Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry
Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry
In the short story, "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry," Elizabeth McCracken introduces a larger-than-life character, Aunt Helen Beck, a woman in her eighties who has traveled the country for most of her life, showing up at the homes of distant relatives who have only vaguely heard of her, if they have at all. She arrives at an island in Seattle's Puget Sound to stay with a great nephew and his wife. In the course of her visit, they learn to put up with the trials of having their lives invaded by an outspoken aged relative. At the same time, their suspicions grow that she is actually not who she says she is. Each character is rendered imaginatively as a familiar type, but also as a unique individual. McCracken tells the story with an unerring eye for details and a subtle sense of humor that recognizes the underlying strangeness of ordinary modern life.
"Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry" was published in McCracken's 1993 short story collection of the same name. This was her first story collection, published when the author was just a few years out of college, and it helped to establish McCracken as one of the most gifted young writers of her generation.
Elizabeth McCracken was born in 1966. Her father, Samuel McCracken, was a writer and editor and an assistant to the provost of Boston University, where her mother, Natalie, also worked. McCracken attended Boston University, where she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in English, both in 1988. She then attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, taking an M.F.A. in 1990. She earned a Master of Science degree in library and information science from Drexel University in 1993. After graduation she was the circulation desk chief at the Somerville Public Library, in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she lived from 1993 to 1997. She was the community arts director for the Somerville Arts Council in 1995 and 1996.
McCracken's first book was the short story collection, Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, a compilation of nine stories that was published in 1993. The book earned her critical and popular attention, and it was listed as a Notable Book of the Year by the National Library Association. Following its publication, McCracken taught writing at the Somerville Arts Council, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and at Western Michigan University. She published her first novel, The Giant's House in 1996, again to strong critical praise. It was followed in 2001 by the novel Niagara Falls All Over Again. Her short stories and essays have appeared in leading magazines.
McCracken has been the recipient of several important awards. Her works were included in Best American Short Stories in 1991 and 1992 and in Best American Essays in 1994. The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her the Harold Vursell Award in 1997. She won the Salon Award and was included among the Best Young American Novelists, both in 1996, for The Giant's House. In 1998, she won a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
"Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry" starts by introducing Aunt Helen Beck, a legendary older woman who stays in the houses of relatives so frequently that the children in houses where she stayed lived to tell stories about her to their own children, some of whom eventually meet her themselves when she comes to stay. Among her eccentricities is her dictation of letters for the children to write to people she has known who are dead; another is that she carries a small change purse with two pennies in it, though she will not show the pennies to anyone.
Aunt Helen Beck arrives at Orcas Island in Puget Sound to stay with Ford and his wife, Chris, after having stayed with Ford's sister Abbie a few years previously. When they meet her at the ferry, Ford asks how long she intends to stay, and Aunt Helen Beck (who is always referred to by all three names) becomes defensive and asks if he is trying to chase her away already, using the colloquial expression for being pushed out the door that gives the story its title. She gives Ford a small framed photo of a man who she says is his great-grandfather, Patrick Corrrigan, explaining that she always brings gifts for the people with whom she stays.
When they drive her back to their house, they are met by Mercury, a boy who lives in a nearby trailer. Aunt Helen Beck chides him about his long hair, which he says he likes. During the discussion while dinner is being prepared, Aunt Helen Beck says that she came up from Vallejo, California, where she stayed for a while with a niece. She lists some of the people at whose homes she has been a guest over the years.
When dinner is over, she tells them about the change purse she carries with the two pennies, explaining that it was made for her by her brother George, who was a child preacher but died young.
About a week into her stay, Aunt Helen Beck allows Chris to overhear her making a phone call to someone, suggesting that she might come to visit and clearly giving a negative response. Chris, feeling that she does not feel welcome to stay, tells her that she should plan on staying with them for as long as she likes.
Mercury becomes very attached to Aunt Helen Beck, following her around the house. When she hears about how his mother treats her children, Aunt Helen Beck disapproves. She recites morbid poetry to Mercury and tells him stories about her life. She feeds him molasses, an old health cure, and is surprised to find that Mercury is one of the few children she has met who actually enjoys it. She has him write letters for her to departed relatives, a practice that she has followed in other relatives' houses.
The day after she shows him her change purse, though, it disappears. Aunt Helen Beck is deeply distressed by the loss of the talisman she has carried with her for more than sixty years. After the house is searched, Mercury is confronted, and he denies taking it, but his denial is unconvincing. He continues to deny it, and the loss of her one reminder of Georgie Beck, her brother who died when he was a child, changes Aunt Helen Beck's view of the world, throwing her into despair.
Details in Aunt Helen Beck's biography start raising suspicions. She says that her mother raised twenty-one children and that her family was Jewish, though Ford knows nothing about any Jewish relatives. She senses Ford and Chris's suspicions and feels uneasy about her stay.
One day Mercury shows up at the house and politely asks Aunt Helen Beck to cut his hair. His mother, he explains, likes it long and would not cut it if he asked. She obliges. Mercury is pleased with the job that she does, though Ford worries about what the boy's mother will say.
Chris and Ford confront Aunt Helen Beck about whether she is actually related to Ford. She refuses to answer, even when Ford offers to accept her if she is only a close family friend. She explains that she came to be connected with the family after Ford's sister donated some magazines to the public library, finding her address on the mailing labels. There was a real Georgie Beck, she tells them: he was a child preacher who she went to see when she was sixteen; she nursed him when he was ill, taking his name and the change purse after he died. Ford starts to say that she does not have to leave, but Chris interrupts him to say that she should.
In the night, Aunt Helen Beck steals a candlestick to give as a gift to whoever is to be her next hosts. She leaves the house as the sun is rising and is stopped by Mercury, whose mother, angry about his haircut, has thrown him out of the house. As they walk away from the house together, she puts a hand on him and asks if he likes to travel.
Aunt Helen Beck
Aunt Helen Beck is an elderly woman who has never owned a home. Throughout her long life—at the time of this story, she is in her eighties—she has traveled the country, staying with people to whom she says she is related. Generations of people have grown up believing that she is their aunt. None of these presumed relatives has ever called her anything other than "Aunt Helen Beck."
In truth, she has no known relatives. When she was sixteen and homeless, she went to visit a child preacher who had once toured through her town, named Georgie Beck. She established a bond with him and nursed him when he was ill. When Georgie died, she kept his last name and began the practice of presenting herself at the homes of strangers, claiming to be a distant relative.
She stays with people who are amused by her eccentric ways. They compare stories about the things they have observed her doing, such as having children write the letters that she dictates to people she has known, who are now dead, or reciting the works of obscure poets with three names. Often, when she has stayed with someone, she will eventually end up at the door of that person's relatives. Wherever she goes, she arrives with a small gift for her hosts, claiming that it is a family heirloom, even if it is just something that she bought or stole from strangers.
