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Shelley Jackson - Biography

Shelley Jackson is a San Francisco-based writer and artist known for her cross-genre experiments, including the groundbreaking hypertext Patchwork Girl (1995). Shelley Jackson is an innovator within literature and art. She was a professor at the European Graduate School where she teaches a course in creative writing. As a media artist and writer her works deal with issues of the body, displacement, touch and desire. She is critically acclaimed and widely recognized as one of the leading innovators in hypertext.

Born in the Philippines in 1963, Shelley Jackson grew up in Berkeley, California, where her family ran a small women's bookstore for several years. She graduated from Berkeley High School and received a B.A. in art from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Brown University. A drawing of a naked woman with dotted-line scars in one of her notebooks expanded into her first hypertext novel Patchwork Girl and became Eastgate's best selling CD-ROM title. After this non-chronological reworking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Shelley Jackson published two more hypertexts, the autobiographical My Body (1997) and The Doll Games (2001) which she wrote with her sister Pamela. In 2001 she received the Electronic Literature Award.

In the later nineties, Shelley Jackson wrote short stories (among others, in The Paris Review and Conjunctions) and children's books. Shelley Jackson's first short story collection entitled The Melancholy of Anatomy appeared in 2002. A year later, she launched the Skin Project, a novella published in the form of tattoos on the skin of volunteers. Shelley Jackson's first novel, Half Life (2006), tells a story of a disenchanted conjoined twin named Nora Olney who plots to have her other twin murdered. The New York Times called the novel, A Molotov cocktail of highly combustible intelligence. For this novel, she won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy in 2006. The Seattle-Post Intelligencer wrote:

Half Life is an extraordinarily rich offering. Sexual identity, personal identity, national identity -- the lonely heart of the human condition gets deliciously disturbing and daring treatment. And what a treat it is to watch Jackson deftly use the Siamese twin's dilemmas as a reflecting glass for our own solo quandaries.

Refusing to be trapped in only one medium, Shelley Jackson also did illustrations and covers for two short story collections by Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen (2001) and Magic For Beginners (2005), and her own children's books, The Old Woman and the Wave (1998) and Sophia, the Alchemist's Dog (2002).

The Melancholy of Anatomy (2002) was inspired by the following story Shelley told Megan Lynch in an interview:

A long time ago a friend told me that when she was a kid she was under the impression that sperm were big enough to see and kept an stern eye on the sofa cushions whenever she sat down next to a boy so that if she spotted one of the nasty things heading her way she could clap her hand down on it. That story, which is funny but laced with nightmare, stuck in my head. Years later I was thinking about the way some objects are so swollen with metaphorical associations that they almost lose their literal meaning entirely. (Think of saints' relics.) But there is always a residue of the material thing left behind: a tuft of hair, a shard of bone. I was fascinated by that residue, which seems to sulk inside a nimbus of strangeness, both resisting it and making it possible. I wanted to write stories that exaggerated the resistance as well as the collusion. The body is the original magnetic object: it has both a bumptious physicality and a metaphoric life, but usually we move easily between the two and think nothing of it. So I thought of my friend's sperm story, and the way its peculiarities of scale make visible what is comical and unnerving about sperm, and I thought, that's what I have to do. If I separate sperm from its usual context but still draw on all the feelings associated with it, maybe I can write a story that while absurd and fantastical is also strangely heart-felt, like a dream, or a love letter written in a code to which you've lost the key. I think these stories are both mournful and humorous because the body is. I don't have a secret recipe for those mixed emotions, though I do try to keep the two in balance. That tension makes both more interesting to me, takes the sentimentality out of tragedy, invests the cartoonish with mortal implications.

A recent project she is working on is called Skin. Shelley Jackson invites 2,095 participants to have one word of this story tattooed upon his or her body. The text will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium. The full text will be known only to participants. In the event that insufficient participants come forward to complete the first and only edition of the story within the author’s lifetime, the incomplete version will be considered definitive. This project has been covered in The New York Times "Year in Ideas" 2004, Newsweek, the New York Post, the Village Voice, USA Today, The London Observer, The Sunday Telegraph, The Toronto Star, The LA Weekly, The Seattle Times, Print, Step, Res, Black Book, Decode, Tattoo Highway, German Glamour, Italian Elle, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, the SwedishDagens Nyheter, the Argentinian Clarin, and on CNN, NPR's All Things Considered, BBC radio (twice), BBC Scotland, German public radio, Canadian public radio, Canadian book television, Swedish national television and Polish news radio. It has been blogged, parodied, and spawned a Yankee Pot Roast competition and a sermon.

In an interview Shelley describes her interest in the body:

...the body interests me most as something to write about, not to touch (not in a professional capacity, anyway). I am fascinated above all with using it as a object of fantastical transformations, because we care about the body and we know it intimately, and I think that makes it possible to invest bizarre scenarios with very strong, creepy, personal feelings.

Shelley Jackon was a writer-in-residence at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she taught (together with Wolfgang Schirmacher) an Intensive Summer Seminar.