February 2008

John Zuarino

features

An Interview with Elizabeth Crane

While reading Elizabeth Crane’s newest offering, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, I remember sitting on the G train with a rather rough case of the flu. Yet I didn’t want the train to stop. I wanted to keep reading. The trek from the station to my apartment would have been an inconvenient disruption in the positive mental stimulation and enjoyment I was taking in from this book of short stories. Fuck my physical well-being, I thought, I’m busy!

The title’s perfectly apt: YOU MUST BE THIS HAPPY TO ENTER, with a ferociously happy Precious Moments creature staring at you from the cover, arms spread wide like a kid who can grasp the concepts of measurement to some basic degree. While these are stories for happy people, they’re not saccharine. While these aren’t saccharine, they’re far from depressing. In one story a woman becomes a zombie and makes the best of it by going on one of those midday Lifetime reality shows where a houseful of women trump their problems by earning gold stars and making paper crafts. All the while, you notice that there is no cynicism. None. Not even when a small town loses its color (more literally than figuratively, mind you).

And you’re all the happier for it.

Your new book deals mainly with the idea of happiness. What made you focus on this?

One reason is that the idea of genuine joy, as a subject of literature, doesn’t seem to be at the top of the list when it comes to serious or important subject matter. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me -- it seems to me that happiness is as legitimate a part of life experience as anything else, but also that happiness and more difficult things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I think part of the reason I started thinking about this is that I have become so truly happy in my life over the last five to ten years -- alongside with feeling, at various times, grief, confusion, hurt, anger, whatever -- that I wanted to consider what it really meant to be happy, if it was maybe something other than delirious jumping up and down in the streets but a mix of things that maybe included occasional jumping up and down in the streets.

It also seems to lack any hint of cynicism, yet it manages to remain pure. I don’t feel like I just downed a box of Sweet & Low when I read these stories.

Ha! That’s nice to hear. And I tried very hard to avoid cynicism, so I am glad that came across.

A story that sticks out from the rest is “Betty the Zombie.” Did you end up watching a lot of Lifetime/Starting Over for this one? What’s behind this story?

I do have to confess to being drawn to some truly awful television, across the board, and yes, that was the inspiration for “Betty the Zombie,” as well as “Notes for a Story About People with Weird Phobias,” “The Glistening Head of Ricky Ricardo Begs Further Experimentation,” and “My Life is Awesome! and Great!” And it probably influenced parts of others as well. With “Betty the Zombie,” I think what struck me about those shows -- well a lot of things -- was how misguided the help often seemed to me -- same thing with “Phobias” -- and also, what in the world makes so many people look to TV for the answer to their problems, whether it’s by becoming famous, or seeking help of some kind there on a talk or reality show. All that said, I personally share Betty’s love of crafts. And I tried to throw that in whenever possible.

Happiness can be a dangerous topic -- almost as much as writing a dream sequence (like they say, “write a dream, lose a reader”). In one story, (“You Must Be This Happy to Enter”) you actually make it a crime. Do you think sometime’s that’s the way it actually is?

Interesting that you use the word dangerous (and so funny about the dream thing -- I never heard that before but I may have to use that in future classes), but that’s kind of what I was getting at earlier -- dangerous might be a strong word, but perhaps it is accurate just in terms of how it’s perceived in art and literature.

How do you think your writing has changed since your previous books?

Hm…well, that’s a hard question for the writer to answer, but I can say that once my first two books were published and I started doing lots of readings, I realized that a lot of my stories were really hard to read out loud, what with all the parentheses and weird punctuation and what have you -- it’s not that hard to follow as a reader, I don’t think, but in reading and in listening, it became clear that with all my digressions within one sentence that sometimes you might forget where I started. So, I wanted to write stories that were just plain easier to read out loud. But I think the content has changed as well. I’ve used up all my good vaguely autobiographical material so I’ve finally been forced to completely make stuff up!

We’re Goodreads buddies now. What do you think of social networking under the guise of a librarians+writers+literature/trash book/text book appreciation club? [Facebook is doing it too now. Now I’ve got a Visual Bookshelf and other similar distractions to keep me from writing ESL-adaptable stories.]

Hee. Yeah, you know, Myspace, Goodreads, Facebook, overall I think they’re a good thing except for the distraction aspect of it. Sometimes I’ve had three Scrabble games going where maybe I could be doing something a little more productive, although some might say I’m staving off Alzheimer’s, so there’s that. Goodreads is cool because I’ve always wanted to catalog my books and this makes it pretty easy, but again, do I really need to? The main thing that frustrates me is -- can’t we all just make one site of it so I don’t have to check in eight places every day?

What do you find most challenging about teaching writing?

One thing is that as a part-timer, it can be a challenge to make adjustments at the different schools, because I find that the students at Northwestern, U of C and the Art Institute all have a very distinct vibe of their own going on, and the exact same approach doesn’t work for each.

When did you first realize you wanted to write?

I was eight. I read Harriet the Spy and it was a done deal. I’ve been writing ever since.

What was the last book you read and liked and why?

I just finished Famous Fathers by Pia Z. Ehrhardt and it was so dynamite I’m left without adequate praise. But I’ll tell you what I told her: her sentences have the ability to stab you in the heart, and make you feel the better for it.

What was the last one you read and disliked?

You know what? It took me a long time to figure this out, but I don’t have to read books I don’t like. And I really don’t like to dis other writers. But okay! Here’s one. I truly hated the five pages of A Million Little Pieces that I was able to read.