A Conversation Between
Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken
Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co–owner of Parnassus Books.
Ann Patchett: What did you want to be when you grew up? I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, but answer it anyway. When you were Gus’s age, Matilda’s age (Elizabeth’s children are, at this moment, eight and six), did you have any vision of yourself in the future?
Elizabeth McCracken: Do you know: I don’t think so.
I have a memory of my fourth–grade self wanting to be the first woman president of the United States, but I think that has a lot more to do with my love of world records and reference books than a love of serving my country. It seemed a goal I could attain: surely by the time I was old enough to run (2001), the country would be ready for a woman president. If I were the first, I would be in reference books forever.
I’ve always been absolutely appalling about the future, but I sort of think that was my childhood religion. We were future deniers. You did your best in the present, which was all around you.
AP: Being a big believer in the present would be especially beneficial to the short story writer, both in terms of the story itself, because stories tend to focus in on the moment in which everything changes—-I’m thinking of Helen’s accident in “Thunderstruck” or the murder in “Juliet”—-but also for the writer and the reader. Novels are so dependent on the future, they take so much time, but even if life is overwhelming a person can usually find time for a story, whether it’s to write one or to read one.
EM: Hmm. I’m turning this over in my mind and, yes, I think so, though I’m always a sucker for short stories that play with time in a novel–like way: that jump into the future or climb into the past. (I’m thinking of stories by Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones.) I certainly think that my short stories these days are fixated on the present, on happenstance, on event, in a way that my older stories weren’t: the plots of my older stories were mostly fixated on the past. This isn’t an artistic decision: my life these days, and for the past decade or so, has been more shaped by the present, by happenstance, and by event than it used to be. I definitely believe that the ends of short stories are about the future, and generally the ends of novels aren’t.
AP: Do you ever think, I want to write a story that takes place in real time or happens backwards or covers a huge amount of time? I think about the movement of time constantly when I write novels, I’m obsessed with it.
EM: Your novels are all different timewise, aren’t they? And yet all page turners. I feel like I don’t understand time in novels, really. I bumble forward, is all. As far as stories go: I keep answering this question differently in my head—-Yes, No, and Who can remember? My old stories often took place over long periods of time, largely because in those days that’s what plot was to me: time passing. Even now I don’t think I could write a story in which the most important things all happened in a relatively short period of time: I need those trap doors to the past. I certainly feel like I can do things with point of view in stories—-point of view being, in some ways, just another way to bend time. Or to put it another way: it’s not that I wouldn’t do the same sorts of things with point of view in a novel, but before I started I would have to work out some sort of philosophy with point of view. In a short story, I do what I do. It does feel more elastic. Years ago, Bruce Holbert told me that coaching basketball was largely a matter of saying, “No, don’t stand like that—- Nice shot.” With technical things in short stories, that’s how I feel. I don’t care about formal perfection, or philosophy of form, or anything else.
That said, I am working on a story now which began because I wanted to write a story that was sort of inside out.
AP: The reason it’s good to have your friends conducting interviews—-
EM: Have we mentioned that we’re friends?
AP: No, we haven’t. This is all a fix. We’re old friends. But that’s helpful because friends know things that professional interviewers do not. For example, I know that three of the stories in this collection—-“Something Amazing,” “Some Terpsichore,” and “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”—-were once chapters in a novel you were working on. The novel didn’t work out, but you were able to go into the pages you had and make three very significant stories out of the characters and situations that were there. I think this is amazing. It’s as if the novel was burning down and you ran inside and rescued three stories. It took a lot of rewriting, and so I wonder, what was it like to rethink your own work in this way?
EM. It wasn’t that hard. Or at least, from this distance I don’t remember it being hard. I probably wept over the smoking wreckage of my novel the entire time.
What made it easier is that, for the first story, the wreckage was still smoking. I put away the novel at the very start of June 2005; a few days later Michael Ray, of Zoetrope: All–Story
, e–mailed and asked if I had a story for his fall issue. Oh, I thought, somebody wants some writing of mine! I was in bad shape over having walked away from the novel so I clutched at this: when I’m in bad shape work is generally the only thing that makes me feel better. I took a piece of the novel and wrote a story from it. “Wrote a story” and not “turned it into a story” because I changed so much, including changing it from third to first person, which (as I tell students who blithely suggest narrator changes) is not minor surgery. I sent Michael “Some Terpsichore” on June 21; he accepted it the next day, and saved my sanity.
