Photo by Edward Carey
Elizabeth McCracken gives us her take on the differences in writing novels, short stories, and tweets.
Music Credits: Excerpts of guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández, used courtesy of Mr. Hernández.
Transcript: Elizabeth McCracken
Elizabeth McCracken: Short fiction is like low relief. And if your story has no humor in it, then you're trying to look at something in the pitch dark. With the light of humor, it throws what you're writing into relief so that you can actually see it. Otherwise it's just a dark room, and what you're trying to write about will be invisible to your readers.
Jo Reed: That's writer, Elizabeth McCracken, talking about her recently published collection Thunderstruck and Other Stories, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the national endowment for the arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Over the Labor Day weekend scores of writers will flock to Washington DC for the 14th annual National Book Festival. At the NEA sponsored Poetry and Prose Pavilion, we're welcoming a group of writers that include Billy Collins, Paul Auster and Elizabeth McCracken...all recipients of NEA Literature Fellowships early in their careers. It's been 20 years since Elizabeth McCracken's last collection of short stories. It's not as though she's been idle for two decades, far from it. Fans of her writing have been blown away by her two remarkable novels and a breath-taking memoir. Still, it was a feeling of satisfaction to see the publication of her new collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories. All of McCracken's books are compelling, multilayered, and psychologically true, laced through with humor, intelligence and unblinking observation in equal measure. But in the recent collection of short stories, she also manages to create nine varied worlds that somehow cohere into a universe. Here's Elizabeth McCracken reading from Thunderstruck and Other Stories.
Elizabeth McCracken: I'm going to read the start of the first story in the collection, which is called "Something Amazing."
Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that's Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she did when she was alive and six years old: I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.
The neighborhood kids remember Missy. She bit when she was angry and pinched no matter what. They don't feel sorry for her ghost self. They remember the funeral they were forced to attend, how her mother threw herself on the coffin, wailing, how they thought she'd been kidding and so laughed out loud and got shushed. The way the neighborhood kids tell the story, the coffin was lowered into the ground and Missy Goodby's grieving mother leapt down and then had to be yanked from the hole like a weed. Everyone always believes the better story eventually. Really, Pamela Goodby just thumped the coffin at the graveside service. Spanked it: two spanks. She knew that pleading would never budge her daughter, not because she was dead but because she was stubborn. All her life, the more you pleaded with Missy, the more likely she was to do something to terrify you. Pamela Goodby spanked the coffin and walked away and listened for footsteps behind her. She walked all the way home, where she took off her shoes, black pumps with worn stones of gray along the toes. "Done with you," she told them.
The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body's a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed—your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn't a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job. Who wants to, anyhow?
Best keep in the dark and nurse the damp. Cover the mirrors, leave the radio switched off. Avoid the newspaper, the television, the whole outdoors, anywhere little girls congregate, though the world is manufacturing them hand over fist, though there are now, it seems, more little girls living in the world than any other variety of human being. Or middle-aged men whose pants don't fit, or infant boys, or young women with wide, sympathetic, fretful foreheads—whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.
Jo Reed: And that's Elizabeth McCracken reading "Something Amazing" from her latest collection, "Thunderstruck & Other Stories." Elizabeth, that actually is a great introduction because it gives one a sense of the thread that runs through all these stories-- loss and grief.
Elizabeth McCracken: Yeah. And I did not realize that until I was putting the collection together. It really was a book that when I put it all together and I read it, I thought, "Boy, this is a book of bummers." <chuckles> "This is just one sad story after another."
Jo Reed: But it's also not. And it's the way that it's not is so interesting. There's also humor that leavens this. So this isn't a wallowing in grief; it's more of an observation of it, and the way characters acknowledge it.
Elizabeth McCracken: I'm glad that it doesn't come off as a wallowing. I guess-- I wrote it over a few years. Grief was very much on my mind. But I also am one of those people, I believe that if there's a god, that black humor is the comfort that he gives to us in difficult times. I can't imagine not joking even at the worst of times. And for me, it's sort of automatic. And often I write something and I think, "God, that's just the most depressing thing I've ever written." And then when I go back and read it, I see that I've reflexively made jokes. And I think that's how life is. It's how my life is, anyhow.