In this story she arrives at Orcas Island to stay with a young couple, Ford and Chris, claiming to be related to Ford's great-grandfather, Patrick Corrigan. Several years earlier, she had stayed with Ford's sister, Abbie. She is outspoken with Ford and Chris about things that she does and does not like and is defensive about anything they say that might indicate that they would like her stay to be brief. She does, however, try to be as little trouble to them as a houseguest can be. She buys them meager little gifts when they go to town.
Aunt Helen Beck forms a bond with the boy who lives in a nearby trailer, Mercury. When the change purse that she has carried for more than sixty years disappears, she is distressed: "What will become of me without it?" she asks no one in particular. It was made by Georgie Beck. She becomes lonesome after Mercury, denying anything to do with the purse's disappearance, stops coming to visit. He later shows up and asks her to cut his long hair, which she dislikes, as an unspoken act of contrition.
After she slips up and tells conflicting stories about her father, Ford becomes suspicious and, doing some research, discovers that she is no relation at all, and Aunt Helen Beck agrees to leave the house. Before she goes, though, she steals a candlestick as a present for the next people she will visit. At the story's end, she appears ready to invite Mercury to join her in her travels.
Chris is married to Ford and, therefore, has never been led to believe that Aunt Helen Beck is a relative of hers. For this reason, Chris has less sentimental attachment to the old woman and is less likely to find charm in her manipulative ways. She works carefully, meticulously, at stringing beads to make necklaces, which she sells in local shops. Aunt Helen Beck characterizes Chris as "quiet and perennially embarrassed," which she approves of, even though this means that Chris's personality is the opposite of her own. As she lives with them, Aunt Helen Beck becomes more accustomed to Chris, getting over her initial hesitation about Chris's friendly hugs. When it is discovered that Aunt Helen Beck is not really related to Ford, it is Chris who takes personal offense, calling the older woman a liar and a fraud and insisting, when Ford starts to weaken, that she really must leave their house.
Ford lives with his wife, Chris, on Orcas Island, in Puget Sound, Washington. They are vegetarians, and Ford does the cooking at least part of the time. When Aunt Helen Beck shows up, she explains that she is related to Ford's great-grandfather, who was an uncle of hers, though not a blood relation. She gives him a picture of the man she says is their distant relative, though it later turns out that the person in the picture is an actor wearing a costume moustache.
Because he is a gentle person, Ford tries to calm any situation. When Aunt Helen Beck seems to take offense that he is thinking of keeping her visit short, Ford tries to make it sound as if it would be a favor to them if she would stay. When her change purse disappears, he recognizes it for its psychosocial significance, calling it her "talisman": he rationally suggests that she replace it with another object that could have just as much emotional significance to her. After becoming convinced that Aunt Helen Beck is a fraud and not related to him at all, he confronts her only reluctantly, not nearly as willing as Chris is to insist that she leave. Ford is spiritual; he writes poems addressed to "The Earth" and "The Goddess" and leaves them around the house. He is an intellectual and plainly longs to discuss theories of sociology and religion with an older relative: recognizing this leads Aunt Helen Beck to understand that "he was the type of man who wanted to be invited to join every club there was. Even hers."
Gaia does not appear in the story, but she is talked about. She is a single mother, raising four children in a trailer down the hill from Ford and Chris's house. Her children are all named after planets: Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. She works part time at the Healing Arts Center, doing a form of massage therapy.
Although Gaia has a casual attitude toward having children and raising them, she also has a strict side, a harsh temper, and can be abusive. Angry that Mercury has let Aunt Helen Beck cut his hair, she locks the boy outside all night to teach him a lesson.
Mercury is a young boy who lives near Ford and Chris's house. He is brash and undisciplined: when he first appears in the story, for instance, he sees Ford, Chris, and Aunt Helen Beck in a car and says to Chris, "You're ridin' in back like a dog." He has long hair because his mother, Gaia, does not believe in cutting her children's hair.
Mercury and Aunt Helen Beck form an unlikely alliance. When she gives him molasses, for instance, he does not reject her, as other children might: to her surprise, he likes the taste. He follows her around as she does her household chores and agrees to write a letter for her, even though he knows only a few words and the letter she is dictating is to an old acquaintance who is now dead.
Mercury commits a serious offense against Aunt Helen Beck when he steals her change purse: she says that it was given to her more than sixty-five years earlier by Georgie Beck, who she claims was her brother, and is the one constant in her vagabond lifestyle. Mercury denies taking it and is banished from the house. Later, he gets back into Aunt Helen Beck's good graces by coming to her and asking her to cut his hair.
Cutting his hair makes Mercury's mother angry at him, and his punishment is that he is locked out of the family trailer all night. As with all other signs that he is a neglected child, Mercury is passively disinterested in this fate. In the morning, when he runs into Aunt Helen Beck as she is leaving, she shows an interest in taking him along on her uncharted travels.
Throughout "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry" one of the most telling clues of Aunt Helen Beck's elusive personality remains hidden: readers are not made aware of the depth of her true relationship with Georgie Beck until the story's end. When she first explains him to Ford and Chris, Aunt Helen Beck says that he was her younger brother, a child preacher who toured the South proselytizing. Before his untimely death, she says, he made the change purse for her as a gift, and she has carried it with her for most of her life. After she is exposed as not a real member of Ford's family, she admits that she was not really related to Georgie either. As a sixteen-year-old with nowhere to live, she was attracted to him because she once saw him preach, and she stayed with him through his final illness, stealing the change purse he had made for his real brother.
Although Aunt Helen Beck is untruthful about much in her life, her emotional attachment to the boy who died more than sixty years earlier is sincere. She is genuinely distraught when the change purse disappears because it is, as she explains, the only remaining thing on earth that Georgie Beck would have touched. When she is found out as a fraud and reflects on her true relationship with Georgie, she dwells on the fact that he once told her that he loved her, putting more emphasis on that fact than on his subsequent statement that God loves her, too. She held onto the change purse over the decades as a tangible symbol of his love, and when it disappears she becomes uncertain of her own identity. Her relationship to the memory of Georgie Beck has an emotional truth that means more to Aunt Helen Beck than any of the details about reality, which she has learned to manipulate over the years.
Aunt Helen Beck's life is one long journey. She never stays in one place very long, always making preparations for her next stopping place. It is not a quest, because she is not looking for any one particular thing that will fulfill her inner needs. Still, she would be willing to stop her travels immediately, if the situation allowed it: while staying with Ford and Chris, she reflects that "all it would take would be one person saying, Aunt Helen Beck, here's where you belong, and she'd stay in a minute."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Find a picture of a person from a hundred years ago or more. Write a short story that explains this person as a distant relative of yours, including details about real relatives that would make your story sound factual to people who know you.
- Contact a social services provider and interview the people there about what they would do with an unattached homeless woman like Aunt Helen Beck. Record your specific questions and the answers you receive, and then write your recommendation about how Aunt Helen Beck should be convinced to apply for social help.
- In the story, Ford makes quinoa, which he refers to as "the grain of the ancient Aztecs." Research the diets of the Aztecs, and find out how important quinoa was to their balanced nutrition. Then prepare an Aztec meal.
