The World of the Book: Talking with Elizabeth McCracken

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The story of candlepin bowling is one of secrets, spooks, and love according to novelist Elizabeth McCracken in her forthcoming novel, Bowlaway, out February 5 from Ecco. When Bertha Truitt is found abandoned in a cemetery in Salford, Massachusetts, no one has any idea what to make of her. Not Joe Wear, the watchman hiding in plain sight. Not Leviticus Sprague, the refined doctor whose race makes him an anomaly in Salford. And certainly not the townsfolk, who dream discomfiting dreams of Bertha. Nevertheless, she integrates herself into the town, opening a candlepin bowling alley and proclaiming herself its inventor. Her mysterious appearance will haunt several generations of Truitts as the bowling alley passes hands from the early 1910s and nearly through the century.

In McCracken’s hands this sprawling timeline shrinks and bites, with poetic lines that dissect warring human emotions with precision and delicacy. Take, for example, McCracken on being falsely accused: “The way falseness made you doubt yourself, it deformed your very shadow, the grammar of your soul.” It’s delightful to watch McCracken play with time, incorporating real events into the lives of her characters, like the deadly Great Molasses Flood that brought Boston to a stop in 1919. These tricks of time help us to follow a family whose fate in inextricably linked to New England’s most New England sport—candlepin bowling.

Recently, we discussed

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The Rumpus: At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I wanted to ask you about incorporating the Great Molasses Flood into the novel. It’s a personal fascination of mine. Could you talk about why you included that in there and why that was so important to you?

Elizabeth McCracken: I’m from the Boston area. There are a lot of little things in the book that are inspired by my great love of books like The Book of Lists and The People’s Almanac. I can’t remember whether that’s the first place I read about it, but I also remember hearing about it when I was growing up in Boston. For years, I’ve had a photograph of the aftermath that my friend gave me. It’s one of those things that I’ve put into things and had to take out because it had nothing to do with anything, which is unfortunately part of my process. I was delighted to suddenly discover that I was writing a book where it made sense to put it in. Henry Dunow—who is my agent and a dear friend—when he read it, he thought I had made it up. He wondered if I had made up that and candlepin bowling, because he’s not a New Englander. In those cases I was delighted that somebody could think that I had made up such things, and then was almost even disappointed that I had not.

Rumpus: I started with the Great Molasses Flood because I’m curious how you create this world that’s fictional and a little whimsical, but still incorporate all these historical details. Do you feel beholden to the history attached to some of these things?

McCracken: I definitely did for the Great Molasses Flood. I’m one of those people who have to go back and realize that my characters have aged twenty years, but only ten years have passed. But somebody came up to me and said, “This molasses flood, does it have to happen in 1919?” and I said, “Yes! Absolutely, that is not something I’m willing to fudge.” I read a great book on the Molasses Flood called Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo, who describes where the various aid stations and mortuaries were located. It was important to me that I got that right.

One of the reasons I’ve always been interested in it, besides the fact that it’s strange, is that in the Boston area, it has attendant myths to it. It was said that in the 1960s on hot days, you could smell molasses because it was just so caught in the bricks and the cobblestone of downtown Boston. And that also on horse hooves and carriage wheels, the stickiness was carried as far as Worcester. I just love those details that seem sort of natural, but almost immediately felt legendary.

Rumpus: This book is such a New England type of novel. I was wondering about the research you had to do for this novel because it spans so many decades.

McCracken: Part of it is that I am a New Englander and I feel very New England-ish. I now live in Texas, which makes me feel like even more of a New Englander than I ever have before in my life. Originally I thought of setting the book in Somerville, Massachusetts, which is where I lived for about nine years, and I felt very constrained by history. I kept thinking, “Would this be possible in Somerville at this time?” The minute I decided to make it an imaginary city, I felt much freer. I wrote a book that was about vaudeville and the movies, and then I was really obsessed with getting everything right, because it happened all in actual places. With this book, I can’t remember how long I tried to make it an actual place, I just remember the thrill of making it imaginary.

