Robert Maynard Pirsig was born in 1928 to German and Swedish parents. His father was a professor of Law at the University of Minnesota and later the William Mitchell College of Law. The young Pirsig was strongly academic, and consequently was promoted several grades. He is reported to have had an IQ of 170 at the age of nine.
After leaving school, Pirsig studied Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, but was expelled after two years due to failing grades. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he describes this episode of his life, explaining how he made a bad student. He then enlisted in the US Army and served in Korea until his discharge in 1948. He returned to university, completing a BA in philosophy in 1950. Following graduate work in Benares Hindu University in Varanasi, India, and at the University of Chicago, Pirsig became a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman.
After suffering a nervous breakdown in the early 1960s, Pirsig was diagnosed with both depression and schizophrenia. He received electroshock therapy and made a recovery in 1964. During this time he separated from his first wife, Nancy James, the mother of his sons Chris and Theodore. Pirsig married Wendy Kimball in 1978, one year before his son Chris was fatally stabbed during a seemingly random mugging in San Francisco. Pirsig had a daughter in 1980; according to him, 'it was the larger pattern of Chris... this time he's a little girl named Nell and our life is back in perspective again. The hole in the pattern is being mended.'
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by more than 120 publishers, but it was finally taken on by William Morrow & Company in 1974. It has now sold over 5 million copies in 23 languages. As Pirsig puts it, 'I suppose every writer dreams of the kind of success Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has had in the past twenty-five years... I had those dreams, of course, but didn't let myself dwell on them or express them publicly for fear they would be interpreted as megalomania'.
Pirsig wrote a sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1990, named Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. The new book delved further into what he calls the Metaphysics of Quality. Lila made it to the final list for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1992.