by Bobbie Ann Mason
The following profile of Bobbie Ann Mason was written for KET’s Signature series showcasing contemporary Southern writers. It is adapted from the teacher’s guide to that series.
Bobbie Ann Mason, born in Mayfield, Kentucky in 1940, grew up with her brother and sisters on the family’s dairy farm. “I never had much confidence,” she once recalled, “[but] I had a strong drive and I was ambitious.” She later wrote, “As I picked blackberries or hoed vegetables in the scorching morning sun, I longed to travel and see the world.”
Mason read a lot as a girl, studying everything from UFOs to memory to reincarnation. Once, her high school English teacher chastised her for an essay she’d written about agnosticism, warned her to “stay away from these peculiar questions,” and told her to concentrate on mathematics.
Instead, Mason’s love of popular music—“I listened to the radio all the time,” she remembers—and her curiosity about the world beyond Mayfield led her to head up a fan club for one of the most popular singing groups of the time, the Hilltoppers. This quartet from Kentucky inspired her: “[They] gave me the notion that somebody ... from Kentucky could do something in the world.” During her senior year of high school, Mason wrote and published a national bimonthly newsletter about the group, traveled around the Midwest to see them perform, and was interviewed about the Hilltoppers on radio and national television.
At the University of Kentucky, Mason studied journalism and reported for the campus newspaper. She also studied fiction and published a story in the campus magazine. For a year after college, she wrote for movie and TV fan magazines in New York, but she soon tired of the city and left it to pursue graduate studies in English literature. “Graduate school was something I drifted into,” she recalls, “because I wanted to read and write and there didn’t seem to be any other choice.” She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in 1972, writing her dissertation about the novelist Vladimir Nabokov.
From 1972 until 1979, Mason taught journalism and literature at a Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania. She published her analysis of Nabokov and then a second book, The Girl Sleuth, “a little critical study of the girls’ mystery stories I had grown up on ... Nancy Drew and all that.”
She had tried writing a novel and couldn’t finish it. But in the late ’70s, as she reviewed the literature she’d read as a girl and then reflected back on her life in Kentucky, she began to see that the place where she’d grown up might yield fine fiction. “I started to realize a lot about where I’d come from,” she recalls. So she began in earnest to write stories set in Western Kentucky.
She submitted those stories to The New Yorker. At first, Roger Angell, then the magazine’s fiction editor, turned them down—but he did encourage her to keep trying. A year and a half later, her 20th story, “Offerings,” was published.
It was followed in 1982 with the publication of Shiloh and Other Stories, which concentrates on the small-town suburbs of Mason’s native Mayfield and nearby Paducah. The book won much acclaim as well as the 1982 Penn Hemingway Prize for 1st Fiction. Though some critics suggested that the stories were too open-ended and lacked “emotional gravity,” many also praised their quiet tone and the detailed descriptions of the characters’ immersion in the “popular culture” surrounding them—current television shows, fast-food restaurants, shopping malls, and contemporary music.
Mason next published In Country (1985), a novel about the quest of a teenage girl, Samantha, to learn more about her father’s death in the Vietnam War. Many readers admired the story for its confrontation of the losses Americans were feeling over Vietnam. The book was made into a major movie filmed on location around Mayfield and Paducah.
In all her books since, Mason has continued to write about Western Kentucky. In 1988, she published her second novel, Spence + Lila; another story collection, Love Life, followed a year later. Her third novel, Feather Crowns, appeared in 1993, three years after she moved back to Kentucky to live. She continues to publish stories and articles in The New Yorker about her home territory.