Jo Reed: Well, we see it the beginning of this story. It's the death of a little girl-- tragic-- whom none of her peers seemed to like at all. Immediately there's a humor there. Usually when children die, they're saints, and we lose all sense of their edges.
Elizabeth McCracken: Yeah, I'll make fun of anybody.
Jo Reed: You also don't seem to give closure a lot of respect. There's sort of no art of recovery lurking in the pages of your work.
Elizabeth McCracken: Yeah, you know, I sort of don't believe in closure. In the sense that it doesn't make me feel better to think that something is over. I'm just thinking about the word closure-- that it's a book that's finished with or a door that you've walked through. And I feel like there are actually very few thresholds in life, that it's all corridors, and you can get further away from terrible things, but you don't necessarily go from one room to the other and close the door and are done with them. And to me, that actually is a comfort. When I think about loss, I like to think that I will remember everybody I've ever lost for the rest of my life. And that's a comfort to me.
Jo Reed: I've found that--often enough-- this is certainly not even mostly true, but true enough-- that writers-- who are writing about serious subjects-- there's always a danger of a lack of humor in their writing. Maybe particularly younger writers. And you obviously marry both. Humor is a thread that goes through all your writing. And I know you teach writing. Is that something that you try to impart, that because something is serious does not mean it has to be humorless?
Elizabeth McCracken: Oh, all the time. There are two MFA programs here at the University of Texas, and I read on the jury of both of them. And it's amazing to me how many really talented young writers seem to fear humor. And when I teach, I'm given to terrible metaphors for writing, and one of the ways I think about it is that-- particularly in short fiction. Short fiction is like low relief. And if your story has no humor in it, then you're trying to look at something in the pitch dark. With the light of humor, it throws what you're writing into relief so that you can actually see it. Otherwise it's just a dark room, and what you're trying to write about will be invisible to your readers. As I said, I don't think it's realistic to write in a world that has no humor. Humor is a human element that the body secretes, <chuckles>, some people more than others. So that if you write about a world of characters and none of them have a sense of humor, it just seems unreal to me.
Jo Reed: You started writing short stories when you were very young. What was it about short stories that drew you?
Elizabeth McCracken: I was one of those people who when I was in college I fiddled around with everything. I wrote poetry, I tried writing plays-- I was a terrible playwright. And I think when I started writing short stories seriously, I was really compelled by the intimacy that you could get with a single character. And that was the thing that drew me to fiction eventually, and away from poetry, was that sense that I could make up somebody and be close to that person. And so many of my favorite writers in the world are short story writers, people who either never wrote a novel or were known mostly for writing short stories. I'm thinking of Grace Paley and Alice Munro and Stuart Dybek, and Raymond Carver. And those are the people who, when I was first seriously trying to be a writer, were the people I read.
Jo Reed: How did you choose the stories for this collection? It's your fifth book and second short story collection. There's a long time between collections. Did you have a lot of short stories over a period of time that you used for this book?
Elizabeth McCracken: Well, there's one story in the collection that's older than any other, which is called "Juliet." And that was a story that I wrote when I was working as a librarian in Somerville, Massachusetts, and there was a murder in the town, and it seemed like something I really wanted to write a short story about. But I hadn't written a story in a long time. I had started writing novels. And I sort of thought, "Oh, maybe I'll be a novelist now. Maybe novels embrace chaos to a much higher degree <chuckles> than short stories do. They're baggy; they're unforgiving; you can digress. And then I wrote a novel that sort of fell into pieces and turned into a few short stories. And "Something Amazing," which I just read from, is one of those. And I sort of remembered the pleasures of writing short stories again. So from maybe-- I think I wrote "Juliet" in 1999. And then from about 2006 until 2012 I wrote a story every now and then, and I ended up with more than made it into the book.
Jo Reed: When you moved from short stories to writing novels, was the process different for you?
