After briefly attending Temple University, he enlisted in the Army at age 18 and served in the Philippines and Italy as a radio operator during World War II. During his military service, he married his first wife, Lillian Hoban (née Aberman), who later illustrated many of his books.
Hoban then worked as an illustrator (painting several covers for TIME, Sports Illustrated, and The Saturday Evening Post) and an advertising copywriter—occupations which several of his characters later shared—before writing and illustrating his first children's book, What Does It Do and How Does It Work.
The notes 'About the artist' in the Macmillan Classics Edition of Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (second printing 1965), which Hoban illustrated, says that he worked in advertising for Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn, and later became the art director of J. Walter Thompson:
"Heavy machinery later became subjects for his paintings, and this led him into the children's book field with the writing and illustrating of What Does It Do and How Does It Work? and The Atomic Submarine."
The notes to this book, the illustrations to which are copyright 1964, say that Hoban was at that time teaching drawing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, collaborating with his first wife on their fifth children's book and living in Connecticut.
He wrote exclusively for children for the next decade, and was best known for his series of short books starring Frances, a temperamental badger child, whose escapades were in part based on the experiences of his four children, Phoebe, Abrom, Esme and Julia, and their friends. The Mouse and His Child, a dark philosophical tale for older children, appeared in 1967 and was Hoban's first full-length novel.
In 1969, Hoban, his wife, and their children travelled to London, intending to stay only a short time. The marriage dissolved, and while the rest of the family returned to the United States, Hoban remained in London and has resided there ever since. All of his adult novels except Riddley Walker, Pilgermann and Fremder are set in whole or part in contemporary London.
Hoban now lives with his second wife, Gundula Ahl; they have three children, one of whom is the composer Wieland Hoban, to whom Riddley Walker is dedicated. Wieland has set one of his father's texts in his piece Night Roads (1998-99).
In 2005 fans from across the world celebrated Hoban's work in London at the first international convention for the author, entitled The Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum (a pun on symposium from Riddley Walker) A booklet was published by the organisers to commemorate the event featuring tributes to Hoban from a variety of contributors including actor and politician Glenda Jackson, novelist David Mitchell, composer Harrison Birtwistle and screenwriter Andrew Davies.
Many of his novels could also be considered romances, following the development of a relationship between two characters who often take turns as narrators, bonding over some common obsession or artistic interest.
There is frequent repetition of the same images and themes in different contexts: for instance, many of Hoban's works refer to lions, Orpheus, Eurydice, Persephone, Vermeer, severed heads, heart disease, flickering, Odilon Redon, and King Kong.
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