Elizabeth McCracken in conversation with Paul Harding at Porter Square Books

thunderstruck“I’m just tickled to see you all here,” Elizabeth McCracken said to the audience after a Porter Square Books staff member and author Paul Harding introduced her. McCracken is a former public librarian and the author of Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories (1993), The Giant’s House (1996), Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001), the heart-wrenching memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (2008), and, this year, Thunderstruck and Other Stories. McCracken said that she had thought she might not go back to writing stories, but when a novel she was writing wasn’t working out, “I tossed it aside and it broke into pieces.” Three of those pieces, including “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston,” made it into Thunderstruck.*

The conversational format was excellent, especially as both writers are extremely – and in Harding’s case, surprisingly – funny (Paul Harding is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, a lyrical but decidedly un-cheery book), and McCracken taught Harding at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so they know each other well. Harding, a former drummer (?!), asked how McCracken settled on the sequence of the stories in Thunderstruck. They are not organized in the order she wrote them, but the oldest, “Juliet,” is first, and the newest, “Thunderstruck,” is last.

They talked about the recurring themes in McCracken’s work, particularly loss and missing people. “I just repeat the same things over and over again,” said McCracken. “A finite deck that you keep reshuffling,” agreed Harding, but while “it’s easy to keep most stories at arm’s length if you want to,” that’s impossible with McCracken’s work. She is fond of writing in the second person, which can be effective at drawing the reader in, but also has its risks.

Harding used this example:
[Author writing in second person] “You’re in a bar on a Tuesday night, snorting coke–”
[Reader reaction] “No, I’m not.”

McCracken’s “you” is more generalized, though, and works well; she shifts from third person to second so smoothly the reader may not even notice at first (“Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.”). She was self-effacing about Harding’s praise (“Anything I do is entirely accidental”), but I suspect there’s rather more to it than that.

Speaking of her fascination with lost people, including relatives she’d never met, she said, “Grandfather McCracken was a genealogist.” (She pronounced it jenny-ologist, a career I’m fairly certain no one has, except possibly an obsessed young man in a yet-to-be-written Nick Hornby novel.)

They moved on to talking about the writing process. “Writing is not a particularly efficient process,” said Harding; he compared it to archaeology, digging through the rubble and picking the best bits. They talked about truth in fiction, and the “distinction between imaginary and factual truth.” McCracken, with good humor, called it “aggravating” when something she had made up turns out to be true.

Sine wave illustration from The Penguin Dictionary of Science

Harding observed that McCracken writes in “experienced time, not linear time,” and is great at “not over-determining.” He described a sine wave with his hands in the air: “Anything between here [top of sine wave] and here [bottom of sine wave] could have happened.” It’s a way of acknowledging that “somewhere in the universe, things are different.”

“It was on this day, a Monday, that we first saw Juliet.”

McCracken read from the beginning of “Juliet,” then the Q&A began. Someone asked a version of the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, and McCracken answered, “Stories can arrive in any different way…Every story in this collection occurred in a different way.”

How do you shift between the story and novel formats? “Writing a great short story is harder than writing a great novel.” She might one day write a great novel, she said, but “I am never going to write ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.'” While that point is indisputable, and it’s true that Elizabeth McCracken is not Flannery O’Connor, this overlooks the fact that she is Elizabeth McCracken, and many readers would respectfully argue that she has already written great short stories.

Do you write poetry? “I used to write poetry. It was really bad.” She would go to poetry readings and become inspired to write poetry, but then realize, “I don’t want to write poetry; I want to write that poem you just read.” She said, “Poets are better at leaving things out.” Dream Songs by John Berryman is a favorite collection of hers.

While poets may know when to leave things out while they’re writing, McCracken knows when, where, and how to cut something she’s already written. She said it is easy for her to cut whole pages and paragraphs, but to cut “a single sentence pains me.” She is unsentimental about her writing, to the point of scrapping whole stories entirely. (At this point, I’m sure a few people in the audience considered stealing her trash in order to read these abandoned stories.) Harding asked, “If you have to cut a line you love, do you ever smuggle it into the next thing?” YES, McCracken answered, no matter how many tries it takes. And some things reappear again and again: “I’ve written a house fire into everything I’ve ever written.” McCracken is likewise fond of writing about cake, furniture, and corpses in the walls. (Need I say there was more than the average amount of laughter at this author event?) Harding suggested that these things provide the armature “while you figure out what the story is really about.”

I wanted to find a way to ask Elizabeth about the following passage from “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey.” Surely, only someone who taught writing could or would write such a passage:

     Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog-call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s Landing. Still, surely, somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.
     Outside, in the light from the Drake’s Landing floodlights, the snow sparkled like something that wasn’t snow. Diamonds, or asphalt, or emery boards.

How has teaching affected your writing? She replied that she had included the cliche sentence “Somewhere, a dog barked” because Ron Charles had said something about it on Twitter and, being “so bloody-minded,” McCracken wanted to include it in her next book. I couldn’t find the original Twitter exchange, but I’m calling this McCracken 1, Ron Charles 0.

Why did you choose “Thunderstruck” as the title? “I really like past tense verbs.” She’s interested in “what happens right after a disaster.” She also pointed out a strange fact: thunderstruck is a word, but lightningstruck isn’t – even though thunder doesn’t actually strike and lightning does.

Do you know where the novel is going when you start? “I know who’s alive at the beginning and who’s dead at the end,” but not how. (How Shakespearean!) McCracken was careful to note that her process works for her, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. “Every single writer is different. All that matters is that you manage to write from the beginning to the end.” McCracken writes chronologically, from page one through the end, then moves things around. (Cake, furniture, corpses, fire.) “Your job is to figure out what your process is” – there is no one right way. The “terrifying and wonderful” thing about fiction writing is “there are no rules. Absolutely no rules.”

McCracken told of being on a panel with her friend Ann Patchett when an audience member asked, How do you know you’ve chosen the right scene to write? In fiction writing as in life, Patchett said, “You make a decision and you stick with it.” McCracken revealed that for some, there is more second-guessing, regret, and doubt involved. “The way that you write fiction is the way you process life,” she said. Then she introduced a cooking metaphor: If writing a novel (or short story) was like making a souffle, she could stand in front of a room and teach people how to do it. Difficult, yes, but there are steps to follow; it could be done. However, “There’s no souffle in fiction writing…All you can do is make the stew you’re going to make.” (Harding said of his own creative process, “I feel like I’m taking dictation from the universe. If I’m sitting in front of the drums it comes out as rhythm, if I’m at a laptop it comes out as words.” A lovely idea, but again, there’s probably more work involved than that.)

Overall, an absolutely lovely evening. I’m so glad I got the chance to see her speak!

Someone at Porter Square Books was live-tweeting the talk.


*Edited to add 5/23/14: elizmccrackentweetSo there you have it!

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