New Biography Chronicles Shirley Jackson's 'Rather Haunted Life' Shirley Jackson is probably best known for the creepy short story "The Lottery." But a new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, paints a much more complete picture of the writer.
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New Biography Chronicles Shirley Jackson's 'Rather Haunted Life'

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New Biography Chronicles Shirley Jackson's 'Rather Haunted Life'

New Biography Chronicles Shirley Jackson's 'Rather Haunted Life'

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Shirley Jackson was a fairly famous writer in her short life. She wrote a number of novels, two of them best-sellers, one nominated for the National Book Award. Probably the most famous book was called "The Haunting Of Hill House" published in 1959, but about a decade earlier, she wrote a short story for The New Yorker magazine, which started conversations all over the country. The story was called "The Lottery."

There's a new biography of Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin. Franklin is a critic and writer whose work has also been published in The New Yorker magazine. The book is called "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life." Ruth Franklin joins us from our studios in New York City. Thank you for doing this.

RUTH FRANKLIN: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: So, Ruth Franklin, why did you feel this was a time to write about Shirley Jackson? She's been dead for 50 years. Her work is still mostly in print, so she's not been forgotten. But I think you'd have to go to someone my age to hear how shocking some of her writing was at the time it was published, something like "The Lottery."

WERTHEIMER: Well, Shirley Jackson has always been one of those writers who's just sort of been in the background for me. As long as I can remember, I've been thinking about her work, especially of course "The Lottery." But I didn't actually really get interested in writing a biography of her until I had read some more of her work, especially her domestic memoirs, which chronicle her life with her four children and her absent-minded professor-husband. And reading those really gave me a sense, first, of her range but, second, also of the quality of life for women, especially creative women like Shirley Jackson, in the 1950s and the strictures under which she had to live.

WERTHEIMER: "The Lottery" is a kind of template for some of her other work, characters that seem ordinary, nice, normal, small-town folks but then who participate in a terrible tradition in their village. She said in one of the lectures that you quote something to the effect that simmering under the surface of ordinary life is extraordinary evil. What created this world view, do you think?

FRANKLIN: I think her tendency to see evil in the most mundane circumstances came from her childhood. She had a difficult childhood, a difficult relationship with her mother especially, who was a socialite who wanted to mold Jackson in her image. And it became clear quite early on, I think, that Shirley wasn't going to be the kind of daughter her mother had hoped her to be.

So I think there was this kind of fundamental conflict in which she felt unloved and unappreciated in the setting that should have been most secure, her childhood home. And then she brings that anxiety and insecurity about the home into all of her later work.

WERTHEIMER: She wrote a number of sort of spooky stories in the tradition of - well, I don't know, maybe Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allan Poe. But I guess from our perspective now the most interesting thing about those stories is that they're about women but not romances, not magazine fare. They're domestic terror.

FRANKLIN: That's right. I think she had a real sense that women particularly were subject to social forces that acted upon their lives in ways in which they couldn't control and often were quite dangerous. In "The Haunting Of Hill House," there's a supernatural presence, but we're never quite sure whether it's meant to be real or it's the manifestation of the disturbed mind of Eleanor, the main character of the novel. And, as you say, of course she's not a romantic heroine or even any kind of heroine at all. She's a disturbed spinster who has spent her life taking care of her invalid mother and is now experiencing her first taste of freedom.

WERTHEIMER: Shirley Jackson did write for women's magazines like Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, all of which wanted kind of happy-ending stories. This was a Shirley Jackson who was very funny. I mean, these little essays are fun to read, sort of - what do we - what do we have here, the two sides of Shirley?

FRANKLIN: Yeah. I think that's really one of the enduring questions of her career is how could this writer who is so well-known for her psychological suspense also have turned out these very bright, charming, funny stories of her, you know, rambunctious household of her four kids and her whole menagerie of pets? But, you know, in many ways, these are recognizably stories by the same Shirley Jackson. For one thing, her style is very coherent throughout her work. And there's also something very dark about her sense of humor even in these household tales. They're not sentimentalized at all. She does not look at her children through rose-colored glasses. And, you know, in my book I call her, in some ways, the progenitor of today's mommy bloggers. And it's because she really was the first writer to write about life with children in this very kind of unvarnished way.

WERTHEIMER: One of her children said she wrote in her head while she was cooking and making beds. She would work out plots and create characters. You talk about her telling stories to herself.

FRANKLIN: Yeah. It's something that I traced going back to Jackson's childhood when she actually kept a number of different diaries all at the same time in which she tried out different personas and wouldn't even write herself letters using different nicknames for herself.

In fact, one of these letters I found filed in Jackson's archive in the Library of Congress. It was filed in a folder that was labeled letters from unknown correspondence. And when I looked at the letter, I could see that it was from Shirley Jackson herself.

WERTHEIMER: So what does this woman, who died in the mid-'60s at only 48 years old, what does she have to say to us now?

FRANKLIN: I think Shirley Jackson has a lot to say to us today, especially her vision of the darkness in human nature. "The Lottery" remains a story that is read by so many students, and I think the reason it has its staying power is because it speaks very strongly to a number of different political situations. Shirley Jackson would not have been surprised by the idea that mob psychology could suddenly take hold in a small town. This is what she was always telling us. In short, nothing humans are capable of should be surprising.

WERTHEIMER: Ruth Franklin's book is called "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life." Thank you very much.

FRANKLIN: Thank you.

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