Talking Shop With Elizabeth McCracken
"I use the Selectric to write sentences, never paragraphs."
Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, is available now from Ecco.
Who do you most wish would read your book?
It’s hard to say. While I like flattery very much, and would like many, many people to know my name, I’m reduced to great discomfort upon finding out that somebody in particular has read my work and wants to talk about it. It feels a little like they’re saying, “I heard you talking in your sleep last night, and I think I disagree with you.” So I don’t want to get too specific.
What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?
I am always absolutely stymied by open ended questions, so I have no answer for this—though I love, in interviews, to find out I have some passionate interest that I share with somebody else: Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museums, the work of Gish Jen, urban towers (space needles, etc), what metaphors should do in fiction.
What time of day do you write?
Oh, I used to be precious, and I got a lot of work done that way. When I lived alone, back in the days when the world was not awake 24 hours a day, I procrastinated all day, until, at 8 o’clock, disgusted with myself, I wrote until 3am. Now I live with three other people in a small house with no office space, and suddenly I find I work best when I am entirely alone, no matter the actual hour. I teach, so I get better work done during school breaks. Sometimes I wake up early and go to my office before I talk to anybody, and I enjoy that, but I don’t rely on it. I don’t want to rely on anything.
How do you tackle writer’s block?
My own form of writer’s block takes the form of finding my own work absolutely unreadable—wooden, dumb, plagiarized, etc. That particular sensation is not something I can work through, so when it happens, all I can do is read work by other people that I love. There are times I find it hard to work, or to come up with ideas, but generally speaking I’m just avoiding work, and if I sit myself at my old IBM Selectric and make a racket, I can get going. I use the Selectric to write sentences, never paragraphs. Somehow the heft and clatter of it makes me feel as though I’m accomplishing something, and soon enough I am. I also often read poetry to oil up my brain.
Which book(s) do you return to again and again?
Great Expectations, The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. There are lots of others, but those are the pillars.
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, TV show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
Way Out West. It’s my favorite Laurel and Hardy movie, with two excellent musical numbers and a lot of great slapstick and always the underlying love and fury between the two men.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Allan Gurganus once told us not to be afraid to get our characters out of the house and send them somewhere more interesting. I have to do this all the time, to prevent my characters from pursuing their greatest interests: eating cake and taking naps.
What was the first book you fell in love with?
Eloise, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight. I remember it seeming very long and full of incident, edged with the threat of catastrophe (Eloise in the bathtub, pretending to be surrounded by drowning people, the utter lack of parents). The way the words and the illustrations sat on the page, too, seemed nearly calamitous and entirely beautiful. I attribute my love of Eloise to my lifelong wish to live in an exceptionally nice hotel. I sensed there was a lot that I didn’t understand in it, which made it even more interesting to me.
Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read.
Anything by Edith Wharton that is not Ethan Frome. I had to read Ethan Frome a bunch as a kid, and I understand that her other work is completely different and beloved to many people. But I cannot forgive her.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Ethan Frome, so I might throw it in the fire and spare generations of New England school children.