Born in France in 1938; married and divorced first husband; married second husband (died, 2002); children: three sons. Education: Received degrees from Radcliffe College and the Sorbonne.
Published first novel, Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up, 1991; published other novels, including The News from Paraguay.
Awards: National Book Award for Fiction, National Book Foundation, for The News from Paraguay, 2004.
Lily Tuck was the surprise winner of the 2004 National Book Award in fiction for her fourth novel, The News from Paraguay. Tuck's win caused ripples inside the American literary world, for she was a relatively unknown writer and the National Book Foundation committee seemed to have bypassed novels published that year by much more prominent names. The honor, whose past winners have included William Faulkner and Alice Walker, is considered the second most prestigious prize in American fiction, surpassed only by the Pulitzer.
Tuck was born in France in 1938, to which her parents had fled after Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler came to power five years before in their native Germany. When Nazi troops invaded France in 1940, her family was forced into a second exile, and this time went to South America. Tuck was sent to schools in Lima, Peru, and Montevideo, Uruguay, while her father served in the forces of the French Foreign Legion for a time. When her parents divorced, Tuck and her mother settled in New York City.
As a young woman, Tuck earned a degree from Radcliffe College, and married at a relatively early age. Her husband was independently wealthy, and for a time they lived in Thailand in the 1960s, where he attempted to launch a business venture. She had three sons in five years, but was divorced from her husband and returned to France. She earned a master's degree in American literature from the Sorbonne, Paris's famed university, and began writing a story based on the actual case of a rather well-known American living in Thailand who had gone missing.
Tuck had known that man, Jim Thompson, personally. He was a Princeton-trained architect who settled in Thailand in the late 1940s, after a stint with the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1950s and '60s, Thompson became a well-known figure in Thailand thanks to his revival of the country's ancient silk weaving industry. He disappeared one day in 1967 after going out for a hike in the highlands that bordered Malaysia. The unsolved mystery has intrigued many for decades, and various theories have usually linked his disappearance to his former career in U.S. Army intelligence.
Tuck devoted herself to the Thompson story, and then shopped the manuscript around to various publishers. "I spent seven years on it and then couldn't get it published," she told Wendy Smith in a Publishers Weekly interview. By 1977, she had married a second time and settled in New York City. Returning to her craft, she decided to take an intensive writing workshop run by Gordon Lish, a onetime editor at Esquire who had helped shape the prose of short-story master Raymond Carver. The tutelage helped, and she finished what she would feel was her most experimental novel, Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up, which Knopf published in 1991. The novel consists entirely of dialogue in the form of a telephone call between two old friends, whose mutual friend has been discovered dead, at home, standing up and wearing only lingerie and rubber boots. Their conversation wends around their friendship with the dead woman and their own storied lives.
Tuck's second novel, The Woman Who Walked on Water, centers on a wealthy woman who abandons her family to travel with an Indian mystic. A third novel, Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man, was the first one to earn Tuck relatively good reviews in the press. Here, finally, she was able to incorporate the Jim Thompson story in a plot centering around a young American journalist who arrives in Thailand (formerly Siam) with her new husband in 1967. "Tuck uses words with economy," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, "evoking the lush locale and mysterious culture of Thailand with precise details and sensory images."
Siam even earned Tuck a nomination for a PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1999. Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived, a collection of short stories and her first title for HarperCollins, appeared in 2002. She was in the process of writing her fourth novel when her husband died in 2002 after 25 years of marriage; she had also been shaken by the World Trade Center attacks in her hometown, New York City, the year before. Thus The News from Paraguay did not reach bookstore shelves until 2004, when it scored well with critics and judges of the National Book Award alike.
The News from Paraguay is the fictional story of Eliza Lynch, a Paris courtesan of Irish birth who was the real-life mistress of Paraguay's dictator, Francisco Solano López. In Tuck's book, she is called Ella, and the story moves from their first meeting in Paris in 1854, when she is the mistress of a Russian noble and he is the son of Paraguay's president, to their later life in Paraguay and Solano's disastrous instigation of a war with Brazil that decimated the country in the 1860s.
When Tuck won the National Book Award for 2004 for her work—and with it, a $10,000 prize—she caused somewhat of a stir when she admitted in her acceptance speech she had never been to Paraguay. The Paraguayan government immediately issued an invitation, and the news of a book about Solano—still a national hero to many Paraguayans, partly for standing up to far mightier South American superpowers of his time despite his reputation for brutality—and its author's imminent visit began to attract attention in the press. Though it had not yet been published in Spanish, Paraguay's official language, Tuck's novel and its depiction of the dictator stirred a contentious public debate.
On the other side, historians noted that Solano's record as a statesman was indeed a blemished one, and that Tuck's book was a work of fiction, after all. She nearly canceled her trip, but in the end went, was feted, and was supplied with a police bodyguard just in case. "I'm glad I didn't come before I wrote the book," a New York Times article by Larry Rohter quoted her as saying, "because I would have been overwhelmed by all the factions and their points of view. I am a quiet person, not a politician, so I don't know if I would even have started to write if I knew all of the issues that were at stake."
Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up (novel), Knopf (New York City), 1991.
The Woman Who Walked on Water (novel), Riverhead Books (New York City), 1997.
Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man (novel), Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 1999.
Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived (short stories), HarperCollins (New York City), 2002.
The News from Paraguay (novel), HarperCollins, 2004.
New York Times, January 7, 2000, p. 49; January 29, 2002, p. E10; November 18, 2004, p. A25; November 30, 2004, p. B2; February 17, 2005, p. A4.
New York Times Book Review, February 10, 2002, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1991, p. 64; January 8, 1996, p. 55; September 27, 1999, p. 67; December 10, 2001, p. 51; May 3, 2004, p. 172; June 7, 2004, p. 27.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 18, 2005, p. 24.
Time, November 29, 2004, p. 146.