Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Crook's novel on Texas history includes guest appearances by other authors' characters
by Anne Morris
Elizabeth Crook works hard at writing books. "Like most writers I know," she says, looking up from her china teacup, "there's not anything else I do particularly well."
Her pleasant condo with its sunny deck and impressive view of downtown Austin argues for doing nothing at all, or just kicking back and reading all the books that line the walls.
But that's not her. "I don't have a strong play ethic," she says. "I have a strong work ethic." Lately, she feels guilty reading for pleasure instead of for research.
The work she loves is writing. "When I write a paragraph I know is good, there's just a feeling that nothing else generates."
Crook's novel just out, Promised Lands (Doubleday, $22.50) tells the epic story of two families, one Anglo and one Hispanic, caught up in the Texas Revolution. She'll be signing it tonight at La Zona Rosa for Congress Avenue Booksellers and tomorrow at Bookstop at Central Park.
"What I started out to do was just tell a story," Crook says. "But in the end, I think there is a contribution here in that this book is really about the Tejanos, the Hispanic population of Texas along the San Antonio River for whom the Texas Revolution was a civil war -- and who were divided in their sentiment about it. . . . I started out to have Indian characters, too, but before I knew it I had killed them in the second chapter. I just couldn't tell everybody's story. My Tejano characters took over."
Promised Lands is rich in the kind of details that allow a reader to see the action, of which there is plenty. You envision the movie, the mini-series that might result. So does Crook, though she plays down that possibility. With characteristic modesty, she instead goes into what was wrong with the book when she first wrote it.
"The first draft I sent my editor," Crook says, "I think she called it 'sprawling and overwritten.' Words like those. And it was. It was. It's not now. It's been whittled and whittled."
"My editor" is Jackie Onassis. Crook describes her as hardworking and "a real affirming, nice person."
"She's very demanding, but in such a nice way . . . I always felt good about my writing (after talking to her), but I never knew why I felt good about it, because there was so much that needed to be changed and fixed. Most people could say the same thing, and you'd feel horrible . . ."
This book involved more collaboration than her first book, Raven's Bride. She shared the adventure of writing Promised Lands with two friends who also were writing books about the Texas Revolution: Austin writer Stephen Harrigan and Boulder writer Jeff Long.
They helped each other with research, read each other's drafts, and their characters make cameo appearances in each other's books. (see pages 492-494 in Crook's book to find Harrigan's and Long's characters.)
"Steve actually wrote one part for me," Crook said. "He wrote the death scene of my favorite character, because I couldn't kill her. He first made the offer as a joke. Then I thought, why not? I faxed it to him. I went out for a jog. I came back, and there was the death scene he'd written on the fax machine. . . .
"Then I really wanted to get her back. So I did end up rewriting the scene enough to make it mine. . . ."
"One of my problems when I write," Crook says, "is that I tend to be too visual. I have to go back and cut out a lot. . . . Steve says that the next book I write is going to be called The Ruminator. And it's going to be about someone who walks from one end of the room to another. . . . We're going to know why the person is there, how they feel about walking from one end of the room to the other. How they feel about walking. What they remember while they're walking. How they came to be in the room."
He knows how much she dislikes that kind of elitist fiction. "I like a book that tells a story," Crook says. "I want to be moved by the characters."
Crook got a love of story from her mother, who would read children's classics to her children for two or three hours every night, and a love of language from her father, who recited poetry. (Her mother is the daughter of H.E. Butt, who founded the grocery chain; her father served as director of VISTA under Lyndon Johnson.) In college, Crook majored in English.
Though she's written two books that involved Texas history, her interest came initially from story and character. "It really wasn't Texas history that led me to write Raven's Bride. It was that Eliza (Houston) was such a compelling figure."
Crook believed Promised Lands is better than Raven's Bride, but feels funny saying so. "It's sort of like criticizing your oldest child," she says. "You make mistakes with it, and it didn't quite turn out, as we say. But you know, I really love Raven's Bride. . . ."
Her next book will be a contemporary fiction, she says.