- Aunt Helen Beck writes letters to old acquaintances who are dead: research two methods that people have used to communicate with the dead, and write a story that incorporates one of these methods.
- This story ends with Aunt Helen Beck and Mercury leaving for unnamed places. Compare this conclusion to the ending of Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn, which many consider to be the great American novel. In what ways do the two endings imply the same things? In which ways do they symbolize different destinies for their characters?
At the end of the story, she is clearly on the verge of inviting Mercury to be her traveling companion. Although she has been angry at Mercury, she realizes that he is a neglected child being raised in an instable home and that he would be better with a life like hers, on the road, with no ties. For people like Aunt Helen Beck and Mercury, life is a journey.
One family presented in this story is Gaia's. Gaia has several children by different fathers and is likely to have several more, and she leaves the children to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. Her situation is described to Aunt Helen Beck by Ford and Chris, who excuse it as harmless. At the end of the story, however, it turns out that Gaia is not just a nontraditional parent, but a dangerous one: offended that Mercury has had his hair cut, she locks the young boy out of his home, leaving him exposed the elements all night.
When she arrives at their house, Aunt Helen Beck falls naturally into the role of a parent figure for Ford and Chris. To Ford, she is someone with whom he can discuss moral and religious issues for which he wants answers, and she compares his own spirituality with that of Georgie Beck. She is even more of a companion for Chris, whom she admires for her patience as she works at home beading necklaces. They both ask her about family and history, the way a child would do of a parent.
The strongest familial bond in this story is the one that develops between Aunt Helen Beck and Mercury. Despite her natural distrust of children, particularly male children, he attaches himself to her. Mercury actually likes the molasses that other children on whom she has foisted it have rejected, and he is willing to write the letters she dictates, even though he is embarrassed about his weak writing skills. After being alienated from her because of the missing change purse, he atones by allowing her to cut his hair. Together, Aunt Helen Beck, Ford and Chris, and Mercury temporarily create an artificial family of grandmother, parents, and child, even though the group is not actually related that way.
The first section of "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry" establishes Aunt Helen Beck as a legendary figure. Her advanced age is not specifically stated but is instead suggested through the impressions of people who experienced her strange visits when they were children and then, when they were old enough to have their own children, saw her again. Her personality quirks, such as her belief in molasses as a medical cure or her interest in certain poets, help to make her memorable to readers, but they also help readers see her as someone who would be talked about by friends and relatives, to such a degree that people who never met her would recognize her from stories that they had heard. McCracken capitalizes the expression, Aunt Helen Beck Stories, to let readers know that the legends told about her have a life of their own, independent of the woman herself.
With this background established, the story uses Aunt Helen Beck's activities on Orcas Island as a way of contrasting her life there with her larger-than-life legend. When she gives Mercury molasses, for instance, or when she dictates a letter to him, readers recognize actions that have been identified as the ones that are discussed about her. When she takes an interest in Ford and Chris's lives, though, the details of her life make her appear more ordinary than the Aunt Helen Beck who stars in the family tales. Her time with Ford and Chris might eventually serve to expand her legend, but for the time covered in the story this legendary figure is presented as an ordinary human being.
In this story, Aunt Helen Beck travels around the country, moving from the home of one family of strangers to another. She has been doing this since the Great Depression. She has never had a home of her own. Because of her considerable survival skills, readers may be inclined to admire her for her freedom, but in fact she is an unusual example of homelessness, a serious and pervasive problem in the United States.
According to estimates made in the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, at any given time, there are about 800,000 people in the United States without a home, including about 200,000 children who are members of homeless families. There are many causes of homelessness. While some people, like Aunt Helen Beck, may chose a nomadic lifestyle for personal reasons, many people find homelessness a most unwanted situation. Some lose their homes due to natural disasters, such as the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused to tens of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. Some become homeless when an unexpected personal catastrophe, such as an illness, wipes out their savings and makes them unable to pay for their living quarters. Other factors can include an inability to assimilate, due to language or cultural barriers, after immigrating to a new country, and an inability to reenter society after a prison sentence or military commitment has been completed.
Estimates provided by the Coalition for the Homeless Mentally Ill reported in an fact sheet available at http://www.barkson.com/chmi/causes.htm (accessed September 11, 2006) that the homeless who have serious mental illness run as high as 33 percent. Added to that is how much addiction to alcohol and other drugs determines the number of homeless people who are unable to maintain steady housing; though not definitively measurable, some researchers estimate 38 percent of the homeless population are affected by substance abuse problems. There is no clear consensus about whether substance abuse causes homelessness or vice versa, but it is clear that there is a disproportionately high co-occurrence of substance abuse and homelessness.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, homelessness was a serious yet increasingly hidden problem in the United States. This trend began in the 1970s, a result of the Community Mental Health Act passed by Congress in 1963. The act was intended to integrate mental health patients into regular society, but underfunding led to turning thousands of people out on the streets without the social support they would need to fend for themselves. At the same time, many urban areas were eliminating the very least expensive available housing, the Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs). Between 1970 and the mid-1980s, the United States lost a million inexpensive rooms that were available to the poor, as sections of cities that had been considered skid rows were transformed into desirable urban areas. The homeless were also removed from view by a wave of anti-loitering laws passed in large cities in the 1980s that were designed to make downtown areas less threatening and more appealing to suburbanites with discretionary money to spend. The result moved homeless people from the streets to less public areas, such as parks and subways, but it did nothing to address their problems.
By the 1990, around the time when this story was written, there was a renewed interest in the plight of the homeless. Celebrities did public service announcements to make the issue more visible, and it was used as a subject for television dramas. Still, the fact that laws in larger cities were purposely aimed at keeping this problem out of the public eye led the majority of people to miss the fact that, even with the booming economy in the 1990s, the homeless population continued to grow.
From the very start of her career, Elizabeth McCracken has been recognized as a major literary talent. "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry" comes from her first published book, a short story collection of the same name. Some of these stories were written when McCracken was still in college. Stories from the book were included in the Best American Stories collections for 1991 and 1992, and the book was listed as an American Library Association Notable Book of 1993. Reviews of the collection were generally favorable. Many mentioned the title story as a good example of McCracken's skill in handling eccentric characters that are, despite their eye-catching flair, viewed with compassion and humanity. As Janet Ingraham puts it in a review entitled "Word of Mouth," in Library Journal: "These nine stories reveal the oddness of ordinary life by inverting the theme of skeletons in the closet: the characters appear unusual but live familiar lives of quiet hardship and comedy." Eight years later, after the publication of McCracken's novel The Giant's House, Library Journal came back to Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry in an overview of books that readers may have missed the first time around, with reviewer Nancy Pearl concluding that "McCracken's vision is at once both eccentric and wise, an unbeatable combination that makes for great reading."
