Life Without Coffee Would Probably Suck: An Interview with Elizabeth Crane




IF YOU’VE READ Elizabeth Crane, you already know that she’s a master of play. Since I discovered them in my MFA, her stories and novels have knocked me out with their irreverent energy and unashamed vulnerability. Crane is an author who reminds you of what it was like to create things before you knew there were rules. She generates new forms to suit her needs, and this makes each of her books feel like both a personally curated album and a conversation with a close friend. Her writing is delightfully wry, yet it also cuts deep into the scars we all bear: those from our upbringing, our connections to the places we’ve lived, our romantic entanglements, and our regrets.

Crane’s latest collection, Turf, is no exception. From the absurdity of celebrity to the inconveniences of the apocalypse, the author writes characters who search their communities and the world at large for assurance that they’re going to be okay. Life, in Crane’s work, is strange and plagued with worry, but it is also strangely beautiful. Not every author is brave enough to own up to the autobiographical subtexts of her fiction. But Crane peeks in, acknowledging her reader. “It’s still me,” she writes, “you know that, right? It’s always me.”

We caught up over email about Turf, storytelling as defiance, and the infinite possibility of grocery stores.

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HEATHER SCOTT PARTINGTON: Your stories are weird. Good weird! And not just “Justin Bieber’s Hair in a Box.” In this collection, especially, they start in the realm of opportunity and then subtly whittle down to some very vulnerable feelings. In “Everywhere, Now” and “Notes for an Important American Story,” you catalog many possible plots before focusing on your characters’ most private thoughts. Is this how you’ve always written, not just exploring possibility but allowing your reader to see that? Does the impetus to write like that come from a particular influence, or is that just a very Betsy thing?

ELIZABETH CRANE: Can I just answer this by saying that I love interview questions that I don’t really know the answer to? By which I mean, for sure, now that you’ve put it this way, possibility is something that interests me; I have far more in the way of questions than I ever do in the way of answers, but pursuing different possibilities within any given story can lead to answers, if that makes sense. I can’t point to an influence on this particular thing, since I didn’t really know I was doing it until you pointed it out, so yes, this time let’s say, Totally, it’s all me.

Your novel We Only Know So Much employed a first-person plural narrator, and that pops up here in several stories, too. Often it’s done to introduce doubt into the story. In “Stella’s Thing,” your narrator interjects to say, “Anyway, this wasn’t that long ago. So we really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Probably this won’t be the rest of her life. Does it have to be?” I wondered: Were some of these stories written as you were also writing the novel? Were you exploring first-person plural? Could you talk a little bit about what first-person plural means to you as you’re writing it — a group of narrators? Sometimes, as the reader, I have the sense that you’re speaking from a narrator, in an inclusive group with the reader. I wonder how you feel it as you write it.

A couple of the stories in Turf were actually written before that novel, but not any of the first-person plural ones. But I have come to love it so much, since writing that novel, that I have to resist the urge to use it in every story I write. I find it can have a couple of different purposes — in We Only Know So Much, I always thought of that “we” as a sort of group of semi-omniscient nosy neighbors to this family, or the kind of gossipy friends who have better guesses about why you act the way you do, or about what’s in your head, than you do, and that’s a bit of the vibe in “Stella’s Thing.” But then in a couple of the other stories in Turf, the “we” is much more of a distinct group — a group of geniuses, a group of people who collect things, a group of people who know where time goes. And in those stories, I was aiming to use it for a balance of inclusion and exclusion — we welcome you to our group, but we have guidelines.

What does the short story form offer you? Is there something you wish more of your MFA students knew about writing stories? This is your fourth collection, so what have you found to be true about yourself as a writer as you’ve assembled each successive collection?

I love reading short stories, and I do find that the form is more flexible for me than a novel in the sense that, though yes, there are plenty of great, well-known experimental novels out in the world, I know that when I’m writing my weird stuff, I feel less concerned that my particular brand of weirdness will wear out its welcome in a shorter space. I also think it’s just plain harder to sustain good, less traditional storytelling over a couple hundred pages than it is in a short story. That said, The History of Great Things was pretty nontraditional, but more or less the whole time I was writing it I was thinking, “I really hope this is not too annoying or confusing.” I confused myself writing that book.

The only thing I wish is that more of my students wanted to write short stories! But you know, I think you should all write whatever you’re moved to write, really. Four collections in, all I really know is that I still have a lot of fun writing them, that they allow me to explore things I think about that might not call for 200 pages but can still have a great deal of impact within their smaller space.

Can you talk a little about how you ordered the collection, and what you chose to include? What’s the narrative that the stories make together? I know you did a lecture recently about assembling a collection; I’d love to hear how you built Turf. 

