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Joan was born to New Yorkers in Phoenix, Arizona. She studied with author Thaisa Frank (no relation) at the University of California in Berkeley, CA, and holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.

She is a MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Ragdale Fellow; a Pushcart Prize nominee, and recent winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction and of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.


Her two new books (February 2020) are WHERE YOU'RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS (Mary McCarthy Prize), published by Sarabande Books, and TRY TO GET LOST: ESSAYS ON TRAVEL AND PLACE (River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize), published by the University of New Mexico Press. 


Joan's 2017 Novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction (University of Massachusetts Press). 


Her collected essays about the writing life, BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO: A WRITING LIFE, won the ForeWord Reviews [Silver] Book of the Year Award.

Past honors include the Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, Iowa Writing Award, and notable others. Joan has received grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council; she has been nominated twice for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction, and named a San Francisco Library and Berkeley Public Library Literary Laureate. She has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to offer private consultation.

Joan also reviews literary fiction and nonfiction for The Washington Post, among other venues. She lives in Northern California.