The Giant's House, McCracken's first novel, was almost universally praised by critics. Her second book, Niagara Falls All Over Again, was met though with mixed praise: many critics proclaimed it another triumph of her voice, but Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in New York
magazine, found it to be overambitious, attributing its weakness to a common conceptual problem that writers fall into with second novels. The main character is simply "not a character you're necessarily very interested in," Mendelsohn writes. "Nor, more to the point, does McCracken seem to be—though she tries mightily to liven up the proceedings … What's wrong with this overeventful but oddly inconsequential book (though let's be clear—there's plenty that's right) is what's typically wrong with sophomore novels: Overstuffed, overambitious, it tries too hard for too much. But that overabundance in itself suggests that there's much more to come." Even this unenthusiastic review, however, falls in line with most of McCracken's critics by acknowledging in the end that "McCracken's act is one that every lover of serious fiction should follow."
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and English literature. In the following essay, he examines the techniques that McCracken uses to elevate the character of Aunt Helen Beck to legendary status.
In "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry," Elizabeth McCracken introduces Aunt Helen Beck, an unforgettable character so clearly realized that most readers, like the characters whose lives she invades in the story, will find themselves feeling a vague sense of familiarity with her. She seems like a family member or an echo of a character from another work of literature. This is not to say that there is anything at all unoriginal about Aunt Helen Beck: on the contrary, the sense of familiarity that clings to her is precisely because McCracken has created her with such specific details that she seems strikingly authentic. She speaks her mind even at the risk of upsetting her hosts, taking advantage of the fact that the small, residual respect for elders that still exists in modern society will make them go easy on her. She laughs and loses her patience sometimes, and at others she is touched by the simplicity of the lives lived by her purported nephew Ford and his wife Chris, a couple at least two generations removed from her own. It is true that McCracken knows how to form a well-rounded and amusing character and that any of the story's other three characters could be the basis for a good story, but Aunt Helen Beck stands alone. In a story that is wonderfully evocative of reality, Aunt Helen Beck is something more important than it all: she is legendary.
Just how McCracken goes about making a legend out of her character is no secret. In the story's opening paragraphs, she gives generalizations about the woman, speaking about her the same way others have spoken about her at different times and places. Readers are told, for instance, that the following circumstances prevailed at many different homes—that she slept on sofas that were too short for her and subsequently kicked over lamps; that she dictated to children letters to deceased acquaintances; that she spoke about dead, morbid, three-named poets; that she talked about the purse that she had carried for sixty-five years and claimed that it had two pennies inside. As if it were not enough to paint a portrait of the woman with these details, McCracken also uses these early paragraphs to illustrate her situation: she is obviously a woman who has the time and patience to spend with children, which is not something that one would consider obvious when she later becomes a somewhat stern confidante of Mercury, the boy who lives in the nearby trailer. Also, she has been traveling around for so long that the children of people who knew her as
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Critics praised Elizabeth McCracken's first novel, The Giant's House, which was published in 1997. The plot concerns interesting characters in circumstances as innovative as they are in this story: a lonely librarian in a small town falls in love with a boy fourteen years younger than she and stays true to him as he grows to nearly nine feet tall.
- The loose border between reality and fantasy that McCracken flirts with in this story is pushed further in Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain (2000). Paterniti's book chronicles an actual journey across the country in a Buick Skylark, with the brain of Albert Einstein, which was removed from Einstein's body upon his death in 1955, and the aged pathologist who removed it.
- McCracken's style and literary sensibilities have often been compared to those of Ron Carlson. Carlson's collection of stories Plan B for the Middle Class includes a varied selection of tales about ordinary people reaching middle age and wondering about their lives. Published in 1992, about the same year that McCracken's Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, this collection is available in a reprint edition from Penguin Press.
- Elizabeth McCracken has clearly drawn inspiration for part of this story from another writer who was just as inventive and just as strongly associated with the Iowa Writers' Workshop: Flannery O'Connor. Her 1949 novel Wise Blood includes a young street-corner preacher trying to outrun his guilt and the conniving world of would-be religious figures surrounding him.
- Mary Karr, a college professor, poet, and critic, published a memoir in 1995 about her childhood in east Texas called The Liar's Club. The events of her life are scarcely believable, loaded with alcoholism, abuse, gunplay, and reckless spending; despite the serious nature of the events, though, Karr writes with an unfailing sense of humor and appreciation of humanity that matches McCracken's own.
- Readers of this story may gain a better appreciation of Aunt Helen Beck by reading the works of one of the poets whom she identifies as being morbid and three-named. James Whitcomb Riley is seldom remembered anymore, but in the early decades of the twentieth century most schoolchildren in the country were familiar with at least a few of his poems. They are collected in Indiana Press's 1993 volume The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley.
children can become acquainted with her anew. This longevity and her association with children, the most imaginative members of society, are the perfect ingredients for achieving legendary status.
But there is one other element to her elevation from well-written character to legend, and that is the fact that McCracken continually affirms some of the details that have been told about her, while leaving other details to speculation. In doing this, she allows readers the thrill of discovery, of connecting those facts dictated in the early part of the story with details played out in front of their eyes as Aunt Helen Beck goes about her daily life. This interplay between things gossiped about her and things that are verifiably true gives the story life. It also broadens the story with each specific detail: seeing the things that are true about her and knowing that there are other details that are left undemonstrated, readers are seduced into believing that just about anything about her can be true.
For example, she dictates letters to the dead. On the second page of the story, McCracken describes a scene that has presumably been played out repeatedly, with young children who feel mixed emotions (they are "terrified of the enormous old lady on the sofa," but they love scribbling her words) about interacting with this woman whose reason for being in their house is, in itself, a mystery. It is only one sentence, but it is a memorable one, and McCracken even starts it with "After a while," to make readers aware of the overarching scope of this development. After a while, when she is settled into the house, Aunt Helen Beck dictates one of these letters to Mercury, the child of the particular household where she is staying. Readers have a chance to see the story's early narration confirmed. McCracken's gift is that she does not dwell on this structural device: readers hardly have time to think about how Mercury is becoming a member of something, a society of dozens of children who have had the benefit of Aunt Helen Beck's company over the decades. Readers are more focused on the immediate details of the scene, such as "Mac" identity, the trouble arose between Mac and Aunt Helen Beck, and of course Mercury's limited, if enthusiastic, literacy.
Only some of the rituals that Aunt Helen Beck is said to observe actually show up during her stay with Ford and Chris and Mercury. She does, as the narrator explains in that opening passage, have a change purse that she has carried with her for years, and she does give molasses to children, because she believes it is good for them. There are other details that do not materialize throughout the course of the story, though. There is no incident in which she knocks over any lamp by sleeping on a short sofa. She never directly talks about any three-named, morbid poets—the poem about goblins that she relates to Mercury could well be James Whitcomb Riley's "Nine Little Goblins," but that is never stated.
