Elizabeth McCracken, THE HERO OF THIS BOOK: A Novel

Elizabeth McCracken, THE HERO OF THIS BOOK: A Novel

Zibby speaks to bestselling and award-winning author Elizabeth McCracken about her remarkable new novel The Hero of This Book (a Best Book of the Year by Time, People, Washington Post, and more). Elizabeth discusses the autobiographical elements that made their way into the story and then delves into the poignant portrayal of her mother. She also talks about her journey to becoming a successful author (befriending Ann Patchett helped!), the projects she is working on now, and the books on her TBR list (one of which is Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro, which was featured on MDHTTRB just a few episodes ago!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Hero of This Book.

Elizabeth McCracken: Delighted to be here.

Zibby: Very meta title here, The Hero of the Book, and then… Tell listeners about what this book is about, how you came up with this, especially now. Why this book?

Elizabeth: It’s a novel. It says it’s a novel on the cover, so that’s legally binding. The narrator of the book is walking around London and remembering her mother, who died a year before, and also remembering trips that she went on. She went to London with her mother. That sentence doesn’t scan, but I’m not going to go back and try to straighten it out. You guys know what I mean. Her mother lived into her early eighties, walked with canes, walked with increasing difficulty the older she got. She’s just thinking about their relationship and her mother’s life as she walks. Why did I write the book?

Zibby: Yeah, why did you write the book?

Elizabeth: Well, you see, I was once in London walking around thinking about my mother and the trips I had taken with her. My mother was a woman who walked with canes and with increasing difficulty as she got older. The book, the way I think about it now is that it’s a novel about writing a memoir. It’s definitely a novel. There are made-up characters in it. I wrote it as a novel. I didn’t write it and try to decide whether it was a novel or a memoir, but the mother is undoubtedly my mother. Her name is eventually in the book. There’s just nobody who could be mistaken for my mother.

Zibby: The estate sale part, did that happen?

Elizabeth: That did happen. I would say most of the events in the past happened. A bunch of the stuff that happens in the walking around London did not.

Zibby: When were you writing this? Were you writing this in the pandemic reflecting? Did you write it beforehand? At what point in the rest of life did you work on it?

Elizabeth: It takes place in 2019. I started writing it in 2019, which is good because then I could actually walk around London, which soon became impossible. I wrote a big chunk of it and then discovered — not discovered — was reminded by my wonderful publisher that I had promised to submit a collection of short stories for a deadline. I guess I hadn’t taken it seriously. They said, “No, seriously, we would like to publish the book that you said you’d like to have us publish. Here’s your deadline.” I had to put it aside and write a few short stories. Then honestly, just about as I was about to pick it up, it was in about March of 2020. Then I, like a lot of people I know, I didn’t get anything written for a few months. Then August rolled around. I had a leave from my job as a teacher. One, I knew that I would hate myself if I didn’t get actual major writing done while I was off. Also, my husband, Edward Carey, and I — he’s also a writer and also an illustrator. I’m not an illustrator. That was confusing. He’s a writer as well as being an illustrator. We live in a small bungalow in Texas, although with some very large furniture. We rented a little house in somebody’s backyard and split it. He was teaching. Our kids were on Zoom school. We split the day. He would go and teach. I would go and write. That’s when I mostly finished it. I worked on it through 2021 because I had a few hairbrained ideas that didn’t pan out for the book.

Zibby: Interesting. How old are your kids?

Elizabeth: They’re fifteen and about to be fourteen now. They were twelve and eleven when the pandemic started.

Zibby: I have fifteen-year-old twins.

Elizabeth: Oh, you do? Wow.

Zibby: I do, yeah, and some little kids. I was going through that same moment. Can we backtrack for a minute and talk about how you got started as a writer and a teacher and all the great things that you do?

Elizabeth: Sure. I was one of those kids who always wrote and had very few other skills, quite seriously. I’m very good at sitting down and always have been, and sitting in one place. I wrote through high school and college and didn’t know what I really wanted to write. I thought I might be a poet. I tried my hand at playwriting, though I was a very poor playwright. Then I started to think I’d apply for graduate school in creative writing and did it in poetry and fiction and got an infection and never looked back and had, very luckily, met my agent, Henry Dunow, when I was in graduate school and then had sold a book of stories. Another great stroke of luck is that I got a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which is seven months. All you’re supposed to do is write. One of the other fellows there was Ann Patchett, who came in and has the greatest work ethic of any writer I know. I’ve said this before. I do think that I understood I couldn’t be friends with Ann if I wasted the seven months of our fellowship. I had to work. Her friendship was so important to me. I loved her instantly. I actually do think of that in terms of getting work done. It was just a huge lucky break for me.

Zibby: Basically, put a friendship on the line, and that’s how you can get anything done.

Elizabeth: I tell my graduate students that my biggest tip is to make friends with the hardest-working writers you know because they will spur you on.

Zibby: I love that. What was the first big success that you had and that you were like, oh, maybe this can be my career?