I do try to open a collection (very sort of loosely) with a story that might speak to the ones that follow — in this case, “Everywhere, Now” tries to show ways people all around the world are connected, and I hope that the rest of the stories, set in several different locations, continue to explore that idea. It’s a subtle link, and initially when I was writing these stories I was thinking a lot about place — where we live and where we feel like we belong, or don’t, and why. Order is sometimes tricky, and in this case I was aiming for some small thematic link from one story to the next, but for sure, I also want to open and close with something that might offer a real emotional impact.

Both “Star Babies” and “The Genius Meetings” feel like efforts to capture absurd cultural phenomena that we take for granted: celebrities, or the exclusionary, patriarchal cult of self-professed genius. “We do not expect you to understand,” the narrators say in the latter. Your stories force us to look differently at the givens in our lives. Is there a thing in the world right now that is nagging at you? Or, I should say, one you want to take on in a story?

Oh lord, the entire world is nagging at me right now, to a daunting degree, so creatively I try to keep it a little smaller. But having reread a couple of these stories recently for events and such, it’s interesting to see how my worldview can seep into stories (subtly, I hope) that aren’t aiming to make political statements, necessarily, so much as they are, again, aiming to explore what’s behind why all of us behave as we do, poorly and not — and now and again that does have some overlap with shit that’s going on in the world. And of course, as has been pointed out by more than a few people, if my creative writing students created a character like the one currently occupying our Oval Office, I would say, okay, this was interesting for the first couple pages, but by page 40 this guy is still acting like a buffoon day after day, in a way that is just not believable. All this to say that anything I might end up writing that’s set in this era would only ever be about some specific way that this affected ordinary people. Also, this wretched nightmare of a true story isn’t over yet. Yet I do find it hard to think about anything else right now.

Roland Barthes said: “Literature is the question minus the answer.” I have agreed with him for a long time, but as I read Turf, I was thinking that the short story form is much more open to questioning, where novels tend to answer questions more definitively. Does that resonate with you? This felt like your most questioning collection, too. Like, Betsy wonders “what if?” Thoughts?

It does resonate. “What if” is at the front of some significantly greater percent of the questions in my head on a daily basis. What would it be like to live in that house? What would it be like to be that person? You know, what would it be like for someone a lot like me (who has maybe spent some good time contemplating what seems like a real possibility of life without the energy resources we’re used to) if the apocalypse hit? (Alternate title: “Life Without Coffee Would Probably Suck.”) And both my novels began with what-ifs — my original idea for We Only Know So Much, when I thought it was going to be a short story, was: What would it be like if there were a family whose members existed so much in their own heads that they almost never had a conversation with anyone else in their family? Which could have worked in a short story but in a novel left me without a lot in the way of, you know, scenes. And with History, the initial question was: What if I could sit down with my (dead) mom and try to work a few things out? But you’re right, there is probably a bit more called for in the way of answers or insight for some of the characters in the novels than there is in the stories. Too many possibilities, to bring it back to that. Even in a novel that has an ending that can be seen more than one way, I hope the reader has the feeling of a satisfying resolution, even if it’s not tied in a bow, which will definitely never happen in anything I’ll write.

I am glad I’m friends with someone who writes about how the grocery store can make you feel like you’re going to be a better person. Like, “Here I come, fancy cheese.” In “Roosters,” your narrator also says, “Office supplies always make me feel better.” I read that and I’m like, also me. That story originally appeared in Rookie, right? I wondered if you wrote it with that specific YA reader in mind, or if you placed it after it was finished. Do you ever target your writing to a certain type of reader, or is such a thing even possible?

I didn’t and I don’t; I find it very hard to write anything with an audience in mind, because I’ve never had any good guesses about who besides me will be interested in the odd things that interest me, and so my hope is always, just as you have said here, that I’ll write from my heart and someone will read it and think that exact thing you did. But after I wrote that, for whatever reason I did think of Rookie as the first place to send it.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that “creativity is an act of defiance.” As a dancer, I felt like that defiance existed in improvisation, defying the adult resistance to play. Turf is a particularly defiant collection, in that you play on the page — and allow your reader to see how freely you do so. What do you think makes people resist that impulse? Are you resistant? Where does your bravery to play come from?

Oh, wow. I appreciate that. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about my work in this exact way, but I love seeing the word defiant here, given that I have a long history of conflict with the good-girl status conferred upon me in childhood. It took me a while to figure out that I was actually allowed to put things on the page as they were sort of naturally in my head, versus my early (pre-publishing) efforts to sound more … formal. Because at that point I wasn’t reading too much nontraditional fiction. Only after I started getting my hands on stuff that was more kind of out there — Ali Smith, as an example — did I realize I’d been trashing the stuff that could have been good in favor of prose that was more straightforward. I was going to say careful, but I’m actually very careful. (In my defiance!) I would imagine that if anyone is squashing their more playful impulses, maybe they’re thinking about selling more books to more people? I dunno. I think writing should be fun. I mean, not easy, just fun. At least some of the time. For me the risk doesn’t usually feel brave — it feels more like, I do what I want and worry about people reading it later, usually after it’s too late to change my mind.

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Heather Scott Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, California.


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