Writers can be a cagey lot, rarely answering questions about which of their short stories or novels is their favorite. But ask them about their favorite characters, and they’re likely to open up.
One of Eudora Welty’s favorites was Daniel Ponder in her novella “The Ponder Heart.” He’s a dim but generous man who was so spoiled in his childhood that his parents let him roller-skate on top of the dining room table, just like Tom Thumb in the fairy tale — a scenario that always made Welty laugh in her later years.
Austin writer Elizabeth McCracken, who’s a big fan of fairy tales, too, says that one of her favorite characters is Miss Porth, the narrator of the short story “Some Terpsichore,” which is part of McCracken’s new collection, “Thunderstruck and Other Stories.”
It says a lot about McCracken’s wit that she picks this particular character, who meets a stranger, Gabe, while she’s singing Gershwin’s “Summertime.” They fall in love almost immediately after he describes her as a singing marvel — a “human musical saw.” And it’s no coincidence that Gabe makes a living by playing a real saw.
Miss Porth knows that many people might reject her singing as a mere novelty act. But she figures that life with Gabe is worth a shot and says: “What’s love at first sight but a bucket thrown over you that smooths out all your previous self-loathing, so that you can see yourself slick and matted down and audacious? At least, I believed for the first time that I was capable of being loved.”
Although far more accomplished and happily married than Miss Porth turns out to be, McCracken knows all about love at first sight, too. It happened to her at a book party at Barnes & Noble in New York in 2002. That’s where she met her husband, the British-born writer Edward Carey, and within a few weeks, they were a couple.
A Boston native and the daughter of two academicians, McCracken began the life of an itinerant writer, moving with Carey to various U.S. and European locales before coming to Austin’s Hyde Park in January 2010. That’s when she accepted a joint appointment in two writing programs at the University of Texas: the Michener Center for Writers and the New Writers Project.
It has turned out to be a good fit. “She is a fabulous, dedicated teacher, and the students worship her,” says James Magnuson, the director of the Michener Center. “She really is remarkable.”
McCracken and Carey have two children, a girl and a boy ages 5 and 6, and the family appears to be settling in for the long haul. “It’s a good gig,” McCracken says, “and Austin is an interesting place to live.”
Just last week, they moved into a new house in Hyde Park. “Our first house was very small. Our new house is just small,” McCracken says, with her trademark self-deprecation. And as she is prone to do, she chronicled the personal event via Twitter on Tuesday: “Good morning. Today I’m moving …. A week from today I’m @BookPeople in Austin. Come watch me at the latter (I’ll smell better).”
A varied career
It’s not easy to describe what kind of writer McCracken is because she has written short stories, novels and a memoir. But critics have responded well to her writing. She was a finalist for the National Book Award for her first novel, “The Giant’s House.” She also was honored for writing a Notable Book of the Year by the American Library Association for “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry”; received the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for “Niagara Falls All Over Again”; and her memoir, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” received rave reviews from numerous magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. In short, she’s one of Austin’s best writers.
While McCracken’s books survey a wide range of topics, it’s probably safe to say that much of her writing has the distinct flavor of a sophisticated, adult fairy tale.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” McCracken says when told of the assessment. “I love fairy tales. I remember being fascinated by them. And I really do think the fairy tale overtones of my writing have to do from reading so many fairy tales as a kid. They are so loaded in my head that I do it automatically.”
Take, for instance, the 1996 novel “The Giant’s House,” which features multiple instances of “Once upon a time” phrasings. The book deals with a lonely librarian (a job that McCracken once held) who starts falling in love with a very tall, inquisitive boy who regularly visits the library and is growing at such a rapid rate that he becomes more than 8 feet tall as an adult.
“It’s autobiographical and also fairy-tale-ish,” McCracken says. “My father was 6-foot-3, and my mother was 4-foot-11, so questions of scale were built into my childhood because of my parents. And then of course in fairy tales there are so many questions of scale: Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk.”
