Publisher: Bison Books, The University of Nebraska Press
Distributed by: University of Nebraska Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-1139-1
ISBN-10: 0-8032-1139-2
Price: $24.95 | cloth
Hardcover: 276 pages
Publication Date: April 18, 2007
Trim Size: 5 1/2 x 8 1/2

Because a Fire Was in My Head
Lynn Stegner

Kate Riley is an unusual heroine, a beautiful, ambitious woman who rejects the conventional roles of women in her 1950s rural community. The premature death of her beloved father, coupled with a corrosive relationship with her mother, prompts Kate to flee her hometown in desperate search of happiness and approval. Set against the backdrop of the sweeping social and economic changes that followed World War II, the story takes us from the plains of rural Saskatchewan to the bustling cities of Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco—through a succession of lovers, and of children born and abandoned, Kate's story is one of desperation and remarkable invention, a strangely American tale, brilliantly narrated by one of our most original writers.

Lynn Stegner is the author of four novels, including Undertow and Fata Morgana, both of which were nominated for the National Book Award, and Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, which was awarded the Faulkner Society's Gold Medal for Best Novella. The manuscript for Because a Fire Was in My Head won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for Best Novel of 2005. Stegner currently directs the Santa Fe Writers' Workshop and lives in Santa Fe with her husband, the writer Page Stegner, and their daughter, Allison.


  • A Book Sense Pick, May 2007


"Stunning...The poetic detail of Stegner's sentences—not to mention her wanton protagonist—is reminiscent of the novels of John Updike....Because a Fire Was in My Head, her most ambitious novel so far, ought to attract for Stegner the wider audience she so richly deserves."

—Julia Scheeres, New York Times Book Review, "Editor's Choice"

"A brilliant book, more solid than the ground we stand on. This novel does honor to the best in the tradition of storytelling, even though you occasionally want to shove the heroine off the highest possible cliff. In other words, you are drawn into the story, and when you have finished you have added amplitude to your knowledge of the human condition."

—Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall

"A novel fully realized on every level, Because a Fire Was in My Head is a provocative literary work of weight and luster. A risky, intermittently melodramatic tale, it casts light both on the timeless mysteries of the human psyche and on the paradoxes of a notoriously contrary epoch, namely, post-World War II North America....[A] bold and stunning novel."

—Donna Seaman, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"With bracing prose, Stegner turns a potential monster into a character both fascinating and pitiable; you may hate Kate, but you won't want to leave her."

—Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

"Stegner follows the tragic arc of Kate Riley, whose lifetime of self-destructive behavior takes her from rural Canada to a seaside cottage in northern California with plenty of gloomy pit stops along the way....Kate's downward spiral is undoubtedly grim, but Stegner punctuates it with muted hints of redemption; the result is uncommonly satisfying."

Publishers Weekly

"Brave and old-fashioned, Stegner's supple use of language and precise evocation of period and place bring a literary intuitiveness to this inventive portrait of a scheming temptress, rendering with disarming psychological acuity Kate's warring self-serving and self-destructive tendencies. Kate is too egocentric to be a sympathetic heroine, yet through Stegner's masterful treatment, she does become a forceful, persuasive, and wholly mesmerizing character."


"Sometimes a character comes along that creates a confusion of feelings within the reader. Beautiful, ambitious, and self-centered young Kate Riley, the protagonist of this latest novel from Stegner is one of those characters....Unfortunately, there is very little to like about Kate, a woman who rejects anything that might provide emotional stability, instead gravitating toward bad choices and worse situations (reminding one of that classic heroine we love to hate, Madame Bovary). Who can say what made Kate the way she is—her upbringing, the repressive culture, depression?—but that's what makes this complex and emotional literary novel a compelling yet troubling experience."

Library Journal

"Since the novel's anti-heroine is unabashedly self-absorbed and unsympathetic, convincing a reader to care for her is a true accomplishment. Four-time novelist Lynn Stegner pulls it off with panache."

Bookmarks Magazine

"Lynn Stegner's portrait of a lost lady is as authentically compassionate as it is unsparing, a rare feat in fiction—and in life, for that matter. Accomplished from the outset of her career, Stegner has achieved here a level of mastery that places her in an elite group of those writing serious literature in America."

—Frederick Turner, author of Redemption

"It's hard to care about [Kate], which could prompt some readers to give up on the character, and the book. This would be a shame, as Stegner's meaty, eloquent prose, and the book's satisfying conclusion, make Kate's story ultimately worthy of seeing through to the end."

Quill and Quire

"A strikingly rendered, dark and troubling novel about one woman's confused journey toward what she believes may very well be herself. With exquisite precision, Lynn Stegner has captured Kate Riley's life in all its shadows and specters. A harrowing book, beautifully told."

—Bret Lott, author of Jewel