Authors: Whitney Otto

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

How to Make an American Quilt, 1991

Now You See Her, 1994

The Passion Dream Book, 1997

A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity, 2002


Whitney Otto is known as a writer of novels that are innovative both in structure and in language. She was the second of three children born to William B. Otto, Sr., an electrical engineer, and Constance D. Vambert, a public speaker who inspired her daughter to make the most of her talents. In elementary school in Pasadena, where she grew up, Otto found that she liked inventing stories. However, it would be years before she decided on a writing career.{$I[A]Otto, Whitney}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Otto, Whitney}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Otto, Whitney}{$I[tim]1955;Otto, Whitney}

After finishing high school, she attended the University of the Pacific’s Raymond College, then San Diego State University, and finally the University of California, Irvine, where, five weeks before she was to graduate with a major in history, she discovered that she wanted only to write.

Immediately Otto dropped out of school and moved to San Francisco, where she did various odd jobs and even peddled one-page essays on street corners. For five years she was a bookkeeper for two financial district dentists. Although she did some writing, she collected only rejection slips. At thirty, Otto returned to Irvine, obtained her B.A., and entered the Graduate School of Writing, which granted her an M.F.A. in 1990.

Meanwhile, in 1988, after seeing a television advertisement for a quilting program, Otto had decided to do some research on the craft, intending to use it in a short story for a writing workshop. As she developed her story, she found that it was taking shape as a collage, much like the quilt she was describing. Her teacher was so impressed by the unique structure and style of the story that he encouraged Otto to expand it into a book. It took her only six weeks to write How to Make an American Quilt. The novel became a best-seller, first in hardback, then in paperback form, and was later made into a film.

On December 8, 1991, when she was thirty-six, Otto married her longtime boyfriend, John A. Riley, a chef, and they moved to Portland, Oregon. The following year, their son Samuel Morganfield Riley was born.

Although Otto’s second novel, Now You See Her, used the same kind of collage structure as How to Make an American Quilt, critics found it hard to follow, probably because the central metaphor, television trivia, was too diffuse to unify the work. In The Passion Dream Book, which was much admired, Otto used a more conventional narrative structure than she had in her earlier works. With A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity she returned to her original patchwork format. It has been noted, however, that these later books have a more sophisticated, multicultural ambience than her first novel.

Even though the later novels did not have the phenomenal success of How to Make an American Quilt, they all exhibit the author’s gift for subtle characterization and her inventiveness, both in structure and in style. Because of her technical skill, along with her timely focus on art, love, and the woman artist, Whitney Otto is generally considered one of the most interesting novelists of the twenty-first century.

BibliographyCohen, Judith Beth. “At the Vanishing Point.” The Women’s Review of Books 11, nos. 10/11 (July, 1994): 46-47. Looks at Otto’s use of metaphor in Now You See Her and How to Make an American Quilt.Hawthorne, Mary. “Stitching a Crazy Quilt.” The Times Literary Supplement 4608 (July 26, 1991): 19. Comments on the structure of How to Make an American Quilt and on its historical and sociological implications.Lefcourt, Peter. “The Lady Vanishes.” The New York Times Book Review 143 (April 10, 1994): 11. Argues that Now You See Her lacks a unifying narrative structure and, as a result, is less effective than Otto’s first book.McCorkle, Jill. “Cover Stories.” The New York Times Book Review 140 (March 24, 1991): 10. How to Make an American Quilt is seen as a collection of stories, which in the end fit together like the quilt the characters are making. Commends Otto for her dextrous handling of an “intricate design.”Otto, Whitney. “Whitney Otto: A Transcendent Passion.” Interview by Roxane Farmanfarmaian. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 22 (June 2, 1997): 45-46. Otto discusses her beginnings as a writer, the surprising success of her first novel, and her approach to art. A revealing interview.Steinberg, Sybil. Review of How to Make an American Quilt, by Whitney Otto. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 8 (February 8, 1991): 46. An insightful discussion of the novel, with emphasis on its themes.
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