Rumpus: There’s a point in the book when the narrator says of Bertha that she’s “the oddest combination of the past and the present that anyone had ever met.” This seems to apply to the book as well because you have characters like Dr. Sprague and Joe Wear, where you have to walk this line of balancing these older attitudes against a contemporary readership with newer ideas. Was that a challenge for you at all? 

McCracken: I don’t think so, only because I don’t think I thought of it as I was writing. There’s a huge amount that when I’m writing that happens on a subconscious level. I try to, as much as I can, plunge into the world of the book. There’s a lot of stuff that ends up coming out in the book that I didn’t—I mean, I did put it there purposefully in some way—but it wasn’t sort of an intellectual exercise to get it in.

Rumpus: Are you really regimented; do you keep notes in a notebook that you return to, or does it happen more loosely?

McCracken: For this book, the process went differently than any other thing I’d written. I worked really long hours when I was able to, and I also wrote this faster than any novel I’d written before. I wrote the first draft relatively quickly and then I kept revising it. To me, that helped with being able to access the subconscious. When I say draft, I mean I typed it over and then if there was a part of the book that wasn’t working, I would type that part over and over, so that revision process felt like writing.

Part of it is that I knew less about what was going to happen in this book when I started writing it than almost any other novel I’ve ever written. I simply started writing it and then figured things out as I was going along. So, the first draft ended up being sort of the plan for it. There are some things that are the same, but there were more characters initially, and the ending was different and really quite bad. I wince to think of the corny thing I did at the end of the first draft.

Rumpus: I read that you liked titles and titling chapters and such so I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about settling on the title for this book.

McCracken: It was one of those things where I came up with the title, and then I had to go back and change the name of the bowling alley. Originally, [the alley] was just called Truitt’s all the way through. Because this is a book that has been so overstuffed with stuff, that I imagined it was going to have a wordy title, but none of the ones that I came up with were any good. I liked the idea that [Bowlaway] sort of explained the setting of the story from the beginning. But I also like the fact that it’s a weirdly dreamy name, and that there are bowling alleys called “Bowlaway” across the country.

Rumpus: I didn’t know that!

McCracken: For a while, I went to Amazon to see when the book would be up, but the thing that was for sale was a vintage match book for a bowling alley called The Bowlaway that would come up instead, which I found very pleasing.

Rumpus: What, initially, kind of sparked your interest in bowling and why did you think it would be a good vehicle for this story?

McCracken: Often I like having a bit of material to wrap a novel around. Part of it is to do research and part of it is to have an anchor, so I knew I wanted to do that. I love reading both giant, multigenerational sagas and novels that don’t have that, but I feel like I could wander for a long time—forever—in a draft if I didn’t have some sort of bit of material at the heart of the book. Also, I always like having a one-sentence answer when somebody says, “So what’s your novel about?”

I bowled as a kid, and I knew that I wanted to write a very New England novel. It really feels like there is little that is as New England as candlepin, especially because people still play candlepin bowling in Massachusetts. I like the idea of writing something that regional.

Rumpus: It seems like your revision process is quite demanding, so I’m wondering how you decide what actually needs to be there. Are there ever any tensions that arise between you and your editor where you have to fight for something to be included?

McCracken: Historically, I have. But this book, I haven’t, partly because I’m less precious—or maybe I’m better at leaving things out? I can’t say. When my work does something strange that I can’t quite intellectually justify, I try to trust it anyhow. There are things that might be hard for me to explain why they seem essential to the book, but I feel that they are. There was a lot originally—and maybe there one or two sentences residually left—in which Dr. Sprague was a very prolific painter. There was going to be a giant retrospective of his work at the end of the book, and I understood why I was taken with the idea, but that it didn’t have anything to do with what happens in the book. Part of it was that I enjoyed describing a bunch of different paintings, but I also really loved the idea of—and maybe one day I’ll write about it—every now and then you’ll hear about a large collection of a previously unknown painter. I really liked the idea of writing about that. I think I read a newspaper article about such an artist while I was working on the book and I thought, “That’s great! I’ll cram that in!” But I knew after I had already written it that I could neither intellectually nor emotionally justify keeping it in there.

Rumpus: You mention that idea of an artist retrospective for a later novel, but I was wondering how you keep these tidbits straight about these historical stories and weird myths.

