interview: Elizabeth Crane
Elizabeth Crane has written three collections of short stories and a novel, and she is currently at work on a memoir and screenplay. Her work is emotionally touching and usually quite witty. She recently took some time to speak with us on the phone from her home in Brooklyn.
I thought maybe you could just start by telling me about some of your current work or your upcoming work.
EC: I haven’t had a book out since 2012— I say that like it’s a long time ago, it’s not really—yeah, I don’t have any books coming out at the moment, although I am working on many and several projects at the same time. For a good long moment it has been another novel that I’m working on, and also a screenplay adaptation of my published novel.
That’s really interesting, because one thing I wanted to talk about is that your first book was a book of short stories, and then the second one was more connected short stories, and then the most recent one was a novel. Do you feel like now that you’ve started writing novels, that’s more what you’re comfortable with, or more what you want to do?
EC: No! Not at all. I actually have another collection of short stories that I didn’t really intend to put on hold, but it’s essentially complete. But I started to write a short story to include in that collection, and it turned into this—what is now 175 pages. And I will say too that my novel happened kind of organically. The one that I did publish, I also thought it was going to be a short story, and it got long, so I went with it. I mean, I want to write more novels, but my heart absolutely will always love short stories. It’s kind of whatever seems right at the moment.
So how did you know that this story that’s turning into a novel was going to be a novel?
EC: Well... I didn’t. At a certain point, when you have a certain number of pages; this definitely happened with the last novel, and with this one. And I don’t know how many other people work this way—I suspect that people have degrees of planning better than I ever do. But in both cases, strangely enough, I got to a certain point where I had maybe even 30 pages, which is certainly a reasonable length for a story, even if it’s long, but I was 30 pages in or 40 pages in and nowhere near finished telling the story I wanted to tell. So at that point—well, okay, maybe this is a novella! And then at 90 pages in, you’re still not anywhere near done telling the story you want to tell. At that point, especially at the first one, I was kind of like well, I guess I have to commit to making this into a novel. Part of why I’ve hesitated to write novels before is that my previous experience with that has either been like I spent five years on a novel that didn’t ultimately sell, or portions of a year working on novels that maybe I’d write 100 pages of, and it just wasn’t working for whatever reason. It’s definitely a different type of a time investment. So I was sort of resistant to investing time in a project that might not work out, where, you know, I really like short stories and I know I’m good at short stories!
Was it an adjustment then, just internally, to start thinking of yourself as a novelist, as opposed to a short story writer?
EC: Well, I still don’t, honestly, I still don’t! I would probably lean toward calling myself a short story writer, but really, I’m just a fiction writer right now. But then I say I’m a fiction writer and I also have a memoir that I’m trying to write.
That’s a lot of projects!
EC: I’ve got a lot of projects, yeah. I mean, I’m really only actively working on two of them right now, but the idea is to... I have a second draft of a memoir, so it’s not just an idea, it’s something that actually exists, but is not anywhere near ready to go out into the world. So fiction is my thing, but categories are tough! “Writer” kind of takes care of it as far as I’m concerned.
Are you teaching now, too?
EC: I do, I teach at a low-residency master’s program at the University of California, Riverside.
So you’re living in New York, but this low- residency program makes it possible for you to teach in California?
EC: Yeah. I work at home, but then we have our residencies twice a year in Palm Springs.
How long have you been living in New York?
EC: Two years in August.
And before that you were in Austin, right?
EC: We were in Austin for two years, Chicago for 13 years, but I’m from New York, so I lived here before that.
Do you feel like the city you’re living in has an influence on your writing?
EC: Hmm. I feel like place always has an influence on my writing. Absolutely. Actually, a great portion of the subject of the memoir is how New York shaped me as a person. So I have 200 pages on that, so I can’t necessarily sum it up! But yeah, I feel very affected by place, and that definitely comes through in my writing. I happen to really like where we’re living in Brooklyn. I haven’t really written about Brooklyn yet. I don’t feel like I’ve been here long enough to really formulate whatever I might have to say about it. Sometimes the place where I live when I’m writing will emerge later. But I did write about Texas while I was living in Texas, but maybe that’s because I was not as happy in Texas.
Oh, really! You know, we’re based in Austin. Were you just not happy here, or did you not like Austin as a city?
EC: You know, I did like Austin, in a sort of a theoretical way. The people of Austin were so nice to me, we made friends, we had a nice lifestyle... I think part of it was being far away from family and friends. That was a pretty big part of it. There is a Texas kind of element to it. I mean, it just ultimately didn’t feel like my place. I had a sort of detached appreciation for it rather than a real connection to it.