For the sake of building her legend, the details that are left to the imagination are just as important as the ones that are dramatized in the immediate story. The life of Aunt Helen Beck is so amazing, so varied, that it would be too much to ask for a reader to want each one of these claims to manifest itself in this stay. It would be too formulaic: instead of appreciating Aunt Helen Beck and the others for their interesting, flexible personalities, the story would turn into a seek-and-find puzzle. As it is, the reference to Riley's goblin poem might already be too specific: so much is made of him in the introduction, with the flowers that young Helen Beck presented to him and his drunkenness, that bringing him up later would, unlike the molasses and the letters to the dead, confer upon him an importance that he does not really have in the story. McCracken avoids this mistake by leaving his name out of it. Readers can guess, at the mention of Aunt Helen Beck's reciting a poem, that it is probably by someone morbid who has three names, but the story does not say so, leaving it to be assumed without forcing the issue.
Understanding readers' assumptions might just be McCracken's greatest gift as a writer, which, given her control of language, her skill at innovation, and her understanding of eccentric personalities, is certainly saying a lot. In creating a legendary character such as Aunt Helen Beck, the author has to know which parts of her life to leave a mystery and which parts readers will feel the need to know. It is common for writers to get the balance wrong: to tell too much or to withhold too much. For instance, readers are eventually told why Georgie Beck was so important to this woman that she would spin her whole long life off her fabricated relationship to him: he is the one person in her life who she felt truly loved her. Readers can, therefore, see why the change purse, which he made and is a symbol of him, would be so very important to her. But why does it have two cents? Readers really do not need to know the answer to that question to understand this story, and McCracken understands that sometimes it is better to leave loose ends loose.
If all of the fascinating details about Aunt Helen Beck's life were explained by the end of this story, she would not be a legendary character, just a well-rendered one who behaves according to the currents of her past life. That would not do. This woman has lived a life of mystery, showing up on people's doorsteps and passing as a relative when she is in fact a stranger: it is a life that can only be followed by leaving some questions unanswered and, even more importantly, by making readers forget that they even have questions. Aunt Helen Beck has a talent for casting a spell over her hosts so that they enjoy the richness of her personality and then enjoy even more the things that they do not know about her. Elizabeth McCracken has the same skill, making her something of a legend herself.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Elizabeth McCracken's work.
Elizabeth McCracken is a novelist and short story writer whose work has been cited for deep and endearing characters and plots built on the vicissitudes of loving human relationships. Writing for World and I, Jill E. Rendelstei claimed that McCracken "is a storyteller to the core, always giving us complete access to her realm of fantasy. But it is the vivid life within McCracken, her intensity as a person, and her love that show through in her writing, making it so distinctive and alive." New York reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn observed in McCracken's writing "a unity of potent elements: beauty of expression; a rather shy, almost offhand way with painful emotional insights; a truly wacky sense of humor; and a kind of disarming, old-fashioned charm." In the New York Times Book Review, Francine Prose praised McCracken for her "sense of play, a nervy willingness to imagine a wide range of characters and situations, estimable powers of empathy and the enjoyment of watching a talented writer beginning to come into her own."
McCracken's first published book was a collection of nine short stories titled Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, which was praised by reviewers both for its eccentric characters and its elegant writing style. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Francine Prose wrote, "McCracken's attention to detail and to the truths of the human heart, her ear for the rhythms of speech, her wry, straightforward and commonsensical literary voice ground even the most fantastic tales in solid … reality."
Uniting many of the stories in Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry are the sometimes bizarre efforts characters make to insinuate themselves into the fabric of life. The opening tale of the collection, for example, tells the story of a young woman who turns her body into a "love letter" for Tiny, her husband who works as a tattoo artist. The collection's title story features "Aunt Helen," who arrives at the home of a Washington family for an extended visit—until it is discovered that she is an imposter who spends her time visiting one "relative" after another. In "What We Know about the Lost Aztec Children," an armless woman who lives in a suburb of Cleveland brings home an old friend from the time she spent as a sideshow performer in the circus. And in "Mercedes Kane," an Iowa woman gives a home to an eccentric woman in the belief that the woman is a famous 1940s child prodigy. Other stories feature a man who has finished serving a prison term for murdering his wife; two children whose father takes in drunks and deadbeats; and two men who become friends because each has a relative in a treatment facility for head-injury patients. Taken together, the stories, with their oddball characters and unconventional relationships, form a kind of lesson in the meaning of family, love, and connectedness, according to Prose in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
McCracken followed Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry with her first novel, The Giant's House. Written in a low-key style and lightened with touches of humor, The Giant's House is a modern fairy tale featuring Peggy Cort, an old-maid librarian living in a Cape Cod town in the 1950s. Peggy's world is a lonely, emotionless one, punctuated only by her dry wit ("In reference works, as in sin, omission is as bad as willful misbehavior") until the day she meets eleven-year-old James Sweatt, a gentle, six-foot two-inch schoolboy afflicted with gigantism. James, too, is lonely, and soon he and Peggy fill some of the emotional voids in one another's lives. His loving but eccentric family adopts Peggy, giving her contact with a life larger and more interesting than her own. James grows to more than eight feet tall and weighs over four hundred pounds, but in time his health declines and he finally succumbs to the disorder. Events take a surprising turn when Peggy becomes pregnant by James's long-lost father, and after she gives birth, she sees the child as the offspring of James himself.
Writing in the New Yorker about The Giant's House, Daphne Merkin asked rhetorically, "Who would have thought it—that you could take one overaged virgin and one oversized boy and end up with a story that captures the feel of passion, its consuming hold?" Merkin answered her own question by pointing out the "incantatory power" that makes this unlikely romance between unlikely characters seem real and thoroughly grounded both in their characters and in the details of their lives. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "McCracken shows herself a wise and compassionate reader of the human heart." Likewise, BookPage correspondent Laura Reynolds Adler concluded: "In the hands of McCracken, this unusual, unconsummated love story about a librarian who finds the courage to love is not scandalous, but sweet and inevitable."
Spanning the better part of a century, Niagara Falls All Over Again is the fictitious chronicle of a two-man comedy team, narrated by the straight man, Mose Sharp. Through recollections of episodes in his life, from a childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, to an adulthood making movies and money in Hollywood, Sharp reveals the central relationship that informs his life, his working partnership with fat funnyman Rocky Carter. Like its predecessor, the novel garnered good reviews. In her BookPage commentary, Jenn McKee called it "flat-out fun—a heartbreaking and exhilarating ride." Mendelsohn felt that the book "offers many of the pleasures familiar from [McCracken's] earlier work," adding: "McCracken's act is one that every lover of serious fiction should follow." In her New York Times Book Review piece, Francine Prose commended the novel for its ambitious scope. The critic observed: "McCracken manages to consider an impressive number of substantial ideas, to ruminate on subjects like the comic impulse, the eroticism of partnership, the congruences and differences between the theatrical and the authentic, the compulsions that might lead someone to become an entertainer, the payoffs and drawbacks of sacrificing one's personal life for art." New York Times columnist Janet Maslin praised the work for its "peculiarly sweet, gravity-defying bounce," suggesting further that "there is a tender quality to Ms. McCracken's descriptive powers." Maslin concluded of Niagara Falls All Over Again: "The best of [the] book brims with fondness for these game, playful characters and the lost wonders of the vaudeville world."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Elizabeth McCracken," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.
In the following review, Steinberg discusses McCracken's career and the use of eccentric characters in unusual relationships in her work.
