Elizabeth McCracken has been gracing the literary scene with her beloved short story collections and novels for many years. Thunderstruck & Other Stories, a nine story collection and her first in twenty years, navigate the fragile space between love and loneliness. The author sat down with some members of her Random House publishing team to answer a few questions.
Susan Kamil: Publisher & Editor-in-Chief asks…
What authors have influenced your work the most and why?
It’s so hard to say! Every time I name check a famous writer, I hear a little voice saying, Yeah, you wish. That said: I think all the time about Grace Paley, who understood that brilliance and kindness were not mutually exclusive. Dickens and his lack of restraint. Gish Jen, whose first published stories were appearing just when I first thought I would be a serious writer, in all of their hilariousness and braininess. It was a revelation to me, that it was all right to want to be both funny and serious. & Carson McCullers, for no doubt obvious oddball reasons.
Noah Eaker: Senior Editor asks…
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Juliet,” which is set in a public library, as is your novel The Giant’s House. I know you spent time as a librarian. Can you explain the Dewey Decimal system to me? Just kidding. But I would love to know: What was your favorite thing about working in a library? And were there any great, obscure books you would have never discovered had you not worked in one?
There were a lot of things I loved about working in a library, but mostly I miss the library patrons. I love books, but books are everywhere. Library patrons are as various and oddball and democratic as library books. I really loved being a municipal employee. I can’t think of any obscure books, but I will always have a soft spot for Edwidge Danticat, beyond her brilliance: Breath, Eyes, Memory came across my circulation desk. I thought (having never heard of her) “Well, this looks interesting” and read it and of course it knocked me out. I feel the same way about Leah Hager Cohen and Train Go Sorry. She turned out to be a library patron, and I think I terrified her by being excited when I saw her name on her library card.
Karen Fink: Assistant Director of Publicity asks…
An active participant on Twitter (@elizmccracken), you often tweet about unique pieces found on auction. Do these pieces ever make their way into your writing and what are some of the most bizarre or different pieces you have ever seen on auction?
Well, I love objects. I like them around the house and I like them in fiction. So far I’m not sure that I’ve actually put anything directly into fiction (though my husband, Edward Carey, has put an oil painting we bought in England into his latest book). I have a set of Bakelite teeth that I keep trying to put into fiction but I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet. My favorite online auction objects are weird dolls—there was one a while ago with a porcelain head and a stick for a body which (according to the description) “played music,” though I still don’t know by what method. Tweeting about objects means I don’t need to bid on them, which is a blessing. Buying something is a way of saying look at this! So is tweeting. So, I guess, is writing fiction.
Selby McRae: Marketing Coordinator asks…
What did you learn about your writing going from short stories to novels and back to short stories? What drew you back to short stories?
There was a time in my life when I wasn’t sure I’d ever write a short story again, because I had started writing novels and I am fundamentally a lazy person and the fact is that a novel is a lazy person’s form, really. That is: you can amble, you can digress. You can let your attention wander. Your mistakes are better disguised, I think. A short story requires more work, somehow, more attention, and a collection of short stories is that much more, times 7 (or 9, or 12). There is no such thing as a perfect novel, but I can think of dozens of perfect short stories: I just knew I wasn’t capable of writing one myself. So I wrote a couple of novels, which I published, and then a couple of novels that didn’t work out. Michael Ray, an editor at Zoetrope All-Story, started asking me for short stories. He asked, I wrote one, he asked for another, I wrote another—really, I was a cartoon mouse lured out by cartoon cheese. And I remembered what I loved about writing short stories, even if I knew I wasn’t writing perfect ones: that sudden flash of light that (you hope) illuminates everything that goes before.
Benjamin Dreyer: Vice President, Executive Mangaing Editor, & Copy Chief asks…
Are you a tinkerer? Or do you find that once you’ve finished a story you’re apt to leave it alone unless, say, prodded by an editor or copy editor?
Oh, I’m a terrible tinkerer. I need people to slap my work out of my hands. I don’t much (as some writers claim) spend hours putting a comma in only to take it out, but I fiddle with word choice, I try to make the characters gesture in a more interesting way, I cut and cut and cut. And I love copy editors. I love line-editing, even if I don’t agree with the edit. The thing that most interests me about writing—there are lots of things, but the thing I can’t do without—is the hit of happiness a lovely sentence delivers. I mean that as a writer or a reader. People who are compelled by sentences are my people. I take their advice, or take great pleasure in explaining why I think they’re wrong.
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