Author of the novels Meantime
and Halfway House
photo by Anna Carson Dewitt
Katharine’s first novel, Halfway House, was a New York Times Editors' Choice, winner of a Ken/NAMI Award for "outstanding literary contributions to a better understanding of mental illness," and winner of the 2006 Kate Chopin prize for fiction. She has been the Writer in Residence at Claremont McKenna College and the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where she also held Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships. Katharine lives with her husband, the writer Eric Puchner, and their children in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches at Johns Hopkins University and is at work on a new novel.
Here's the official bio...
And here's a more personal history
When I graduated from college with a degree in English literature, I had no idea what I'd do next. I wanted to write, and I wanted to do work that felt meaningful to me, but I didn't know how I'd pull off either of those things, let alone build a life around both. After a few depressing months of dead ends, wanting a break from job hunting, I called up a odd-sounding farm I'd heard about in the Berkshire Mountains: could they use a volunteer for a few days?
Gould Farm-- where I ended up working and living for the next two years-- is a program that serves adults with mental illnesses. Their core philosophy is that it's inherently therapeutic to do work necessary for the community-- digging potatoes, chopping wood, milking cows, baking bread. (If you're interested, you can read more about Gould Farm here.) The people I worked alongside had suffered in ways that put into ridiculous perspective the kind of self-pity in which I sometimes indulged. I could feel my sense of empathy being stretched-- a not-painless process-- as I realized how little I knew about living with mental illness, and therefore how little I probably knew about thousands of kinds of lives that were not my own. I didn't write during the two years I spent on the farm, but the time changed me, utterly, as a writer.
I eventually went to graduate school at the University of Arizona, where I fell in love with a fellow writer, Eric Puchner. We moved to Mexico and taught English while we worked on books--in my case, the first draft of Halfway House, a novel about a family grappling with mental illness. When Eric and I left Mexico, we moved to the Mission in San Francisco --where, much later, I'd set my second novel Meantime. (Our landlord, while otherwise nothing like the one in Meantime, did toss back little containers of half-and-half like shots.)
A few years into our time in San Francisco, I won a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, a gift for which I'm grateful beyond words. Eric and I published our first books, had a baby girl, worked at non-profits, and then began teaching as adjuncts. (During this time, Eric wrote, and I annotated, an essay on living with another writer: you can read it here.) Eventually, we moved to L.A. to teach at Claremont McKenna College We had a baby son. When we were offered jobs at Johns Hopkins, we moved again. I wrote (as I think most people balancing parenthood, work and writing do) when I could scrape together not just the time but the focus to dive back into the world I'd created and hold myself there.
Since finishing Meantime, I've been working on a new book set in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. Halfway House took me eight drafts and Meantime, twelve, and so the first draft is very much still honeymoon period for me, a time when I can fool myself that the book will fulfill every one of my ambitions for it. This new novel is sprawling, political, told from multiple perspectives, the kind of novel that Henry James called (not admiringly) a "loose, baggy monster." Luckily-- much as I revere James-- I love loose baggy monsters.