Elizabeth: It’s funny. I think any writer’s career, you think continually, maybe this is really going to be it. Then you think, it’s all over. I have those thoughts regularly. I sold my first collection of short stories my last week of graduate school. That was very exciting.

Zibby: That is exciting. When you sit down to write, tell me about what that looks like for you, non-pandemic writing, or whatever. Do you know where your characters are going? Do you follow them along and they lead you places? Are you like, this is what I’m doing, get into line?

Elizabeth: It’s changed over the years. At this point, weirdly, if I’m writing a short story, I know what’s going to happen. I think about it for a long time, maybe even without taking notes. I sit down, and I write a draft of the short story. With novels, I have no idea, which seems counterintuitive to me. Surely, you should have a plan for the larger thing. Part of it is that one of the things I like about novels is the ability to go astray and to digress. I worry that if I think about it too much — I just can’t see that far ahead. I often have no idea where a novel is going to go until I start it. With this book, I knew a little bit more just because it’s the only really autobiographical piece of fiction I’ve ever written, so I did know.

Zibby: What was your relationship like with your mom before? Do you feel like writing this has changed anything that you’ve seen about the two of you in your mind?

Elizabeth: It has a little, which surprised me. I had a lovely relationship with my mother. We occasionally drove each other nuts, as is part of the familial contract. She was quite a remarkable person. It’s funny. When I started writing the book, I did it with a lot of trepidation because my mother was a very, very private person. She also had strong opinions about everything, including herself. She hated memoirs about parents. I really thought she wouldn’t like this. She wouldn’t like me writing about her. Once I finished, I thought, actually, I think she would really, really like it. She loved — I mean this in the best possible way. She loved being the center of attention. She was that rare person who really liked to be the center of attention for only good reasons. She liked to host parties. She liked to give speeches. She never threw a fit, never lost her temper. There are things in it she probably would go, oh, really? You put that in? I didn’t put in anything that I knew would — nothing distressing. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Nothing that would have distressed her, I don’t think. My conclusion is, yeah, actually, she would’ve loved me to write about book about her. I think.

Zibby: We hope. What was one of the things where she would be like, really, you put that in?

Elizabeth: Two things. It talks a lot about her house being very messy. She wouldn’t like that, even though I don’t think it was such a huge secret. I also wrote a little bit about her — she had a serious illness many years — not many years — maybe six years before she died and then had an illness at the end. I did write about her being in the hospital and being not herself. That, I think she would not have loved.

Zibby: That’s what the people who have to cope with it have to wrestle with. It’s more like your relationship to it than her going through it.

Elizabeth: There’s a line later in the book that says, surely every one person is allowed to have their own story. That was a moment where I did think, I’m allowed to write about my own life. That was part of my life.

Zibby: Especially since you were contractually obligated to make it a novel it.

Elizabeth: Exactly.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Elizabeth: Not much. Put it that way. I’m teaching. I’m reading a lot of student work, which is very exciting. At the moment, I’m working on short stories. I actually have a whole draft of another small novel. I said I didn’t want to waste my one-semester leave during the pandemic. I wrote two little novels. The other one, it’s quite flawed. Anything I write is flawed. Anything anybody writes is flawed, but this one is really flawed. I haven’t looked at it again. I need to look at it. I don’t think it’s found its form. I think it could be part of something bigger.

Zibby: What makes a little novel versus a regular novel?

Elizabeth: Less than fifty thousand words. What do you think? Do you have a word count that you have in mind?

Zibby: I had this one flight where all I did was write for eleven straight hours. I can’t remember how many words, but it was something like forty thousand. Whatever it was, I had to google when I landed, and it was a novella. I know that novella has a particular length.

Elizabeth: Wait, you wrote forty thousand words on an airplane?

Zibby: I know. Aren’t I crazy?

Elizabeth: That’s amazing.

Zibby: They weren’t good. I should really pull that out again so I’m not misrepresenting. Whatever it was, it was the length of a novella.

Elizabeth: How long a flight was it?

Zibby: Eleven hours.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Zibby: I just didn’t stop. I know. My wrists were hurting.

Elizabeth: It’s amazing.

Zibby: I don’t even know where that is. Doesn’t make it good, but I wanted to try something. Point is, novella has a specific length. I could google it now. You probably wrote longer than a novella, less than a novel, or something like that. When you’re reading for fun, which I’m assuming you must do at some point, what are your some of your go-to books? What have you read lately that you love?

Elizabeth: I just started walking around listening to David Copperfield, which is a book I read ages ago. I love it. It’s got Betsey Trotwood in it, who’s my favorite Dickens character of all. It’s been just really, really pleasurable. I just started reading Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet, which I’m loving. I’m looking to my left because I just bought some books. I have this, which I’m really looking forward to, Year of the Tiger by Alice Wong. I just got Dani Shapiro’s Home Fires.

Zibby: Signal Fires.

Elizabeth: Oh, yeah, sorry. Thank you. She’s got another book with fires in the title. I’m very excited about that too.

Zibby: Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors, aside from find a hardworking friend?

