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Extended Biography

About John Wray

John Wray, whose mother is Austrian and father is Californian, was born in Washington, D.C., where his parents, both scientists, were employed by the National Institute of Health. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, and in Friesach, a small town in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia. When he was a boy, his mother began reading Penguin Classics at a rate of exactly one per week, as a way to improve her English: one of his fondest childhood memories is of having The Pickwick Papers read to him at far too young an age, and understanding next to nothing, but loving the sound and mood of it regardless.

In the hope of following his parents into science, Wray majored in biology at Oberlin College, intending to become an ornithologist; in the end, he had to content himself with becoming a birdwatcher. After graduating from college, he worked in Petersburg, Alaska, as a cab driver; in Austin, Texas, as a groundskeeper; and in Manhattan, as a tutor in German and Spanish. He dropped out of graduate school twice: first from New York University’s MFA program in poetry, where he won an Academy of American Poets Prize, and then, a few years later, from Columbia’s fiction program. In between, he played guitar, bass, and drums, respectively, in the bands Marmalade, The King of France, and The Naysayer. In 2002, he spent a year in South America, climbing the Andean peaks Cerro Cuerno, Aconcagua, Antisana, El Altar, and Chimborazo, for a book on mountaineering that never got written.

Wray’s first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and won a Whiting Award in Fiction. For his second novel, Canaan’s Tongue, he traveled down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans on a raft made out of Home Depot surplus, giving readings in towns along the way. In 2007, Granta magazine selected him as one of the best American novelists under the age of thirty-five. For the last seven years, Wray has lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, across the street from the Prospect Park Bandshell. He has no intention of moving.