Forget Marian the Librarian. Elizabeth McCracken pursued the profession for a decade, but she'll never fit the stereotype of a stern or sedate guardian of bibliophilic decorum. An engagingly forthright young woman who takes her comic turn of mind seriously, McCracken writes books about idiosyncratic characters who find themselves in unlikely situations. Her second novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again (Forecasts, May 28), out this month from Dial Press, is the exuberant and poignant saga of a two-man comedy team whose physical appearances and personalities (the fall guy: fat and dopey; the straight man: thin and sporting a mortarboard) are only the outward manifestations of an inspired and loving companionship ultimately riven by a fundamental difference in their views of life.
Eccentric characters joined in unconventional relationships are a hallmark of McCracken's fiction. In general, they're aware of their place on the outposts of society, accustomed to loss, searching for connection and love. The tall woman married to a tiny tattoo artist who maps his wife's entire body with his art in the short story collection Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry is one such example, as is the armless wife and mother in another tale, whose gift to her children is to make herself seem normal. McCracken's first novel, The Giant's House, is narrated by a lonely librarian in her mid-20s who befriends and then falls in love with a young boy afflicted with gigantism, despite the 15-year difference in their ages. McCracken presents all her characters with a mixture of dry wit and bemused tolerance. A characteristic tone of plangent nostalgia is leavened by snappy, tart dialogue, quirky but surprisingly apt similes (one character is "as chinless and gloomy as a clarinet," another's eyebrows are "so plucked that they looked like two columns of marching ants") and aperçus that resonate with earthy wisdom.
Beginning in the 1920s, Niagara Falls All Over Again chronicles the life of Mose Sharp, scion of a Jewish family from Valley Junction, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. The only boy among six sisters, Mose decides early on that he'll be stifled if he takes over his father's haberdashery. Mose and his older sister Hattie plan to run away and become stars in vaudeville, but after a stunning tragedy, Mose goes on the road alone. When pudgy comedian Rocky Carter anoints Mose as his straight man, a nerdy know-it-all called the Professor, the team of Carter and Sharp savor the heady rush of fame, first on the vaudeville circuit, then in Hollywood. The lifelong partnership is both enriching and all-consuming. It's only after he marries and has children that Mose realizes the downside of the relationship, the way Rocky's self-destructive personality threatens to rob Mose's own life of warmth and tenderness. A constant thread throughout the narrative is Mose's wonder at the miracle that a Jewish boy from Iowa (Mose's father was born Jakov Sharansky in Lithuania) could gain celebrity and wealth.
McCracken says she did not intend that Mose would be the protagonist of her narrative. She had begun a novel about the Jewish population of Des Moines, based loosely on the experiences of her mother's family. "Everyone in my family loves to tell stories," she says, recalling her delight as a child when her mother talked about her own early years. An elderly cousin was another repository of family anecdotes; it was she who showed McCracken two photos that haunted her imagination. Both were of the real Mose, a great uncle. One showed him as a young man, "in a very theatrical pose, looking beautiful, with thick black hair," McCracken remembers. The other picture captured him in his 50s, "looking broken. He's wearing an undershirt, he's bald, and he has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He became a shopkeeper. And my cousin said to me: ‘It's a shame he wasn't born into another family. He should have gone into vaudeville. He was so funny.’"
In typical fashion, McCracken acknowledges her unromantic Midwestern setting in the novel's first sentence: "This story—like most of the stories in the history of the world—begins far away from Des Moines, Iowa." Yet to McCracken, who was born in Boston and raised there and in Portland, Ore., annual visits to Des Moines made it "the constant in my childhood." Her grandmother Ruth Jacobson, a lawyer and a tireless civic activist, was a magnetic figure. Grandma spun endless reminiscences about her own grandfather, Des Moines's first ordained rabbi; his son (her father), the owner of a furniture store; and her 10 siblings, all of whom earned professional degrees. During McCracken's two years of post-graduate study at the Iowa Writers Workshop, she visited her grandmother often; Here's Your Hat is dedicated to her. Ruth Jacobson died three months after the book was published, but not before she'd had a chance to take McCracken around town and introduce her as "the youngest person ever to publish a novel." "The only thing true in that sentence is that I'm a person," McCracken says with a smile. "It was not a novel, and I wasn't even close to being the youngest. But she wanted to make sure her enthusiasm was commensurate with her pride in me."
McCracken herself relates family stories with gusto. She has a mobile and expressive face, with earnest brown eyes and heavy brows that furrow when she carefully considers a response to PW's questions. Dark brown hair curls haphazardly over her shoulders. Her full lips seem designed for pouting until they break into a grin that awakens the trace of a dimple. When she meets PW in a cafe in Manhattan, she's wearing a demure black blouse turned camp by a necklace with luridly colored medallions of old-time cartoon characters (Blondie, Skeezix, Smilin' Jack), a chic white skirt and black net stockings that would be comfortable doing the can-can. She's in town from her home in a Boston suburb to hear her agent, Henry Dunow, read from his new memoir, A Way Home. It's given her a chance to eat an Abbott and Costello sandwich at Lindy's and to buy her older brother, Harry, a nest of Russian dolls that portray a riot of Fleisher comic-book characters in diminishing sizes.
It was her brother's interest in old comic strips, radio shows and movies that awakened McCracken's self-styled "obsession with the past." The siblings watched "hundreds of films with every comedy team there was," she says. Now a computer journalist, Harry still shares her frame of reference. They're both members of a "tent" or chapter, of the international Laurel and Hardy society called Sons of the Desert. McCracken was watching a tape of the last Laurel and Hardy movie, Atoll K, when she heard Hardy utter a line that she later used for Niagara Falls's epigraph. "Haven't I always taken care of you? You're the first one I think of." The quote encapsulates Carter and Sharp's symbiotic bond. One of McCracken's last research forays for the book was a sentimental journey with her brother to L.A., where they attended a 90th birthday party for one of Harry's friends, the legendary animation designer Maurice Noble. Noble's clear memory of filmland in the 1930s and '40s provided McCracken with authentic background material. He died soon afterward.
The dedication to Niagara Falls offers a clue to McCracken's wisecracking fictional voice: "To Samuel and Natalie Jacobson McCracken/My favorite comedy team." In explanation, McCracken says, "I come from a family of tremendously eccentric people." According to McCracken, her parents are deadpan comics of memorable wit, albeit temperamentally unmatched. Her father is quiet and reserved, with an encyclopedic memory; her mother is social and outgoing. Physically, too, they are a startling contrast. Samuel McCracken, a Chaucer scholar who for three decades has been Provost John Silber's assistant at Boston University, is "6′2″ or 6′3″—a really big guy." Natalie McCracken is 4′11″, and she walks with two canes, the result of a birth injury. She holds a Ph.D. in theater, and is head of publications at BU. "They're a distinctive couple," McCracken says, "sort of a team of their own. You can recognize their silhouettes from blocks away."