Sure, I can see that. But you feel like you have a connection to Brooklyn now?
EC: I do. I feel much more like that. It’s sort of like—it reminds me a little bit of Chicago, and a little bit of what I did like of living in Manhattan. But with the low-keyness of Chicago.
You’re teaching an MFA program right now. But you didn’t do an MFA, right?
Do you wish that you had?
EC: Sometimes I do, definitely! I still think about it sometimes. Basically, the short answer to that is that by the time I started thinking about what it might be like to get an MFA, I was starting to publish. And I talked to other writers about it—some of whom had MFAs, some of whom didn’t, some of whom taught— who were all basically sort of like “You probably don’t need to.” And that was over 10 years ago. Because I do know people now who are accomplished writers who are going to grad school, particularly low-residency programs. Which is something that I could conceivably do, but it would be very time-consuming at this point, not to mention financially... But yeah, I still think about it, because one of the things I think is great about an MFA program is the community you get, the time to write you get, and the feedback, which everyone needs. But I don’t think you necessarily need to get that from a program. I think I get a lot of support from other writers that I know.
Who are some of the writers that made you want to be a writer?
EC: Well, I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so if you go back that far, it goes to a lot of kids’ books. I’ve said a million times, Harriet the Spy was absolutely the one that was, you know, light bulbs went off. The Phantom Tollbooth, surreal things, dark things, whatever it was. When I got older, the people who really made a mark on me were David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Rick Moody, just a lot of people who were doing things that felt very much their own.
If you’re inspired by people who make things their own, and obviously you have your own voice and your own style, how do you try to translate that to teaching? How do you try to inspire or influence your students?
EC: You know, the biggest thing is by getting them to read things that maybe they wouldn’t have read otherwise. And primarily because that’s the thing that has really changed my writing significantly, is just reading widely, reading things that inspire me. And that can be a time-consuming process, right? I just had a student yesterday who—I gave him a long list of books he needed to read, and Lydia Davis was among them, and he got really excited. And that makes me so happy! It’s just sort of a long process that might or might not translate into a student’s work quickly. But I know for sure that reading and writing—the two basic things—are the things I try to drum home again and again. I mean, we work on fine tuning and how to do that, and we talk a lot about craft, but it always comes back to those two things for me, really.
You don’t have somebody giving you a list of books to read. How do you figure out what to read next?
EC: Well, I don’t, but I do try to be aware of what’s out there. You know, I’m on Facebook with a million writers, and they’re always talking about books, and I find out about things that way. And then the last few years I’ve been a judge of [The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes], so we subscribe to Booklist, and we find out a lot of books that come out that way, and there are some older judges on the panel, so I’m reading some things that they suggest that I might never have heard of.
One last thing that I wanted to ask you about was the marketing of your books.
EC: You know, I don’t even know what goes on in a marketing meeting. I don’t even know if there are marketing meetings! I guess there are. It’s a strange thing. I feel like I can sort of talk more broadly about it, that a lot of the promotion of a book falls to the author currently. Social media is a huge thing that we’re expected to do, and there are a lot of ways to do that. I find that to be... challenging. I’m not a born salesperson. So some people are better at it than others, for sure. I think that I’m sort of considered in this “literary fiction” category, and the main thing that happens is that they send your book out to outlets for coverage, and hopefully they follow up, and... whatever happens, happens. I think
I’ve been considerably luckier with all of my books, really—well, maybe not my second one. That’s a whole other story that I won’t even go into. But in general, I feel like I’ve gotten a significant amount of press for my books, but then, you know, you see other people that get tons and tons of attention. So I don’t ever really know why one book gets more attention than another, necessarily. But in the grand scheme of things I feel like, knowing how much the review coverage is changing these days, and how many fewer outlets there are for review coverage right now, I feel very lucky.
I guess I was also wondering how that works as a female writer, and if you feel like the type of press that you get, or the way that your books are presented, are different than they’d be if you were a man.
EC: Well, I think that’s just a given, honestly. I really do. I think there will be one or two women who will be taken... oh, it’s such a long conversation. But I think every now and then there will be a woman writer who will come along and be considered in the way that a big-name male writer might be. But it’s still a discussion, you know what I mean? Whereas it’s not like “This is the brilliant book of the year and it’s by a woman,” that doesn’t even need to be said. It’s always like
“So and so is in league with the guys!” That’s the vibe that I pick up from that.