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For Austin writer Elizabeth McCracken, $50K fellowship nod is both 'terrifying' and 'gratifying'

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin author Elizabeth McCracken has a short story collection called  “The Souvenir Museum" on the way.

Austin writer Elizabeth McCracken has been named to the 2021 class of United States Artists Fellows, the organization announced Wednesday.

McCracken is the author of seven books, including the critically acclaimed 2019 novel “Bowlaway” and the forthcoming short-story collection “The Souvenir Museum.” She is one of eight writers in this year’s 60-member class, which also includes fellowships in visual and performing arts, media, film, craft and architecture and design.

It is the largest class in the history of the Chicago-based United States Artists, which has granted more than $33 million to 700-plus artists over 15 years.

“One of the things that’s really gratifying, when you look at who they’ve chosen, it’s people at different stages of their careers,” McCracken said in a phone interview. “It’s not an award for ‘most promising’ and it’s not an award for ‘lifetime achievement.’”

The 2021 group of writers includes novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, multi-genre author Eve L. Ewing and National Book Award finalist Ocean Vuong. Past fellowship winners have included poet and thinker Claudia Rankine, “Moonlight” filmmaker Barry Jenkins and Mardi Gras suitmaker Darryl Montana.

The honor carries a $50,000 unrestricted award. McCracken said she’s not yet decided how to spend it, although travel is a perennial lure.

“I’m sure I will travel, when travel is a thing that human beings can do on the face of this Earth,” she said.

The shifting perspective of being in a different place fuels her work, she added.

“When I travel I’m in a particularly heightened stage of receptiveness for ideas, and often they feel like short stories to me,” she said. “When I was younger and wrote short stories, the events were never autobiographical, but the emotion always was. Now for some reason, at least lately, that’s reversed.”

The tales in “The Souvenir Museum” tales, some interconnected, feature plenty of travel. The title story finds single mother Joanna heading to Denmark with her 9-year-old in tow to deliver a watch bequeathed to his father.

McCracken captures a fledgling traveler’s authenticity radar in young Leo’s profound disappointment with Danish Legoland, and she precisely maps emotions. When Joanna has a moment’s irritation with Leo, she thinks: “She knew she and Leo would forgive each other. She knew that it was her duty to solicit forgiveness from everyone, but just then she was tired of men whose feelings were bigger than hers.”

McCracken holds the James A. Michener chair in creative writing at the University of Texas, and she relishes teaching for the different skills it sharpens.

“I love reading other people’s work – I love that figuring out of how I’m going to talk about it in a way that will be useful for the people who wrote it,” she said.

For now, though, there’s the good fortune of the fellowship.

“I tend to foolishly believe that I’m absolutely invisible in my work," she said "... And this is feeling seen in a way that’s both slightly terrifying and deeply gratifying.” 

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