Bobbie Ann Mason was born in Kentucky in 1940. As a girl, Mason was fascinated by the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, young characters who got to travel and have adventures. She loved growing up on a farm but saw that the women in her community did little besides give birth and work on the land or in schools, stores, or factories. She longed to explore the world and get an education. She attended the University of Kentucky, where she majored in journalism. After graduation, she moved to New York and worked at several magazines, writing articles about pop culture. She applied to the writing program at Stanford University but was rejected. Taking refuge in the study of literature, she earned an M.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton and a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation was eventually published under the title Nabokov’s Garden (1974). In 1975, she published The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters.
As a southerner living in the Northeast, Mason often felt shy and awkward. She had absorbed the idea that northerners were authoritative sophisticates who believed that southerners were inferior. On the rare occasions when she talked about her Kentucky background, her listeners often fit the stories into their own stereotypes of the South as a charmingly picturesque and backward place. She attempted to get rid of her southern accent and for years looked outside of the South for inspiration. Eventually, she figured out that her home was her true subject. In her fiction, she strives to depict middle-class and lower-middle-class people, whose lives she says “are just as important as the lives of those who read the New York Times and go to the opera.”
After composing short stories in college, Mason set the form aside for fifteen years. In the mid-seventies, she attended a writing workshop in the Adirondacks, where she studied with prominent writers, including Margaret Atwood. After submitting stories to the New Yorker, she heard back from Roger Angell, a celebrated writer and editor at the magazine. Angell mentored Mason, responding to each of her submissions with suggestions and encouragement. “Offerings,” Mason’s twentieth submission to the magazine, was accepted for publication.
Shiloh and Other Stories, Mason’s first collection, was published in 1982. It won the PEN/Hemingway award and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, American Book Award, and PEN/Faulkner Award. Mason’s 1985 novel In Country earned high praise from reviewers for its focus on generational concerns such as the Vietnam War. In 1989, the novel was made into a film starring Joan Allen and Bruce Willis. Mason’s memoir Clear Springs: A Family Story (2000) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Mason’s other works include the short-story collections Love Life (1989), Midnight Magic (1998), and Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail (2002); the novels Feather Crowns (1993), Spence + Lila (1998), and An Atomic Romance (2005); and the biography Elvis Presley (2002). She has also written nonfiction essays and articles.
“Shiloh,” the title story from Mason’s first collection, is one of her most frequently anthologized works. Like much of her fiction, it explores the ennui and restlessness of southerners living in a changing society and examines a world in which traditional values and communities are being replaced by divorce, chain stores, and television. It is peopled by sympathetic characters dissatisfied with their lots in life and leavened by frequent touches of melancholy humor. Its publication in book form prompted a reviewer at the New York Times to marvel at Mason’s characters, whose lives, he said, seemed amazingly strange and foreign to northerners from big cities. It has been Mason’s project, beginning with “Shiloh,” to bring news of these supposedly mysterious southerners to the wider world.