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
BellaOnline: The Voice of Women - Elizabeth Crook Interview
Austin, Texas is the home of
this full time writer who has been writing for "as long as I can
remember". Her husband, two "terrific" children and a Korean
exchange student are a delightful distraction from her writing. The
Night Journal is her third published title.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Elizabeth Crook: I believe the most formative thing was that my mother read to my brother and sister and me for hours every night when we were growing up, and long after we learned to read for ourselves. From this we learned to love stories and to connect with characters. Her reading transported us to foreign places and other centuries, and this was a great gift.
As for becoming a writer myself, I just seemed to inch steadily in that direction from childhood on. I was not especially gifted at anything other than writing, and even my talent for this was dubious and manifested mostly in strained metaphors and whimsical, undisciplined flights of verbiage that had, at best, an admirable sense of pacing. I had the typical aspirations of being a dancer, a singer, an “Aqua Maid” feeding Ralph the swimming pig under water from baby bottles for mystified audiences watching from the submarine theatre at Aquarena Springs--the local tourist attraction in my hometown of San Marcos, Texas. I tried to play the guitar for a couple of years, and sat around strumming Mac Davis songs like “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, but had no talent and was (rightly) not encouraged. Writing became what I did best. I began to do it compulsively, and wrote in a journal every night from sixth grade on through college. Recently on looking back through some of these notebooks, I found myself stunned and a little deflated at the inanity. There was not a glimmer of talent there; not a single moment of insight. Really no promise at all. I thought of getting rid of the journals, but only briefly, as they are a nice keepsake, a stack of detritus that serves to remind me of the hours of obsessive chronicling that must--now that I look back on it, no matter how little talent displayed at the time--have in some way improved my writing. At the very least, the effort perfected my discipline.
Moe: What inspires you?
Elizabeth Crook: Weather. Other books. Tragedy. Life in general. ( I just asked my husband “what do you think inspires me to write?” “You aren’t inspired,” he said. “You’re driven.”)
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Elizabeth Crook: I have two kids, so how I spend my time and how I would spend my time productively are two different things. Fortunately I don’t need solitude or unbroken time to write. I write whenever I can. This truthfully is less and less, as my kids’ schedules become more hectic. Basically I’m able to sit down at my computer on weekdays mid to late morning, and then write…. off and on… throughout the day until about four thirty. There’s no writing time on the weekends. Before I had children, I wrote all the time, usually seven days a week. Not that I was ever very productive: I’m inherently inefficient and write dozens of drafts of a book before it is satisfactory. But there were more hours in a day then, and more work days in a week. I was extremely focused. Now I’m far less focused, and accustomed to writing in snatches. When I find myself with unbroken work-time I often get up and make a phone call just to interrupt myself. If I sound nostalgic for the days when I could write as much as I wanted, then I’ve given the wrong impression. I’d rather raise two great kids and write fewer books in my lifetime. I figure I can write about seven good books at the rate I’m going, and for me, that’s plenty.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Elizabeth Crook: The Night Journal was ten years in the making. I got married in that time, and had the kids, but any way you look at it, this is not a lot to show for a decade of labor. However, I’m not sorry about the time. I think it improved the book. Trite as it sounds, the longer we live the more we know, and the more informed our writing becomes. By allowing myself to stumble along through so many years and so many faulty drafts, I ended up writing a book I could never have plotted beforehand.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you'll have?
Elizabeth Crook: No, none at all. However, this is problematic when it comes to marketing, as The Night Journal floats in a no-man’s land between genres. The story is part historical fiction, part mystery, part contemporary domestic drama. It doesn’t settle into a known market. Reviewers have a terrible time describing it. But I love that the book cannot be categorized. While I was writing it I never had to worry that anyone else was writing about the same topic, or even the same themes. These were my people, my places. The story was entirely mine.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Elizabeth Crook: You’re hitting a nerve here! The truth is, I had no idea where I was going with this story when I started. I wanted to have an idea; I tried to settle on one; I made up scenarios that could be passed off as ideas and attempted to convince myself they would carry me. But I’ve never been a writer with a clear vision. I can barely see as far as the next chapter. Writing this book was actually a lot like driving in a fog. I ended up going down wrong roads, doubling back, cursing the darkness. Wondering where in the heck I was. But the great thing about being lost in a fog is you end up in unexpected and often wonderful places you would never have otherwise thought to go. You make discoveries; you feel your way along. It’s similar to living your life: you might do a tidier job of it with an outline. But, how boring that would be. I am certainly not stupidly advocating that writers should begin their stories without a plan. I’m only saying my own plans never seem to hold together very well and I usually have to scrap them along the way and replace them. In the end I think the stories have strangely benefited from this lack of vision.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Elizabeth Crook: Research is the fuel for my writing. It gives me most of my ideas. It’s like a treasure hunt: one discovery leads to another. I start by reading everything I can find on the place and the period. This is more exciting to me than reading fiction for pleasure, as the information is all there for the using. In fiction, it has already been filtered through someone else’s imagination. After I’ve read the basics and settled on the historical moments or topics I want to dramatize, then I start to research the details.
