An Interview with Elizabeth McCracken

Michael Sarinsky and Elisa Gonzalez, Issue 35

Readers of Elizabeth McCracken’s latest works will not be surprised to see her describe life as “the record of what is lost or will be.” Thunderstruck & Other Stories (The Dial Press, 2014), her most recent publication and a National Book Award nominee, is filled with tales of loss and hope. The collection’s nine stories skip across continents, decades, and socioeconomic divisions to demonstrate the differences—and similarities—in how her characters handle the grieving process. Each story pays striking attention to detail, both in their intricate characterizations of what mourning feels like, and in their melodic, humorous prose. And as McCracken reveals, she wrote many of Thunderstruck’s selections while reconciling her own losses, a pain she documented earlier in her poignant and moving memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Little, Brown, 2008). Her comforting meditations on bereavement over the past several years will remain relevant for as long as people continue to lose loved ones.

McCracken is the Chair of the Fiction program at the University of Texas at Austin, and her previous books include a short story collection, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories (Turtle Bay Books, 1993), and two novels, Niagara Falls All Over Again (The Dial Press, 2001), and The Giant’s House (The Dial Press, 1996), a National Book Award finalist. She generously answered Washington Square’s questions about her work, her motivations, and her advice to young writers.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve talked in other places about writing as a child. What was that like? What drew you to writing and made you not only begin but continue?

ELIZABETH MCCRACKEN: Like all children, I wanted to be the best at something. My older brother, Harry, was already drawing extremely well by the time I grew into my competitiveness, so I sunk myself into writing. And although I think of myself as a peculiarly lazy child—I think of myself as relatively lazy in general—I also know that I put hours into writing rhymed metered poetry, both comic and serious. Even before I wrote any fiction, I wrote endlessly long poems. My final project in senior high school was a many-paged comic poem based on the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, written in cursive on legal paper. I wish I still had it. I’ve continued writing because, though lazy, I am also essentially a show-off.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What were your favorite books as a child?

MCCRACKEN: I loved: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Eloise, a book by David Omar White called Elizabeth’s Shopping Spree, a book that belonged to my brother called Olaf Reads, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales; later, books of ghost stories and various editions of The Book of Lists, an enormous unabridged Random House dictionary printed on the thinnest paper.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In addition to fiction, you wrote poetry and plays as a child and in college. What tipped the scales into fiction? Would you write poetry and plays again?

 MCCRACKEN: If I’m being romantic, I would say I am, on a spiritual level, more of a fiction writer than a poet or playwright: I like narrative, I like a book with a good heft, I like large casts and stories that cover decades. I knew pretty early that I wouldn’t be a playwright, though some days I still dream of writing a one-person show (not for myself: for someone else). My plays were mostly monologues anyhow. When I decided to go to graduate school, I applied to three programs in both poetry and fiction. I’d taken poetry with the great George Starbuck at Boston University; in some ways I had a better, more serious grounding in poetry than fiction. But I only got into one program with financial aid, and that was Iowa, and only in fiction. I still think about writing poetry—I read quite a bit of poetry—but in order to write anything good I’d probably have to devote a month to nothing but writing and reading poetry and at the end of it I might be able to write a mediocre poem, which would have to be good enough for me to think I could write a better one in my second month of poetry devotion. Maybe in my dotage I will manage it. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Since publishing your debut short-story collection, you’ve written two novels and a memoir. What inspired you to return to the short fiction, and what made it the right form for you at this time with these themes/ideas/stories? 

MCCRACKEN: Oh, I’ve written so much more than I’ve published! So many, many pages, including two novels. My return to short fiction was partly out of pure need: I wanted to finish something after having written two failed novels. What’s more, all of these stories are pretty bleak: as far as material goes, I think they benefit from the oxygen between then.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What is the difference, for you, in writing a novel vs. a short story vs. a memoir? What is the impetus for each? What is the process?

MCCRACKEN: I can will myself to write a short story: I learned that writing this book. Some of the stories were part of one of the novels, some I’d written as stories, and some out of a semester leave I had in the fall of 2012. I wrote five stories in those four months and 3/4ths of a novel draft. One of the stories was just plain bad, and I threw it out. One was too close to a story already in the manuscript, and that I published in a magazine and in an anthology.

Three made it in. I found that I could make my brain come up with a vague idea for a story—for instance, I wanted to write about child dieting in the 1970s—and then characters and sentences would accumulate around that seed. I don’t think that would work for novel writing, at least for me—there’s enough magnetism in a good story notion to hold up a short story architecture, but that’s probably it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: The stories in your most recent collection, Thunderstruck, catalog an assortment of characters’ reactions to missing, deceased, or otherwise absent friends or family members. And you seem to suggest that these missing characters can best be understood through their absence. That, in their absence, they finally receive the attention and definition they once sought. And there’s also a need for the protagonists to confront their reactions to the missing loved ones, and to themselves. Why is loss and what comes after so important in these stories? And how do you think about uniting loss and humor?

