Over the course of her career, Elizabeth McCracken has written critically acclaimed short story collections and novels. Opening one of her books to page one always brings a rush of excitement because you truly never know what to expect. Her latest, Bowlaway, is no exception. The exceptionally weird and cozy novel set near the beginning of the 20th century opens with an unconscious woman in a cemetery with 15 pounds of gold hidden in a secret compartment of a bag that also contained a small bowling ball and a slender candlepin.
Using a candlepin bowling alley as the backdrop, McCracken tracks the lives of a fictional town in the state of Massachusetts. What follows is an ode to the state, the lineage of townspeople, and how pastimes help shape our society. The novel slowly reveals the sort of dark secrets that can unravel community in an instant. It feels both timely and timeless.
I spoke with McCracken over the phone about place, humor, and community in her writing.
The Millions: What drew you to use candlepin bowling as the backdrop for this book?
Elizabeth McCracken: I used to be a candlepin bowler. I still bowl sometimes now but would bowl a lot back in Massachusetts as a kid. I miss New England. I knew I wanted to write about home, and it seemed like an interesting way in for me.
TM: Massachusetts, and New England as a whole, are very unique compared to the rest of the country. How did growing up in Massachusetts inform your reading and writing in your youth?
EM: I’ve been trying to think about this. I live in Texas now and Texas is its own thing in ways I didn’t realize before. I have kids in the public schools, and they have an entire year on Texan history. Sometimes I have friends here ask me if I studied Massachusetts history as a kid. Well, we did. The Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War. It’s just American history! We never devoted a year to learn about the state.
For reading though, I read a lot of Hawthorne when I was growing up. There was Edith Wharton. A lot of New England ghost stories. [With this novel] I was thinking about my love for the cramped, ill-lit rooms of New England now that I am in the wide open, brightly lit spaces of Texas.
TM: You mention New England ghost stories. American literature was very regionalized at first, then writers started to think globally. You book feels very regionalized. Was that intentional?
EM: I was definitely thinking about place more than anything I have ever written before. It was hugely a reaction to living in Texas. I wanted to write an example of Massachusetts literature.
TM: Prior to moving to Texas, you lived in many places including Massachusetts, then Iowa for school. I moved around a lot and ended up back in Phoenix. When I returned here, I felt like an outsider. I was very disconnected to my life here prior. How did moving around impact your writing?
EM: think you’re right that you leave a place and come back to a shifted perspective. I also lived in France and spent a lot of time in Berlin and England. I don’t know, man, it was broadening. There are writers who are brilliant about writing about their home and can stay home and still find things to write about.
I’m a garbage disposal writer. I need things to put in so I can write.
TM: That makes sense because one thing I love about your writing is that I never know what to expect. A lot of authors, which is great, write about the same themes or settings. You know what to expect. With you I feel I never know what to expect on that first page. This novel starts with an unconscious woman in a cemetery. How early did that image come to you?
EM: Relatively late. There wasn’t a ton of backstory on Berta Truitt. There was some, but mostly about her childhood and she was a very mysterious character. There was a ton of problems with it. I had written an entire draft before I thought of that opening. Even after that, I kept coming back to it.
TM: What drew you to Bertha as a character?
EM: I was going through my grandfather’s genealogy and pulling out names, which is how the book started. I liked the idea of someone who was mysterious, even to herself, but also wildly confident. It was fun to write about a character who believed they could do anything.
TM: Reading through this novel, it feels very Massachusetts. Also, the voice and the tone don’t feel very 2019 but also feel very 2019. It’s a historical-ish novel…
EM: I like that term for it. Someone called it a historical novel and I responded, “well, kind of.” It feels like a disservice to people who write actual, extremely researched, and accurate novels.
Because the novel in the beginning was about genealogy, I am happy to hear it feels very of its time but not of its time. I was interested in how a generation leads to the next generation and how people are unbelievably invested in that.
Here’s this story from a long time ago and [it] ends up in a place only because people have children. It ends with people who didn’t know about that older generation. A lot of people, even if they did research, would be ignorant about how that generation is connected to them.
Even in those ghost stories I read as a kid, a lot of those stories were tied to real places. Then there are stories that sound like myths but were actual events. I wanted something to feel out of time like those pieces.
TM: Building off of that, in the acknowledgements of this book you write: “This book is highly inaccurate.” There is always some humor in every page you write. How important is humor to you?
EM: Vital. I don’t know how to write without it. I’m always telling my students that is impossible to write fiction without using skills for which you interpret the world. I can’t exorcise humor from my worldview. I can’t take it out of my fiction.
Sometimes I read a piece of fiction without any humor in it—and I don’t mean jokes, I just mean fiction that doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of life. Fiction like that feels sterile and dead.
TM: Whenever I read or watch something that is supposed to be this big, dramatic, heart wrenching moment, I sometimes can’t help but laugh because life is funny even when it’s awful.
EM: Exactly. I also believe humor makes things sadder. It’s a way to light up your fiction before an event like that.
TM: Looping back to place, I want to talk about writing as a community. I feel the general public thinks authors are competing against each other. I’ve found it to be the opposite and authors are all champions of one another. What does your writing community look like?
EM: My community is really important. Feeling competitive with other writers is impossible to get away from entirely, but it’s such a useless emotion. There’s no way to measure it. It’s not bowling. I teach at the University of Texas at Austin. I feel that teaching has made me a better writer. To teach and read year after year really teaches you how many possibilities there are.
I also have very dear friends who are writers that I give my work to. My husband [Edward Carey] is a writer whose opinion of my work means a huge amount to me. His own work means a huge amount to me. I feel very lucky that I ended up marrying a writer whose work I loved and adored before I met him.
My dear friend Paul Lisicky is one of my first readers. His opinion and own works mean a lot to me. Ann Patchett is someone whose opinions means a lot to me. One of the perks of being a teacher and getting older is becoming good friends with former students. I have Paul Harding and Yiyun Li who are really good friends of mine and they were students of mine a long time back.
TM: That’s what is so amazing about the literary world. You’ll mention a writer and they’ll mention someone else. Then it’s six degrees of separation and before you know it, someone is saying they admire you.
EM: It’s true. Every time I meet someone who is a friend of a friend of mine, it feels like we know each other even though we’ve never met.
TM: How often are you letting your readers read your works in progress?
EM: Very little. The older I get, the more I hold my work closer than I used to. It used to be that I would want to give people my chapters as I went along. Now I feel like in order to have the privacy to write well, I need absolute privacy during the draft. I am the type of writer who does a ton of drafts. I wrote an entire draft before giving it to my husband. Then I wrote another draft before giving it to Paul Lisicky.
I usually talk about the book with people, but the way it works for me is I’d rather not have too much advice. I want to have the problems and go back myself to figure out how to address the problems.
TM: When do you know you finally have it: the final draft?
EM: I never, ever have ever thought “I really have it.” I think about a month ago I thought of something else I should have done with Bowlaway. That’s just how I am. I need to have the book taken away from me. Someone recently said to me that writers should stop working on things when they are aware they are no longer making it better. That’s true for me.
When I wrote the first draft, I knew this had a remarkably terrible end. I knew I needed to put something down. Architecturally, I had to have a big brick there just to hold up the rest of the novel so I could go back and fix things.
I do depend on my readers to help me. I’ll know something is wrong, but I don’t always know if something is right.