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Interview: Elizabeth Crane

Elizabeth Crane's story "Turf" appears in the September 2009 issue of The Collagist. She is the author of three collections of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot, All this Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has also been featured in numerous publications, anthologies and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award, and her work has been adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater company, and has also been adapted for film. She currently teaches at UCR Palm Desert’s Low Residency MFA program.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Turf"? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?

I’m not sure there’s ever much of anything on my mind when the writing is going well, kind of the opposite, but the inspiration was a real-life incident that I thought had story potential.

2. You've made a choice in this story to render all of the proper names of people and places here strange by replacing their first sounds with the letter "H," resulting in a story set in Hicago, where the "two main characters… are the dog walker Hulie and the dog owner Helizabeth." We've debated the reasons for this choice, and the best I've come up with is that it’s a way of both acknowledging the real life roots of this story—characters seemingly based on yourself and your husband Ben both appear in the story—for instance. Is that the main reason for the Hs, or is there something else I've missed?

I think you basically have it right, I of course intended for my own name and parts of my bio to be recognized, and I felt like I’d kind of seen enough writers flat out use their own names in fiction that I wanted to put my own spin on it.  Mostly I was having fun; when I wrote it I thought this device was hilarious, not just the idea of cloaking it in this really obvious way, but even just the goofy sound of the words with Hs instead of whatever they’d be. Very often, just the sound of words put together in a certain way can be a pleasure for me.  Afterward, as is often the case, I wondered if anyone would think it was funny or if they’d just be annoyed.  Which seems to be a risk I’m always interested in, walking that line, and I’m sure I don’t always succeed, but it sure is fun when I’m writing.  Also, I think, the actual drama seemed so heavy to me when I wrote it that I thought maybe the humor of the Hs would balance it out a little.

3. Despite the obvious similarities in character and setting to your real life, I wouldn't presume that the story itself is necessarily close to any factual occurrence. Is it actually based on a real life experience? If so, how far did fictionalizing it take you away from the facts?

The dialogue is as close as I could remember, although in the story it does say that this took place over nearly an hour, which it did, so other stuff was clearly said in real life that’s left out. It should go without saying that I had to completely invent the personal life of the woman I based the dog walker character on, because all I knew of her was just the barest external facts.  Also, my dog is not purple. He's blue.  And I don't watch Grey's Anatomy.

4. Structurally, I'm intrigued by your choice to suspend the narrative of the story in favor of an extreme amount of character building and background. The sentence "Okay, so now we’ll finally move on to the story part of the story" appears approximately 1900 words in, over halfway through the piece. Most of the time, this kind of frontloading would result in a failure to launch, and technically, I think this story could still succeed if all of it were cut away (not that I'd want it to be!). I merely point this out because this is one of those clear examples of where a workshop or writing group might demand cuts, but where not following rules results in a richer, more satisfying experience. What about this particular narrative demanded this kind of unusual structure?

Here’s one part of the answer – I rarely think about the structure of a story before I write it.  It’s very instinctual; at some point I go, “Oh, look, this story seems to be in the form of an outline,” let’s see what else I can do with that, and then, it either works or it doesn’t (believe me I have lots of shelved stories that didn’t, for one reason or another).  The other part, the reason I was motivated to write the story, was to try to get to know her character, to look beyond what I was judging in real life, to try see her more fully, to try to imagine how a person gets to be this way, maybe, maybe even to see her side of the story.  (And you know, chuckle, without actually getting to know her.)  Originally, I was also hoping to make it more balanced, to make her more sympathetic, and for Helizabeth to not necessarily be the one you like more, and I’m not sure I succeeded in that.  But I did write it honestly, so there’s that.  Also you pretty much nailed it with the not-following-rules.  When I started writing stories I hardly understood the rules anyway.  Ha.

5. You've written three collections of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter, all published within the last five years or so. Despite each book closely following the last, I'm sure you're able to see the ways in which your work has grown and changed since your first collection. How do you see the progression of your story writing since the stories in When the Messenger is Hot were written?

You always hope there will be growth as a writer, right?  Unsurprisingly, quite a few of the ones in the first collection were written some number of years before the book actually came out, and there were a few in the second collection as well that I had kept out of the first collection because I knew at some point that I was going to put together a collection about that one character.  Which is to say that they were somewhat more spread out in the actual writing of them.  Nevertheless, they were by and large written chronologically, and although I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and said, okay, what can I do differently this time, my interests in terms of subject matter are always changing, and that may dictate some change in the writing.  Also, after I used up all my childhood and horrible dating stories I had no choice but to get an imagination.  Ha.

6. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

Mostly stories, as usual.  I should have another collection ready before too long.

7. What great books have you read recently? Also, are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I’ve probably said this already, but Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter knocked my socks off, as did Mary Otis’ Yes, Yes Cherries. I have no idea what’s coming out soon.   Do you have suggestions?

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