Her parents' tolerance of their mixed-religion marriage undoubtedly influenced McCracken's eclectic view of human nature. When they visited Des Moines, McCracken's family worshiped both at the Cottage Grove Presbyterian Church and her grandmother's temple. Her ecumenical grandmother Jacobson believed to the end of her life that Easter was a secular holiday. Grandfather McCracken was a professor of classics at Drake and the editor and publisher of American Genealogy magazine. From both sides of the family, McCracken stresses, she received a strict sense of right and wrong, and a feeling of civic obligation. "A combination of guilt and moral imperatives never hurt anybody," she deadpans.
McCracken's own career path has followed parallel channels. She took a part-time job at the Newton, Mass., local library when she was 15, and stayed there seven years, through high school and college. Early on, she determined that being a librarian would be her "money job," and she earned a library science degree in 1993. Meanwhile, she devoted herself to writing fiction. Her books carry acknowledgments and thank-yous to Sue Miller, who taught McCracken creative writing at BU, and Allan Gurganus, who was her teacher at Iowa. During her first session at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, in 1990, she met Ann Patchett, who was working on The Patron Saint of Liars. She and Patchett became fast friends and first readers of each other's works. "We understand how much to say to each other," McCracken observes. "We have very similar views of fiction writing, but extremely different methods. She's very plot oriented, and I'm not so handy with plot. She writes much tighter first drafts than I do. My first drafts are horrific and inefficient; I write pages and pages that don't get into the book. She's very good at seeing the book within the book."
A tight circle of other writer friends (she thanks Karen Bender, Bruce Holbert and Max Phillips, among others) also offer advice. It was Phillips who recommended McCracken to agent Henry Dunow, during McCracken's second year at Iowa. Dunow read several of her stories over a weekend, and called her up on the following Monday. Since McCracken says she never thought ahead to possible publication, she's grateful for the benevolence of fate. "I'm appalling about the future," she says. "It's not that I lack ambition; it's that I lack forethought."
Even Here's Your Hat being the last book with the Turtle Bay imprint turned out to be lucky for McCracken. Susan Kamil went to Dial Press, where she edited The Giant's House, which was an NBA finalist in 1996 and earned McCracken a place on Granta's Best Young American Novelists list that same year, and the current novel. "She's a great editor," says McCracken of Kamil, "one of the best. She rarely says she doesn't like something in my work. She asks leading questions about my intentions, and sometimes she tells me I haven't got there yet," McCracken says. "I really need everything slapped out of my hands. I'm an endless reviser." That same focus on the present, and the past that formed it, determines the voices in her work. All are first-person narratives, whose protagonists' distinctive voices come to her easily. "I end up thinking like the character I'm writing about," she says, confessing an instinctive empathy for people on the fringes. "I think that people are more eccentric as a whole than popular culture would have you believe," she observes with the air of one who dares you to disagree. "The moment that someone reveals some strange quirk, I begin to like them a lot." McCracken's favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces; she says that her own work is "never as funny as I want it to be." Her interest in the past also determines the structure of her fiction, because "the only way I know how to give my books resonance is by going to the backstory." In contrasting her characters' hopeful beginnings and the vicissitudes of their troubled lives, she maintains a sympathetic understanding of the resilience of the human spirit.
McCracken gave up her library job to write The Giant's House, but she went back to work there two days a week for a while after that book was published. Now she sometimes misses her former career. "As a writer, you're essentially alone, and you're necessarily the most important person in the world. That's not psychologically healthy. If you've got a family to balance it out, maybe you're not so self-absorbed. For a librarian, though, there's a fuller spectrum. People come in and say: ‘I need this, or I need that’ … I love the sheer randomness of it."
Appropriately, the sheer randomness of life acquires enchanting resonance in McCracken's fiction.
Source: Sybil Steinberg, "A Priest & a Rabbi Walk into a Bar …," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 32, August 6, 2001, pp. 56-57.
In the following interview, McCracken discusses her career as a librarian, her writing style, and what and who helps shape her stories and characters.
Elizabeth McCracken first came to the attention of the literary world in 1993 with her debut collection of short stories, Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry, an ALA notable book. These stories, populated by heavily tattooed librarians, faded child prodigies, and retired circus freaks, were widely praised by critics. Shortly thereafter, Granta Magazine named her one of the Best Young American Novelists. Her 1996 novel The Giant's House, which revolves around the idiosyncratic relationship between a librarian and her eight-foot-tall patron, was met with critical acclaim and listed as one of the National Book Award finalists. McCracken, a former public librarian, currently resides just outside of Boston where she is finishing her second novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, to be published in 2001.
[Brendan Dowling:] I'm interested in what drew you to library school. By the time you began your MLS work, you had already sold your first book of short stories and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Conference at the University of Iowa. What made you decide to become a librarian at that point?
[Elizabeth McCracken:] I'd already decided some years before that. On my fifteenth birthday, I walked into the Newton (Mass.) Free Library and got a job shelving fiction A-SM (it was a wonderfully strange old building, and fiction SM-Z was in another room). I stayed there for seven years, eventually working behind the circulation desk, and I loved every minute of it—a lot of that had to do with my boss, Cathy Garoian, who was one of the great circulation librarians of all time. (Circulation is still my favorite department.) I left to go to grad school, but I always knew I'd come back to library work one way or the other.
An MFA is not a professional degree. I really wasn't fit for employment once I had one, especially because I didn't want to teach five sections of composition a semester, which was the kind of job I would've gotten had I been very lucky. Some writers have no trouble working jobs they hate and then coming home to write. Not me. I wanted my "money" job to be something as gratifying as writing. I didn't want to have to scramble for work. And, besides that, I really loved being a civil servant. I miss library work. I miss having colleagues and regular patrons.
A lot of your work focuses on marginalized members of society, and you have been praised for your ability to humanize eccentric characters (like the suburban mother who used to be a circus freak in "What We Know About the Lost Aztec Children," and James in The Giant's House). What draws you to these characters?
The general population is much more eccentric than much pop culture would have you believe. That's what I think. People are idiosyncratic; the "average" American is much less interesting than any individual "real" American. I think that I'm drawn to people who are physically anomalous because I believe they really are as ordinary as anyone, and because I'm interested in how who we are physically both defines us and doesn't define us.
You've talked in past interviews about borrowing events from your mother's life to put in stories, and your family has made cameos in your work (e.g., your Aunt Blanche in A Giant's House). How else has your family affected your writing?
Oh, in every way. First of all, I come from a family of writers (my parents and my brother are also professional writers, though not of fiction); both my parents came from families filled with professional and amateur artists. Nobody ever thought that becoming a writer was an odd thing to do. Nobody suggested that I should go to law school. (There are also a lot of librarians in my mother's family.)
Now, I don't know whether my family really is more eccentric than other people's, or whether they're just less inhibited about their eccentricities. I grew up hearing stories about family members on both sides, and some of those characters—my great-great-aunt Mary George, my great-great-uncle Mose, my great-aunt Edna—had died long before I was born but were nevertheless as vivid to me as if they'd been living. Maybe more vivid. There's a kind of resonance that happens when you hear story after story about relatives you don't know, and that resonance is what turns a collection of anecdotes into a novel. It matters that Aunt Mary George's first husband was a butcher who killed himself; if you've heard enough Aunt Mary George stories, you think: Of course he was a butcher! Of course he killed himself!