McCracken’s first collection of short stories, 1993’s “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry,” features a memorable goblin-like fairy tale character, Aunt Helen Beck, who barges in on an unsuspecting — and unrelated — couple and announces that she’s Aunt Helen Beck and that she’ll be staying for a while.
“My grandmother had an aunt named Aunt Mary George, who was really tall and had all the qualities that are described about Aunt Helen Beck,” McCracken says. “And she was always referred to as Aunt Mary George.”
And in the new “Thunderstruck” collection, the short story “Property” focuses on an academic who has just lost his wife and is trying to rebuild his life by moving to a new place and renting a home from a rather irritating landlord, who won’t even acknowledge the man’s mourning. The subject matter doesn’t seem anything like a fairy tale. But then the grieving main character utters this sentence: “You couldn’t believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.”
Such references to characters just come naturally, McCracken says. “I’m always trying to write a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen,’ and always failing completely.”
Love and loss
Nearly all of the stories in “Thunderstruck” deal with love, loss and death. And that’s probably not surprising since it’s McCracken’s first book since her 2008 memoir, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.”
The heartbreaking true tale begins like this: “Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)”
The opening of the next chapter gives the details: “A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is stillborn. You don’t have to tell me how sad that is: it happened to me and my husband, our baby, a son.”
McCracken then details the months leading up to the baby’s death on April 27, 2006, in rural southwest France, where she and her husband were living at the time. She says that she’s writing the memoir because she “will always be a woman whose first child died, and I won’t give up either that grievance or the bad jokes of everyday life. I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on but that death goes on, too, that a person who is dead is a long, long story.” Then she adds: “I’m not ready for my first child to fade into history.”
She also notes that a “baby is born in this book, too. That is to say, a healthy baby, our second child. … That second baby — a biological fact lying across my lap asleep at this very moment as I type one-handed — was born one year and five days later in Saratoga Springs, New York. Not a miracle, I insist on it.”
McCracken says that she wrote the memoir when Gus, her second son, was a couple of weeks old. “I wrote the first draft in about three and a half weeks, and I never write that quickly. But I needed to get it done, and it was not a book that I was going to work on for years,” she says.
“I didn’t tell anyone, not even my husband, that I was writing it, and that was just in case I thought if I didn’t do anything with it, I could just put it away.”
But her husband, Edward, was the first person to read it, of course. “I told him I was thinking about showing this to other people, but I wanted to know his reaction. His response: ‘Yep, that’s what happened.’ He didn’t give any literary feedback about it,” McCracken says with a laugh. “Then I sent it to my agent, who is really wonderful. And basically what I said to him was, if you think this is any good, and if you think it would make a good book, call me. If you think there are good moments in it, but that it will take a lot of revisions, then I won’t publish it. I’m not going to revise it a lot.”
But the agent liked it, and he passed it along to several editors.
McCracken says that most people were “really great about the book,” including her British father-in law, who thought the memoir “gave us a chance to talk about what happened.”
“One of the nicest things that has happened to me about that book is that I’ve had a lot of notes from people who have been through the same thing,” McCracken says. “They say it’s a handy book that they can give to people who want to know how they’re doing. And I wanted to make the point that people should talk about such things when they happen,” rather than pretend that sorrow isn’t present, like the landlord does in the short story “Property.”
Not everyone was receptive to the notion of a book about a child’s death that didn’t end on an upbeat note, with “life lessons learned, and that kind of thing,” McCracken says. “One editor said, ‘You know, we were just looking for closure.’ And I said, ‘There’s one thing I’ve learned: that closure is (expletive).’”
In telling the story about the editor, McCracken says she isn’t dismissing self-help books about the subject. “There are definitely books about what you should do after something like this. And they’re very helpful to people,” she says. “But I’m not a self-help person. I read Chekhov for self-help.”
The new stories
McCracken doesn’t shy away from death — and the death of children — in the new collection.