MCCRACKEN: My grandfather was a genealogist, and everybody in my family is a collector of family archives, in one way or another: I’m sort of obsessed with what the dead leave behind and the ways in which it’s insufficient. I mean, that’s just history, isn’t it? Life is the record of what is lost or will be. Good lord, that’s depressing—I don’t mean it to be so fatal as that, but objects are more durable than people: people are fragile. And the fact is that while grief isn’t funny, life cracks jokes constantly, and that is all the comfort I’ve ever found after losing someone. I am as agnostic as can be, but I am a devout wisenheimer. Someday I will learn the truth about God, but in the meantime give me my dumb jokes. And also: all aspects of fiction are lit up by their opposites. The purely comic, the purely serious, the consistently long-winded, the consistently terse, the without-exception evil character, the transcendentally good: I can’t think of anything more boring.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Regarding Thunderstruck, I’m curious about the process of writing stories that are thematically intertwined. Did you conceive of them as separate parts of a larger project as you wrote them or did this develop gradually? Did you write them concurrently?

MCCRACKEN: I don’t mean to be disingenuous when I say: I think I was pretty much in a bad mood the entire time I wrote ‘em. When I read them all together I was pretty appalled with myself. I’m in a better mood now; I’m trying to make my next book cheerier.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You explored absence and grief on a more personal scale in your memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. In that book, you explain that you want your stillborn child’s “death to be what it is: a fact. Something that people know without me having to explain it.” You conclude the book with the realization that you can simultaneously miss and love your child without compromising your own happiness. How did your experience inform the process of writing Thunderstruck, and were you interested in exploring characters that hadn’t yet accepted and processed their losses?

MCCRACKEN: The narrative of the memoir is pretty much the process of writing it—I think I came to that conclusion as I typed it. I wouldn’t have understood it otherwise. I sat very still while I wrote that book (I had a newborn), and thought a lot. The stories were different, but I certainly can see myself circling back around to see what grief looks like at a different angle, and the two stories that are (in some ways) most like the memoir

(“Property” and “Something Amazing”) I wrote after the events described in the memoir, but before I wrote it. The root of “Something Amazing” is even older. A lot of the collection, I think, is just a safety deposit box in which I put my quotidian parental fears so that I don’t have to apply them to my actual children.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’re a prolific Twitter user. At last count, you’ve amassed over 38,000 tweets—has tweeting changed your prose? Are there ways that Twitter forces you (or others) to use language that you love or hate?

MCCRACKEN: I don’t think Twitter has changed my prose at all, though I do take pleasure in assembling grammatically complicated tweets. I like using all 140 characters if I can. I usually like a tweet to make sense read out of context, since most tweets are read out of context, though sometimes I go on small Twitter rants. There’s a joke in one of my stories that came out of Ron Charles, the editor of the Washington Post Book World, complaining about dogs barking in fiction. “All right,” I told myself, “I’m going to have a dog bark.” I’ve found lately that if I am teaching and composing fiction, I have to be careful about spending too much time on Twitter—if I see something out in the world that I find interesting, these days my natural instinct is to put it on Twitter, and then I stop thinking about it. Then it never finds its way into my fiction.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In a 2005 interview with Ann Patchett, she said “Elizabeth has the most soul-crushing revision process of anyone in the world,” meaning that you go through dozens of drafts and throw out massive amounts of work. Is that process the same? Can you talk about what drives that “soul-crushing” process, how it works for you, and how you arrive at a feeling of “having finished?"

MCCRACKEN: May I pass on this one? I’m working on something now and feeling so, so superstitious about it that I feel like I can’t poke at my process.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You teach fiction at UT-Austin. How do you run your workshops? What do you think is the value of an MFA workshop? Or of an MFA at all (since this is the constant droning question of the decade)?

MCCRACKEN: I want my workshops to be generous but rigorous: I want critics to believe the best about a piece of work and then give advice that helps the author achieve those highest aims. Here’s what I think an MFA offers a student who’s looking to take: likeminded classmates who will, God willing, read your work for decades to come; time to develop one’s own philosophy of writing, which is to say, a way to hone your own ambition, because talent without ambition is useless; a place to develop great working habits; a chance to have a bunch of strangers read your work and talk about it, as painful and odd as that is. I don’t think MFA programs teach people how to write; I don’t think that’s possible. But they can teach students to think much more interesting thoughts, and then the students teach themselves to write.

Also: to watch all the goddamn adverbs already. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What do you teach your students to watch out for? What do you watch out for in your own writing?

MCCRACKEN: I’m probably crabby about all sorts of things, but my most consistent warning is about equivocal language—slightly, seems, somehow, sort of, kind of. Almost. I break people’s hearts, the way I complain about somehow. In my own writing—and I warn people against this, too—I’m a sucker for writing long passages about things that happen over and over again, in no particular time frame, under the subconscious theory that it’s more meaningful to be vague. It is never more meaningful to be vague.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What are you reading now? And do you have a go-to book or books that you recommend to friends?

MCCRACKEN: I’ve just started The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden, which was just republished with an introduction by Cheryl Strayed and a preface by my friend S. Kirk Walsh. Very strange and beautifully written by a New Yorker writer who died too young. I recommend Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country all the time: I love that book. And The Collected Stories of Grace Paley is evergreen. I just taught two stories to my workshop—we discussed two of my favorite living short story writers, Edward P. Jones and Judy Budnitz. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you have a favorite word, a word you’re most glad exists in English?

MCCRACKEN: Eponymous.