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Elizabeth McCracken: ‘Creative writing is not like making a souffle’

By March 11, 2019No Comments

Source : The Guardian   –  Anita Sethi

The US author on being funny and serious at the same time, delusions of grandeur and her love of candlepin bowling


Elizabeth McCracken is a novelist and short-story writer and the author of six books including The Giant’s HouseNiagara Falls All Over AgainThunderstruck & Other Stories, and the forthcoming Bowlaway, a family saga set in 20th-century America. She has received many grants and fellowships, including from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and holds the James A Michener chair in creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin.

“Bowling gave you something to think about besides your regrets,” you write in your new novel, in which Bertha, your main character, builds a bowling alley. Where does your interest in bowling come from?
I played bowling a lot as a child. Candlepin bowling is the kind we do in Massachusetts. It seems like this very New England thing to write about. I now live in Texas and was missing New England. It’s a process that keeps you occupied. There’s suspense as you roll the ball and wait to see if you’ll strike, and in that way it feels terrifically interesting and unbelievably boring. There are an endless variety of outcomes. I like the fact that it’s difficult, impossible to perfect, but people are really devoted to it.

It’s fascinating what the bowling alley comes to mean to people in the Bowlaway community, many of whom have experienced loss…
Probably because I used to be a public librarian, I’m interested in public spaces. It would be very hard to be kicked out of a bowling alley for loitering. I like that notion and I really liked the idea of some place that, when it opened, would seem new and exciting, and then, by the end of the novel, would seem like something out of the past. The other good thing about bowling is that it’s a sport that you do by yourself but among people.

There’s a line in the book about Bertha: “What she wanted was a kind of greatness that women were not allowed”…
I feel like it’s hard to be alive and female and not to be thinking about that particularly these days. I was thinking about the ways in which women give up things in order to exist in the world. And you have to have delusions of grandeur in order to be grand, but women are not expected to be grand. I was thinking a lot about that, and also my preference is always to write about eccentrics, so I wanted Bertha to be as eccentric as possible.

Your books are peopled with eccentrics. Why?
I come from a long line of eccentrics. My parents were eccentric, their parents were eccentric.

Genealogy is a powerful theme in Bowlaway. Where did your interest in that come from?
My grandfather McCracken was a genealogist and that was back in the day when you drove around the country and went to cemeteries and were always chasing that particular mystery. I’d been thinking about that and most of the character names in the book were taken out of my grandfather’s genealogies. I was thinking about how genealogy has changed and the recent fascination with doing DNA to see who you’re related to. I’m always amused by the weird pride you can get from discovering you’re related to someone interesting, even though it has nothing to do with you – this new fascination with doing it on a scientific level. Yet, who you are related to by blood seems like the least interesting question about family. It seems hugely significant to people, but it doesn’t seem that significant to me. Love seems more interesting to me than DNA.

“Sorrow doesn’t shape your life. It knocks the shape out” is another line in Bowlaway. Was it challenging to find a shape for the novel?
I do many, many drafts. I’ve lost count of how many drafts I’ve done of this book. That’s when the shape comes in. If I tried to figure out a structure, it would feel like dancing while looking at my feet – I’d be too aware of it, like I’ve got to put my foot down over in this place. So I wrote drafts and found a shape while I was doing it.

Are there any books that influenced Bowlaway?
I love Carol Shields’s books. The Stone Diaries was an undeniable influence on Bowlaway, even though it was a long time ago that I read it, in terms of the genealogy and the strange structure – it starts in one place and ends up in completely the other place. That was the first thing I knew about Bowlaway, that it would start at the beginning of the 20th century and get pretty far through.

You write novels and short stories – what are the virtues of each form?
The thing that I like about novels is that they are a more forgiving form. You can make missteps. It’s harder to write a really good short story – I’m more aware of the flaws in my short stories. There’s pleasure in being able to spend that much time with people and ideas in novels, but if you write a short story, the magical period of an idea to the excitement of composition and the first draft is short, but deeply pleasurable in a way novels are not.

What books are on your bedside table?
The last book I finished was Max Porter’s Lanny, which I adored. I read it when I was in New York and took a train from there to Boston and read it in total thrall. I also recently read a collection of short stories called Heads of the Coloured People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, which I thought was fantastic.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I was a big reader. I came from a reading household. My mother died last year, and I went through the house in Boston. I was trying to figure out how sentimental to be about books. One of the things my brother found there and encouraged me to bring home to my kids was our childhood copy of Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. I love those books. I went from reading children’s books to PG Wodehouse, which my father was obsessed with.

Is there a book you would give to a young person?
The Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf books – they seem like books for our times, about how to deal with people who wish to eat you, by being patient and sympathetic but resolute. I have to say that, living in America, the concept of having to figure out how to live with a stupid wolf seems particularly resonant.

Which writers working today do you most admire?
Edward P Jones is one of my favourite living writers. I love the work of Rose Tremain; it’s meant a lot to me over the years. Gish Jen was a model for me, that you can be funny but serious at the same time.

I hear you have a literary friendship with Ann Patchett…
Ann and I are very close. We saw each other last week and we’re still early readers of each other’s work. We met when we were fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, working on our first books, and we gave each other things instantly. I love [her] every sentence, paragraph, page. But reading Bel Canto was something else again.

Do you feel that creative writing can be taught?
I teach creative writing and I think it’s not like making a souffle; you can’t give anyone the steps to follow. It can’t be taught in the way life drawing can. But you can teach people how to notice what the work they admire is doing, and to sit around a table and look at their writing and how to make it achieve what it wants to achieve.

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