives arrive on the island with the girls' fathers. The natives, whom the girls mistake for children because of their small size, then cook and eat the fathers. After witnessing this event, the girls go insane. They construct a society based on their own limited but horrifying experiences, which include religion, sex, and cannibalism. Eventually, in a series of violent episodes, John and most of the girls die one by one. One girl who survives is Menaka, who has wandered away from the camp and has found Charlotte. The two go back to where the girls and John were living, discover John's remains, and bury him.

The book elicited widespread critical comment. Many reviewers praised Wiggins for writing such a shocking, tragic story in a lyrical manner. Los Angeles Times Book Review Eder noted that "Wiggins' sentences become incantations in which each word is placed precisely and without possibility of alteration. Out of them come all kinds of terrifying, comical and heartbreaking apparitions." Eder added that "no better writing is being done nowadays." Other critics lauded Wiggins's ability to construct a plot that proceeds with great speed, a technique that increases the reader's sense of descending into a nightmare. Some reviewers, though, found fault with Wiggins's presentation of a world filled with savage figures and barbaric acts. Chicago Tribune Books contributor Carolyn See, for instance, wrote that the book "seeks to prove that all human beings are basically lower than toads, that sex and power are irrevocably combined, that mankind … must construct a terrible hierarchy with meaningless rules at the top, and hideous oppression at the bottom." Nevertheless, other critics praised the circular aspect of the plot as a device that eases the horror of the story. Writing in the New Republic, Anne Tyler commented that "at the end of the book, when we're left feeling hammered and bruised by all that's happened, we start thinking about the start of the book." Tyler called this effect "oddly healing" and termed the writing of John Dollar a "task most elegantly accomplished."

In response to See's criticism, Wiggins once told CA: "A year after the first book burning of Satanic Verses in England and its effect on both my life and Salman's, I have to wonder at the naivete of reviewer Carolyn See's words quoted above: events have made them prescient. It's the role of writers to touch the nerve that otherwise, untouched, lulls us to complacency. I write about the things I fear. So does my husband. Together, we have struck our separate provocations. What are writers for—?"

Her life on the run with her now-former husband became the basis of a stirring short story, "Croeso i Gymru," in the collection Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone. "Constantly accompanied by ‘the people we have to live with now,’ Marianne [the story's narrator] fills her notebook with ephemera, questions, notes on the local flora, fauna and cuisine," observed Jean Hanff Korelitz in the Times Literary Supplement. George Garrett of the New York Times Book Review said the story has "powerful, intimate moments." The collection includes two other autobiographical stories, one based on Wiggins's visit to the Anne Frank annex in Amsterdam and another that is a memoir about her father. Some pieces use the backdrop of world events, such as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl and the Gulf War, for their ruminating narrators; others simply focus on family sorrows and the struggle to forgive.

Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone contains stories written from 1979 to 1990. Despite this extended range, Julie J. Nichols in her review for Belles Lettres noted that "the pieces fit at the end with a bang-not-a-whimper, in a moment of clarity and sorrow." Garrett further observed that while the pieces "are of extraordinary variety and of an almost assertive virtuosity," they also display a consistent thematic relationship. "All are one way or another, about memory, its persistence and failure," he wrote. "All are about language, the magic and the mystery of words…. All, even the most sophisticated, set out to prove the pathetic limits of thinking." Korelitz found the collection "erratic" with a "catch-all feeling."

In Eveless Eden, Wiggins stirs up a whirlwind novel spiced with intrigue and betrayal. The protagonist is Noah John, a war correspondent, who falls in love with Lilith, a renowned photographer. A romantic triangle forms when Lilith leaves Noah for Adam, a close advisor to the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the owner of a sideline business selling blood tainted with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The professional interests of Wiggins's morally weak characters carry them to the hot spots of modern history, including Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall. The story prompted a description of Wiggins as "a loud and lavish writer" by Nicci Gerrard of the London Observer. Gerrard wrote, "from the swashbuckling opening of Eveless Eden to its cinematic freeze-frame close, she is aiming to write big." For all of its exuberance, Gerrard complained that the book is marred by "overstatement" and "repetition."

