Elizabeth McCracken on Humor, Loss, and the Appeal of Broken Characters: “Life Is Full of Bad Jokes”

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photo by Edward Carey

Heads-up, members of our First Editions Club. When you receive your autographed copy of Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories, you’ll be taking possession of something rare. Like a solar eclipse, the stories in this book align darkness and light so precisely that they overlap to create something magical — you can see the edges of hope around each character’s despair.

The author of five books, including three New York Times Notable Books (the novels The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again, as well as the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination) McCracken currently teaches at The University of Texas, Austin, where she holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction. Speaking of teaching fiction: McCracken’s prose offers a master class to aspiring writers. Want to study the beauty of articulating a hard-to-express thought or the craft of stacking sentences into a perfectly proportioned paragraph? Take this passage from a story in Thunderstruck.

Then Gabe was behind me. He touched my shoulder lovingly. Listen: don’t tell me otherwise. It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitely present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say — as people will — that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well, it might not have been nourishing, but it sustained me for a while.

We had the pleasure of chatting with McCracken in anticipation of her upcoming visit to Nashville. Here’s her conversation with Musing’s editor, Mary Laura Philpott.

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What period of time went into writing the pieces collected here? I know some of them were written years apart, which is fascinating to me, because I feel like there are threads connecting them, both in theme and style. 

EM: The oldest story in the collection is “Juliet,” which I wrote (I think) in 1996, or possibly earlier. It’s based on an actual murder in the town I used to live in, and I wrote the first draft of it in a rush. For a long time it seemed like an anomaly to me — that is, I wrote it between two novels, and many years passed before I wrote a new one. Then I started writing stories again in 2005, partly because I’d written a novel that fell apart. In 2012, I had a semester’s leave and wrote a whole bunch of stories in four months, and three of those — “Hungry,” “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey,” and “Thunderstruck” (which was the last very last thing I wrote) made it in.

Are there stories you wrote during those years that you chose not to include here?

thunderEM: I was pretty hard-hearted about what went in and what didn’t.  Sometimes I thought a story wasn’t good enough, and sometimes it was too similar to another story, and sometimes it just didn’t seem to match. I cast aside quite a bit.

Many of these characters are piecing together love and sustenance out of what they have available to them — they’ve lost something, or they’re moving forward while knowing they’re missing something. Would you agree that’s a theme that comes up repeatedly in your writing? 

EM: Oh, yes: it’s definitely a theme. Maybe it’s my theme. You could probably find it in anything I’ve written.

Why do you think that is?

EM: I’m not sure why, other than I am constitutionally drawn to corners, and odd bits, and odd people. Those stories of loss were always what I was drawn to, when relatives told me old family stories: the heart broken in youth, the children who died shortly after having their photo taken. Nothing whole or unstained interests me that much, I guess, whether that’s literal or metaphorical.

That said, there’s a lot of humor in your writing. I laughed out loud during this exchange where one character is talking about a person who died, and the other thinks she’s talking about a pet (who also died): 

“You know,” said the children’s librarian to the head of cataloging that day, “she told me, ‘I’ve had a good life. If I died tomorrow, I’d have no regrets.'” The head of cataloging stared, thinking, That rabbit said no such thing.

Are you the kind of person who thinks or says humorous things at inopportune moments? 

EM: Horrible confession: if — let’s say — five people would refer to me in public as the funniest person they know, I would burn all copies of my books. (They’d have to mean it, though.) I would rather be funny than just about anything, and if I had the ability to write truly comic fiction or movies, if I were able to be a stand-up comedian: well, good-bye literary fiction. And the fact is, any comedy I love is as full of dimension, of sadness and psychological insight, as Tolstoy. Life is full of bad jokes, in the end. It’s the writer’s duty to portray that.

Having interacted with you a bit on Twitter, I know you’re funny. 

EM: One of the many reasons I love Twitter is that it provides a socially acceptable outlet for making awful jokes at inopportune moments.

That it does. Thank you so much! And see you soon.

(For evidence of McCracken’s not-so-hidden comedic talents, follow her on Twitter @ElizMcCracken. You’ll be treated to gems such as the #SpuriousAnnPatchettFacts hashtag — yes, we loved that one — and this thread about a stubborn birthday piñata.)

Parnassus Books is thrilled to welcome Elizabeth McCracken as our guest on Tuesday, June 3, at 6:30 p.m. for a reading, discussion, and signing of Thunderstruck & Other Stories. This event is free and open to the public. 

PS: For another perspective on Thunderstruck & Other Stories, check out this review from our friends at Chapter16.

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