Her editor at Riverhead, Calvert Morgan, described her as “part fiction writer, part provocateur, and part world-class dreamer.”
Yuknavitch, he said, “thinks about history and thinks about the powers that fiction can have, in a way that is different from almost any other writer I know who is working today.”
Born in San Francisco in 1963, Yuknavitch began swimming competitively at age 6 and had serious Olympic dreams. He received scholarships to prestigious universities, but his father would not allow him to attend any of them, he said, calling them “snobby schools.” While he was at work one day, his mother signed the paperwork for Yuknavitch’s entire trip to Texas Tech. “I was trying to get away,” he said, and his mother was “trying to help me.”
There, she began to experiment with drugs, met her first husband, “flunked” school and became pregnant. She then moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she enrolled at the University of Oregon. In 1983, Yuknavitch gave birth to a stillborn daughter. (She wasn’t using drugs at the time, she said.)
The experience of losing a child unleashed her. “I spent some time wandering around, living under an overpass in a kind of psychosis,” she said. During this “period of losing my marbles,” she began filling red notebooks with rambling stories about “girls with hair on fire” and women “scratching and screaming and trying to get out and trying to survive,” she said.
“I madly started writing them,” he added.
Soon, a friend talked her into counseling, others guided her back to the University of Oregon, and she became a student in Ken Kesey’s graduate-level collaborative novel workshop. After receiving a Ph.D. in postmodern literature, she became a visiting writer at San Diego State University, where she met her now-husband Andy Mingo.