Zoe Heller, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that Wiggins has once again demonstrated her skill in creating distinctive language, this time the rough-edged jargon of newspaper reporters. "Here, simulating the slangy, smart-aleck language of a newspaperman, her prose naturally takes on a more robust hue," Heller wrote. Nevertheless, she noted, the language often ventures too far into stereotype, creating a sense of parody the author may not have intended. Eder, contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found that the portrayal of Noah is sometimes right on the mark. "Wiggins gets a number of deeper things right, the ostensible pride—and sometimes quiet guilt—at getting a free front-row seat on history; the weariness and confusion … the macho camaraderie." In general, Eder concluded, Eveless Eden is "blinding both when it dazzles and when the light goes out and it merely churns."

In 1998 Wiggins served up the novel Almost Heaven, about Holden Garfield, a foreign correspondent who returns to Washington, DC, after covering the Balkan war and its unforgettable horrors. Garfield befriends Melanie Page, a middle-aged woman suffering from amnesia after the sudden death of her husband and children. As usual, Wiggins's novel centers on unusual characters, this time Garfield and Page, whose emotional lives are echoed in the weather phenomena, as Gary Krist pointed out in the New York Times Book Review. Although Krist faulted Wiggins's "over-the-top prose," he found "flashes of fine writing" as well. "Wiggins herself seems to have forgotten some of the laws of good writing. But her novel displays enough intelligence and sophistication to suggest that this heavy-handedness may be a temporary aberration," Krist concluded.

After five years of researching and writing, Wiggins's novel Evidence of Things Unseen rolled off the presses in 2003. As a self-styled "bomb baby," Wiggins felt compelled to write this novel-cum-reflection on nuclear fission. "I think most writers of my generation, one way or another, are always coming back to writing about physics and writing about nuclear fission," she told Karen Schechner in a 2003 interview on the Newsbook Web site. "It's just the subject we're drawn to. It's ours," Wiggins added. Thus the plot of Evidence of Things Unseen revolves around invisible forces as well as World War I veteran Ray Foster, who is intrigued with such phenomena as X-rays and phosphorescence, and his wife, Opal, the daughter of a glassblower. After the couple move from the rural Midwest to Tennessee, Foster works at the Oak Ridge Laboratory, where scientists rush to create the first atomic bomb.

The novel garnered many reviews, including a starred one in Publishers Weekly, and a nomination for the National Book Award. Among its enthusiasts was Charles Platt, who commented in the Washington Post Book World that Wiggins is "a fine stylist who depicts everyday people with sympathy and realism. Moreover, since she has done her physics homework diligently, she is an ideal writer for a novel depicting science in a context rich with grass-roots human interest." Yet many reviewers qualified their praise. For example, Platt complained that eventually the book becomes overloaded with heavy-handed symbolism. And although an Economist reviewer noted that the characters "never quite dispel a whiff of contrivance," he remarked that Wiggins "has a fine descriptive flair, and an ear for pith." Wiggins is a wordsmith, and as a Publishers Weekly critic explained, she "fits her lyrical prose to a distinctly rural, Southern cadence, easily blending the vernacular with luminous imagery, adding bits of poetry, passages explaining scientific phenomena, [and] interpolations." In fact, though she is not a scientist, Wiggins's work evidenced her copious research and sure understanding of her subject matter, claimed reviewers.

In The Shadow Catcher Wiggins tells the story of twentieth-century photographer Edward Curtis (famous for his portraits of American Indians) through the eyes of a character named Marianne Wiggins. The fictional Marianne Wiggins is "an Angeleno who has written a novel about Curtis," stated Connie Ogle on the Web site PopMatters, "and is resisting Hollywood's attempts to glamorize him." "This faux Wiggins," Ogle continued, "… stumbles into a mystery involving her family, but the personal developments are considerably less interesting than the detailed reconstruction of Curtis' wife Clara…. The beautifully rendered Clara gives resonant shape to Wiggins' musings … and leads the author to intriguing insights into sexual politics, the mythology of the West and the relationship between physical and emotional distance."

