Mary Robison

Major Works

Mary Robison, Photo by Frederick Barthleme (USM)

Mary Robison, Photo by Frederick Barthleme (USM)

  • One D.O.A, One on the Way: A Novel (2010)
  • Tell Me: 30 Stories (2002) Collection of short stories
  • Why Did I Ever (2001) novel
  • Subtraction (1991) novel
  • Believe Them: Stories  (1988)
  • An Amateur’s Guide to the Night: Stories (1983)
  • Oh! (1981) novel
  • Days: Stories  (1979)

Biography of Mary Robison

by Bridget Gibson (SHS) 2004
(with additions from Jenny Watson, University of Southern Mississippi, daughter of Mary Robison)

Bridget Gibson, SHS Researcher

Bridget Gibson, SHS Researcher

Mary Cennamo Robison (pronounced robe-eh-son) is a writer who lived for ten years in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, while she was a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.  In 2004 she moved to Gainesville to teach  at the University of Florida.   She is known for novels and collections of short stories which include Days, Oh!, An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, Believe ThemSubtraction, Why Did I Ever,  Tell Me, and One D.O.A, One on the Way.  Many of her stories have been publi shed in The New Yorker.  In the 1980’s, she was, according to Kirkus Review,  one of the minimalists who helped set the tone for hip contemporary American fiction.

Born January 14, 1949, in Washington, D.C.,  Mary Robison is the daughter of  Anthony Cennamo, a patent attorney, and F. Elizabeth (Cennamo) Reiss, a psychologist.  Mary is the third oldest child but the oldest girl.  Although her family lived in Washington when she was  a very young child, Robison’s  formative years were actually spent in Columbus, Ohio.   The Cennamos had eight children before they  divorced.   After the divorce, Mary’s mother Elizabeth pursued and later earned a doctorate in psychology.  She married Robert Reiss of Columbus, Ohio, a journalist  for the Columbus Dispatch.   Robison’s  father Anthony also remarried and had two more children to his second wife.  He died in 2000.

Mary Robison attended Ohio State University as an undergrad and there met Robert Watson, who became her first husband.  Together they are the parents of two daughters.   However,  they divorced in their early twenties,  and a few years later, Mary married Jim (James) Robison, also a writer.  Mary divorced Jim in 1996,  but kept Mary Robison as her already-established pen name.

After attending Ohio State as an undergrad, Robison was recruited by John Barth for graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, where she received a master’s in 1977.  Also, in 1977, Robison’s first collection of short stories, Days, was published. It is a collection of  short stories based on the aspects of everyday life.   Soon after,  Robison’s second work (her first novel) called Oh!, was released.  She wrote the novel to make people laugh. Oh! is a novel about a family that struggles with alcoholism and drugs.  The book later became a movie known as Twister.  Robison’s third published work, another collection of short stories, was entitled An Amateur’s Guide to the Night. It was published in 1983.  This  second collection of short stories is  made up of eleven short stories. Robison’s third collection of short stories is Believe Them, which was published in 1988, five years after the second collection of short stories.  In 1991,  Robison published her fifth book called Subtraction, a novel about a college professor named Paige Deveaux who is searching for her alcoholic husband (“Mary Robison,” Gale Literary Databases).

Robison did not publish another book for ten years.  However, in 2001, Why Did I Ever, a novel narrated by the character Money Breton, was published to wide acclaim.  The novel about a Southern writer who has been divorced three times was named a New York Times Notable Book and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner.  Donna Seamen, in a review for Booklist, describes Why Did I Ever as a “soliloquy on the absurdity of existence”  which “hones fiction to a new and exhilarated measure of sharpness.”

In 2002, another collection of thirty short stories entitled Tell Me was published. Her most recent work, One D.O.A, One on the Way: A Novel, was published in 2010.

Mary Robison has been a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.  Some of the  many awards that she has received are Fellowships from Yaddo Writers and Artists Colony in 1978 and 2000, Breadloaf Writers conference in 1979, PEN award in 1979, and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1980-81.  She is included in a Granta Book of America.  She was  a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and is  frequent contributor for the New Yorker.

