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

Shirley Jackson was a fairly famous writer in her short lifetime. 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."

Writer Ruth Franklin has a new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. She tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that she got interested in writing about Jackson after exploring further in her work — especially her memoirs of domestic life. "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," Franklin says.

Interview Highlights

On "The Lottery" and Jackson's ideas about the evil underlying ordinary life

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, unappreciated in the setting that should have been most secure, her childhood home.

On the prominence of women in her stories

I think she had a real sense that women, particularly, were subject to social forces that acted upon their lives in ways which they couldn't control and often were quite dangerous. And over and over in Jackson's works, we see this figure of a woman who mentally disintegrates in one way or another.

On Jackson's light, funny writing for women's magazines

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.

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 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. She's an incredibly clear writer. And there's also something very dark about her sense of humor, even in these household tales ... 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 unvarnished way.

On what Jackson has to say to us now

"The Lottery" remains a story that is popularly anthologized, 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, that nothing humans are capable of should be surprising.

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