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
Elizabeth Crook's Texas
by Robin Bradford
Austin writer Elizabeth Cook, the author of The Raven's Bride, a fictional account of Sam Houston's first marriage in Tennessee, has a new novel about the Texas Revolution. Promised Lands, a sweeping, sensitive story of the displacement of one people by another, is receiving great reviews.
Crook received her B.A. in English from Rice University in Houston, where she studied with fiction writer Max Apple. Having grown up in San Marcos, she has spent most of her life in Central Texas and prefers it that way. (A childhood move with her family to Australia where her father was a U.S. ambassador she recalls as a difficult time, as everything was so different from home.)
Giving directions to her apartment in central Austin she said, "Watch for the big totem pole through the glass door." Indeed, her entry way is filled with a huge totem pole painted in shades of brown which her father brought her back from New Guinea. Upstairs there are books covering two walls and antiques stashed here and there, including an especially beautiful and unusual cherry wood kidney-shaped desk that her grandmother had made for her mother when she as a child. From a silver frame smiles the grandmother in question who recently died. Mary Holdworth Butt, wife of Howard E. Butt, founder of the HEB grocery store chain, left behind stacks of diaries of her life as wife, mother, and first woman chair of the state mental health board. So Elizabeth says she comes by writing naturally.
At age 34, she is beginning work on a third novel -- something completely different, she explains -- winding down the promotional tour for Promised Lands, planning a summer wedding, and looking for a house. As we sit, me on a floral couch that feels more like a feather bed, she in a Victorian style wicker chair with striped pillows, I realize that after traveling through the battlefields she writes so affectingly about, I imagined her to be a big woman who could walk across the mountains. Wearing a pastel sundress and wire-rimmed glasses, she is actually rather petite, someone whose power comes from her determination, hard work, and intelligence.
AC: Tell me about your journey in creating the characters and places of Promised Lands.
EC: I started my research in 1986 when John Jenkins, who had a rare book dealership, put out a catalogue of all his Texana books. I had toyed with working with the period of the Texas revolution so I asked him, "If I were to write a book about this period, of which I know absolutely nothing, which books do I need?" So he pulled out for me first-hand accounts which were what guided me through the whole thing and inspired me.
And then it was a matter of making friends along the way. I went to a lecture on the mustang trade in Texas and met Dan Flores. We got to be friends and one time when he was visiting at our family ranch we sat in this old cave that I've gone to ever since I was a child and talked about my character the Indian guide Metis.
And I got acquainted with Jeff Long and Stephen Harrigan. Jeff wrote Duel of Eagles and then Empire of Bones which is a fictional account of the battle of San Jacinto. Steve is working on his -- I just read chapter three and it's great. When we first found out we were all three working on the same subject we got nervous. So we divvied up the territory. Steve got dibs on the Alamo and Jeff said he wanted San Jacinto and I was already working on Goliad. We were able to work together and not compete. We shared information and we even have cameo appearances of each other's characters in our books. And Steve wrote one scene for me, the scene of Crucita's death. It had just gotten too emotional for me and I couldn't kill her off.
AC: What part did he write?
EC: In the historical account, there is a woman who was killed at the battle of San Jacinto. But no one knew who killed her. So I wrote a scene up to the moment of her death. The fire was coming at her and she was calling for help. And then I faxed him those few pages and I went out for a jog and I came back and he had the death scene there on my fax machine. I sat down and read it and cried and cried. The way he did it, the murder was senseless. I would have tried to give it some reason, but it was much more effective the way he did it.
The problem for me with being a writer is it's so solitary and lonely. This sort of helped fix that. I would call on Steve or Jeff and they would edit each chapter as I wrote it and make suggestions. And then the favor was returned as I began to read what they wrote.
AC: Tell me about La Bahia in Goliad, the site of the massacre of over 300 Anglo and Tejano soldiers, which is at the center of Promised Lands.
EC: That place is magic. There's some feeling there that is very provocative and compelling. It's a spiritual feeling to me. I felt it the first time I was there and most people do. There is something about the place that is haunted. You hear strange things, you feel strange emotions. A lot of it was that I was resurrecting all of the memories from my reading while I was there. I'm not a superstitious person and I don't know if I believe in ghosts but you hear things! Luis Cazarez-Rueda, who was running the place at the time, was from Mexico and he was very superstitious and believed in ghosts. One night, he said I could come back to visit the chapel if I came alone. He wasn't supposed to let people do that. It was a gift to me, and it changed the book.
