The Elizabeth Crane Interview

Chicagoans, mark your calendar because after a slight delay (I know, I know) Funny Ha Ha is returning to the Hideout March 6! Enjoy readings and performances by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, filmmaker Steve Delahoyde, Perfect from Now On author John Sellers, sketch group Schadenfreude and columnist Mark Bazer, whose interview show debuts tonight (and I will certainly will be attending.) Don't miss it! Both our shows, I mean.

Also, I am looking for good ideas for what to give up for Lent, or good stories about it.

Today I interview a local writer (originally from New York) who has received rave reviews for her books When the Messenger is Hot and All This Heavenly Glory. She has a new book of short stories out, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, from Akashic books. I saw her read from it recently, and her story about a zombie named Betty who goes on a reality TV show tickled the brains and funnybones of those in attendance.

How did you get involved with Punk Planet/Akashic?
The super-rad Anne Elizabeth Moore approached me long before I had a book finished and said we'd love to have anything from you anytime. I knew they'd done very well by my pal Joe Meno, and I kept in touch with Anne just because of her excellency, and when the time came, I let her know I was ready to make the switch.

According to their website, "utter sincerity" is what you wanted to convey in "You Must Be This Happy to Enter." Was that a theme that you set about attacking, or did it come out once you saw the book as a whole?
Very often themes start to emerge after I've written a number of stories, so it was something I was interested in exploring further at that point.

You seem to have a love/hate relationship with pop culture, especially reality TV. what are some of your guiltiest pleasures?
Oh man. Well, I love the craft shows on Channel 20 that come on in the afternoon, both because I learn stuff and also because these women are utterly sincere in their passion for crafts. Even the less, um, creative ones shall we say that involve things like Styrofoam balls and cotton puffs. I'm gonna say I probably have better things to do with my time than watch America's Next Top Model, but I can't turn away! And I really, really miss Elimidate. That was a horrifically awful show that just never ceased to amaze me in terms of tastelessness and lack of shame. Hee.

I'm trying to decide if I should investigate teaching creative writing in addition to doing it. How does one know if they're meant for that field?
Interesting! Honestly, I think the best way is to jump in and try it - you'll probably know after a few classes. My first class was almost a disaster - I was so nervous, and one of the students ended up attempting to commandeer the class immediately and I went home and said to my husband, Oh, I've made a terrible mistake. But it got much better after that, and in subsequent classes. It can be really rewarding work - I love to see my students work develop, and also just to see their raw talent. I've seen some really great writing in all my classes.

You wrote an essay for Powells about influences. What's been influencing or inspiring of just generally been provoking your thoughts of late?
Besides bad TV? Actually, I've written a couple of stories recently that have another theme emerging that really interests me, but I kinda want to hold off on getting more specific for now. (Oooh, she's so mysterious, that Crane!) But I will say that they include a story about a boy who idolizes a local hero who in actuality is a jerk, and another one about a fight between two women at a dog park. And they're all set in Chicago!

You teach at the Northwestern SCS Creative Writing program, of which I am a recent and proud grad. How would you say it compares, vibe-wise, to other postgrad writing programs?
Also interesting! Well, NU is the only post-grad class I teach, so I don't have much to compare it to in that way. Post-grads, you know they really want to be there, and that's a wonderful thing in a student. I will say though that there's a very different vibe overall between the three schools where I've taught, U of C kids are very driven, grad and undergrad, and at the Art Institute, the writing is often more experimental than I see at NY or U of C but also really great.

About how much time online do you spend per day? How do you get yourself to write when the Internet is so compelling for time-wasting?
Oy. Well, I check my email/facebook/myspace a lot, and I'm loving scrabulous, but generally I have no problem wasting time in other ways. Ha. Teaching full-time has really forced me to manage my time a little better, especially with touring a bit.

What does a Gerfl look like?
It's been a long time, but I'm pretty sure a Gerfl looks a lot like my sister did when she was four. Blonde, blue-eyed and very cute. Crouched under the table.

