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Author Profile | Elizabeth McCracken

For former Writers' Workshop grad Elizabeth McCracken, a whole new novel

Edward Carey

Elizabeth McCracken will read from her new novel, “Bowlaway” Feb. 7 at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.
Edward Carey Elizabeth McCracken will read from her new novel, “Bowlaway” Feb. 7 at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

The underpinning of Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, “Bowlaway,” wasn’t the intricacies of bowling or octagonal homes designed by amateur architects or even the Great Molasses Flood of 1918 (though she admits she’s long wanted to work that real life disaster into a story: “And all of a sudden I realized I could. And that was a very happy writing day”).

“Bowlaway” started with the names.

“My grandfather was a genealogist. He was also a classics professor and he taught for many years at Drake in Des Moines. I went through the genealogies and I tried to find the most interesting names I could ... I made a list of names and I thought about what sort of characters those names conjured up,” McCracken said in a phone interview from her office at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches.

She met two key characters fairly quickly.

“The two names that happened pretty early on were Bertha Truitt and Leviticus Sprague. I looked at those names and I knew that they were married and then began to think about them,” she said.

Truitt and Sprauge are foundational to the story, but a generational novel like “Bowlaway” requires a large cast. Her list of names continued to serve her well, as did the very idea of genealogies.

“But I thought about the characters for a long time before I started writing and then I started adding in the other characters. And sometimes I would just look at my list of characters and go, ‘Oh, Luetta Mood. That is a great name for a character,’” she said. “I wanted the names to sort of suggest who the characters might be. I knew that I wanted it to feel — because I started with a genealogy — I wanted it to feel sort of genealogical. It was always going to be over several generations and it was always going to be about questions of genealogy and who was related to who — without that being a quest a character went on to solve. I wanted it to be confused and blurry in the ways that genealogies are often confused and blurry.”

The idea to center the story around bowling — and specifically candlepin bowling, which varies from the tenpin bowling — came from a bit of homesickness.

“I’m in Texas and I really miss New England and I was kind of thinking about the most New England stuff possible. So while I was still sort of fiddling around and thinking about the names, I was thinking about wanting to write about this weird variation on bowling, which when I was kid did not seem at all weird to me. It was just how we bowled.”

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McCracken did a lot of candlepin bowling — with its smaller balls, thinner pins, and three balls per frame — growing up in Massachusetts.

“I was a regular bowling, but a terrible bowler … I have a couple of trophies that are the kind of trophies you would get if you were a really bad bowler … My neighborhood candlepin bowling alley was a place I hung out a lot; it was the first place in the neighborhood that got video games. So it was an interesting place.”

Her interest in bowling continued, even during her time as a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (when I first met her as a student in an undergraduate writing class she taught) — though there were no candlepin alleys in Iowa City. “For a while I got serious about tenpin bowling. I bowled at Colonial Lanes in Iowa City more than once. I had my own bowling ball, which I think I sold at a yard sale, but I still have my own bowling shoes that a friend gave me around that time.”

Bowling wasn’t the only thing she enjoyed about her time in Iowa City.

“I had a great time at the Workshop. And there are three particular reasons why that was true. One is that I had Allan Gurganus (whose novel “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” was released to great acclaim around this time) for my workshop teacher my first semester, which was an unbelievably lucky break for me because he’s such a brilliant teacher. He was so generous but also rigorous as well. He wanted us to be as ambitious and precise as we could be … He’s just one of the smartest and most generous human beings on the planet. And that set me up … Because he was my first teacher, in many ways when I think back on my experience, what I think about is Allan’s class.

“I also was lucky to fall in with a group of friends who were lovely human beings, wonderful writers, and also — and this seems like a miracle to me — fundamentally non-competitive with one another … I certainly bumped into the competition that the Workshop is famous for, but it didn’t get its fingers into me in any way and it’s because I had these lovely friends.

“And the last thing was, you know, my mother was a native Iowan and my grandmother and my first cousin twice removed … were … in Des Moines. I went to Des Moines once a month, which meant I had a lot of material, but also it felt like home to me in a lot of ways.”

The quirky characters for which McCracken is known for aren’t too far removed from her experience of family life.

“When I was in graduate school, probably about the time you and I met or maybe the semester before, a friend of mine gave me a ride to Des Moines and met some of my family and came back and told my friends, ‘You all think Elizabeth doesn’t write realistic fiction, but I’ve met her family.’”

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“Bowlaway” features a full ensemble of eccentrics. McCracken pushes back against the notion that this is out of keeping with reality.

“Definitely, this book has a higher incidence of eccentrics and peculiarities than anything else that I’ve written, I think. But I’m never drawn to the statistically average — in life as well as in writing … I do think that real life is much, much stranger than we sometimes think it is and that many modern depictions of it lead us to believe.”

Her characters often have something to hide — or something they feel the need to hide.

“It’s true that I like major and minor frauds,” McCracken said. “I always like to read stories about such people. And I am interested in family secrets — not necessarily in a scandalous way — but just how people change themselves as they move away from a family and how that can trip them up as well.”

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