The Art of Striving to Convince: A Conversation with Elizabeth McCracken
Elizabeth McCracken says this might have been a book of water stories. At some point during the time she was assembling this collection she realized there were quite a few stories about middle-aged people on boats, and for a time she thought she might lean into it. It’s hard to know how serious she’s being about this because while being an acclaimed memoirist, novelist, and short story writer, as well as a respected instructor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers (widely regarded as one of the top creative writing programs in North America), McCracken is funny and while she’s serious about the topic of writing, she is self-effacing when the topic is Elizabeth McCracken.
McCracken is the author of seven books. She most recently published a story collection in 2014. That book Thunderstruck & Other Stories, was longlisted for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize, an award that honors the author of a collection of short fiction.
Her new book, The Souvenir Museum, is a collection of twelve stories in which eccentric people experience the beginnings and endings of things: lives, marriages, relationships—and often in places that will make the reader ache for travel. It is true that some of these eccentrics are middle-aged and some of these places are boats but these stories don’t resemble one another. When the strands in these twelve stories are threaded together, the outcome is a collection that displays many of the possible colors of love and of loss.
Like her books, McCracken in person (that is, via Zoom) is warm and funny and enlivening, and as in a McCracken story, a McCracken conversation might lend more emotional weight to a puppet than an audience might expect. We talked about ventriloquial figures, the role of eye contact in teaching, and the complicated question of inspiration.
The Rumpus: What’s it like having a book coming out right now?
Elizabeth McCracken: I don’t know how you feel about these times but they feel so “one day at a time” to me and time is so bendy and strange that in some ways it’s almost imperceptible. I have so many friends who had books come out just about a year ago and I think that was much more uncertain and strange. You didn’t know whether anyone would notice that you were publishing a book at all. And I’ll be honest, I’m publishing a collection of short stories, in which case, even at the best of times, one never knows whether anyone will notice.
Rumpus: Perhaps this sticks out because of our circumstance, but this book really travels.
McCracken: When I was writing the collection I did not realize that it would seem like a form of science fiction by the time it came out. The older I get the more likely I am to think about writing short stories almost only when I travel. I have my life in Texas where I’m teaching every day and that feels like novel time. When I travel I quite often think—I’m going to make a short story out of this.
Rumpus: Are you starting to think about the characters that might be in those stories when you’re there, in the place?
McCracken: Sometimes I think while I’m there and sometimes at the end of a trip I look through things. The thing that has changed the most for me in my years of writing is my understanding of how “event” works in short stories. The things that occur. I’m not sure why that is. So, I do think, I need some events for a story. And it’s not that it doesn’t matter what the events are; they have to be interesting. But they don’t have to be meaningful to me. Then, when I put them into a story, they have to be meaningful to the characters. Sometimes it occurs to me who the people are and sometimes not for a long time. The story that takes place in Amsterdam—it was a year before I wrote a story with those events. It’s one of five stories in the collection that are about the same characters and that was the last story I wrote for the collection.
Rumpus: Do you find the eccentric characters who populate your stories out in the world and then write stories around them, or are they spun from whole cloth?
McCracken: They’re not based on anybody. There are quite a few anecdotes that the stories take from my own life, so it felt more important not to make the characters based on anybody.
Rumpus: I thought maybe somewhere in your life you had encountered a ventriloquist.
McCracken: The children’s performer on the boat is a pretty lifelike rendition of a guy who I saw on a ferry. But truthfully, I feel like I do not have the particular skills that it takes to base a fictional character on someone I know well. Some people are incredibly good at that. I am liable to take someone who I met once, or saw once—I never had a conversation with that children’s performer—I have done that without qualms. And I feel guilty about the fact that I took that guy!
The idea of trying to turn someone that I know well into a character feels impossible to me. Whatever that distillation is.
Rumpus: Impossible because you don’t know that you could do it well or impossible because you would be worried about offending them no matter what you wrote?
McCracken: Both. But particularly the first one. I also marvel at people who write autobiographical stuff about themselves that’s very close to them. There are people who I know and I read their stuff and I think, That’s an accurate portrayal of who you are; how did you do that?
