Lisa Alther (b. 1944) is the bestselling author of five novels, among them the critically acclaimed Kinflicks, and a memoir, Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree. She was born in Kingsport, Tennessee, one of five children in a close-knit family influenced by both its Southern and “Yankee” roots. After attending Wellesley College and working in book publishing, she moved to Vermont, where she began to write and raise her daughter. Alther currently divides her time among Tennessee, Vermont, and New York City.
For novelist Lisa Alther, as for so many of her fellow Southerners, the past is ever present, particularly in places like Kingsport, Tennessee, the small town where she was born in 1944. One of five children, Alther grew up in a region of small farms and factories, surrounded by a close-knit Appalachian community. Her father was a second-generation town doctor, and her mother was a former English teacher from upstate New York. Another strong presence in her upbringing was her paternal grandmother, the founder of the Virginia Club and a pillar of the Southern way of life. Lisa attended public schools in Kingsport, taking her place in the marching band after an unsuccessful brush with flag swinging, living the life of a typical 1950s teen.
Alther left Tennessee to attend Wellesley College and then went to New York after graduation in 1966 to work in book publishing at Atheneum. She moved to Vermont in 1968 to raise her daughter. In the years that followed, Alther began writing journalism. But, inspired by the great Southern women writers and storytellers, she also worked on novels and short stories. After many rejections, her first novel, Kinflicks, was published in 1976 to critical praise and became a bestseller.
Kinflicks was the first of six bestselling novels. The others were Original Sins (1980), Other Women (1984), Bedrock (1990), Birdman and the Dancer (1993), and Five Minutes in Heaven (1995). Alther also taught Southern fiction at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, and at East Tennessee State University. She has produced one work of nonfiction, Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree. For Kinfolks (2007), she researched her family’s possible connection to the Melungeon people, a little-known population in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia whose ethnic origins are unclear but may possibly be traced to Portuguese, Spanish, African, and Turkish settlers, soldiers, and sailors who may have integrated with Native American tribes in the seventeenth century.
Alther has written novels set in both the South and in her adopted northern homeland. They feature a comic wit that addresses human foibles as gracefully as her more serious prose tackles weightier topics such as racism, feminism, domestic abuse, politics, and sexuality. Her work aims “to portray the human reality behind the cultural stereotypes, particularly those regarding women.”
Having lived in London and Paris, Alther now divides her time among Tennessee, Vermont, and New York City.