Department of English

Professor Elizabeth McCracken's new book is out and garnering rave reviews

Fri, May 16, 2014
Professor Elizabeth McCracken's new book is out and garnering rave reviews

Thunderstruck & Other Stories, English Professor Elizabeth McCracken’s fifth book, has been published by Random House, and has been receiving all kinds of great reviews – from the Los Angeles Times, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, Reader’s Digest, The Believer, Publishers Weekly (starred review), and Booklist, among others.

From the Chicago Tribune’s review: “To read Elizabeth McCracken is to understand why the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Award and other prestigious institutions have awarded her their fellowships, accolades and grants. . . . [Thunderstruck & Other Stories] is a hole you fall into, delicious, dark and deep.”

Professor McCracken took some time out of her busy end-of-the-semester schedule to answer some questions for us in her characteristically casual, humorous, and self-deprecating voice:

What was it like writing short stories again after working with novels for the last twenty years? Or did some of these stories originate as you were writing past novels?

The oldest story is pretty elderly—I wrote nearly 20 years ago, when I was working as a public librarian. I’m kind of a garbage disposal writer, in that I throw every dumb line, every image, every character idea into whatever I’m working on. At some point over the years it seemed like writing short stories required more organization than came naturally to me, kind of like sorting recycling. (Clearly I’m still not over the thrill of Austin’s one stream recycling.) Then I wrote a novel that didn’t pan out and—speaking of recycling—I realized I could repurpose some of the material into short stories if I broke it down pretty seriously. There are three of those short stories in Thunderstruck, and they have nothing in common. I think the stories that were first written as stories probably have more in common with each other than the ones that began as part of the same novel.

What does your writing schedule look like on a daily or weekly basis, or does it look different throughout the year? How do you balance your teaching and writing duties?

I am very, very bad at balancing the two, though I’m getting better. I don’t get a lot of work done during the semester, which is fine: I work long hours during semester breaks and over the summer. Once I’m off the semester clock, I change my EID password without looking at the keyboard so that I can’t get on the internet in my office (I’ve sometimes had to ask the Liberal Arts ITS team to save me because I’ve accidentally locked myself out of my computer itself), and I just hunker down. I’ve never been the sort of writer who got good work done on a daily schedule, particularly because I write really terribly in the morning. The imaginative part of my brain generally doesn’t wake up till 10AM at the earliest, even if I’ve been up for hours. 

Do you think your comparatively young but certainly popular and prolific Twitter presence has affected your other writing in any way – in style or approach? 

Well, I do love Twitter. Apart from the fact that I put a joke into a short story specifically because a Twitter friend was complaining about how often dogs picturesquely bark in literary fiction (EG, “Somewhere, a dog barked”) what Twitter mostly does is give me a place to offload bad jokes that don’t belong anywhere else. The thing about Twitter is that it gives you instant gratification—your audience is there and responds (or doesn’t respond, goddamn them!) right away. So I write a lot of stuff thinking about what particular people I know on Twitter like. I try never to do that while writing fiction. Maybe it’s just that on Twitter I can indulge the worst parts of my writerly soul. I pander, I pun, I demand affection.     

You used to work as a librarian. What is one thing you loved about that job? Also, do you have any thoughts on the state of libraries today?

Oh, I loved so many things. I actually really love strangers, one at a time. (I hate crowds, though.) I was mostly a circulation librarian, and I really loved seeing just about everyone who came into the library. I also loved having a job where every day I was given a series of small problems I could definitively solve. 

People who still work in libraries will be much smarter on the subject of libraries today than me—the great danger isn’t where people might think (the Internet, e-books), but in funding cuts.  A healthy public library is the most democratic of municipal services. Robert Frost says, in “Death of the Hired Man,” ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.’  That’s true of the public library, too. 

Have you read anything great lately that you think we should all know about?

A whole lot of excellent MFA theses. And I’ve read several books since the semester ended, which I’m weirdly enjoying having be an entirely amateur, private experience. That sounds awful now that I type it, but for some reason I’m going to hold onto the feeling of having read things under the covers, with a flashlight in my hand, at least a couple of books more.

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