Elizabeth McCracken is the best kind of artist.
She writes gorgeous sentences, a whole lot of which are in “Bowlaway,” her first novel in 18 years. She has the respect of her peers and the adoration of her students at the University of Texas, where she holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction.
And McCracken has not spent a minute resting on any laurels. Between her last novel, 2001's “Niagara Falls All Over Again,” and this one, McCracken published “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” a wrenching memoir about the complicated death of her first child; wrote and filed away a few other novels; published the award-winning story collection “Thunderstruck & Other Stories”; and — as she puts it — “gave birth to some human beings,” that last one in collaboration with her husband, writer and illustrator Edward Carey.
The author takes her work extremely seriously, and it shows. But McCracken does not take herself all that seriously. For example, “Bowlaway” is about a woman named Bertha Truitt, who owns and operates a candlepin bowling alley in Boston at the turn of the century (the last one, not our current one). The novel follows a few generations of her descendants and their friends and enemies in and around said alley.
When I suggested jokingly (I swear) that McCracken and I conduct our chat at a bowling alley, instead of blocking my email address, she agreed immediately.
We sat down at Dart Bowl around lunchtime on a Tuesday, when McCracken enthusiastically chatted about her working methods, her shocking facility with Twitter and the ongoing appeal of bowling.
One difference between “Bowlaway” and, say, any of McCracken's other three novels? This one didn’t take so long to write.
“This one took about 2 1/2 years,” she said. “I’ve never written a novel that quickly. Sometimes they can take as long as five or six years. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t found a notebook with vague notes about the thing from 2015.”
And yes, like a lot of native New Englanders (McCracken moved to Boston when she was 7 and spent decades there), candlepin bowling was a large part of her childhood.
“I recently called my best friend from second grade, and we tried to remember everything we could from our candlepin bowling (club),” she said. “We met at a certain time every week, bowled against each other.”
McCracken said she knew she wanted to write about something quintessentially New England.
“I’m in Texas, and it’s always easier to write about home when you’re away from it,” she said, adding that the alley itself made it easier to get everyone together over time. “It’s a place where the generations could coalesce.”
Then there was the appeal of bowling itself: “I like the fact that, as a sport, it’s kind of dull and kind of mesmerizing,” McCracken said. “I bowl with my kids, and you release the ball and it’s like, ‘What’s gonna happen?’ and you know it’s a very limited number of things, but it feels very suspenseful. I like the idea of a game that is only suspenseful a frame at a time.”
McCracken knew that “Bowlaway” was a novel and not a short story pretty early in the process.
“The big difference is the size of the characters,” she said. “You need less DNA for a short-story character.” She paused. “That’s a lousy metaphor. You need a smaller sampling of DNA, maybe?”
Then again, McCracken said she hasn't always gotten that formula right.
“After I was done with the stories for ‘Thunderstruck,’ I finished a novel,” McCracken said. (When she says “finished,” McCracken means a novel that was done-done: many drafts, lots of revisions, the whole nine yards.) “I showed it to my husband, who read it and said, ‘I enjoy this, but there’s something missing at the heart of your main character.’ And he was absolutely right. The plot was novel-sized; the character was short story-sized. And there is no way to fix that. I reread the thing, and it was like, ‘Yep, this is just who you are.’ So I put it in a drawer.”
A different kind of short-form writing at which McCracken excels: Twitter. In an era when high-end literary fiction writers make a big show of ignoring social media or being openly hostile toward it, McCracken is shockingly good at Twitter. To wit, a few tweets:
"Once again, thanks to my partial faceblindness (sic), I appear to have four sets of twins in my undergrad workshop."
"I have a novel coming out for the first time in 18 years & so far not a single review has proclaimed a McCrackenaissance."
"Had to talk about my book & said, ‘I don't know, it's a book, you might like it, give it a try!'"
And so forth.
“I love one-liners. I love running jokes. Twitter is full of those,” McCracken said. “There are jokes I make every year at the same time, and people ask about them, and, seriously, that is one of the most gratifying aspects of my writing life. I know Twitter can be a horrible place for a lot of people, but I’ve been very lucky in that regard. That said, I have to go off Twitter to rewire my brain to not want instant gratification if I am working on something longer.”
In fact, McCracken's process for writing short stories and novels is quite different.
“When I first started writing short stories, I would start writing and I wouldn’t really know where it was going,” McCracken said. “And now I probably don't write a short story until I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I can see the shape, and I break up the work that way. I think about it. I write down notes. I write down sentences, and then I’ll start to write it from first page to the end."
On a longer work, McCracken said she still doesn’t know where the writing will eventually take her.
"That is very liberating in a lot of ways," she said. "And with novels, the only way I can think about what I am going to write is writing it. With short stories, I can think about it separately.”
McCracken teaches both undergraduate and graduate students at UT, and there is one mistake she thinks all young writers make.
“They will write a very good short story and people will say to them, ‘Man, that was a good story,' and the writer will say, 'I’m gonna turn this into a novel,'" she said. "Many terrible novels have come out of excellent short stories. I tell my students, 'You will know when you have an idea for a novel rather than a short story. It’s like getting married."
"Then again, like marriage, you might be mistaken."