Elizabeth McCracken: It was, and it surprised me how different it was. Because before I started writing novels, the short stories that I wrote took place over years; there were a lot of characters; I sort of thought, "I'm just going to start writing one of these long, highly populated stories, and I'll just keep going." And I discovered that the relationship you have with novel characters is completely different than the kind you have with short stories. It's much deeper and longer. And I was struck by how emotionally different it was. And I liked that. I liked also that sense that I could take a lot of wrong turns. My friend Bruce Holbert, who's a wonderful novelist, had told me years ago, when we were in graduate school, that he'd heard the difference between a short story and a novel for a writer is that it's between a torrid love affair and a years-long marriage. And I think that's true sort of for good and ill, that you forgive things in a novel that you don't in a short story in the same way that you forgive things in a marriage that you don't in a torrid love affair.
Jo Reed: Well, a short story I think is in some ways closer to poetry because pretty much every word has to count, whereas in novels--even in great novels-- I mean, take "War and Peace"-- there are more digressions in that book than I can count on one hand. But okay, we'll go there, because we know eventually we're going to be going someplace else, and it's fine. Whereas in a short story, it would have been unforgivable.
Elizabeth McCracken: Yeah, no, I think that's absolutely true. And I think one of the reasons why I didn't write short stories for a while is-- I'd come from writing poetry. I think I wrote poetry seriously before I wrote short stories. And once I started writing short stories, I thought, "Oh wow, I don't have to leave so much out." And that once I started writing novels, I worried that I didn't know what to leave out anymore, because I just put everything in.
Jo Reed: That leads very nicely to my next question, because when you went back to short stories, how did novel-writing affect the way you wrote? Or did it?
Elizabeth McCracken: That's interesting. I think it probably did. I certainly know that the short stories that I wrote for my first collection-- in some ways they look a little more like novels. There are a lot more characters. Often the plot of them is just a chunk of time in a character's life-- "We'll start here and we'll end here"-- and sometimes it's-- and then somebody dies. That's the end of the story. And the short stories that I've written in the past few years are much more event-based, I guess I'd say, that something happens and that's the occasion of the story. And I think that's because I didn't worry about <chuckles> plot when I was first writing short stories. And novels got me really interested in and worried about plot. So that once I started writing short stories again I was really intrigued with what I could do with plot in a short story.
Jo Reed: What's your revision process?
Elizabeth McCracken: Generally terrible and punishing. I suppose it was less punishing for this collection in that when I'm working on a novel, I'm hugely inefficient. I write pages and pages and pages that have to come out, characters who have to go. I say that novels can tolerate a lot of digression, but I put in an intolerable amount of digression, and then have to take it out. Whereas with the short stories, I just took out the short stories that weren't working. I mean, I had revised all the stories quite a bit, and I think there are tons of things that change for a writer the longer you write. And I don't mean for the good-- you just develop different habits and different processes. And when I was younger, I worked on short stories that didn't work for a really, really long time. And now, if a short story essentially works, I'll work on it for months and months, or even years. But if a story seems unsatisfying to me on the first draft, I walk away from it.
Jo Reed: Does your heart break a little when you have to lose characters in your novel, or are you just hardened to that by now?
Elizabeth McCracken: I've gotten fairly tough about it. I have a novel that I walked away from, oh, maybe two years ago, and that still seems painful. It feels like a ship sunk and all the characters went down with it. I might be able to do something with it at some point. I've actually written two novels in the past ten years that have sort of fallen apart, and the first one, as I said, there are three short stories in this collection that are part of that first novel. But the second novel-- I haven't looked at it. So I suppose maybe it is painful, but I'm still in the denial stage of grief.
Jo Reed: Well, you've spoken about superstitions around your writing process. What were those rituals, and are they still with you, or have they adapted over time as well?
Elizabeth McCracken: They've mostly adapted. The one that I still have, and sometimes I haven't been able to observe it-- but if I can, I need a window to my right to look out of. I don't always sit at that window, but my desk is by a window that I can look out of that's always to my right. I have no idea why that is. And I still have the same two chairs I have always written in: a desk chair that I wrote when I left graduate school and I was headed for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and it was the most expensive piece of furniture I owned for years; and then I have my grandfather's armchair that I sit and read in, and mark up manuscripts in. And those are the most-- the two most important things to me. I used to write very late at night. When Larry King had a radio show, I would put Larry King on really low. This was a long time ago, before he became a television personality. And I would write through the middle of the night with just sort of the buzz of talk radio behind me.
Jo Reed: Almost like white noise?
Elizabeth McCracken: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Jo Reed: Can you listen to music while you write?
