Elizabeth McCracken wasn’t born in Texas, but we welcomed her as fast as we could. The author of two short-story collections, a memoir, and two novels, McCracken has been a finalist for the National Book Award, won the prestigious Story Prize for her short fiction, holds the University of Texas James Michener Chair in Fiction, and is associate director of the New Writers Project in the UT Department of English. Her first novel in eighteen years, Bowlaway, out February 5, is bringing in rave reviews from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and others. It stands toe-to-toe with any tall Texas tale, a character-rich, multigenerational story centered around a town’s candlepin bowling alley and the inimitable woman who opens its doors.
Texas Monthly: Bowlaway centers around the lives, loves, deaths, and goings-on of the patrons and employees at a candlepin bowling alley in Salford, Massachusetts. Where did the inspiration come from?
Elizabeth McCracken: Well, here I am, a New Englander in Texas. One of the things I like about Texans—and I like a lot—is their enormous self-confidence about place. I think, one way or the other, I see the word Texan every single day. We don’t have a similar word in Massachusetts, and I started to think about New England and Massachusetts identity. What’s more New England than a sort of bowling that we New Englanders grow up with and the rest of the country has mostly never heard of?
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TM: Reading the book is almost like reading a series of mini-novels. Which character or story came to you first? How did you begin?
EM: I used my grandfather’s genealogies for names: that was the first thing I did. The first names I landed on were Bertha Truitt and Dr. Leviticus Sprague (though in the genealogy he was The Reverend Dr., etc.). They came to me first, but I knew other people would come in, based on their names. I’ve never written a novel that way before, and I found it very liberating.
TM: The book opens at the turn of the twentieth century and covers several decades thereafter. Where did you turn for your research, and how did you decide how much of that history to include in the characters’ lives?
EM: The nice thing about writing about eccentrics (which is the thing I’m most interested in, as I come from a family of eccentrics—it’s my heritage) is that you don’t have to worry too much about how “a person of the time” would act. I researched the Molasses Flood, which I’ve always been obsessed with, and candlepin bowling, and I did read about black Canadians and African Americans in the early 20th century—I wanted everything to feel possible. But I didn’t use specifics as models. I’d written a research-heavy novel [before] that was based on actual people—two, actually—and it was freeing to try it a different way.
TM: This is your first novel since 2001’s Niagara Falls All Over Again. How has your writing life changed here in Texas, where the tales are, as we know, so tall?
EM: I think a lot of it has to do with seeing how Texans treat their own myths and historical figures. That certainly worked its way into this book. I also teach at the University of Texas, and just recently I realized how much that teaching has seeped into my work. I tell my students to try to write the things only they can write. I am trying to do the same.
TM: Zoetrope published a wonderful story of yours (A Walk-Through Human Heart) a couple of years ago set in a secondhand shop that I was delighted to recognize as a store on Burnet Road in Austin. Does Austin, the self-proclaimed city of weird, often find its way into your storytelling?
EM: I had such a good time writing that story. I also have written a story that’s about Galveston. I have a pretty hard time writing about a place that’s all around me. I live pretty close to the Elisabet Ney Museum, in Austin, which is one of my favorite museums anywhere: it’s the studio of a [German] sculptor who came to Texas and sculpted many great Texans of her day. She was phenomenally eccentric and brilliant. I think about that museum a lot: she made monuments, and now her studio is a monument to her. That notion is definitely in Bowlaway.
TM: You moved around quite a bit before landing in Texas, where you’ve been for almost ten years now. What keeps you here? Why has Austin and its literary community stuck?
EM: The writing community in Austin is patently wonderful. I knew a lot of writers whom I loved in Boston, when I lived there, but Austin feels more … dynamic? Maybe I only mean that people show up for each other’s readings! There’s the Texas Book Festival, first of all. I hate people and I hate crowds, and I love the book festival, which feels like an amazing magic trick. It’s also a town of great bookstores—ordinarily I think I would pledge allegiance to a single independent bookstore, but I go to BookPeople and Malvern Books and Bookwoman for different things and in different moods. It’s really a city of books, I think, as much as music. I’m ready to start a campaign.
TM: Who are the Texas writers you keep on your bookshelf?
EM: So many! One of my first graduate students at UT is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, whose Barefoot Dogs is one of my favorite books of the past few years, and takes place partly in Austin. My friend Mary Helen Specht, originally of Abilene, now of Austin, is a wonderful writer. Also: Sarah Bird, of course, whose work is so various and smart and funny, just like her person. And my colleague Oscar Càsares has a new book coming out in the spring, Where We Come From, which I can’t wait to read—he’s written brilliantly about the Texas-Mexico border for years. Also the great poet Harryette Mullin, who grew up in Fort Worth. My friend Cate Berry is a wonderful children’s author, and her books will always be on my shelves. I know I’m forgetting people, but I’ll just add Molly Ivins, of course and forever.
TM: If one wanted to tour the candlepin bowling alleys of Texas, where would you advise visiting? Any tips for bowling a perfect game or picking up that seven-ten split?
EM: The only Texas bowling alley I know is the estimable Dart Bowl in Austin, which I love. I’ve always wanted to go to the Blanco Bowling Club—it’s actually shameful that I haven’t gone—which has actual people pin-setting, and I’ve also always wanted to visit some of the nine-pin alleys in San Antonio. A seven-ten split is incredibly hard to pick up in candlepin bowling. My advice is to accept your fate and do your best.