Her editor at Riverhead, Calvert Morgan, described her as “one part fiction writer, one part provocateur and one part world class dreamer.”
Yuknavitch, he said “thinks about story, and thinks about the powers that fiction can have, in a way that’s different from almost any other writer I know of who’s working today.”
Born in San Francisco in 1963, Yuknavitch started swimming competitively by age 6 and had serious Olympic dreams. She received scholarships to prestigious universities, but her father would not allow her to attend any of them, she said, calling them “snob schools.” While he was at work one day, her mother signed the paperwork for Yuknavitch’s full ride at Texas Tech. “I was trying to escape,” she said, and her mother “was trying to help me.”
There, she started experimenting with drugs, met her first husband, “flunked” out of school, and became pregnant. She then moved to Eugene, Ore., where she enrolled at the University of Oregon. In 1983, Yuknavitch gave birth to a stillborn daughter. (She was not using drugs at the time, she said.)
The experience of losing a child unmoored her. “I spent some time wandering around, living under an overpass in a kind of psychosis,” she said. During this “lost-my-marbles period,” she started filling red notebooks with gibberish stories about “girls with their hair on fire” and women “scratching and screaming and trying to get out and trying to survive,” she said.
“I started madly writing them down,” she 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.