In the preface to Searching For Tamsen Donner, her memoir from University of Nebraska Press (2009), Gabrielle Burton writes, “In 1972 Tamsen Donner came unexpectedly to our family and took up permanent residence. In the decades since first discovering Tamsen Donner, I’ve written about numerous other subjects in non-fiction, fiction, and screenplay form. Yet, after every major project, I kept returning to Tamsen Donner.”
Searching for Tamsen Donner includes all of Tamsen Donner’s known letters collected and published in one place for the first time.
Her novel, Impatient With Desire (Hyperion/Voice 2010, is written from Tamsen Donner’s point of view.
Burton’s books share a commitment to exploring women’s lives. Her first novel, Heartbreak Hotel, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, was reviewed by novelist Fay Weldon as “a wild, manic, committed, exhilarating, wonderful work.” For Heartbreak Hotel, Burton received the Maxwell Perkins Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer’s Award, and in 1999, the novel was selected by prestigious Dalkey Archive Press for republication. Burton’s non-fiction book, I’m Running Away From Home But I’m Not Allowed To Cross The Street, a comedic primer on the Women’s Movement, was the first book published by KNOW, and was subsequently picked up by Avon. It launched her into the national discussion as a mother of five girls struggling with the typical problems of balancing parenting with other pursuits, or, as Burton put it: “keeping seven lives afloat at the expense of none.”
The desire to live a life fully while being a writer, wife, and mother drove Burton and her husband to create new ways of parenting and sharing household chores, as well as sharing adventure as a family. The pioneer spirit not only informs Burton’s work on the Donner Party, but all of her writing, as well as her life. Burton and her husband (jazz musician, psychology professor, and actor Roger Burton) took extraordinary trips with their five children on shoestring budgets — hitch-hiking through Alaska, camping while painstakingly researching the exact Donner Party route from Independence to California, backpacking through southeast Asia for months, and living in Europe and Malaysia. She traveled to Africa and to Tahiti, where she climbed the mast of a sailing ship, and recently, she and her husband spent an exhilarating two weeks in Xela, Guatemala, at an intensive Spanish school and homestay.
Burton decided to move into screenwriting, and was accepted at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. She won AFI’s Mary Pickford Prize for screenwriting en route to her MFA. The same weekend Burton was attending the Equinoxe Screenwriters Lab in Bordeaux, France (one of eleven international writers selected), she won the Austin Film Festival’s top prize for screenwriting. She has received grants from the Arts Council, and was selected to participate in the Independent Feature Project (IFP, now FIND) Screenwriting Lab. For her magic-realist screenplay about the Russian revolution and the illusory nature of history and story-telling, she was named a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellow by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, one of the most coveted prizes in screenwriting competitions. Her screenplay Manna From Heaven was produced by Five Sisters Productions, and was chosen as a critics pick by theWashington Post and called “Capra-esque. Charming, charming, charming” by NPR. After national theatrical distribution, Manna From Heaven is currently on DVD from MGM/Sony.
She has been a Member of the Ossabaw Island Project, a Yaddo fellow, a MacDowell Colony fellow, and the Bernard De Voto Fellow in Non Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. She has been a teacher, public speaker, judge for literary prizes, and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Panel.
Burton is a member of peace and equal rights groups, campaigned as a delegate for Shirley Chisholm’s run for President, worked on several commercials with Five Sisters Productions for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and, most recently, worked with Five Sisters on PSAs against human trafficking in the U.S.. Burton went with members of Tunahaki (a charitable group, now Go Campaign), to an orphanage in Tanzania, and she is a mentor for AWWP (the Afghan Women’s Writing Project). Read more about both these groups under LINKS.
Burton’s articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in national publications including the Washington Post, The New York Times, Family Circle, and Ms. Magazine. Online, she is a blogger on The Huffington Post and The Nervous Breakdown.
photo by Maria Burton