Robison has taught in various universities.   In 1981 she began teaching English at Harvard University, where she was writer-in-residence for seven years. Robison has also served in the same position at other colleges and universities, some of which include Ohio University, Oberlin College, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, College of William and Mary,  Bennington College, and the University of Houston (for five years).   For ten years, from  1994 until 2004, she taught creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. She left her tenure there, however, to teach at the University of Florida beginning in the 2004-2005 academic year.   Robison’s novel, One D.O.A., One on the Way was a choice of Oprah Winfrey for her 2009 25 books You Can’t Put Down Summer Reading List.   Robison is a faculty member in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at University of Florida.

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Timeline to 2004

  • 1949 — Mary Robison was born  in Washington, D. C.
  • 1977 — Robison graduated from John Hopkins University with her master’s degree
  • 1977 — Robison’s first collection of short stories Dayswas published
  • 1978 — Robison received the Fellowships from Yaddo Writers and Artists Colony
  • 1979 — Robison attended the Breadloaf Writers conference
  • 1979 — Robison was visiting lecturer at Ohio University, also received the Authors Guild and PEN award
  • 1980 — Robison’s first novel Oh! was publishe , writer-in-residence at University of North Carolina at Greensboro
  • 1981 — Robison became Briggs-Copeland Assistant Professor of English  at Harvard University
  • 1983 — Robison’s second work a collection of short stories called An Amateur’s Guide to the Night was published
  • 1984-   She is visiting assistant professor of writing ot Oberlin College
  • 1986—Days reprinted in paperback (Nonpareil Books, No 42)
  • 1988 — Robison’s third work  Believe Them was published
  • 1991 — Robison’s fourth work  Subtraction was published
  • 1994- -Robison moves to Mississippi to teach creative writing at University of Southern Mississippi
  • 1996– Robison divorces her second husband Jim
  • 2001 –  Robison’s fifth work  Why Did I Ever, a novel, was published
  • 2002 –  Robison’s sixth work Tell Me: 30 Stories  was published  (collection of short stories published over time in the New Yorker)
  • 2004– Robison moves from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, MS, to teach at the University of Florida

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A Review of Tell Me

by Bridget Gibson (SHS) 2004

Tell Me is a good book of  a total of thirty different short stories, with four that really caught my interest.  These stories include In the Woods,  I am Twenty-One, May Queen, and Yours.  In the Woods is a short story about a couple who are in love and taking a trip in the woods.  The couple, Kenneth and Barbara, face many obstacles and joys,  and the story  tells about everything that they faced and went through, good and bad.

I am Twenty-One is a short story telling about an anonymous girl who is in class taking an exam and striving to pass the course.  When she gets home, she starts to tell about a painting on the wall which is a picture of her mother or father whose names are Rudy and Leslie.  At the end she is taking a nap and wants to wake up, and the story ends.

May Queen is a short story about about a sixteen year old girl who has been selected  May Queen at her school.  During the time of the story,  she is involved in a church play at St. Rose Lima church.  While she is engaged in a certain part of the play,  her dress catches on fire ,and she gets a first degree burn and is rushed to the hospital.  At the end of this story, she is still in the hospital.

Yours is a short story set during Halloween.  A young woman named Allison and an older man named Clark, are carving pumpkins, and Allison does not put much effort into her carving.  Instead she makes plain everyday, ordinary pumpkins.  She does not think that her work is very interesting anyway.  She tells Clark that he has done a much better job than she, but Clark insists that her pumpkins are better. Overall,  this collection of stories is very good, and I would suggest it to anyone who just wants to read a good book full of wonderful stories.

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Related Websites

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  • “A life through flashbacks and dialogues.”  Seattle Times. 4 Dec. 2002. <>.
  • Mary Robison.“Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002. 12 December 2002.
  • “Oh! Mary! What the Hell Has Been Going On!”   LA Weekly. 10 December 2002. <>.
  • Robison, Mary.  Tell Me.  Washington, D.C.:  Counterpoint, 2002.
  • Watson, Jenny.  Email to Nancy N. Jacobs. “Information about Mary Robison.”  21 Oct 2004.

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