Joan Chase, an author whose first book was published when she was 46 and attracted awards and accolades, died on April 17 at a nursing home in Needham, Mass. She was 81.
Her husband, Alexander Solomita, confirmed the death. He said she had Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body disease.
Ms. Chase’s first novel, “During the Reign of the Queen of Persia” (1983), inspired a chorus of positive reviews, earned a spot on the New York Times Book Review’s list of the top books of the year and won the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Margaret Atwood, in The Book Review, called the novel a “Norman Rockwell painting gone bad, the underside of the idyllic hometown, main-street, down-on-the-farm dream of Middle America.”
The story of four granddaughters growing up with their extended family on an Ohio farmstead, the novel was “an important debut by a fine new writer,” Ms. Atwood wrote, adding that it was “organized musically, with themes recurring in different keys, rather than linearly, along the train-track lines of cause-and-effect plot.”
Ms. Chase’s second novel, “The Evening Wolves” (1989), also centered on a family, this one dominated by a father. Contrasting it with her densely populated first novel, Joel Conarroe wrote in The Book Review, “ ‘The Evening Wolves,’ by comparison, is remarkably spare.” The novel, he wrote, reveals “a writer who understands the tyranny of the human heart — and who is not afraid to take risks.”
Whether these novels held the seed of autobiography is hard to say, because Ms. Chase shunned the spotlight, avoiding interviews. The lack of a biographical filter, however, may make reading her work a purer experience, the writer and literature scholar Amy Weldon suggested in the online magazine The Millions in 2014, the year “Queen of Persia” was reissued by New York Review Books.
Because she did not indulge in social media or share personal details, Ms. Weldon posited, Ms. Chase “disrupts the links we seek between a writer’s life and her art to let her work stand alone in the public eye.”
Joan Lucille Strausbaugh was born in Wooster, Ohio, on Nov. 26, 1936, to Lucille (formerly Lucille Keister) and Warren Strausbaugh. The family moved many times, following Mr. Strausbaugh’s career, which was largely an academic one.
She graduated from the University of Maryland in 1958 with a degree in philosophy and lived in the Georgetown section of Washington, working as a librarian. In 1959, she married Richard Xavier Chase, who taught economics. They lived in Illinois, Maryland and Vermont, and briefly in Europe, when he was on sabbatical.
It was after their return that Ms. Chase attended a writing workshop and began to dedicate herself to her craft.
Her first marriage ended in divorce, and she moved to Illinois, where she worked as assistant director of the Ragdale Foundation, an artists’ retreat in Lake Forest. Over the years she also taught periodically at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Princeton University, but “she was very shy and didn’t like teaching,” Mr. Solomita said in an email.
She also wrote a collection of short stories, “Bonneville Blue” (1991). Along the way she won a Whiting Foundation award in 1987, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990, the Janet Heidinger Kafka prize for fiction and several other honors.
She married Mr. Solomita in 2009. Besides him, she is survived by a son, Christopher Chase, and a daughter, Melissa Grabau, both from her first marriage; a sister, Linda Kaye Moore; a brother, Larry Strausbaugh; and two granddaughters.
One thing Ms. Chase did comment on was her transformation into a novelist.
“When I began ‘During the Reign of the Queen of Persia,’ I didn’t know I was writing a novel,” she told The Times Book Review as she was embarking on a second book. “Now, the second time around, I am a ‘novelist’ driving myself toward an enormous and predetermined objective.”
She added: “Writing a novel or story is always a leap in the dark, a scary thing. What I’m learning now is that even the dimensions of the dark change when I begin again.”
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