Julie Orringer was born in 1973 in Miami, Florida, while her parents were in medical school. She spent most of her childhood years in New Orleans and Ann Arbor, reading and writing plays and stories and making up games with her younger brother and sister. She went to Cornell University, where she majored in child development before deciding not to follow her parents into the medical profession. After graduating with a degree in English, she entered the M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa, and studied with Marilynne Robinson, Frank Conroy, James Alan McPherson, and Thom Jones.
Upon graduation in 1996, Orringer moved to San Francisco, and over the next three years worked as a receptionist in a fertility clinic, a copy clerk in the Parc 55 Hotel, a sample-picker in a fabric warehouse, and a high-tech management consultant. In 1997 her short story “What We Save” was accepted for publication at The Yale Review, and went on to win the journal’s Smart Family Foundation Award for best story of the year. Her next published story, “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” won the1998 Paris Review Discovery Prize and was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize XXV. In 1999, Orringer was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where she worked with John L’Heureux, Elizabeth Tallent, and Tobias Wolff. In 2001 she received the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Award for the manuscript of her short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater. “Pilgrims” has also been selected for Best New American Voices 2001, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2002, and The Pushcart Prize XXVII. Orringer is currently the Marsh McCall Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, the writer Ryan Harty, and is working on her first novel.
About the story, Orringer writes: “When I was eleven, almost a year after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, we attended a macrobiotic Thanksgiving feast at the home of some friends in New Orleans. The mother of the host family had died of cancer not long before, and the daughter, a girl close to my own age, showed me a glass of red water and insisted that it contained her mother’s essence. That image remained with me ever since, and fifteen years later it became the inspiration for ‘Pilgrims.’ As I wrote the story I found myself remembering the strange foods we ate, the vast, rickety tree house outside, and the general sense of disconnection between the sick parents and their bewildered, frightened children. My own mother died when I was twenty. Eight years later I continue to be surprised by how fresh that loss feels and how much I wish I could know her as an adult.”
Read Pilgrims on Ploughshares