Elizabeth Crane’s stories read like twenty-first century fairy tales, except instead of mermaids and dragons, the stories in Turf, Crane’s latest collection (released by Soft Skull Press in June 2017), are populated by characters like selfie-obsessed “star babies” and an unusually tall woman living on the bottom shelf of a big-box store.
In the tradition of the fairy tale, Crane uses the weird and sometimes fantastical to disguise her commentary on a wide range of contemporary anxieties, stretching from the economic to the environmental.
When I spoke with Crane in early June, she was in Palm Desert, where she travels twice a year to teach at the low residency MFA program at University of California, Riverside. We talked about how living in Manhattan, Chicago, Austin, and, mostly recently, Newburgh, New York, shaped her stories, and how the collection came to be.
The Rumpus: Writers oftentimes have a keen sense of place. Is that true for you?
Elizabeth Crane: One of the things that inspired the collection was just how much I’m affected by where I live. Especially after going to Texas. Everybody loves Austin, and Austin is a cool city, but after Chicago, I just was like, I’m not vibing home here. I didn’t feel it, and I understood why people did, but I had just left the place that I loved.
Rumpus: These stories have to do with the idea of personal space and identity in relationship to space. How did you feel the story “Turf” epitomized the collection as a whole?
Crane: In the sense that I thought it sort’ve broadly covered some of the things that I was trying to do. I mean, that’s what you try to do with a title, right? You either want to be subtle or, with a story collection anyway, broadly hint at what’s inside.
When I wrote that story, I was living in Chicago, and it made me think a lot about who gets claim to any given space, and what makes it yours versus mine or anyone else’s. But it seemed to be the best ballpark word that encompassed themes of place.
Rumpus: My favorite story in this collection was “Today in Post-Apocalyptic Problems,” where a woman and a man are trying to put their lives and their relationship back together after some sort of disaster has wiped out the entire grid. What was the apocalypse in the story?
Crane: Well, you know, it’s purposely not said. In my mind it was some kind of virus, plus running out of resources.
Rumpus: The couple takes in a baby who had shown up on their doorstep, and the baby, named Manny, eventually leaves them. Where did Manny go, and what kind of future did you imagine for him in post-apocalyptic America?
Crane: I mean, it’s really up to the reader, honestly, but my idea of Manny is that he and his little band of merry men are the future. They become naturally equipped to deal with this new world because they haven’t known anything else. I imagine them going off to create a new reality out of what was left.
Rumpus: The woman in that story is a writer who thinks her writing has seemed less pressing since the apocalypse. That’s a sentiment I’ve heard a few writers express since the 2016 election and the ensuing political chaos.
Crane: That’s so funny because I haven’t looked at that story since we finished editing, and I’m pretty sure I wrapped it up before the election. I mean, I definitely was working on it during the campaign, but the sentiment has been magnified even more post-election.
Rumpus: How have current events in general affected your writing?
Crane: As a reader, the first couple of months after the election I just was so sick that I couldn’t even read much of anything beyond the news. But it does seem like there’s an urgency to be useful and productive in whatever one does. And I would like for my work to resonate and be meaningful and matter in the world, because it seems like we need that. But that idea sort’ve contradicts my general philosophy about writing, which is that I just have to write what I’m moved to write, what interests me, and hope that it will resonate for somebody else out there, too, versus being motivated by an end point of some kind.
Rumpus: Have you read anything recently that felt urgent or that motivated you?
Crane: Some of the nonfiction I’ve been reading. I just read an advanced copy of Megan Stielstra‘s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. She’s incredible. She has some amazing experiences, but what she does with each piece really brings it home on an emotional level, on a political level, on a feminist level, and it felt like a book that matters.
Rumpus: The stories in Turf confront a lot of contemporary anxieties. There’s social media and economic instability and environmental disaster, but they’re so infused with humor and wit that they don’t feel heavy. Do you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist? How do you find a balance between the dark and the light?
Crane: Well, that’s really funny. Generally, somehow I feel like an optimist, but the percentage of half-full to half-empty is just slightly more full maybe. Enough to get me through the day, and in these trying times, you know, it’s hard.
