Although born in Palo Alto, California, in 1951, Brigit Pegeen Kelly grew up in rural New Jersey and later lived in central Illinois. An intensely private woman, she has revealed little about her early life. She had a Catholic upbringing, which is reflected in the religious themes and rich symbolism of her writing. She explains that though her father often read to her and her siblings, and they watched foreign films together, “Of all of the readings and all of the films, never once did we talk about them. . . . I think of art in silence.” This early equating of art and silence may account for why she came to writing late: Her education originally was in the visual arts, and her writing method is influenced by this early discipline: “You sketch, paint, paint over it. My writing method resembles the construction of art. I write a lot of drafts.”
Kelly has taught at the University of California, Irvine; Purdue University; and Warren Wilson College; she was on the faculty of Middlebury College’s renowned Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and she was a visiting writer with numerous programs, including the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the University of Houston, and the Michener Center for Writers. A self-described “creature of place,” Kelly became professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she has taught along with her husband, poet and fiction writer Michael David Madonick. In 2002, the University of Illinois awarded her both humanities and campus-wide awards for excellence in teaching. In the fall of 2009, she was one of ten professors at Urbana-Champaign to begin their appointments as professors in the Center for Advanced Study—one of the highest forms of recognition the campus bestows on faculty members for outstanding scholarship.