Birmingham native Vicki Covington (1952- ) is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her fiction is characterized by themes of family and community and is set in her native South. She has described herself as a life-long observer of people, a trait that has proven essential to her life as a writer; her nonfiction is often personal and candid.
Vicki Ann Marsh Covington was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on October 22, 1952, to Jack Marsh, a metallurgical engineer, and Katherine Marsh, a teacher. She had one sibling, the late Randy Marsh, a playwright and co-founder of the Birmingham Festival Theatre. At her mother’s urging, Covington began keeping a journal at age eight. Covington observed the people around her and wrote down what they did and said. She states that she enjoyed solitude and liked watching life more than participating in it. Though she wrote every day, she would not think of herself as a writer for many decades.
She was educated in the Birmingham public school system and graduated from Woodlawn High School in 1971. Covington attended the University of Alabama, where she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1974 and a master’s degree in social work in 1976. She worked as a social worker in Birmingham from March 1976 to August 1977, at which time she moved to Wooster, Ohio, with her fiancé, writer Dennis Covington, whom she had known since childhood. She continued her career as a social worker, and Dennis taught English at the College of Wooster. In December 1977, the couple travelled back to Birmingham for their wedding and then returned to Wooster. The couple moved back to Birmingham in August 1978, and Dennis taught English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Vicki worked as a social worker and outpatient therapist in the UAB Department of Psychiatry’s substance abuse program from 1978 to 1988. Throughout this period, Covington continued to write in her journal and began developing her entries into short stories.
She began to send her stories out to journals in Ohio, but none were published until after her move to Alabama. She had some successes with early stories in minor literary journals during the early 1980s. Then, in 1986, The New Yorker published two stories, “Duty,” in the August 18th issue, and “Magnolia,” in the March 24th issue. Covington has described these events as turning points in her writing career because they brought her name to a wider audience and gained the attention of publishing companies.
At the request of an editor at publishing house Simon & Schuster, Covington developed an unpublished short story into the novel Gathering Home, a coming-of-age story that was published in 1988. Covington left her job as a social worker that year after receiving grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her second novel, Bird of Paradise (1990), tells the story of a retired waitress sustained by a network of community and friends; it received the 1991 Fiction Award from the Alabama Library Association. Subsequent novels include Night Ride Home (1992), set in a small Alabama mining community around the time of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and The Last Hotel for Women (1996), set during the civil rights movement and focused on the Freedom Rides, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. Covington and her brother adapted The Last Hotel for Women for the stage, and it was performed in 1996 at Birmingham Festival Theatre and again in June 2012.
Covington also has published two books of nonfiction: Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage, co-authored with husband Dennis Covington, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Library Journal in 1999, and Women in a Man’s World, Crying in 2002. Cleaving is a collection of essays on struggle, enduring love, and forgiveness in a long marriage, and Women in a Man’s World is a collection of essays that originally appeared as columns for The Birmingham News and for specific literary occasions, such as the Eudora Welty Literary Symposium. The essays are divided into six themes: “Girls and Women,” “Neighborhood,” “Death,” “The South,” “Spiritual Matters,” and “Writing.” The essays address topics such as raising her daughters, coping with her husband’s cancer, her own heart attack, and her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and offering her own perspectives on family, friendship, and faith.
During 2001 and 2002, Covington wrote a regular column for The Oxford American called “Meditations for Bad Girls.” She describes these pieces as both spiritual and secular. One is titled “Men I’ve Kissed” and another, “Women I’ve Kissed.” Her work also has been published in Southern Living, Southern Humanities Review, Shenandoah, PMS, and other journals. Citing the negative reaction to the directness and honesty about the Covington’s difficult marriage as the cause, Covington stopped writing altogether in 2002. She taught fiction writing at UAB from 1998 to 2009, first as an adjunct in the English Department and then in the Honors Program, and has also spoken at writing conferences around the region. In 2017, after a 15-year hiatus, Covington published the novel Once in a Blue Moon, set in the Glen Iris neighborhood of Birmingham during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Covington’s novels are set in Alabama, and her characters are decidedly southern. A January 1, 1996, review in Publisher’s Weekly noted that Covington has the ability to depict southerners—both men and women—with discerning candor and also with sympathetic understanding.
Works by Vicky Covington
Gathering Home (1988)
Bird of Paradise (1990)
Night Ride Home (1992)
The Last Hotel for Women (1996)
Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage (1999)
Women in a Man’s World, Crying: Essays (2002)