McCracken: I’m one of those writers who has many, many notebooks with the first three pages are full and then I forget about them. I mostly take notes when I’m working on something continually, but a lot of the stuff just cycles back in my brain. Like I said, I had wanted to write about spontaneous combustion and the Great Molasses Flood for years now. I had wanted to write about fire, in general. I guess I’m a literary pyromaniac. I like writing about this stuff even if it has nothing to do with the book and I finally got it in a little bit in this book.

Rumpus: I’m wondering what the impetus is for putting all these very real, but very strange situations into your fiction. It doesn’t feel like you’re inserting it into the story as an aside, but that you’re incorporating them into your world.

McCracken: [Laughs] Why do I insist on doing that? Is that the question?

Rumpus: I suppose!

McCracken: Part of me has always felt that real life is intensely weird and much weirder than people sometimes give it credit for. I’ve always been interested in that both in fiction and nonfiction. I went to graduate school in the late ‘80s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and even though my friends didn’t write basic things that you would think of when you use the words “minimalism” or “realism,” one of the models of what we passed around to each other was domestic minimalism, amazing stuff. I love Raymond Carver’s work, for instance. But I remember even then thinking that realism seemed to me to be a spectrum and not one thing, though when people used the word realism, they were usually attaching it to a writer like Carver or Updike. I think the late ‘80s were a time where there was an idea—not to the people I went to school with and certainly not to many of my teachers—but, this notion that a story looked a certain way and any way that you stepped away from that was like a deviation in a weird way. And I’ve always been interested in deviation and deviance, so…

Rumpus: I do like what you’re saying about realism being a spectrum because there is something very real about your work, but it also feels really whimsical and young, like it’s approaching reality with fresher eyes. Do you ever feel other people influencing in your work or other trends in your work, where you have to take a step back and kind of re-attune yourself to that type of approach to realism?

McCracken: Like anybody, I’m a writer of my time. I love it when people say, “Who are you influenced by?” and you get this chance to mention other writers that you love. But actually, nobody really knows what they’re influenced by and how strange things make their way into your work. I think there are very few writers who are not influenced by everything they read and ingest, whether it’s the highest-minded art or the ads you read on the subway.

Rumpus: Who did you envision the narrator to be?

McCracken: So, I never think of a third-person narrator as a who, but always as a what. When I was in a philosophy class as an undergrad at Boston University, the teacher once referred to God as a “gaseous invertebrate” and I think of my third-person narrator as being a gaseous invertebrate. My students can tell you that I sometimes get quite exercised when people talk about third-person narrators as though they are people, in terms of what the third-person narrator knows or feels. They can go places, they can see things, but I don’t think of them as believing things in the way that human beings do.

Rumpus: There’s something weirdly creepy about the entire novel. You talk about this, all these bits of fascination, but were there any other characters you had a lot of affection for? Or were there any you found more difficult to write?

McCracken: I have a lot of affection for Joe Wear, who was really a quite minor character in early drafts. I ended up putting a lot more of him into the book. And I mean, I like ‘em all. The character who I had the hardest time writing was probably Minna. That was partially because in early drafts of the book a lot more happened away from the bowling alley, but I realized that the book didn’t work when it was away from the bowling alley. The whole thing that I knew about Minna was that she wanted nothing to do with the bowling alley. She felt quite elusive to me because I needed to get her back to the bowling alley at least once and she didn’t want to go.

Rumpus: I’m going to attempt a last question, which is kind of like that “who inspires you” question, but more specifically, do you have any suggested reading or supplementary materials one might think of as accompanying this book? This is a very selfish question on my part.

McCracken: I feel like I have often tried to write something that has the feel of those black and white cartoons from the 1930s by the Fleischers like Betty Boop but also related and I feel like this book is the closest I’ve gotten to that. Something that’s both dark and jolly and kind of scary at the same time.


Alana Mohamed is a writer and librarian from Queens, NY. She has published work in the Village Voice, Longreads, and Slate. She is currently a Research Resident at BuzzFeed. Find her on Twitter @alanamhmd. More from this author →