Novelist, short story writer, educator. “All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter,” Hospital maintains. “I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.” Precariousness pervades her writing, which is filled with “absent fathers, abandoned wives, troubled children, isolated adults, catastrophic, unrecoverable loss and the subsequent struggle for psychological survival.”
Much of Hospital’s writing is set in Australia though she has lived most of her life outside her native country, residing in Canada, India, and the United States. Born in Melbourne, Queensland, Australia, in 1942 to Adrian C. Turner and Elsie (Morgan) Turner, she moved to Brisbane in 1950 with her family. Raised in Brisbane in a strict religious fundamentalist Pentecostal household, Hospital felt silenced as a child and unable to ask questions about her parents’ authority or about the irrationality of biblical stories she was told. Ostracized and bullied at school because of her “otherness,” she eventually invested her work with an outsider’s perspective. She became a writer by chance: “I became a writer by accident and from a dearth of options. It never occurred to me that a writer was something you could become. Nor did it occur to any teacher at my elementary or high school. I don’t think my teachers, any more than I, knew of any living writers. My writing powers were always warmly praised, and then I would be told: You must become an English teacher.” She taught high school English in Brisbane’s outback from 1963 to 1966 and married Clifford G. Hospital, a professor, on February 5, 1965. Hospital graduated from the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Australia (B.A., 1965); Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada (M.A., 1973); and the University of Queensland, Australia (D.Litt, 2003). She worked as a librarian at Harvard University Libraries in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1967 to 1971, taught English at St Lawrence College and Queens University from 1973 to 1982, and served as writer-in-residence at numerous universities in North America and Australia. She also taught writing to men in maximum-and medium-security penitentiaries in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Although her entry into published writing came well into her third decade, she was immediately successful. Her first short story “Waiting” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1978 when she was 35, and it won the “Atlantic First” award, which led to the subsequent publishing of her first book. Hooked on the excitement of creating a world, Hospital called the compulsion the “God Itch.” Her short stories have appeared in Canadian Forum, Commonweal, North American Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Saturday Night, and Yale Review. Her first novel, The Ivory Swing, published in 1982 won a $50,000 Canadian prize for debut fiction after she radically pruned perhaps a third of it on her editor’s recommendation. In response to that act, she confessed that she felt demolished and outraged because she had “spent months honing [her] cultural vignettes, [her] insights: I revised endlessly to achieve the most finely nuanced portrait of South Indian life.” Her subsequent novels are The Tiger in the Tiger Pit (1983), Borderline (1985), Charades (1988) The Last Magician (1992), Oyster (1996), Due Preparations for the Plague (2003), and Orpheus Lost (2007). Hospital’s treatment of memory and the search for origins have prompted some readers to compare her novels to the work of Marcel Proust. Her four collections of short stories are Dislocations (1986), Isobars (1990), North of Nowhere, South of Loss (2003) and Forecast: Turbulence (2011). Her stories are inspired by real events gathered from her habit of reading the New York Times every day: “Indeed, I don’t think fiction can hold a candle to the New York Times when it comes to dark things happening on the world stage, but the artist’s job is to try to figure out what it was like in the minds of the people involved.” Nevertheless, through her “glimpses [of] the intimate lives of students and their family circumstances,” Hospital has let this type of information spur her imagination as well. Besides poetry and literary fiction, she used the pseudonym Alex Juniper to publish A Very Proper Death (1990), a work of detective fiction.
In the late 1990s Hospital moved to South Carolina to direct the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. While at USC, Hospital created Caught in the Creative Act, an annual visiting writers’ series that brought luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie to Columbia. After retiring from USC, Hospital sent an email to her former creative writing students from her temporary assignment as an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York. Perceived as critical of her former charges and the quality of USC’s creative writing program in general, the communication caused quite a stir in South Carolina and elsewhere after it was widely circulated and published online.
Hospital won the 2003 Patrick White Award, an annual Australian literary award, for lifetime literary achievement; in 2014 she was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Brandhorst, Craig. “Caught in the Act: Leaked Email Snares Prominent Professor.” Free-Times, November 11, 2010.
Greiner, Donald J. “The ‘God Itch’: An Interview with Janette Turner Hospital.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 48 (Summer 2007): 331–43.
Romei, Stephen. “Janette Turner Hospital’s Dark Matter.” The Australian, October 22, 2011.