The opening story, “Something Amazing,” focuses on a young girl, Missy Goodby, who lived on the outskirts of Boston and died as a child. The neighborhood children believe her ghost “sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”
The children don’t feel particularly sorry that Missy is dead, since she “bit when she was angry and pinched no matter what. … They remember the funeral they were forced to attend after she died, how her mother threw herself on the coffin, wailing, how they thought she was kidding and so laughed out loud and got shushed.”
Afterward, the grief-stricken mother retreats to her home, boarding up Missy’s room and retreating from the world, much to the dismay of her son.
But as the Goodby family deals with its loss, yet another family across the street is about to lose a son.
Similar themes play out in “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston,” which begins: “Once upon a time a woman disappeared from a dead-end street. Her name was Karen Blackbird.”
The story continues with how her son is left alone in the house with his grandfather, who has put a lock on all the kitchen cabinets and is literally starving the kid to death. So the kid goes to the neighborhood Hi-Lo Market and tries to steal some food, only to be caught by a character who is referred to only as the Hi-Lo Manager, just like Aunt Helen Beck is always referred to with three names.
The Hi-Lo Manager calls the cops and has the kid taken away, but the boy lands in a foster home and eventually returns to his hometown. And the Hi-Lo Manager, who has become fascinated with the case of the boy’s missing mother, has convinced himself that he has a special connection to the family — that the boy’s loss is also his loss, and that the boy will thank him for helping “rescue” him.
The manager, however, is clearly delusional. “The poor guy,” McCracken says. “I know I’m rough on him. But I do have a soft spot for the Hi-Lo Manager.”
Then there’s the title story, “Thunderstruck,” where an American family vacations in Paris, only to have their teenage girl seriously injured when she falls from a building during a surreptitious nighttime date.
Despite all of this sadness, McCracken manages to mix humor and empathy into her stories, and readers will probably be surprised at how deftly the stories work.
“The good thing about short stories is that they’re not all that marketable,” McCracken says. “I honestly think it would be more of a problem if it were a novel. For a novel, there are expectations. … But short stories are read, for the most part, by people who are OK with sad stories.”
Then she adds with deadpan wit: “Yeah, it’s not that interesting to write about a well-adjusted child whose parents love her.”
For McCracken, such stories operate as a kind of release valve. “Parents sometimes think of all the things that can go wrong. But most of the time, you need to not be thinking that way, wondering whether they could fall off buildings,” she says. “If you put it in your fiction, you can keep it out of your life, I like to think.”
She says she and her husband, who has an illustrated book titled “Heap House” coming out this fall, are actually quite optimistic. “We’re sort of laid-back,” she says. “We’re not hovering or asking our kids to put on a helmet when they’re walking across the room. We really are nice people. We put our neuroses in fiction and keep them away from our children.”
McCracken’s earlier books
“Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” (1993) Turtle Bay Books, $20: A collection of stories, highlighted by the title story, in which a peculiar woman who goes by the name “Aunt Helen Beck” shows up at the home of a surprised young couple and announces that she’ll be staying for a while.
“The Giant’s House” (1996) The Dial Press, $19.95: A lonely librarian in a small town on Cape Cod, Mass., is smitten by an “over-tall” 11-year-old boy who seeks her advice on reading, and over the years, a loving relationship develops as he grows to be more than 8 feet tall. This debut novel was a finalist for the National Book Award.
“Niagara Falls All Over Again” (2001) The Dial Press, $23.95. This novel about a pair of vaudeville comedians explores the strong but quirky relationship between narrator Mose Sharp and the overweight Rocky Carter.
“An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination” (2008) Little, Brown, $19.99. This touching memoir details how McCracken and her husband, the writer Edward Carey, ended up living in rural France in 2006 and how in her ninth month of pregnancy, she lost her first baby.
“Thunderstruck and Other Stories”
The Dial Press, $26
McCracken will speak and sign copies of her new book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
About this story
Austin is home to a multitude of acclaimed writers, and American-Statesman books editor Charles Ealy is writing about some of them in a monthly series called Literary Austin.