Elizabeth McCracken: No. I'm amazed by people who are able to do that. I just would end up typing the song lyrics and-- or if I was listening to instrumental music, that I would feel the emotion of the instrumental music and it would not be the emotion that was right for the work.
Jo Reed: You are a big presence on Twitter and-- thank you, by the way, because I did not realize that "thesaurus" came from "treasure," and it made perfect sense.
Elizabeth McCracken: Great, huh?
Jo Reed: Yeah, that was a very good nugget of information.
Elizabeth McCracken: <chuckles>
Jo Reed: This is a different kind of writing, again, from short stories, from novels. What's the appeal?
Elizabeth McCracken: Oh, I love Twitter. And I love it for a lot of different reasons. I love it because I feel like-- well, I mean, talking about revision-- it used to be that one of the things that I would always have to take out were the dumb jokes that I just wanted somebody to read at some point. And then one of my readers would read it and go, "Yeah, that's very funny Elizabeth. You've got to take it out now." Well, in Twitter I have a place for all the weird facts and the one-liners and the oddball thoughts that aren't really part of the world of whatever fiction I'm working on at the moment, I just pour it in. When I was going to graduate school, we were warned strictly against authorial intrusion, which was a big thing in the late '80s, that you were told, "Don't let the reader see your presence in the world." Which I don't particularly believe in, but one of the things I like about Twitter is that it's sort of all authorial intrusion. And I have also made good friends there. It's sort of fun to talk to strangers, and it's fun to talk to strangers when you're making jokes; it can be really moving to talk to strangers when difficult things are happening around the world. I just-- I find it sort of delightful. And I love all sort of short-form writing. I feel like Twitter is nothing but fortune-cookie fortunes and dumb jokes, those sign boards outside of churches that say funny things.
Elizabeth McCracken: I do. I love standup comics. And the funny thing is, I never go to see live comedy because I only want to see stuff that's sort of guaranteed to be good. And-- but I love standup comics. I love-- Richard Pryor is my favorite comedian of all time. I love Maria Bamford. Like everybody in the world, I think Louis C.K. is great. I watched, in the middle of the night, a Reggie Watts comedy special, and I think he's brilliant and hilarious and strange. And I have to say, the two kinds of comedians I like, I like either comedians like Maria Bamford and Richard Pryor, who you have this real sense that you're seeing through a performance somebody's soul and pain; and then I also really like comedians like Reggie Watts, who are just so weird you can't figure out what to make of them.
Jo Reed: Your husband is the writer Edward Carey. How do you two work together as writers? Do you read each other's work early on? Is it hands-off? How does it work?
Elizabeth McCracken: We read stuff quite late on, and both of us recently have taken to writing things without discussing with anybody, including each other, until we have a full draft. And that feels pretty essential to me. Partly just because we're around each other a lot; we're pretty fond of each other. And I feel like in order to get-- at least for me-- in order to get meaningful work done, I need some privacy for it. And by not talking to him about what I'm working on, by not giving him pages as I write them, I can maintain the privacy. So I also know that everything that I put into the book is my idea. And I think both of us have that feeling that we don't want to stick our fingers in the other person's work and move it around until it's a solid shape. I know that there are couples who read each other's work as it comes off-- I was about to say off the typewriter-- it's probably not coming off a typewriter-- as it comes off the printer, or whizzes through the ether page by page-- and I have never understood that. <chuckles> I feel like if I wrote something and I gave it to him when it was really fresh, all I would want him to do is love it, in a way that I wouldn't with one of my friends. With my friends I would be tougher. I mean, he's a wonderful reader, and when I have finished something and he reads it, he gives me astonishingly smart and thoughtful and thorough criticism.
Jo Reed: You teach writing. You now teach at University of Texas in Austin. You taught in Iowa. And you teach fiction. And I was wondering how different it must be to have a short story workshop versus a novel workshop. Because as we discussed, those are two very different animals.