Rumpus: There are five stories in the collection that feature the characters Jack and Sadie. Was the plan always to have a relationship between those five stories?
McCracken: This is what happened, and I’m sort of embarrassed: I signed a contract for a collection of short stories with my wonderful publishers, Ecco. I was working on something else in the summer of 2019 and we were traveling and I got back to Texas and was starting my semester and I got a note from my editor, checking to see if I would still deliver my collection at the beginning of November. I thought I had a bunch of short stories, and I couldn’t be that far away. I put them together and discovered I had only eighty-eight pages of short stories. I literally thought I had most of a collection of short stories. Somehow, without noticing, I started writing shorter short stories. I had five stories, my last collection had seven or nine, and so I was fairly panicked. I never write all that well during the semester and I realized that I had to write about five stories. I knew the only way I could write five stories in such a short period of time is if I used the same characters. That was my artistic decision. That’s what happened.
I have such complicated feelings about the question of inspiration. I’m not somebody who writes every day. It works for a lot of writers but not for me. I’m going to sit down and write two thousand words today. I’m going to sit down and write three hours today. So, sometimes I have to work myself up into a frenzy in order to actually get things done.
Rumpus: Well, it worked.
McCracken: It seems miraculous to me. If you had talked to me in December of 2019, I would have said that there is no way for me to finish this book.
Rumpus: Can I ask about the puppets?
McCracken: I have a lifelong love of ventriloquism and ventriloquial figures. I have a membership for the International Organization of Ventriloquists. I have no talent for or interest in doing it. I’ve written for the New York Times Magazine, off and on for the last twenty years, for their year-end issue “The Lives They Led,” and the year before last it was about Jimmy Nelson, who was an American ventriloquist. I spent a huge and very happy time watching tons of videos of ventriloquists. The lady ventriloquist [in the story “Splinter“] is not based on a ventriloquist named Terri Rogers but her look is taken from Terri Rogers. She’s amazing.
Rumpus: Do you know what about it appeals to you?
McCracken: Ventriloquism? It’s not that far from fiction writing. You make artificial people and you try to make them as lifelike and full people as you possibly can. I’ve always liked puppets. I like imitation a lot. I like replicas, things that are imitating other things. In the project I’m working on now I sent a character to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at the plaster casts of great art. I find plaster casts very moving and strange, even though they’re just duplicates. There’s something about the art of striving to convince that feels very personal to me. It’s also really hard, good ventriloquism. I like that kind of thing. That there’s a lot of bad versions of a thing. Unconvincing. But then when you see someone who’s convincing it’s so strange and engaging.
Jimmy Nelson, one of the reasons he was famous was that he had a record you could buy to teach you to do ventriloquism and one of the things is that you have to think the letter B while saying the letter D and I’ve tried that many times.
Rumpus: I tried that when I read it in your story!
McCracken: Did it work for you?
McCracken: Me either.
Rumpus: You teach writing at UT Austin. Has teaching writing changed anything about your own writing?
McCracken: It really has. It used to be I was quite stubborn on this topic. I used to say that I teach and I enjoy it and I write but they’re very separate. I was talking to an interviewer when my last collection of stories came out and I realized that I feel with short stories particularly, teaching has changed the way I think about them. Largely because I spend so much time telling my students, yes, you can do that, yes, that’s allowed, and also reading stories that I think are quite good but would be more thrilling if the writer didn’t feel constrained. At some point, it would be more thrilling if it didn’t feel so constrained worked its way into my own head and I think it really changed the way I wrote short stories and made me less worried about them doing things that stories should do. It made it easier for me to write them.
I took this job in 2010 and if you’d asked me then, I would have said I was just a novelist. That I had written a first collection of short stories and then I wrote a novel and now I was a novelist. And besides failing terribly at writing a couple of novels, I then started writing short stories again. I think it’s because I’ve been teaching regularly and teaching short stories.
Rumpus: And then with the online aspect, your approach to teaching had to change in the last year?