Another book I’ve been reading is Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. She wrote it during the Bush era, and then it was reissued like a year ago, or it started going around again last year. I guess because so much of it is so relevant. But it’s exactly what it says it is. It looks at historical things and why we should have hope, why we should take action where we can. So I do feel hopeful. But I don’t feel hopeful we’re going to hold hands all around the planet.
Rumpus: Wouldn’t that be nice.
Crane: Wouldn’t that be nice! But I think life will always go on.
Rumpus: When were these stories written?
Crane: There might be a couple in there that are almost ten years old. Half of them are quite a bit more recent than that. I wrote maybe three or four of them last year. The apocalypse story was a more recent one. The title story was written when I was in Chicago.
Rumpus: What’s the difference between working on a novel and working on short stories?
Crane: It’s very different because stories are, you know, sometimes they take longer. For example, the apocalypse story was one I had started maybe five years ago, and I put it aside when I started working on the novel. But sometimes I’ll write a story in a week, and it’s good to go, and other times it takes much longer.
Rumpus: Do you ever sit down and just bang out a story in one day? Because I hear about writers that can do that, and it blows my mind a little bit.
Crane: Well, it doesn’t happen to me too often anymore. Weirdly enough, one of the very first short stories that I wrote, which is in my first collection, was done as a writing exercise when I had just moved to Chicago. I wasn’t really even writing much fiction at that time, and [the story] just spilled out. Then I had another story in that same collection that was longer, but I wrote it in just one straight sitting. But that does not happen all that often.
Rumpus: In these stories, you move between different voices. Some stories feel like they could be personal essays, or even diary entries, and others are narrated by a we. Who’s we? Is there a Greek chorus that lives in your head?
Crane: Each we is different. I mean, usually I think of it as one person speaking for the group and they’re all sort’ve in agreement. But it varies. In “We Collect Things,” I didn’t have one particular person in mind. It’s a like-minded group usually. Then, with “The Genius Meetings,” it’s the same kind of thing—an individual genius speaking for the group of geniuses.
In my first novel, first-person plural would come in. That one I definitely thought of as a neighbor, like an omniscient neighbor—someone who knows more than anybody who’s actually in the situation.
Rumpus: Sometimes the we is not omniscient. It admits a lack of knowledge.
Crane: Well, the title of the novel was We Only Know So Much. They have the ability to sort of get inside the characters’ heads, but they don’t know everything.
Rumpus: What do you think is the advantage of using a we over an I or a they?
Crane: I love first-person plural. I love reading it. I like having an extremely omniscient narrator, I think that’s really what it comes down to. Someone who knows things that they couldn’t know. But also, one of the things I like about the we voice in general is that it’s inclusive. Like, maybe you, too, are part of this we.
Rumpus: I try not to read all of your stories as autobiographical, but sometimes you just get that feeling, you know? Especially when your characters’ names are “Helizabeth” and “Hen.” What did you mean at the end of the first story when you wrote, “It’s still me. You know that, right? It’s always me.”
Crane: I think it’s a fair reading that that’s autobiographical. Obviously not the entire thing, because it goes around the world, but when she starts rambling about men in New York City and maybe her mom–I don’t know if her mom comes into it, but she always seems to come into it–but I’m playing, obviously. I mean, I haven’t lived through an apocalypse, but there might be sensibilities that I share. That neighborhood was based on my neighborhood in Brooklyn—that kind of thing. I think one reason I like fictionalizing these aspects of my life is because it’s more fun. It’s fun to take something real and then play with it.
Rumpus: Was the last story, “Notes for a Dad Story,” about your dad?
Crane: Yes, that was definitely about my dad.
Rumpus: Why was it so important for you to give yourself that space to write about your dad?
Crane: Well, my dad was sick and dying, and I wanted to remember certain things about him. In terms of family conflict, my issues are with my mom, and I’ve written a lot of characters based on her before. I didn’t have a lot of conflict with my dad; that is why the mom is always going to creep back into stories—to introduce conflict and interrupt, in that way. Otherwise it might just be a nice, boring story.