Daniel Wallace Daniel Wallace (1959- ) is an author who is best known for his novel Big Fish (1998), a national bestseller that was developed into a major motion picture directed by Tim Burton. In addition to his several novels, Wallace has written and illustrated several children’s books and has published more than three dozen short stories in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, The Yale Review, Shenandoah, New Stories from the South, and The Best American Short Stories. His illustrations and drawings have appeared in the L.A. Times and Italian Vanity Fair.
Born was born on January 22, 1959, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, Wallace lived in Birmingham and attended local schools through high school. After graduating, Wallace attended Emory University for two years before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied business. He left shortly before graduating, however, when his father’s business, Wallace International, offered him an opportunity to work at Nikko Boeki, a trading company dealing in stoneware and china in Nagoya, Japan. Despite his love for Japan and the Japanese people, Wallace decided against a career in business and ended his apprenticeship after two years. He returned to Chapel Hill to learn to write, declining an offer from his father to work in the Wallace International headquarters in Birmingham. During this time, Wallace earned his living by working at a bookstore and creating illustrations for refrigerator magnets.
Big Fish at Huntingdon College Wallace’s writing career started slowly. Initially, he lacked confidence in his abilities and only pursued writing because the process itself appealed to him. After nearly 14 years of writing several hours a day, he had published about a dozen short stories and had written five unpublished novels. In 1998, Algonquin Books purchased and published Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions. Set in Ashland (a fictional town not connected with the real town in Clay County), the novel centers on the relationship between a son and his alcoholic father and the ways in which the son uses the power of myth to reconcile his memories of his father with who is father really is. Prior to its publication, screenwriter John August read the manuscript and convinced Columbia Pictures to acquire the rights despite the novel’s nonlinear plotline. Wallace himself has commented that some of his previous unpublished novels might have worked better for film. August adapted the book for the screen, and Tim Burton took the lead as the film’s director. The film was released in 2003 to generally positive reviews. Wallace makes a small appearance in the film as a professor at Auburn University (although the campus depicted as Auburn is in fact Huntingdon College in Montgomery). The success of Big Fish brought Wallace a fair amount of notoriety.
Town of Spectre In 2000, Wallace published his second novel, Ray in Reverse. Set in the South, the story relates the tragedies and triumphs of the main character’s life in reverse, from his death to his childhood. In 2003, Wallace revisited the town of Ashland, made famous in Big Fish, with his longest novel, The Watermelon King, primarily a work based on local traditions in the rural South that connect with universal myth through the scapegoating of a community member in order to bring about rebirth and renewal. Wallace’s fourth novel, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, was released in 2007. Similar to his previous works, the novel is set in the South and explores the relationship between a mother and a son and the differences between real magic and sleight of hand. It was awarded the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for best fiction published in North Carolina. That same year, he wrote and illustrated a children’s book, O Great Rosenfeld!, which was published in France and Korea and the following year published another children’s book, Elynora, in Italy. Throughout this time, Wallace continued to write and published several short stories as well as a number of illustrations. He also wrote an unproduced screenplay called “Timeless” for Universal Pictures. A Broadway musical based on Big Fish premiered in fall 2013 but closed in fewer than three months. In May 2013, Wallace published the novel The Kings and Queens of Roam, a fantasy novel about two sisters in the magical town of Roam. Well received, it has been called an adult “fairy tale” by a number of critics. In 2014, he published a children’s book, The Cat’s Pajamas, in which humorously explores the origins of the expression describing something special. He published Extraordinary Adventures, a novel loosely based on his own life in Birmingham, in 2017.
All of Wallace’s novels are set in Alabama and the South; however, he does not consider himself necessarily a southern writer. The South was a convenient and familiar place in which to set his novels because that is where he has lived most of his life. Setting for Wallace is not a defining feature of his novels, however, but rather serves as a place in which the characters can interact. The genre to which his works can most accurately be ascribed is magical realism. His work explores subjects through light and funny scenarios with more serious or sinister undertones. The major themes of his novels include southernness, parent-child relationships, mythology, and magical realism.
In spite of his success as a writer, Wallace never read much as a child or young adult. He cites Kurt Vonnegut as his primary influence, particularly Breakfast of Champions. Other influences include William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, and J. D. Salinger. As a writer, Wallace concerns himself more with entertaining himself and his audience than producing works of art solely for the sake of art.
In 2008, Wallace returned to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and completed his Bachelor of Arts in English. He currently lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, Laura Kellison Wallace, and teaches creative writing as the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at Chapel Hill. In 2019, Wallace was selected for the Harper Lee Award, given each year by the Alabama Writers’ Forum in recognition of the lifetime achievement of an author born in Alabama. In 2023, he published a memoir recounting the life and suicide of his brother in law, William Nealy entitled This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew. That same year, he was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.
Works by Daniel Wallace
Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998)
Ray in Reverse (2000)
The Watermelon King (2003)
Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician (2007)
O Great Rosenfeld! (2007)
The Kings and Queens of Roam (2013)
The Cat’s Pajamas(2014)
Extraordinary Adventures (2017)
This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew (2023)
Turner, Daniel Cross. “The Magical Work of Fiction: An Interview with Daniel Wallace.” storySouth 27 (April 2008); http://www.storysouth.com/2009/03/interview-with-daniel-wallace.html.