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On elephants and Schlitterbahn: Two Austin writers talk craft for BookPeople

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
"I like to write about the moment when the actual and emotional intersect,” Austin author Elizabeth McCracken says. Her latest work is a collection of short stories.

A son takes his aging father on a boat tour to an island of puffins. A woman distracts herself with a radio host. A couple meets cute and traverses the emotional minefield of a family wedding. A young zookeeper bonds with an elephant in wartime. 

Also, Schlitterbahn. 

Austin authors and friends Elizabeth McCracken and S. Kirk Walsh have much to draw on as they chat about their new books Wednesday virtually via BookPeople.  

McCracken’s collection of short stories, “The Souvenir Museum” (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.99), is her seventh book, following the critically acclaimed 2019 novel “Bowlaway.” Walsh’s debut, “The Elephant of Belfast” (Counterpoint, $27), is historical fiction inspired by a World War II-era zookeeper. 

While their books explore different topics, both marry events and emotion. For McCracken, that’s by design.  

Elizabeth McCracken's new work is a collection of short stories.

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“I am always interested in taking a particularly interesting day,” she said in an interview. “I know there are great writers of just ordinary daily life, but ... I tend to like, as a reader too, stories in which something really happens in both the actual and emotional plane. I like to write about the moment when the actual and emotional intersect.”

Take her Galveston Schlitterbahn-set “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark.” Bruno and Ernest bring their 4-year-old to the fancifully named slides and half-sunken pool bars familiar to any Texas family who’s been to one of the German-themed waterparks. (McCracken has had to explain to readers who think she’s invented it, that yes, the Faust Und Furious attraction really exists.) 

But while she nails the experience, she also illuminates Bruno’s fears, ones both universal to parents and specific to his character, all threaded with her dry, trenchant wit. “The rule of the household was to encourage, but Bruno wanted to say, No, sweetheart, you’re an awful swimmer. You suck. One of the things he hadn’t realized before having a child: how many ways there were to die of self-confidence,” she writes. 

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S. Kirk Walsh's debut novel, "The Elephant of Belfast," was sparked by a radio report about a real-life zookeeper in Belfast.

Five of the stories are linked, depicting a couple at different stages of their relationship. Others spotlight a mix of the ordinary and unusual: a bereft mother who compulsively eats challah to distract herself from loss, a woman who ferries her son to Denmark to deliver a small bequest to her ex-husband.  

“The Elephant of Belfast” sprang from travel and tragedy. Walsh, the founder of nonprofit organization Austin Bat Cave, which serves writers of all ages, was driving between San Antonio and Austin when she heard a public-radio segment about the Belfast Zoo’s “elephant angel.” Denise Weston Austin was one of the zoo’s first female zookeepers. She kept a young elephant sheltered at her home during the city’s wartime bombings. 

“I was among the millions who probably heard this story,” Walsh said in a phone interview. “I came home — I was living in south Austin at the time — and I said to my husband, ‘I think it'd make a great novel.’ He agreed with me, and then I just put it in my back pocket.” 

S. Kirk Walsh's debut novel is inspired by real events.

Walsh eventually would take a research trip to Belfast as well as to the elephant enclosure at the Houston Zoo as part of her years (and 16 drafts) spent transforming that idea into her debut. Her fictional take centers on Hettie, a 20-year-old young woman in 1940s Belfast who cares for 3-year-old elephant Violet as she grapples with her family’s losses against the backdrop of war. 

The horrors of World War II served as a powerful parallel to 9/11, said Walsh, who was living in New York at the time of the attacks.  

“I was interested in this idea of private grief and public collective grief, and what happens when those happen simultaneously,” Walsh said. She lost both parents within a few months when she was completing final revisions to the book, which made the story even more resonant, she said. 

“It almost felt like my book was teaching me that you have to be compassionate and resilient.” 

If you go

Elizabeth McCracken and S. Kirk Walsh at BookPeople

The two writers will take about their recent releases, McCracken's "The Souvenir Museum” and and Walsh's “The Elephant of Belfast,” in a virtual BookPeople event at 6 p.m. Wednesday. It's free to register and attend, but books are for sale, too. Information and registration: bookpeople.com/event.