I think it took me another whole year to write another story from the ruins of the novel, and two more years for the third. I needed that much time between stories, I think: I couldn’t have done it all at once. I tried a fourth and it didn’t work; there’s still one plotline from the novel that I think about noodling around with, though if I did I probably wouldn’t actually look at what I already have written down.
Mostly, I think it’s a sign that the book wasn’t working as a novel. When I tell people there are three stories in Thunderstruck
that were from the same wrecked novel, they want to guess what they are. Nobody has. There are no characters or timelines in common. They’re structured very differently. A good novel wouldn’t have pulled apart so easily.
AP: It would be a great parlor game, different teams making cases for which three McCracken stories had once shared the same novel. So now you’ve published two story collections, two novels, and a memoir, and as far as I can tell you’ve met with universal acclaim on all fronts. Is there one form that you think fits you particularly well? Has it changed over time, and do you think it could change again?
EM: Oh, not universal acclaim. I can remember every bit of whatever the opposite of acclaim is.
AP: Why do we always remember the bad reviews? I can’t remember anything from my good reviews, but I could do a very moving one–woman show reciting my bad reviews.
EM: I could probably quote verbatim the first review I ever got, from Kirkus
. It was lukewarm and wounding.
Back to your question: now that I’ve been writing seriously for more than twenty–five years, I’m struck by how much does change: process, interests, habits. Fifteen years ago I thought I had mostly given up short story writing, but that’s because I’d come against the limits of what I knew about short stories. Fifteen years of reading and teaching, and I came up with some new things I could do. At the moment if you told me I’d never write another novel but I could continue writing and publishing short stories, I’d miss novels, but I’d find the trade–off acceptable. I think I would, anyhow. And if you told me I’d never write another memoir, I would embrace you warmly and say, “Yes, God keep me from memoirs,” because I would rather not have the material. You might feel the same way.
AP: I am nodding in passionate agreement here.
EM: If life gave me material for another memoir—-I hope it does not—-I’d probably write one. I certainly wrote that book [An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
] more quickly and with more confidence and with less revision than anything I’ve ever written. Sometimes I think of my pal Joshua Clover, who told me after I played a great game of pool when we were fellows at Fine Arts Work Center, “When a thing goes well, people usually see it as a sign to keep going, but sometimes it was their peak experience.”
Maybe someday I’ll write a novel with that level of confidence (by which I only mean, when I’d finished my memoir I knew for good or ill it had found its final form). Then I won’t write another novel.
So yes: it does change, and I bet it will change again.
AP: Fond memory: you and I were once thrown out of a bar for discussing Salinger’s Nine Stories
. It was the winter of 1990 and we were fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We’d stopped in for a drink and were discussing, very discreetly I thought, which of the nine stories was our favorite and how the book (a marvel of a book) was put together. The lounge singer told us over the microphone to take a hike. I loved that! The short story collection was so important you could get thrown out of a bar for even discussing it!
EM: Us getting kicked out of that bar—-I believe it was the Townhouse—-is one of my happiest Provincetown memories. My memory is that the lounge singer thanked us directly into the microphone for all the time it took us to leave: “Thank you, girls. Thank you. Thanks, girls.” You told me she was dressed like Julie London; I didn’t know who that was. I love that book. It’s the best short story writing manual I know.
And of course there’s a story in my first collection named after that night. We passed it one day and I said, “There’s the bar of our recent unhappiness,” and you said, “That would make a good title for something,” and we had a race to see who could write something for it first. That’s probably the only writing race I ever won against you, though admittedly I was writing stories then, and you were writing a novel for which it would have been a highly inappropriate title [The Patron Saint of Liars
AP: Which leads me to ask how you went about putting your collection together. Did you try it in several configurations? Was there a particular arc you were going for? I love the title story of this collection. Love it. It’s edging into novella country and certainly has novella heft. Stories that size are so hard to publish on their own. They really need a book. At what point in the process of putting this collection together did you write “Thunderstruck”? Did you want to have a longer story in the collection? I feel like it’s the book’s ballast, especially coming at the end. Did you ever read through the collection and think, What this is missing is X, and then sit down to write X?