McCracken: I finished up teaching an undergraduate workshop in the spring of 2020 and now I’m teaching a novel-writing workshop to graduate students, which I was worried about but I think is not badly suited to Zoom. It’s the being able to look people in the eye that I miss. Has it changed? I shout more. I treat every Zoom call as though I’m calling the International Space Station. I’m doing the thing that a lot of teachers are doing, which is being much more forgiving or understanding. It’s a very hard time to do anything. But largely, my graduate students who are writing novels have gotten a huge amount of work done, which is interesting to me. My advice to young writers is always to make friends with the hardest-working writers you know, because you will strive to keep up with them.
The other thing I’ve been amazed by is these are all novels that these people were meant to write. They’re all invested, ambitious, complicated. Some people, and I’m occasionally one of them, like to give themselves assignments. If you think, oh God, I have to write a book now, but you don’t have something you’re particularly invested in, you might give yourself an assignment. And then you’ll write two hundred pages but it’s not work that really means something to you. When I read for fellowship programs or graduate programs, I always think the thing that makes a manuscript rise to the top is not language or skill; there are a lot of people who are good writers who apply to MFA programs. It’s the people who are writing about things that are important to them. There are a lot of people who, at that age, don’t write about things that are important to them. One of the things that I’m struck by, with the novels in class this semester, everyone is writing a novel about things that are really important to them.
The other big way that teaching has changed my writing life is that I’m now old enough that I have really wonderful relationships with successful writers who used to be my students and that’s really moving. I was thinking about Yiyun Li, who was my student a long time ago and I read her book Must I Go. And Paul Harding and Asali Solomon (who has a new book coming out in the fall). I’m close to a lot of students but there’s a sense of inappropriate pride in other people’s accomplishments.
Rumpus: How do you make the decision which type of project, short story or novel, to approach next?
McCracken: It’s a bit ineffable. It used to be, if I was working on a novel and had any kind of idea, I would try to get it into the novel. And now, I have an idea and I think, that’s a short story, I’ll write it later on. One of the things that I just recently realized is that my novels are all historical and my short stories tend to be contemporary. I don’t know why that is. It’s not a conscious decision. I really wanted to write a novel that is contemporary. But continually, I think of an idea that’s contemporary and then I get interested in what happened before, and then the novel ends up being about what happened before. Whatever I imagined is the present day is too thin to hang that story on.
Rumpus: You’re quite an online presence these days. Do you find you get anything out of that?
McCracken: I do get something out of it! It’s really Twitter. I have an Instagram account and for a while, early in the pandemic, I was taking pictures around my house and writing little things about them and then George Floyd was murdered and it was this awful and important time, and I thought, I’m going to stop now. But Twitter, I really enjoy Twitter. On a basic level, I used to be a public librarian and I would hear about new books when they got returned and Twitter functions like that for me. I hear about books that are going to be coming out months ahead of time. I bought The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett because I saw some early review and thought it sounded it really good. And then, which without Twitter would never have happened to me, I had read and loved the book that everybody else read and loved.
I like making jokes with people; I like short-form jokes. I get my news from Twitter. It sometimes exhausts me. I don’t carry a smartphone with me. This is my day-to-day phone. [Wields phone] It’s a Samsung Gravity. Their smartphone is a “Galaxy.” But this is a Gravity. [Laughs] I love the internet and if I had it in my pocket I would never get any writing done. If I had a smartphone, I would just drift to it. All of my engagement with social media is on my laptop. I have no natural self-discipline. All of my self-discipline comes in artificially. I can’t work on a laptop on which I can also start watching reruns of The Drew Carey Show.
Rumpus: I’ve read that when you are writing novels you reads novels, when you are writing stories you read stories. Were there books you returned to while writing this collection?
McCracken: I reread All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones. Edward P. Jones is my favorite living short story writer and a great reminder of not being constrained by what you think short stories ought to be able to do. He does absolutely everything.
Rumpus: In the last year, have you found your reading habits have changed at all?
McCracken: I did just finish Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography and it is phenomenal. She’s a visual artist, she has spina bifida, and both the book and her paintings are about bodies in a way that is just really moving and strange. The Vanishing Half was my first book of the pandemic. I remember lying across my bed and it was the first time I fell into a book during the pandemic.
Photograph of Elizabeth McCracken courtesy of Elizabeth McCracken.