In The Shadow Catcher, Wiggins investigates questions of the boundaries between fiction and reality. "The novel," said Houston Chronicle contributor Suzanne Ferriss, "is more an evocative meditation on the nature of perspective and point of view—photographic, literary and personal. At its core, the book questions whether any life can be adequately grasped from without." "It's always a slippery path we get on when the novelist becomes a character in his or her own book," declared Bob Hoover in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He went on to ask, "Where does reality (the facts) end and fiction (the legend) begin? Will the real Marianne Wiggins please stand up? Or does it matter if she does?" "Wiggins ably challenges the smug idea that we can easily distinguish truth and falsehood in telling anyone's story," Richard B. Woodward said in his New York Times Book Review assessment, "especially our own." "Blending fact and fiction, The Shadow Catcher is a fine accomplishment," Guy Savage stated in Mostly Fiction. "This is an intelligent novel loaded with social commentary that explores identity, parenthood, the exploitation of Native Americans, and the need we all have to create heroes." "Wiggins's eighth novel," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "is a heartfelt tour de force."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Belles Lettres, spring, 1992, Julie J. Nichols, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. 24.

Booklist, October 1, 1995, Alice Joyce, review of Eveless Eden, p. 253; June 1, 1998, Bill Ott, review of Almost Heaven, p. 1671; April 15, 2003, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. 1428.

Books, June 16, 2007, "Double Exposure: Marianne Wiggins Adds Extra Layers to Her Novel about Photographer Edward Curtis," p. 3.

Book World, June 3, 2007, "Lighting out for the Territory: A Novelist Imagines the Secret Life of Legendary Photographer Edward Curtis," p. 5.

Christian Science Monitor, March 20, 1989, Pamela Marsh, review of John Dollar, p. 13; July 3, 2007, review of The Shadow Catcher, p. 13.

Economist (U.S.), July 26, 2003, "Fireball Fallout," review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. 76.

English Journal, April, 1991, Gail V. Dohrmann, review of John Dollar, pp. 69-73.

Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992, review of Separate Checks, p. 56; January 12, 1996, Megan Harlan, review of Eveless Eden, p. 53.

Glamour, March, 1989, Laura Mathews, review of John Dollar, p. 190.

Houston Chronicle, July 13, 2007, Suzanne Ferriss, "Catching the Shadows of Life."

Insight on the News, March 27, 1989, Helle Bering-Jensen, review of John Dollar, pp. 62-63.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2003, review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. 641; April 15, 2007, review of The Shadow Catcher.

Library Journal, June 15, 1980, Deirdre R. Murray, review of Went South, p. 1411; March 15, 1984, review of Separate Checks, p. 598; July, 1987, Lucinda Ann Peck, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories, pp. 99-100; January, 1989, Edward B. St. John, review of John Dollar, p. 104; June 1, 1991, Janet Ingraham, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. 198; October 1, 1995, Rebecca S. Kelm, review of Eveless Eden, p. 122; August, 1998, Barbara Hoffert, review of Almost Heaven, p. 136; May 15, 2003, Starr E. Smith, review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. 128; May 1, 2007, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Shadow Catcher, p. 77.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 1, 1984, Richard Eder, review of Separate Checks, p. 1; August 16, 1987, Richard Eder, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories, February 26, 1989, Richard Eder, review of John Dollar; October 15, 1995, Richard Eder, review of Eveless Eden, p. 3.

Maclean's, August 21, 1989, "A Life in Hiding," p. 30.

Massachusetts Review, spring-summer, 1990, Valerie Martin, review of John Dollar, pp. 257-273.

Miami Herald, June 10, 2007, "Panoramic View: Past and Present Converge in a Postmodern Story of Hope and Disillusionment In the American West"; June 13, 2007, "Past and Present Converge in a Postmodern ‘The Shadow Catcher,’ a Story of Hope and Disillusionment in the American West."

New Republic, March 27, 1989, Anne Tyler, review of John Dollar, pp. 35-36.

New Statesman & Society, November 10, 1995, Wendy Brandmark, review of Eveless Eden, p. 41.

Newsweek, February 20, 1989, Peter S. Prescott, review of John Dollar, p. 64.

New York Review of Books, June 15, 1989, Gabriele Annan, review of John Dollar, pp. 12-13.

