Sheila Kohler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the younger of two girls. Upon matriculation at 17 from Saint Andrews, with a distinction in history (1958), she left the country for Europe. She lived for 15 years in Paris, where she married, did her undergraduate degree in literature at the Sorbonne, and a graduate degree in psychology at the Institut Catholique. After raising her three girls, she moved to the USA in 1981, and did an MFA in writing at Columbia.
In the summer of 1987, her first published story, “The Mountain,” came out in “The Quarterly” and received an O’Henry prize and was published in the O’Henry Prize Stories of 1988. It also became the first chapter in her first novel, “The Perfect Place,” which was published by Knopf the next year.
Knopf also published the first volume of her short stories, “Miracles in America,” in 1990.
Kohler has won two O’Henry prizes for “The Mountain” 1988 and “The Transitional Object” 2008. She has been short-listed in the O’Henry Prize Stories for three years running: in 1999 for the story, “Africans”; in 2000 for “Casualty,” which had appeared in the Ontario Review; and 2001 for “Death in Rome,” a story which had appeared in The Antioch Review. “Casualty” was also included in the list of distinguished stories in The Best American Short Stories of 2001.
In 1994 she published a second novel, “The House on R Street,” also with Knopf, about which Patrick McGrath said, in “The New York Times Book Review: ” “Sheila Kohler has achieved in this short novel a remarkable atmosphere, a fine delicate fusion of period, society and climate.”
In 1998 she published a short story, “Africans,” in Story Magazine, which was chosen for the Best American Short Stories of 1999, was read and recorded at Symphony Space and at The American Repertory Theatre in Boston and was translated into Japanese. It was also included in her second collection of stories,” One Girl,” published by Helicon Nine, which won the Willa Cather Prize in 1998 judged by William Gass.
In 1999 she published her third novel, “Cracks,” with Zoland, which received a starred review from Kirkus, was nominated for an Impac award in 2001, and was chosen one of the best books of the year by Newsday and by Library Journal.” Cracks” also came out with Bloomsbury in England, was translated into French and Dutch, and will come out in Hebrew. It has been optioned six times by Killer films and Working Track 2. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, 2009, and at the London film festival and came out here in the summer of 2010 and is now on Netflix. It is directed by Jordan Scott, with Eva Green in the role of Miss G.
In 2000 Kohler received the Smart Family Foundation Prize for “Underworld,” a story published in the October “Yale Review.”
In 2001 she published her fourth novel,” The Children of Pithiviers,” with Zoland, a novel about the concentration camps during the Vicky Period in France in Pithiviers and Beaune la Rolande.
In 2003 she was awarded a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Institute to work on a historical novel based on the life on the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, a French aristocrat who escaped the Terror by bringing her family to Albany, New York. Also that year she published her third volume of short stories, “Stories from Another World” with the Ontario Review Press.
She won the Antioch Review Prize in 2004 for work in that magazine. Both “ The Perfect Place” and “Miracles in America” came out in England with Jonathan Cape and in paperback with Vintage International. “The Perfect Place” was translated into French, German, Japanese, and Portuguese.
Her fifth novel, “Crossways,” came out in October, 2004, also, with the Ontario Review Press edited by Raymond Smith and Joyce Carol Oates. It received a starred Kirkus Review and is out in paperback with the Other Press as well as “The Perfect Place.”
Kohler has published essays in The Boston Globe, Salmagundi (summer 2004, 2009), The Bellevue Literary magazine, and O Magazine,”The Heart Speaks” ( May 2004), “What Happy Ever After Really Looks Like” (2008) and reviews in The New Leader and Bomb as well as essays in The American Scholar in 2014 and 2015.
Kohler began teaching at The Writer’s Voice in 1990, going on from there to teach at SUNY Purchase, Sarah Lawrence, Colgate, CCNY , Bennington and Columbia. She has taught creative writing at Princeton since 2008 and now teaches freshman seminars there .
Sheila’s sixth novel, “Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness” was published in 2007, and the paperback was published with Berkely in 2008. “The Transitional Object” in Boulevard won an O’Henry prize and is included in the 2008 volume.
Her tenth book, “Becoming Jane Eyre” came out with Viking Penguin in December, 2009, and was a New York Times editor’s pick. Casey Cep wrote in the Boston Globe about this novel: “With an appreciation for their craft and sympathy for their difficult profession, Kohler’s “Becoming Jane Eyre’’ is a tender telling of the Brontë family’s saga and the stories they told.”
Her eleventh book “Love Child” was published by Penguin in America and by La Table Ronde in France. In June of 2012, her twelfth book “The Bay of Foxes,” was published by Penguin. “Dreaming for Freud” was published by Penguin in 2014. It will be translated into Turkish
In 2013 the story, “Magic Man” was published in Best American Short Stories.
Sheila Kohler’s latest book, a memoir, “ONCE WE WERE SISTERS” was published by Penguin in January 2017 and by Canongate in England in February and will come out in Spain.
Kohler currently lives in New York and Amagansett.