Elizabeth McCracken welcomes me into her narrow, rectangular office on the University of Texas campus. The author of "The Giant's House" and "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" has been here only since January, when she moved to Austin to teach creative writing at UT, both at the Michener Center for Writers and in the English department. The wooden shelves that line her office's two longest walls remain mostly empty. Near the door is a small glass-topped desk, where we sit and talk while McCracken sips take-out coffee.
She apologizes if she seems a little sleep-deprived and "wild-eyed." (She doesn't.) Her first semester teaching at UT had just ended and she was coming off a week of graduation-related readings and dinners. She also has been getting up at midnight to work on her new novel until 3:30 or 4 in the morning before going back to bed for a couple of hours.
And she's the mother of two young children, Gus and Matilda, who is still settling into a new life in Austin with her husband, British playwright and novelist Edward Carey. The couple has moved around and traveled a great deal since meeting eight years ago. They have lived or stayed briefly in France, Ireland, Denmark, Iowa, Florida and New York, taking temporary teaching jobs here and there. For the time being, the family is living in a "comically huge" former bed and breakfast in Central Austin, and McCracken says she and Carey are looking forward to finding a house of their own once they return from visiting Carey's relatives this summer.
(We later ponder the fact that McCracken is about to discover a definite advantage to being married to an Englishman: no summers in Austin, or at least fewer weeks spent here during the summer. She's heard enough horror stories that she considers her luck good, indeed.)
McCracken says the opportunity to teach at UT was a huge draw bringing her to Austin, and Austin had one big thing she and Carey hoped to find when they were looking at job options and places to live. "We didn't want to live somewhere that was known as a good place to raise children because we had lived in those places and they bored us — a lot," she says. "But Austin seems like a really nice place to grow up in. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, in one of those places that was a good place to raise kids, but I have no sentiment about the place whatsoever. We moved here because it seemed like Gus and Matilda could have a really interesting childhood here."
McCracken graduated from the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop in 1990. Austin novelist James Hynes was a year ahead of McCracken. Tom Grimes, who directs the creative writing program at Texas State University in San Marcos, was a year behind her.
Her first book was the 1993 short story collection, "Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry." A novel, "The Giant's House," followed three years later. "The Giant's House," about a spinster librarian who falls in love with a boy who eventually grows into a young man more than 8 feet tall, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1996. It is one of those rare books whose title readers whisper with reverence and wide-eyed affection.
She published another novel, "Niagara Falls All Over Again," in 2001. Loosely inspired by Abbott and Costello, it charts the rise and decline of a comedy team from their vaudeville days to radio and film stardom, to dissolution and cultural irrelevance.
Her most recent book is "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination," a bittersweet memoir that McCracken wrote over a three-week period in 2007 not long after Gus' birth, which occurred one year and five days after the April 27, 2006, death of her first son during the ninth month of pregnancy. Originally published in 2008 and released in paperback in February, "Exact Replica" is a moving, poignant, measured look at loss, grief and the peculiar relationship between sadness and happiness.
The new novel McCracken is working on is tentatively titled "Let Your Heart Become Iron." She understandably didn't want to say too much about the novel other than to note that it's about a female weightlifter, is "slightly less realistic" than "The Giant's House" and "Niagara Falls All Over Again," and is mostly set in the 1970s. She says it shares with her previous novels her need to hit on a subject that can obsess her, whether it be gigantism, vaudeville or weightlifting.
She puts a fair amount of research into her work, she says. Coincidentally, UT owns the Todd-McLean physical culture archive, which holds a great deal of ephemera on strong people. Though McCracken says she has held off visiting the archive, fearing distraction (and McCracken says she's easily distracted — by e-mail, Twitter, tangents discovered during her research), she has consulted Iron Game History, a scholarly journal published by the archive. "If I had lived here when I started the book, I would have spent hours there," she says of the UT collection.
She also is working on a second collection of short stories, with, she thinks, one more story to write before she considers the collection complete. I ask her which she finds easier, writing a novel or writing a short story. "Novel writing," she says, without hesitation. "The novel is just a much more forgiving form."