Elizabeth: Find a hardworking friend is important. Casting aside all of the things that you think that good writing is, all of the pieces of advice. People give such bad advice about writing, except for me. I give good advice. I know I give bad advice too. I feel pretty firmly that there are no rules for writing. Each individual piece has its own rules. When stories don’t work, and novels too, it’s because they’re breaking rules that they’ve set up. Sometimes in writing classes, they tell you, what will the reader think of this? The problem is that if you ever make up a reader in your head, a specific reader, that guy is such a jerk. That guy is leaning over your head going, in 1861, nobody would be wearing a dress like that on the streets of Baltimore. I don’t think you really know what you’re talking about. Shouldn’t there be rising action and climax and denouement right about now? The work that means something to me when I’m writing it and then also when I’m reading it is the work that sort of gets lost in itself and that respects itself and its own rules, that creates worlds and characters who cannot be made up in steps. My advice is to really think about the things that are important to you and thrill you when you write, and the old , which is true, to just read good writing. It does something to the brain.

Zibby: Yes, never stop learning. How would your students describe you?

Elizabeth: How would they? God, that’s a horrible thought. I think they would talk about how I’m always telling them to remember that their characters have bodies. I know that that’s true. They tell me that. I don’t know. It’s a strange thing to think about yourself as seen by other people. It makes my tummy ache.

Zibby: Oh, no. Sorry.

Elizabeth: They’d call me short. I know that for certain.

Zibby: How tall are you?

Elizabeth: Five foot tall.

Zibby: I’m 5’2″.

Elizabeth: My ball and chain is 5’4″. We sometimes discuss the League of Little Writers. You’re welcome to join. At 5’2″, you’re qualified for the League of Little Writers.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I appreciate that very much. My kids, at school, are like, “Mom, we’re towards the bottom end of –” I’m like, “I’ll give you lots of things, but I cannot give you height. It’s just not in the cards.” They’re like, “Look at her.” I’m like, “Look at her mom.” Impossible.

Elizabeth: My fifteen-year-old may be tall. He’s, by far, the tallest person in the house right now.

Zibby: My fifteen-year-old’s 5’7″. I feel like that’s pretty good. We’ll see what happens. How do you navigate being married to another writer and illustrator?

Elizabeth: It has seemed remarkably easy to me, but I think that that’s person in question, and maybe me too. It feels quite agreeable. We have similar schedules. When one or the other of us have a project that we need to put more time on, the other person will pick up more household stuff. We all know terrible stories about partnered writers. So far, no major bumps.

Zibby: You share each other’s work? Is he one of your early readers?

Elizabeth: Yeah, he is. I once accidentally named a dog the same name as a dog in his fiction. I was very embarrassed. That’s the worst it’s gotten. He had to gently say no. It wasn’t a central column of the story I was writing. I had named a dog Puce, which is French for flea. He’d already done it, and in something that I had read.

Zibby: Of all the things, that’s not the worst. What else should people know about this book that we haven’t talked about? Is there anything else?

Elizabeth: There’s actually a lot of writing advice in it, quite a bit of writing advice in it. I had always sworn as a novelist that I would never write a novel about a writer. If you had told me I’d write a novel with a nameless narrator, I would’ve said, I will never ever do it. When I was first writing the book, to sort of fool myself into writing it, originally, I was going to have a lot of endnotes — maybe I was going to have marginalia; I knew I didn’t want footnotes — that were pieces of writing advice, sort of a craft book, even though I hate the word craft for writing for some reason, a craft book embedded in the book. I couldn’t get it to work no matter how I tried. I couldn’t get it so that it felt like an organic part of the book that would give people pleasure to read and wouldn’t interfere with the novel itself. Once I wrote a lot and then once I realized it wasn’t going to work, I pulled about ten percent of that out and put it into this book, so now the narrator is a writer. It doesn’t talk about a career of writing, but gives what I think is, again, just extraordinarily correct advice on writing fiction, very accurate and right advice.

Zibby: Amazing. I love it. When you are not writing, what do you like to do? When you’re not writing, teaching, doing all the things you have to do, what do you like to do?

Elizabeth: I love traveling. Here in Austin, we have a — I tweet about this a lot. I do also love Twitter. We’ll see if I continue to love Twitter in the coming weeks and months. There’s a giant spring-fed swimming pool at the center of the city that is open year round called Barton Springs. I wake up a little bit before five most days and go off and swim in the dark. It is one of my greatest pleasures.

Zibby: That’s very poetic.

Elizabeth: I swim very, very slowly and bumble along. I like museums and theater and the usual things.

Zibby: Usual cultured woman about town.

Elizabeth: I like funiculars. I go up a funicular every time I can. There’s a funicular in my book, which makes me happy.

Zibby: Excellent. Elizabeth, thank you for chatting with me today about The Hero of This Book, who obviously is you.

Elizabeth: No, my mother. My mother would disagree.

Zibby: I don’t know. You’ll have a dueling protagonist or something. Lovely chatting with you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Elizabeth: You too. Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Elizabeth McCracken, THE HERO OF THIS BOOK: A Novel

THE HERO OF THIS BOOK: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken

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