And yes, I usually have to see the places I’m writing about. It’s nearly impossible to describe a place with any authenticity if you haven’t been there. You have to know what a place feels like, not just what it looks like. Photographs are not enough. But the problem of course, in writing historical fiction, is you can’t go back in time. You can go to the place, but not the time. This is why you have to rely on your research: you have to have enough information to be able to disappear on a daily basis through a wormhole to the past, and arrive at the location of your story and get around without being recognized as a foreigner. However, the major trick to writing good historical fiction is not in compiling research or knowing the details, but in knowing which details to leave out. Writers of historical fiction tend to be overly conscientious and excited by minutia. We have to discipline ourselves to avoid giving excessive explanations or descriptions. My own rule of thumb is that the information has to move the plot along, or inform the reader significantly about the character. If it doesn’t manage either one of these, then it doesn’t make the cut.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Elizabeth Crook: None of my characters are exactly like anyone I know. But they often have characteristics of people I know. Friends might recognize a line of dialogue… a gesture… a certain moment. In my second novel—Promised Lands—I killed off (in the Goliad massacre of 1836) a number of minor characters that vaguely resembled some of my old boyfriends, (and let me assure you, they went down begging.) However my fictional characters in general are not fashioned after my friends. My historical characters are always as true to the original as I can make them. And my female protagonists are not me.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer's block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Elizabeth Crook: It takes me a long time between books to settle on what to write next. It’s like choosing the people I’m going to live with, and where we’re going to live, and under what circumstances, and experiencing what happiness and heartache, for the next ten years. But once I’m into a book, I’m steadily up and running. There’s no block, whatsoever. There’s never a moment when I want to write and can’t think of what to say. There are plenty of moments when I write drivel and have to go back and delete it all, but that’s a different matter.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Elizabeth Crook: I think readers want to be entertained by a book, and informed. They want to care about the characters, and be moved by the story. I always hope my books will manage this.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Elizabeth Crook: There’s nothing nicer than receiving an unexpected email through my website, or a letter; it gives me a great feeling of connection. Writing is more solitary than most jobs, and it’s always good to know there’s someone on the other end of the line. I always try to reply; it’s nice of people to write, and I would hate not to respond. The only kind of mail that’s problematic and difficult to answer is from people seeking advice about their own writing. Up to now I’ve tried to answer these emails but this becomes time consuming, so in the future I might have to let these queries go without reply.
Moe: What's your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Elizabeth Crook: The Night Journal is a book about family legacies, and what it would be like if we could actually go back and reconstruct the entire truth about our ancestors, and see them as they were and not as they have come to be represented by a record that is necessarily depleted and distorted by time. The story takes place in two time frames—the 1890’s, depicted in the journals of Hannah Bass, and the present day, in which Hannah’s great grand-daughter is confronted by a profound and shocking discovery that casts doubt on everything recorded in the journals. It involves a mystery that comes to light when two dog graves on the sight of the old family home near Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico are excavated and expose a number of things one would never expect to find in dogs' graves.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Elizabeth Crook: History and historical fiction. Also historical and contemporary mysteries. Off the top of my head, I think of these novels: Possession by A.S. Byatt, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, historical novels by Leon Uris and Herman Wouk, mysteries by Le Carre and P.D James.
Moe: When you're not writing what do you do for fun?
Elizabeth Crook: I guess I’m pretty goal-oriented and there’s not a lot of lounging around. I do love being with my friends and family. Talking on the phone. Walking my dog. Watching movies. Dining out. Always with family and friends. I love my moments late at night when the house is quiet and I settle in with a good book.
Moe: New writers are always trying to gleam advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Elizabeth Crook: Read a lot. Revise constantly. Read your work aloud to hear what it sounds like. Don’t get into writing if you can’t handle criticism. See it as a job—a craft—not a romantic endeavor. Make notes on what you think of in the middle of the night; otherwise you won’t remember it in the morning.
Moe: If you weren't a writer what would you be?
Elizabeth Crook: God forbid.
Moe: What is your favorite word?
Elizabeth Crook: It varies by the week. This week it is "unsavory."