Elizabeth McCracken interview

Elizabeth McCracken, author of Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry, The Giant's House (National Book Award Finalist), and Niagara Falls All Over Again (winner of the PEN/WINSHIP award), took time out from her busy schedule nibbling French cheese to answer a few Goatish inquiries.

EG: People in general miss you terribly. Where are you and Edward living now, and is there the equivalent of George's there?

EM: Until two weeks ago, we were living in an actual garret in Paris, around the corner from the Pompidou Centre. Eventually we decided that we'd exhausted that particular expat writer cliche, and moved into a mouse-infested farmhouse in the southwest of France. (We'll probably end up in Morocco, surrounded by drugs and young boys.) This house used to be a home for unwed mothers. Basically we moved because it's cheaper to rent an enormous house in the middle of nowhere than a 2 room apartment in the middle of Paris, plus we're hoping that we'll actually write something if there's nothing else to do.

We have not really explored the fleshpots of Duras (the nearest town). There is, however, a bar called Le Daquiri. I plan to go in next week and demand a PBR.

EG: You're often described as the greatest living writer of Elizabeth McCracken novels. What are you working on now?

EM: Well, I'm delighted that some people still think I hold the title--though I note, Corbin, that you steer clear of committing yourself on the issue. There actually is a dead writer named Elizabeth McCracken, who wrote some short stories and a few books but I think no novels. Once I appeared on a panel at a conference, and on the handout where they listed the participants' bibliographies, they listed her books under my name. This wouldn't have been so strange had they not also included the dates of publication after each one: 1912, 1921, etc.

Anyhow, I'm working on an Elizabeth McCracken novel.

EG: The last time I talked to Edward, he mentioned something about constructing a large puppet that wore a wig made out of your hair. Do you find that to be normal behavior? What was the deal in general with the puppet, and has Edward created anything else disturbing lately?

EM: It's not nearly as abnormal as you make it sound: it's only sort of a half wig, and I got a haircut for it--it isn't like he gathered the hair piece-by-piece off my pillow to weave it together. I got the haircut in Ireland, by the way, and explained to the woman who did it why I wanted to save the hair; when she finished, she said, "Himself will be t'rilled." Anyhow, it's more a mannequin than a puppet. She has glass eyes, which Edward bought in Prague: we were in an antique store, and I overheard him saying to the proprietor, "Do you have any glass eyes?" and I was just starting to think, "That is the most RIDICULOUS question I have EVER heard! You don't just waltz into a store and ask if they have glass eyes!" when I heard the man answer, "Yes. I have three in the back." This taught me a valuable lesson about judging the normality of Edward's behavior.

Since then he has made a wooden head named Harriet Halfhead, who is currently languishing in the backyard in the hopes she'll get some really good mold going. (Since it's Edward's project, I suppose I should say "mould.") And also he carved a death mask out of clay, and then had it cast, 2 copies in plaster and one in wax. For a while they were lined up on a table in our house in Iowa City, looking sort of like Martha and the Vandellas.

EG: What have you read lately that knocked your socks off? I was wondering if you'd read Tristan Egolf's Lord of the Barnyard yet. I thought of you as I excitedly started that book amid gales of laughter, but not when I quietly put it down halfway through.

EM: I am halfway through The Half Brother, a Norwegian novel, which was recommended to me by either Chris Merrill or Paul Ingram, I can't remember which. It's fantastic. Also I recently had the following humiliating conversation with my friend Paul.

Paul: What are you reading?
Me: Well, I'm nearly finished rereading my favorite Oz book.
Paul: Is it good? Should I read it?
Me: I hadn't realized how influential it was on my work. It's very strange. Did you know that the Tin Woodman's real name was Nick Chopper?
Paul [after a pause]: I thought you were talking about the Israeli novelist.

I would have sneeringly said, "That's pronounced *OZE" but I felt my ability to sneer had been seriously undermined.

EG: Any plans to come back to Iowa City for a visit or a semester of teaching?

EM: No immediate plans, anyhow, which is very odd. We were in Iowa three falls in a row--but the farmland in these parts looks sufficiently Grant-Woody. I'm not entirely sure what my plans are after May 26, after we get bounced from the unwed mother's home for summer guests. I'll always come back to Iowa City to visit, if not to teach.

EG: Did you happen to read the Ben Marcus article slamming Jonathan Franzen in Harper's last month? If so, what did you think? Should workshop grads be writing weirder stuff? In class you once said, "Write something STRANGE," and I've taken that to heart probably more than anything else.

EM: Not yet, dammit. I live off my friends' subscriptions to American magazines--they bundle them up, several at a time--so I'm several months behind.

EG: Do you still think about Frank when you're going over a manuscript? What was the best advice he ever gave you?

EM: When I was in Frank's class, people were always pointing out that if Kundera had written the story that was up that week, he would have done a much better job. (Lord, most of my classmates in that particular workshop were a real drag.) One day someone submitted a story that was largely about someone having sex in a patch of poison ivy. I swear to God, every single critic cited a different piece of literature about poison ivy, and how it was better than this particular story. They were probably right. When the discussion got to me, I said, "Well, the only people I know who wrote about poison ivy are Leiber and Stoller."

Frank looked at me with great affection, nay, admiration. He'd been silent the entire discussion. "Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber," he said to me. I nodded. Nothing more was said. It was as though we were alone in the room, and it remains of the great moments of my life.

(Note for people less hip than Frank 'n' me: Leiber & Stoll wrote "Hound Dog," as well as "Poison Ivy"--you know, "Late at night while you're sleepin'/Poison Ivy comes a-creepin'/A-roun-hou-hou-hound.")

I think I probably think about Frank more when I teach than when I write. He was so passionate about his students, so proud of them, believed so deeply in the workshop process and in The Workshop. If I bumped into him in the halls on a Tuesday when I was teaching there, he'd say something about the stories up in his class--"A real interesting story this week. I wonder if they'll get it." He was as interested in how things were going to go over as anyone else. He saw teaching absolutely as a calling, separate from the calling of writing. His belief that bad stories can get better, that young writers will write terribly before they write something interesting, that the whole ridiculous process of sitting around a table and discussing a piece of fiction as though the writer weren't there--well, because Frank believed in it, I can believe in it, too. And so I do.


the plunge said...

Great, great. Elizabeth recalls for me the best of Iowa City and the Workshop. When the hell is our reunion again?

bihari said...

And me too: my first workshop was with Elizabeth (the workshop which engendered that wonderful Plunge-trying-not-to-yawn photo in the Workshop fundraising brochure, I believe) and it remains in my mind as the gold standard of workshops.

Maybe we could all move to the South of France?

SER said...

I resent this interview because it made me miss being in Elizabeth's novel workshop. Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

TLB said...

I concur. Elizabeth, we miss you. Come back and I will buy you and Edward a beer at George's.