Because a Fire Was in My Head Because a Fire Was in My Head

Kate Riley is not the sort of heroine we meet in most American novels. Self-centered, shape-shifting, driven from one man to another and one city to the next, she is all too real—but not at all the loyal and steady homebody of idealized womanhood. When we first encounter her, Kate (or Katherine, or Kate of the Prairie, or Katrina) is about to undergo exploratory brain surgery for a condition she herself has fabricated. Sobered by the gravity of the procedure, she commences a journey of memory that takes us back to the Saskatchewan village where she grew up and to the singular event that altered her forever and irrevocably set the course of her life.

From her childhood, in which she was held captive to a mother gone mad, through her adult life, which unfolds as a mesmerizing sequence of men, abandoned children, and perpetual movement, Kate’s story is one of desperation and remarkable invention, a strangely American tale brilliantly narrated by one of our most original writers.

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“[S]tunning … 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”

“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

“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

“Ultimately, Stegner’s bold and stunning novel reminds us that for all the transformations of the tactile world, the country of the spirit remains the same, impelling us to sing the song of being human, as Yeats writes, ‘till time and times are done.’”

—Donna Seaman
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“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.”

—Julia Scheeres
Author of Jewel

“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

“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

“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

“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 novel is a compelling story of Kate Riley, an anguished heroine so adroitly written that we are drawn into the tale, no matter how disturbing. . . . Stegner is a master stylist . . . her telling details of character and insightful nuances can be breathtaking. . . . Because a Fire Was in My Head is an ambitious tour de force of storytelling, but perhaps not satisfying for those who favor redemption and tidy endings. . . . Perhaps, reminiscent of Faulkner, Stegner’s story reminds us that life does not always provide those comforts and that atonement is not always possible.”

—Barbara Harrelson
Santa Fe News

“Having been a writer’s writer for 20 years, Lynn Stegner is not exactly new. Yet her latest book, Because a Fire Was in My Head, will undoubtedly catapult her to literary fame. . . . Stegner has rendered a truly tragic story, yet she writes it beautifully, demonstrating the stunning things that can be done with the English language when one is gifted.”

Deseret Morning News

“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

“Lynn Stegner’s new novel, Because a Fire Was in My Head, is an engrossing, satisfying tale. . . . Impressively, and this is a testament to Stegner’s ability as a writer, it’s hard not to feel for Kate and her victims as she bumps along in her terrible predicaments. The reader longs to find out what will happen next.”

New West Books & Writers

“[Stegner’s] prose is masterful, particularly in her descriptions of places, the interior of buildings and the clothes her characters wear. She brings all these alive so that you can see and almost touch them.”

—Wally Gordon
The Independent (New Mexico)

“Stegner’s supple prose renders her protagonist with acuity and precision and gives us that pleasurable result that—may I say—readers are in search of, a good story well told.”

—Robert Birnbaum

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