Strange Interludes: Author Elizabeth McCracken, at Augustana College March 13 Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 05 March 2008 02:01

Elizabeth McCracken The literary works of author Elizabeth McCracken include a novel about an unusual romance between a 26-year-old woman and a boy 15 years her junior; a period piece exploring the 30-year friendship between two vaudeville performers; and a short-story collection that includes tales of a wife who allows her tattoo-artist husband to use her body as a canvas, and a man who grows his hair irrationally long so his comatose spouse can cut it upon her awakening.

So when McCracken, during a recent phone interview, says about her current undertaking, "I'm working on a novel about a strong woman," one might understandably assume that the author has now decided to tackle more mainstream subject matter. That would be a false assumption.

Unlike, say, Hillary or Oprah, McCracken's strong woman is a literal strong woman - "like a professional lifter," she says - and the author's decision to write about such a seemingly unconventional protagonist is in line with McCracken's literary credo, which she expressed while a student at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop: Write something strange.

"I still think that's good advice, truthfully," says the author, who received an MFA from the Writers' Workshop in 1990. "You're more likely to surprise yourself if you write something strange. And when writing is going well, they [characters] surprise me all of the time."

McCracken, the author of 1993's Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry: Stories, 1996's National Book Award finalist The Giant's House: A Romance, and 2001's award-winning Niagara Falls All Over Again, will appear at Augustana College on March 13 as part of the school's guest-author series "Lit Wits" - appropriate considering how oft-used the word "wit" is in reviews of her works.

Reviewing The Giant's House, the online magazine wrote that "McCracken has wit and subtlety to burn, as well as an uncanny ability to tap into the sadness that runs through the center of her characters' worlds," and regarding Niagara Falls, Publishers Review stated, "Any doubts that McCracken could not equal the inventiveness, wit, and quirky imagination of her first novel ... will be dispelled by this relentlessly eventful, rollickingly funny, and heartwarming narrative."

After receiving a BA and MA in English from Boston University, McCracken was accepted into the University of Iowa's legendary program, which the author considers both a professional and personal blessing.

"I certainly had heard of its reputation," she says of the program. "But my mother is a native Iowan, and when I was thinking about graduate schools, let's just say that my little Yiddish grandmother was pulling really hard for me to go to school near her. She lived in Des Moines at the time, and I had a great experience not only being in the program, but also being close to relatives for the two years that I was there."

Eighteen years after receiving her MFA, McCracken is currently back in Iowa City as a visiting professor for this year's Writers' Workshop, following in the footsteps of such inspirations as longtime workshop director Frank Conroy, who passed away in 2005 - "an amazing presence and teacher" - and Allan Gurganus, the best-selling author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

"I had Allan as my first teacher at the workshop," she says, "and he was just unbelievable. Very exciting. He assured us that writing fiction was the most fun that you could have in the world, and strangely enough, we believed him."

While in the program, McCracken worked on the stories that would compose her Here's Your Hat collection, and upon its publication, the Library Journal wrote that "although McCracken has filled her stories with a cast of oddballs, she has created such compelling lives for them that she moves beyond our curiosity to gain our sympathy." (The anthology was eventually placed on the American Library Association's "Notable Books of 1994" list.)

However, rather than embarking on a full-time writing career post-graduation, the author instead went back to school - to Philadelphia's Drexel University, where she earned a master's degree in Library Science.

"I loved library work," says McCracken, who was employed at a Massachusetts library from the ages of 15 to 22. "And I knew that I wanted a steady job, and that I wanted a job that I could do and then leave at the office. Come home and write without worrying about how the day had gone. I loved - and still deeply love - public libraries."

Elizabeth McCracken McCracken's re-immersion in library work also led to the creation of Peggy Cort, the Cape Cod librarian at the heart of The Giant's House. In the book, the lonely, introverted Peggy falls in love with an "over-tall" 11-year-old who eventually grows to over eight feet, and inspiration, for its author, came not only from librarians but from a work that had fascinated McCracken since childhood: The Guinness Book of World Records.

"I just loved them," McCracken says of the famed reference book's inclusions. "I mean, I loved the people who ate the most curried beans at the end of a toothpick, as well as the world's tallest and fattest and oldest ... you know, just everybody. I loved them all."

And the love that McCracken extends to her fictional eccentrics and oddities has not gone unacknowledged. The same year that The Giant's House was a National Book Award finalist, the celebrated literary magazine Granta named her one of America's "20 Best Writers Under 40"; in 1997, she was given the Harold Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters; she's received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Michener Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts; and in 2001, Niagara Falls All Over Again earned for its author the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum's distinguished PEN/Winship Award.

In addition to amassing accolades, McCracken's works have been the subject of frequent book-club discussion, which their author admits "is a little bizarre. It's also a dearly wished-for outcome, although truthfully, I'm happier not knowing what they say."

Married to fellow novelist and instructor Edward Carey, McCracken says that living with another writer is "especially fun" now that she's back at her Writers' Workshop stomping grounds, "because we're both teaching, and we spend a lot of time, when we come back from teaching, discussing what we think about the work that's been discussed in class."

They're also new parents to a 10-month-old son, August, although readers shouldn't expect him to make a literary appearance à la her librarians and Guinness Book subjects any time soon, as McCracken laughs and says, "I'll grant him his privacy for a little while longer."


Elizabeth McCracken reads from her works at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 13, in the Wallenberg Hall of Augustana College's Denkmann Building. For more information on the "Lit Wits" series, call (309) 794-7823.

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