An Interview with Elizabeth Crane
Elizabeth Crane writes stories about a kind of woman that most of us know: flawed, hopeful, compelling and true. Her second book All This Heavenly Glory, released in March 2005, follows parallel stories of the childhood and adulthood of just such a woman. The book begins with main character Charlotte Ann Byer’s breathless ten-page, single sentence personal ad for Owen Wilson, or his clone, full of lists, parenthetical statements, and the rambunctious punctuation that characterizes Crane’s work. One prong of the book follows Charlotte Ann through her initiation into an exclusive private school, the minefield of pre-teen girl’s relationships with one another, getting a best friend, and high school dating horrors. Side by side with this tale is the story of the newly christened Charlotte’s journey through a booze soaked college experience, drying out, dating the wrong man many times, leaving New York, and finally becoming who she is. It is all done with humor and poise that begs to be read again and again.
Crane’s first book When The Messenger is Hot was widely regarded as the exciting debut of a new voice. Imaginative, off kilter and original, Crane’s stories showed us heroines were a lot like her and Charlotte Ann. Delving into the magical, Crane managed to create a believable world where your dead mother could actually be waiting for you at a bus depot in North Dakota alive and well, a ghost baby could give you sound dating advice, and an actor playing you in the movie of your life could do a far better job than you ever did.
Crane teaches writing at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies and the University of Chicago. She took time to talk to Bookslut about her new book, the pitfalls of autobiographical fiction, blogs, and bad reviews.
First I want to congratulate you on the new book. It’s different than your last book in that it’s a novel in stories…
Well, I think it’s fair to call it that. On the front it just says stories. But hopefully there is enough… I don’t know, maybe that invites a more critical eye and that’s why they didn’t call it that. I don’t know. But my intention was for there to be a certain amount of an arc and for the stories to stand separately but for there to be an evolution of the character. I wasn’t really thinking novel when I was writing it. I was thinking it was a collection about a character.
Was that more of a challenge than separate stories like the first book?
A little bit. A little bit. A novel, a straight up traditional novel would definitely be a challenge for me. It has been every time I’ve tried it. In this case it was more like I had written a bunch of the childhood stories a while ago and I always sort of thought there would be a whole book there. In my mind I thought there would be a whole book of the childhood stories, but I sort of thought that style that they were written in would sort of be too tedious over a whole book. You wouldn’t want to read that for 100 or 200 pages so I sort of looked at them again and started to think about filling out the story with some adulthood, bringing her into adulthood so I definitely wrote the rest of the stories with the child in mind.
Is that the reason that the book went childhood story, adult story, back and forth?
Yeah, for two reasons. The first being, again, I thought the tedium of having the childhood stories straight together would be a little too much. I don’t know if that is true but that is what I thought.
And to me there is just a real tie in between childhood and adulthood, in real life. So much of my life… I don’t know, it’s really one of those things you can’t necessarily explain. So much of who we turn out to be goes back to things that happened to us in childhood. And it’s not necessarily one thing, or whatever. In her case, and to a great extent in my case -- you know growing up in New York, having this very diva-ish mom, and divorced parents -- all the different things sort of formulate who she is and who she comes to be and I thought it would be interesting to show. Some people haven’t noticed this but you seem to have a grip on it, that she gets older in childhood and older as an adult. Parallel. There have been a number of the reviews that have said "they’re told in no particular order."
Do get crazy when you read reviews like?
You know I don’t get too crazy about reviews, for two reasons. One is that most of them have been good. Usually if there is a little bit of criticism it’s fair or part of a good review. I have one or two things that are extremely critical that were just so rude that it does upset me.
Here’s where I will cleanse myself of this. I wrote this on my blog, so it’s nothing I have to hide, but I like to Google myself. People, like I do, like to blog about books and there was this one person who had written a one sentence review of the new book based on part of the first story. They were saying “this one sentence was so annoying and long and da da da da…” trying to write in my style or whatever. It was everything I could do not to write in and say “C’mon! If you read the whole book and say that it sucks and you hate it and all the reasons why, fine. But one sentence?”
If I can’t make it through a book I don’t review it.
Of course not. And I did book reviews too! I don’t like doing it, because before I started getting published as a fiction writer all I could think was "I am going to be reviewed someday." I had a hard time saying anything bad.
Now the other review that got me the most irritated was someone referred to me as a "middle aged writer." I thought, well maybe it’s true but does it have anything to do with anything? No. It’s just mean.
I think you nailed what being a 6th grade girl, or a tween or teen girl is like. How did you tap into that? Do you have journals from that period in your life?
Well this is what I’m saying! I do have a good amount of writing from that time. This is what I’m saying. That stuff is very much at the forefront of my mind. It is not at all hard for me to bring that up. It was uncomfortable and awkward and there were one or two incidents that happened -- like the girl that I had been friends with who was very rich and she got into drugs and I thought that was just scandalous. For me the period between like third grade and twelfth grade, that was my awkward period. You know, really really cute first grader, second grader maybe, and then it all went wrong.
It’s so funny because my best friend was just telling me that she, in New York, ran into the sister of someone who had been in our class in seventh grade. This kid had picked on both she and me. I guess she had forgotten that he had picked on me too, she said “So I mentioned this to his sister and da da da…” It’s so funny because this is 30 years ago and we are still thinking about it. She said “You know he picked on my socks and my shirt. He said my shirt was like a maternity shirt that I wore baby sock…” So awful.
I was a little worried that people wouldn’t relate to this book as much as the first since it is so specifically New Yorky kid. People know what it’s like to be an awkward kid, or just a kid who doesn’t understand stuff. Or a kid who is somewhat bright but doesn’t understand stuff because they are a kid. You don’t understand what’s going on.
