Photo by Joyce Ravid
March 20, 1961 |
Background and education
Harrison's maternal grandparents raised her in Los Angeles, California, after her parents separated when she was a baby. She graduated from Stanford University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Art History; she received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1987 after attending that school's Writers' Workshop.
Harrison's memoir The Kiss documented a love triangle that developed involving her young mother, her father, and herself. It described her father's seduction of her when she was twenty and their incestuous involvement, which persisted for four years and is reflected in the plots and themes of her first three novels, published before The Kiss. In The New York Times Book Review writer and memoirist Susan Cheever wrote of the book, "The story of an intellectually powerful man and his consuming desire to ravish an innocent, almost preconscious, young woman (sometimes his daughter) has often been told—Zeus, Lewis Carroll and Humbert Humbert come to mind—but Kathryn Harrison turns up the volume, making this ancient immorality tale a struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between God and the Devil." In The New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called the memoir "appalling but beautifully written."
In The New Republic, by contrast, James Wolcott strongly criticized the work. He called it "the oddest piece of kitsch" with "airbrushed" sentences that "leave wistful little vapor trails of Valium." He pointed out that at the time of the affair, Harrison was not an innocent child victim but rather a consenting adult. He asked, "Did she call him 'Dad' in bed?" Writing in The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley called The Kiss "slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical." Stephanie Zacherek of Salon.com called it "numbing." Also in Salon.com, Rob Spillman wrote, “Written in the shell-shocked prose of a recent victim with no distance or profound insights into what she has been through, The Kiss is a remarkably uncompelling read.” He added that the book "should be trashed as the epitome of sensational navel-gazing."  In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote that the book constituted an example of "creepy people talking about creepy people." After Michael Shnayerson published a critical account of the book in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker canceled an excerpt that it had scheduled. 
While much of her body of work—the essays collected in Seeking Rapture: Scenes From a Life; a second memoir, The Mother Knot; and The Kiss—documents her tortured relationship with her mother, who died in 1985, Harrison also has written extensively of her maternal grandparents, both in her personal essays and, in fictionalized form, in her novels. Her grandmother was raised in Shanghai, where she lived until 1920, her experiences there inspiring Harrison's historical novel, The Binding Chair. The Seal Wife, set in Alaska during World War I (and which critic Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called "mesmerizing"), draws on the early life of her British grandfather, who spent his youth trapping animals to obtain their fur in the Northwest Territories and laying track into Anchorage for the Alaska Railroad.
Harrison has published eight novels, three memoirs, a travelogue, two biographies, and a book of true crime. She frequently publishes reviews in The New York Times Book Review. Her personal essays have been included in many anthologies and have appeared in Bookforum, Harper's Magazine, More Magazine, The New Yorker, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Vogue, and at Salon.com, Nerve.Com and elsewhere.
She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist and book editor Colin Harrison, whom she met in 1985, when they were enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. They have three children, born in 1990, 1992, and 2000.
- Thicker Than Water (Random House, 1992)
- Exposure (Random House, 1993)
- Poison (Random House, 1995)
- The Binding Chair (Random House, 2000)
- The Seal Wife (Random House, 2002)
- A Thousand Orange Trees (Fourth Estate, 2002)
- Envy (Random House, 2005)
- Enchantments (Random House, 2012).
- The Kiss: A Memoir (Random House, 1997)
- Seeking Rapture: Scenes From a Life (Random House, 2003)
- The Road to Santiago (National Geographic, 2003),
- Saint Therese of Lisieux: Penguin Lives Series (Penguin Books, 2003)
- The Mother Knot: A Memoir (Random House, 2004)
- While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family (Random House, 2008).
- Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured (Doubleday, 2014).
- Susan Cheever, "Innocence Betrayed," The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1997. (Cheever called the book "powerful and disturbing.")
- Margo Jefferson, "Facing Truth About Incest, In Memoir And Novel," The New York Times, May 29, 1997.
- Cheever, The New York Times Book Review, ibid.
- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Life With Father: Incestuous and Soul-Deadening," The New York Times, February 27, 1997.
- Michiko Kakutani, "Sexual Obsession in Frontier Alaska," The New York Times, April 30, 2002.
- Kathryn Harrison's website
- "MaryAnne Kolton interviews Kathryn Harrison". Los Angeles Review of Books. 2012-06-11. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
- "Kathryn Harrison". Leonard Lopate Show. WNYC.
- Interview from Bookforum magazine, by Kera Bolonik
- Harrison, Kathryn (2007-04-01). "Body of evidence". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
- "Audio Reading: Kathryn Harrison". The New York Times. 1999-04-17. Retrieved 2008-05-16.