Why Elizabeth McCracken Loves Ventriloquism and Other Weird Show Business
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on First Draft
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
This week on First Draft, Elizabeth McCracken joins Mitzi to discuss her new short story collection, The Souvenir Museum, out now from Ecco Press.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: One of your characters is learning ventriloquism. Where did that come from?
Elizabeth McCracken: I am one of those people who has always loved ventriloquism. And I have a great weakness in my life but also in my fiction for weird show business. But also, I sometimes write a piece for The New York Times Magazine end-of-year issue called The Lives They Led. You write a little essay about someone who has died in the last year. I wrote a piece about Jimmy Nelson, who was a very famous US ventriloquist. He did those Nestlé Quick ads. They started in the 50s and went through the 80s, I think, and there was a dog puppet called Farfel, who I was fascinated by because in the ads you could hear his jaw click as he was singing, “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestlé’s makes the very best chocolate.”
So, I was writing about him and I was just thinking, I’ve never written about a ventriloquist before. But that’s a lie because there is a ventriloquist in my second novel. I love them because they’re uncanny. I love ventriloquists and I watched a ton of YouTube videos about ventriloquists. English ventriloquists. American ventriloquists. I was interested in how different the two of them were and their similarities. And there’s something compelling about watching somebody who is pretending that something is alive and intent on convincing you that that something is alive as well. It’s probably kind of corny to say, “And that’s like fiction. I do the same thing.” I’m not sure that’s my interest in ventriloquism, but I really love being tricked. I love stage magic, and I love ventriloquism.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of seven books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over Again, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, Bowlaway, and her new short story collection, The Souvenir Museum. She’s received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Thunderstruck & Other Stories won the 2015 Story Prize. Her work has been published in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The O. Henry Prize, The New York Times Magazine, and many other places.