You seem to have a fascination with things dead or undead in your writing. Was there anything specifically that inspired this, like a love of horror movies or an interest in the paranormal?
Ha! It kind of just happened. Actually in MESSENGER, the ghost baby Christina was originally a real live baby that the older Christina borrowed, and when I workshopped it people were freaking out that no one would let someone borrow a baby. So she became a ghost.
I did go through a horror movie period when I worked at a video store in my 20s, but I can't say that's really it since I only just remembered it now that you asked.

What do you think is the line between borrowing from real life and just fictionalizing reality?
Hm... the line... that's a tough one! I know that I'm personally drawn to writing fiction because although the truth is often really interesting, I'm not bound to stick to factual details, and my memory just isn't that good, not to mention it could certainly be disputed. Does that get anywhere near answering your question?

What are the differences between the literary scenes in New York and Chicago?
Well, I was never really in the NY literary scene, so it's hard for me to say what it's like there, only what I hear. There are some great reading series I've been a part of, like Happy Ending, KGB and Housing Works, but in terms of parties or that sort of thing I've no idea. My imagination goes to very heady cocktail parties with canap├ęs and drunken discussions of Kant and probably some bad judgment involving 'sharing a cab' as the night goes on. In Chicago, I love that there are more and more wonderful reading series all the time, each with it's own special thing, although I am still mourning the loss of the monthly Dollar Store. It also seems to me like there are distinct little pockets of writer-types connected by either litmags, or colleges or what have you. And then there are people like me who show up to read, or for friends, but mostly stay home and watch Project Runway. Oh and you know, read.


When you do readings, how do you select which pieces you do for an audience?
There are some stories that are near-impossible for me to read out loud because of the style, and I actually made a concerted effort to write some more readable stories for this book because the last one had so few I felt like I could successfully read out loud. I tend to pick ones that I think are funnier, 'cause, you know. I took a comedy class many years ago in New York and the teacher told me I wasn't funny. But I am!

I read in an interview that like all of us, you were stung when you read something negative about yourself after Googling. Did you ever contact that person or comment on that blog? (I did that, once, mostly because the person noted that they knew me and I responded asking how. We both felt embarrassed afterwards but I think there was affable closure.)
I know, and yet I still do the Google! Although now they have google alerts, which is great. I'm fuzzy now but I'm pretty sure I resisted the urge. If I'm thinking of the one I may have talked about, it was someone who judged the entire book by one sentence. And I just thought, read the whole thing and then slam it.

How much of your own press do you have to do?
Not too much this time around, Akashic has been kicking ass! I'm willing to do what people tell me, but sales isn't my strong suit.

Typically what do you use to write, and where do you do it, and when?
Laptop. Used to be morning, but now that I have a full-time job, I squeeze it in whenever I can, and I'll scribble in a notebook too. Years ago I always wrote by hand, I'm old enough to be from the typewriter era, and thought I'd never write straight onto a computer. Now I write a draft on Word, print it out, scribble new stuff on it, type it in, and continue that way until it's done.

How do you typically choose what you're going to read for fun? Word of mouth? Reviews? Book covers?
Word of mouth is without a doubt where I have found my favorite authors, and I read some reviews just to see what's out there and what seems interesting to me but not necessarily because of the opinion of the critic. Recently I've found a lot of fantastic writers via sites like myspace or litpark, like Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Roy Kesey, Noria Jablonski. Other times, in a bookstore, I'll look at first pages and sometimes I'll pick up a book that way if something knocks me out. Last week I bought six books at Myopic like that.


A lot of the reviews of your books tend to convey the message "These stories are great and this author seems like the kind of lady I'd like to have a beer with." Do your readers tend to reach out to you with that friend/fan attitude, and are you receptive of it, or is it a little strange to have people assuming they know you?
Ha! That's cool. Too bad I don't drink beer. You know, not too many people reach out to make actual plans with me, but lots of them do get in touch, and it's great. I definitely get that I've written some stuff that people can relate to - well, I get it now, when I was writing some of it I wasn't sure at all, but in hindsight it's easy to see, and really nice to know I was never as alone in my 'unique' experiences as I thought. What's weird is that on a certain level they do know me, yet unfortunately I don't know them. Or what if they connect to what I write, but really I'm just a big jerk in real life? One thing that's great about the internet is that there is that opportunity for the connection to go both ways.

How does it feel to be the 199th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It feels awesome! And great!


More interviews here!