Small Talk

June 20, 2014 6:38 pm

Q&A with author Elizabeth McCracken

‘Do I keep a diary? I used to, but I only wrote in it when I was upset. That seemed like a bad legacy to leave behind’

Elizabeth McCracken was born in Boston in 1966. A former librarian, she is author of a collection of short stories, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, two novels, The Giant’s House (shortlisted for a National Book Award) and Niagara Falls All Over Again, and a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. McCracken holds the James A Michener chair of fiction at the University of Texas in Austin, where she lives with her husband and their two children.

What book changed your life?

The Guinness Book of World Records. I mean that earnestly. It was the book that taught me that the world was full of passionate, peculiar human beings.

What is your daily writing routine?

I wish I had one. I’m a higgledy-piggledy person, in every way. On days that I work, I work for eight hours in a row, with my internet access entirely turned off, locked in my office.

What music helps you write?

None. I’m astounded by people who can listen to music when they write. I can only assume that they have multi-track brains, while mine is decidedly single.

Who would you choose to play you in a film about your life?

Buster Keaton. There’s no resemblance, and he’s not available, but I’d still like it. I would also like to sit next to him at a dinner party, and be stuck in a lift with him.

Where do you feel most free?

In airport bars.

How do you relax?

In movie theatres.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My father once said, when we were trying to decide whether to order a bottle of wine or individual glasses, “Prudence favours the bottle.” I don’t know whether that’s the best piece of advice but it’s certainly the one I quote most often. My mother told me never to do anything for the principle of the thing – that is, don’t dig in your heels for an idea if it won’t do anyone any good at all. That’s pretty good, too.

Do you keep a diary?

I used to, but I only wrote in it when I was upset and then the sentences were terrible. That seemed like a bad legacy to leave behind.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

My God, I’m so acquisitive, it’s hard for me to pick only one. But I think I might choose Christian Schad’s “Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove”.

Which book do you wish you had written?

The Collected Stories, by Grace Paley.

What are you most proud of writing?

A couplet from a poem called “Love Song for a Librarian” in my first novel: “Although her love for me is infinitesimal/ her eyes are as Dewey as any old decimal.” In my second novel in an invented patter song I rhymed “battle-ax” and “Cadillacs.” I am prouder of bad jokes and asides than I am of anything else.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

In the last century, I earned my living as a librarian, and I loved it. I’d have to take some classes to get up to speed with 21st-century librarianship.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

I have children, and this notion – that there might be a single book that introduces children to literature – terrifies me. But you could do worse than Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. I loved it as a kid, and my kids love it, too.

Elizabeth McCracken’s latest book, ‘Thunderstruck & Other Stories’, is published by Jonathan Cape

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