Elizabeth McCracken: Oh yeah. It's very-- in many ways, the whole model of an MFA program is set up in fiction for short stories and not for novels. And I do think novels need a certain amount of privacy, because I don't think they're harder to write, but they take a more sustained level of hubris than a short story, just because they're ongoing. You need to maintain it for a longer time. So when I teach novels-- and I used to-- when I taught at Iowa, I used to teach a novel-writing workshop in which one person would go up every week with as much of the novel as they had, and the students would read it. And now when I teach at UT, if somebody is working on a novel, if it's really fresh, I encourage them not to workshop it. I certainly don't let anybody workshop a novel until they've got at least 50 pages done. And I always offer them the chance to take up a whole class session, and that they're the only thing that their classmates read. Because if you read 25 pages of a novel once in a semester, and then 25 pages later on, all you know is what the writer has changed or not changed from the first version that you saw. And I feel like even the best readers are not good at reading novels in 25-page installments over the course of a semester. And it's hard. I love reading student novels. One of my favorite parts of teaching is thesis work and reading big chunks of student work. And so I always want to be really careful that a workshop doesn't accidentally kill a novel by trying to discuss it as though it's a short story.
Jo Reed: What does teaching give you, as a writer?
Elizabeth McCracken: I was about to make a smart remark.
Jo Reed: Oh, go ahead.
Elizabeth McCracken: Cirrus. <laughs> I really-- I love teaching. And it lets me be surrounded by people who are unbelievably excited about the possibilities of what art can do in the world, who believe in the life-changing properties of fiction. That is amazing. I've gotten a chance to read the earliest versions of books that have gone on to win major prizes and to huge success. And also books that haven't but will. Certainly I feel like I'm still trying to figure out the balance in my life between teaching and writing, because the tricky thing during the semester-- because I really like teaching-- is that when I walk around trying to figure out a problem in a novel, it's usually not my novel. And I don't get a ton of work done during the semester. I do most of my writing over the summer and Christmas breaks. Though sometimes I can sneak a little in. But it's almost as if I need to turn off my teacherly brain-- my teacherly brain is, I hope, generous and interested in other people's work, and is not certain of its own opinions but is thoughtful and tentative and careful. But my writing brain needs to be careless and not afraid to hurt the feelings of my characters or readers. It needs to be incautious. And so I do always find that's sort of an interesting combination, or an interesting balance.
Jo Reed: Did you have a teacher who encouraged you when you were younger, who perhaps even started you as a writer?
Elizabeth McCracken: I had such great luck with writing teachers. I had this amazing teacher when I was in eighth grade, whose name then was Susan Bloom, and was the first teacher I ever had who really made it clear that just because I had a way with words didn't mean that I could get away with not working hard. And I had lost track of her for years, and she showed up at a reading that I gave in my hometown in Massachusetts just this past May. My first teacher in graduate school was Allan Gurganus, who just absolutely transformed my life, and I think of him every day when I teach graduate students at trying to be as generous and as much of an evangelist for the powers of fiction as he was for me.
Jo Reed: Should I even ask what you're working on now? I always feel like that's a horrible question to ask an author with a fairly new book, because I do believe one should rest on one's laurels for a while.
Elizabeth McCracken: <laughs> I feel relatively laurel-less. Yeah, I'm working on a novel. It's funny, because for various reasons, I've been working this summer, but I-- ordinarily the semester ends and I am in my office on campus, which is where I write, just writing for hours every day. And I did a lot of traveling at the beginning of the summer, and various things happened, and I have not gotten as much done on the book as I wanted to. And so that means all I want to do is start an entirely new novel. I want to shut myself off and just begin something new. Maybe this just goes back to that--the metaphor of romance, which is that I haven't looked enough at the novel that I'm working on, and I need to figure out how to look at it with new eyes so I can fall back in love with it.
Jo Reed: Well, good luck. A trip to the marriage counselor.
Elizabeth McCracken: I know, we have to go. <chuckles> We have to go, my novel and me. So that I don't start cheating on it with a brand-new novel.
Jo Reed: Well, Elizabeth, thank you for giving me your time.
Elizabeth McCracken: Thank you so much. This was just a total pleasure.
That's author Elizabeth McCracken, her new book is called, Thunderstruck and Other Stories. You can hear Elizabeth read at the NEA-sponsored poetry and prose pavilion at National Book festival on August 30. Go to arts.gov for details.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the national Endowment for the Arts. Next week, We're listening to The DC Youth Poetry Slam Team
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For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.