I also have a great resource in my father, whose memory is—and I don't use this word lightly in a library publication—encyclopedic. This week, I had to call him up with questions about train service in the Midwest in the 1930s. Just being a train buff does not explain his ability to immediately tell me how someone would get from Des Moines, Iowa, to Los Angeles, California, in December of 1939, and what the dining car would look like, and whether the train was all-Pullman or not. He knows everything. I think my tendency to want to cram as much information into a novel or short story as I can—for me, revision is often a matter of weeding extraneous information out—comes from listening to my father talk about his various passions, a sort of did-you-know-the-following-fascinating-fact approach to writing.
You have a very unique writing style. Daphne Merkin likened you to a lot of Southern authors, but your editor, Susan Kamil, talks about how you subvert the Southern Gothic style with an almost New England-like pragmatism. Would you agree with these assessments? What writers, past and present, do you look up to?
I do love Southern Gothic writers, especially Carson McCullers. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favorite books of all time. I've recently been rereading the work of another Gothic writer, Nathanael West, though he's sort of hardboiled Californian Gothic. Like most novelists I know, I worship Lolita. I love Dickens and Browning and Ralph Ellison and Tennessee Williams. Among living writers: Rose Tremain, Grace Paley, Calvin Trillin, Studs Terkel, Jonathan Ames, Barbara Gowdy, Edwige Danticat, Frank Bidart—I'm limiting my choices to people I don't know personally, because I know too many writers whose work I love and I don't want to leave anyone out.
The older I get, the more direct inspiration I get from poetry. Some of that might have to do with knowing more poets.
Talk a little bit about the library programs that you and fellow author Ann Patchett have presented. What has it been like returning to libraries in a different role?
As writers, we have similar world views but entirely different approaches. We love and deeply respect each other's work—there's nobody I can imagine trusting with my work the way I trust Ann. I can send her something in a very tender stage, and she's somehow able to see what it will eventually become. So we talk about our friendship and our work relationship, and we talk about how different we are as writers. We both love fielding questions, and I love hearing her answer. Once we appeared at a private girls' school together. Ann talked nostalgically about her own school days, and how she loved her uniform (she went to Catholic school; the girls at this academy wore kilts). I said, "I never had to wear a uniform," and the woman who was showing us around said, "We know. We can tell by your writing."
I don't think that explains the difference in our work, but it certainly explains the difference in our personalities, and maybe the difference in our work habits. Ann is much more disciplined. She once said that she would kill herself if she wrote as inefficiently as me—I write pages and pages and pages that never see the light of day. Her work is gorgeous and complicated and terrifically moving; at the same time, there's a real rigor when it comes to the plot and the goings-on of the physical world in her work that 1 could strive for and continually miss. I think maybe it all boils down to her having worn a kilt for twelve years of her childhood.
This is all to say: when we speak together, audiences get two pretty different kinds of writers, who nonetheless believe in each other's work.
I've given readings at libraries and talks at a few regional library conferences (in Texas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Massachusetts), and I always have a great time. Librarians and library users—they're my people. At a Texas Library Association meeting last year, I read a section from The Giant's House about library buildings (largely inspired by the Newton Free Library building) that talks about how all librarians, deep down, hate their buildings, and it was a little like preaching in church—librarians in the audience began to voice their agreement. If I had said, "Can I get an Amen?" I would have gotten several.
Whenever I read in a library, I want to ask if I can staff the circulation desk for half an hour. I've never done it, though.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading, in manuscript, a collection of wonderful essays called Famous Builder by Paul Lisicky (whose first novel, Lawnboy, won an ALA Gay and Lesbian Roundtable Award—I think I got the name of that right). Patchett's next novel, Bel Canto, will be published by HarperCollins next year and is absolutely extraordinary. Just recently, I read The Dream Songs by John Berryman, and have been dipping into Elizabeth Bishop's poetry.
What are you currently working on?
I'm just finishing a novel called Niagara Falls All Over Again. It's about a comedy team, two guys who work in vaudeville and eventually hit it big in movies. It just might kill me. Right now I'm typing the whole thing over, which is something I've never done before. I think it's a useful experience, but it's also pretty tedious.
What advice would you give to young writers?
The usual: read a lot, write a lot. One of my favorite pieces of writing wisdom is that in order to write well, you need to be willing to write badly. Some days I'm appalled by how true that is for me, though usually I find it inspiring: if there's a day that I hate everything I write, I can believe that I'm on my way to something better.
You need to be unafraid of making tremendous blunders. Tremendous, giant, ugly, heartrending blunders—not just because good fiction takes risks, but because mistakes are the heart of good fiction. Anyone can take a class or read a book and follow a list of rules designed to keep students from making mistakes; you can teach yourself to write quite an unobjectionable story that way. And what, I ask you, is worse than an unobjectionable story?
When you're writing, save all your ambition for the page. Being too career ambitious will make you more fearful in your work.
Be willing to break your own heart.
Source: Brendan Dowling, "Be Willing to Break Your Own Heart: An Interview with Elizabeth McCracken," in Public Libraries, Vol. 40, No. 2, March/April 2001, pp. 91-92.
Ingraham, Janet, "Word of Mouth," in Library Journal, Vol. 118, No. 19, 1993, p. 128.
McCracken, Elizabeth, "Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry," in Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry: Stories, Turtle Bay Books, 1993, pp. 55-82.
Mendelsohn, Daniel, "Sophomore Shlump?" in New York, August 13, 2001, p. 56.
Pearl, Nancy, "The Reader's Shelf," in Library Journal, March 1, 2001, p. 164.
Felder, Leonard, When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity, Rodale Press, 2005.
Felder's analysis of family dynamics, especially in relationship to extended families that span several generations, apply aptly to the interactions that take place between Aunt Helen Beck, Ford and Chris, and Mercury.
Ford, Charles V., Lies! Lies!! Lies!!! The Psychology of Deceit, American Psychiatric Publishing, 1999.
Despite its overexcited title, this is actually a very scholarly work on what makes people like Aunt Helen Beck live their lives deliberately trying to mislead others. Even so, it is written with a tinge of humor that renders its lessons in a way that anyone can appreciate and understand.
Gaines, Stephen, Marjoe: The Life and Times of Marjoe Gortner, Harper & Rowe, 1973.
This is the biography of a man who became an ordained Pentecostal preacher at the age of four, lived an early life of a con man, and became a movie star as an adult. His life story gives insight into the type of life that Georgie Beck may have lived and the type of man he may have become if he had survived his childhood illness.
Thompson, Tim, and Eric Scigliano, Puget Sound: Sea between the Mountains, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company, 2000.
This book combines artistic photos and lyric prose to give readers a sense of the natural and cultural ambience of the area where this story takes place.
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