EM: The fall of 2012 I had a semester’s leave, and I wrote hard and long and with intent. When I began the last thing, I knew it would be the title story, and I knew it would somehow be different than the others. The length of the story might just be because of the momentum of writing: I’d been well–exercised, and if it was the last story, if the spring semester was breathing down my neck, why save any compositional energy for later? At any rate, I knew less about that story than any other in the collection. Perhaps it was more like a novel in that way. Perhaps (for me) that’s the biggest difference between a story and a novel: how much I know ahead of time. It’s a bit unwieldy; I was thrilled that Story Quarterly
agreed to take it.
AP: So what about the X factor?
EM: I don’t think I wrote stories consciously thinking, The book needs this, or that, but when I was selecting I was pretty merciless. I kicked one story out because it was too similar to another one in the collection—-there’s a lot of peril to children in the stories but there was a limit to how many children I actually wanted to harm in a single volume. Others just didn’t seem good enough. There’s a story in my first collection that I don’t think is particularly good. (I think you know which one.) I didn’t want to do that again.
AP: Honestly, I have no idea. I loved all those stories.
EM: In Thunderstruck
I put the least realistic story first, since readers are the most open–minded in the first pages of a book, or at least their expectations are most plastic. After that, I arranged them so they would seem most various.
AP: I never thought about the fact that readers are their most open–minded in the first pages of a book! Such useful information, and it makes perfect sense. I once did a onstage conversation with Allan Gurganus (who was, at different times, a seminal and beloved teacher to both of us) and he said you should always put a color in the first sentence or two of a story or a novel because it encourages the reader to think visually. I said, Gosh, it would have been nice if you’d told me that when I was eighteen.
EM: Now I’m fascinated by the idea of Opening Pages Reader Hypnosis. Does this mean if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in the opening pages, it’s even better if the gun is fuchsia?
Your book recently won the Story Prize for the best collection of stories. It’s a wonderful award, and so well deserved. I love the fact that so many of the writers you adore, George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, Tobias Wolff, are among the previous winners. It’s the short story writers’ Hall of Fame. How do you feel about prizes? I know a lot of writers object to them, both to the competition and to the subjectiveness inherent in saying this book is better than that one, but as someone who owns a bookstore, I love awards. It gives me an excuse to put Thunderstruck
back in the front window with a big sign that says, She won! Buy the book!
EM: Oh, prizes. I’m not sure any writer could say, Prizes are entirely terrible! Prizes are entirely great! I’ve just finished reading applications for the two MFA programs I teach in, and I’m so aware of how artificial it is to choose one piece of writing over another, how much one’s own feelings about a writer change with the weather, the time of day, the nearest meal. It’s all a lottery. Bad books get prizes and terrific books are overlooked and what wins the prize one year or even one day wouldn’t the next. There isn’t yet a machine that tests for literary quality. A good thing, too.
But I would be disingenuous in saying that the Story Prize didn’t mean a whole lot to me. This is my first published book of fiction in fourteen years. I felt that in publishing it, I was tossing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, without any real certainty that anything would happen after the initial kerplunk
AP: A lot of good has happened. I feel like this is a book I needed to read.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Many of these stories center on someone dealing with extreme loss—-the death or decline of a child or partner. What are the different ways characters rise out of their grief? Similarly, what strategies does Elizabeth McCracken use to keep the book from being mired in tragedy?
2. In “Something Amazing,” we meet the ghost of Missy Goodby. What other characters in these stories could be read as ghosts?
3. In the conversation included here, Ann Patchett reveals that three of the stories were once part of a novel that McCracken ultimately abandoned. Can you make a case for any story trio or trios being part of a single narrative?
4. The homes that punctuate these stories are often run–down, seedy, sad, or scary, and always unforgettable—-Joyce’s house on Winter Terrace, Stony’s rental, the property in southern France, the Blackbirds’ Victorian. What role do the structures they live in play in the characters’ emotional lives? Discuss the relationship between “houses” and “homes” in this collection
5. Romantic love is not at the heart of this collection. Do you agree or disagree?
6. What is the role of travel in this collection? In what ways do foreign lands exist as fantasy for the characters, and in what way as reality?
7. What do you make of the end of “Thunderstruck”? Is Wes painting or is Helen? Discuss the interplay between the cynical and the miraculous in this story, and in the collection as a whole.
8. How do you interpret “Thunderstruck” as the title of the story? Which character is most “thunderstruck”? What about as the title of the whole collection?
9. McCracken is terrific at closing lines. Do you have a favorite? How would you describe the feeling it leaves you with?