I read an essay of yours on Powells.com that said you had to let go of writing things the normal way, and when you gave yourself that permission things really opened up for you.
That is really, really true. I’ve written since I was a kid, I’ve been reading since I was in pre-school, and I couldn’t ever get enough. Honestly, I was reading fairly traditional stuff, not classics, but stuff that didn’t excite me, let’s just put it that way. Until maybe ten or fifteen years ago I got turned onto some, I guess you could call them experimental writers, more experimental anyway, and to some extent people who were just writing in ways that seemed just so much more natural to me. It was just like light bulbs went off.
I say this often but I used to be a big letter writer before e-mail. My letters were, in some ways, really so much better than the stories I was writing then, or whatever I was writing at that time. I would write rough drafts of them, of whatever story was happening at the moment I would make it into entertainment. People would say “Oh you should write about this,” but I didn’t think I could write a story that way. I knew that what I was writing wasn’t as good as it could have been. But I just didn’t know how to bust out of it and then I started reading more stuff and it really helped me a lot. There wasn’t much effort in it. The effort was in letting go and stop thinking I had to fit into the slot. Feel really validated because I’ve heard George Saunders say similar things. Because he does his own very particular thing too but he was also trying to fit into a certain mold for years and then he just did what he does best and it worked.
Do you feel like you censor yourself in other ways? Obviously you’ve let go of needing to sound like everyone else, or the traditional writers, but do you have a self-censor in other ways?
Definitely. What’s interesting about that is that I don’t. I don’t think I do. If I did I probably wouldn’t even notice. I think the first story in the new book is a perfect example of that. I actually began to write that story a long time ago and there were various famous people plugged in for Owen Wilson (he finally made the cut), and the second part of the story would change a little bit depending on who it was.
There was a time when I didn’t think that I would get published and I still sort of think that. Now I think I will get published but it’s not what I think about when I am writing. I forget that anybody is going to read it and I just write whatever I want and then after the fact I go “Oh my God, I can’t believe I put that in the story and somebody is going to read it.” I try and get my students to be as honest as they can. Honesty is obviously not just a matter of disclosing your personal life. It’s just a matter of writing stuff that rings true. Once it's written than I don’t worry about it.
Do you feel like teaching has influenced your writing at all, seeing other people struggle with the whole process?
I’ve only just started doing it. The only thing I notice in my writing is that I am rereading some of the stories and stuff that inspired me and I have gotten sort of re-inspired by those things. I’ve only taught two classes. I don’t know what the overall effect is going to be.
Since the book is autobiographically based, is it weird for people to think they know something about your life from fiction?
Well, yes. That’s an interesting way to put the question. I don’t think about it that much but I have thought about that. I don’t know. I think in some ways yes and in some ways no. You can’t make an assumption. I’ve read stuff and then read something on someone’s bio and you can tell that some of it is based on their life. Fine. But you can’t presume that every thought is the person’s or every action is the person’s or anything that happens in the story. Any of it.
I actually got a very sweet fan letter from a woman, from the first book. It was in reference to a character’s mother being manic-depressive. My mother was a lot of things but she wasn’t manic-depressive. She was a lot of things but she wasn’t that. The women was so like “thank you for writing about this and what was your experience with this, da da da…” I know people who are manic-depressive but she wasn’t one of them. That’s an example of where it doesn’t work to assume but it's weird because it's just my perspective on things. Somebody could think I’m a bitch. If I’m snotty to somebody on the street, they could be like, "Elizabeth Crane, she’s a bitch." But I don’t portray myself that way. I don’t worry about it.
And now you are blogging about your life…
I’m blogging! It’s fun. I seem to have jumped into the blog universe a little late. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a really great place for me to write about stuff that I wouldn’t normally write about; movies and books and whatever.
There are a lot of cultural references in your fiction. They say that that can date the work. Do you feel that is the case?
I know, I know! I actually talk to my students about that. I may not be consistent about that but I think that they can choose. I could point to so many of my favorite writers who use cultural references all the time, like Rick Moody. He rampantly does it. But I think it is something you have to be careful with. You have to really take a moment to think about which reference might hold up in twenty years and which might not.
Is that a big shout out to Owen Wilson?
[laughs] Well, actually no. That’s probably against the point. I’m not sure that Owen Wilson will have that level. I do think that people of a certain generation reading it will relate. I don’t think that much about the future anyway. There are things that I would leave out.
There is a story that I wrote that I haven’t gotten published yet called "The Glistening Head of Ricky Ricardo." The story is really fun but it’s completely full of TV references. It’s about this woman who’s TV becomes magical and whatever… it’s all these TV references. I was trying to pick ones that were older, we already know if people remember them or not. Part of it is too much. I didn’t know how to fix it so it is just sitting there. Maybe I will fix it one day.
Charlotte Ann is obviously not one of the Sex and the City girls. When I was looking at the book, it’s been categorized in the “Chick Lit” genre.
That seemed to be the case with the first book, too, to a small extent. A lot of times the reviews will say “don’t dismiss this as chick lit…” You know if they would market it as chick lit, I would probably make a lot more money. But I don’t think it’s quite as -- I don’t want to dis chick lit writers -- but I don’t think it’s as formulaic, it’s a little less predictable. To say nothing about the writing of any given book. Categories are a drag. We can safely say I am not a mystery writer or sci fi.
There is a lot less of the whimsical and the magical in the second book than there was in the first.
Yeah, a little less. Obviously if you are going to have one character based in reality… that was a little bit of a bummer because I love doing that stuff and so I tried to bring it in internal stuff like in the title story where she just has all these fantasies and in the first story too. Even if it is a straight up regular story, anything can happen in someone’s fantasy.