New York Times, April 8, 1984, Judy Bass, review of Separate Checks, p. 20; August 19, 1987, Michiko Kakutani, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories, p. C20; February 16, 1989, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of John Dollar, p. C32; February 28, 1989 Caryn James, "The Ayatollah's Forgotten Victim," p. C17; August 17, 1989, "Rushdie Is on the Move in Well-guarded Hiding," p. 21; October 27, 1989, "10 Writers Receive Awards," p. 33; April 4, 1990, "Wiggins: Author, Feminist and Wife of Rushdie," p. 17; April 9, 1991, "Marianne Wiggins and Life on the Run," p. 13; June 14, 1991, Michiko Kakutani, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. C23.

New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1984, Judy Bass, review of Separate Checks, p. 20; October 18, 1987, Jonathan Penner, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories, p. 32; February 19, 1989, Deborah Stead, "Girls Wouldn't Do It This Way," p. 3, Michael Gorra, review of John Dollar, p. 3; June 30, 1991, George Garrett, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. 9; October 15, 1995, Zoe Heller, review of Eveless Eden, p. 13; September 20, 1998, Gary Krist, "Tornado Alert," review of Almost Heaven, p. 26; July 27, 2003, Richard Eder, "Let There Be Light," review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. 7; July 1, 2007, Richard B. Woodward, "Double Exposure," p. 11.

Observer (London, England), November 5, 1995, review of Eveless Eden, p. 16.

People Weekly, September 11, 1989, "Writer Salman Rushdie's Life on the Run Leaves His Marriage to Marianne Wiggins on the Rocks," p. 60; April 22, 1991, Peter Castro, "Wiggins Splits and Tells Why," p. 120; December 11, 1995, Kim Hubbard, review of Eveless Eden, pp. 44-45.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 17, 2007, Bob Hoover, "Catching Shadows a Tricky Proposition."

Publishers Weekly, June 13, 1980, review of Went South, p. 66; June 5, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories, p. 71; November 18, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of John Dollar, p. 68; February 17, 1989, "Marianne Wiggins; the Violence Lurking Beneath Civilization's Thin Veneer Is One of the Themes of Her Provocative New Novel," p. 57; May 3, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. 61; August 28, 1995, review of Eveless Eden, p. 104; June 22, 1998, review of Almost Heaven, p. 82; May 19, 2003, review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. 51; April 16, 2007, review of The Shadow Catcher, p. 29.

School Library Journal, July, 1989, Barbara Weathers, review of John Dollar, p. 99.

Times Literary Supplement, November 2, 1984, review of Separate Checks; May 22, 1987, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories; March 3, 1989, Peter Reading, review of John Dollar, p. 226; March 6, 1992, Jean Hanff Korelitz, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. 21; October 20, 1995, Aisling Foster, review of Eveless Eden, p. 23; April 23, 1999, Phyllis Richardson, "Living a Life of Similes," review of Almost Heaven, p. 21.

Tribune Books, February 12, 1989, Carolyn See, review of John Dollar.

Virginia Quarterly Review, fall, 1989, review of John Dollar, p. 129.

Vogue, July, 1991, Mark Marvel, review of Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone, p. 85.

Wall Street Journal, July 19, 1991, Merle Rubin, review of Bet They'll Miss Us when We're Gone, p. A8 (W), A9(E).

Washington Post, March 7, 1989, review of John Dollar.

Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1987, Alice McDermott, review of Herself in Love and Other Stories; February 26, 1989, review of John Dollar; September 6, 1998, Claire Messud, review of "Dakota Doldrums," review of Almost Heaven, p. X5; July 27, 2003, Charles Platt, "Blinded by the Light," review of Evidence of Things Unseen, p. T7.

Writer's Digest, February, 1991, "The Breakthrough of Marianne Wiggins," p. 38.

ONLINE

Barnes and Noble Web site,http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (September 16, 2003), interview with Marianne Wiggins.

Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (January 4, 2007), Guy Savage, review of The Shadow Catcher.

NewsBook Web site,http://www.newsbookweb.org/ (July 16, 2003), Karen Schechner, "How Marianne Wiggins Learned to Keep Worrying and Hate the Bomb."

PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (January 4, 2008), Connie Ogle, review of The Shadow Catcher.