AC: What are the historical roots for different characters?
EC: Toby [Hugh's 12-year-old son who follows his father, a doctor, into the war along with his pet Coon Dog] is drawn largely from a man named John C. Duval who wrote a book called Early Times in Texas. His memoirs included his escape from the massacre. He and his dog were hiding in the bushes from the lancers who were searching for survivors and his dog started growling. He writes that he put his hand on the dog's throat and trained him to be quiet. Well, there was a foreword written by his sisters in a later edition and they said that wasn't the truth. He had had to strangle the dog. But he could never speak of it without crying so he made up this other story.
Domingo de la Rosa [the owner of a ranch where espionage is gathered for the Mexican forces] is drawn largely from a man named Don Carlos de la Garza who was a ranchero on the San Antonio river. He conducted espionage rings at the time of the revolution. The Mexicans were winning every battle until San Jacinto and that was due largely to these informants.
Callum Mackay [a Scot whose family is killed by the Comanches] is made up, though there were people on the frontier who were scalped and survived.
AC: There were certain scenes that were magical: when Callum's mother is carried by the wind off the cliff in Scotland, when Adelaido shoots the pale gray pacer whose ghost haunts Matagorda, and when the Comanche discovers that a sacred stone has been mysteriously moved. Each of these struck me as mystic causes for the horrible events that occur to the characters' lives. Did you think of it this way?
EC: I actually had ended the book differently and my editor had me cut the last chapter which went back to the stone. I felt that the stone was indicative of the land and the fact that the land is in the possession of different people at different times. In the original ending, the baby Samuel [the son of Callum McKay who survives an Indian attack] who is now grown, has gone to claim his father's land and he finds this stone which he perceives as an object of great mystery. He doesn't know it is the cause of his mother's death. He takes out a little picnic and arranges it on the stone. My editor said it was "cloying." So I ended instead on a very sad note instead of a whimsical note -- which was also sad but which carried us into the future.
The horse came about because I loved all these tales I read about horses and was horrified by how the mustang trade was really done. The pacer, this wild steed that comes back as a ghost, was symbolic for Callum McKay because he comes and haunts the island looking for revenge.
The mother falling off the cliff resulted in her son Callum being homeless and having to go to a new place in search of land. I wanted to dramatize that all of these people were displaced. They were all seeking a home. And here was this land with all these different races and religions and everybody claiming the land. All of them had lost something in order to come here. And of course, when they came they displaced the Indians.
AC: With Promised Lands, I think your writing has become more confident and smooth. Do you agree?
EC: Yeah, I like this book so much better than The Raven's Bride. That was a love story, a smaller, easier book. But I wanted to write something bigger and that meant more. Promised Lands is an epic with a lot of war, a lot of violence. I found myself saying when promoting the book that "This is not a book about the war. It's about individuals caught up in the war." And it is that, but it is also about the war. I realize that people don't want to read war books in the same way that they want to read love stories. It can be intimidating if you know you're about to head off into a journey that's going to involve a lot of heartache. But I think it's worth it to the reader. I wouldn't have written a book that I didn't want to read.
AC: The title Promised Lands sounds very romantic and similarly the book jacket has a landscape bathed in rose-colored light. But after you read it, the title drips with irony. Why did you choose it?
EC: They had nixed 17 titles -- Louis Black made up this one. And I like it. I had to have a title the next day because Doubleday was going to print their catalogue. My favorite title was The Gates of the Presidio. They said: "No one will know what a 'presidio' is." Or The Fires of Goliad. They said people wouldn't know how to pronounce it.
And I don't think the cover conveys the emotions of the story. But the original cover they sent me looks like southern Utah in the middle of a drought instead of Texas during the rainy season! (She slips off the dust-jacket of her book to reveal the original jacket she keeps hidden beneath.) We have here some sort of vegetation that resembles tumbleweed. A mountain! And a dead cow. They obviously couldn't decide whether to market it as a romance or a Western! So I went to the bookstore and got a bunch of books with South Texas vegetation and sent them, circling the mesquite trees. "Here's a mesquite tree." "A scrub oak would be appropriate." "Purple phlox to go with the sky if you're looking for color coordination."
I didn't realize until later that the lettering was all wrong. They don't look like any letters on any of the books I have on my shelves. And then I realized: "Those are romance letters! I think they were confused. They thought because I was a woman I wouldn't have written a war story.
AC: Has your family been important to your writing?
EC: My mom read to us when we were kids every night. C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, Kipling -- all the Mowgli stories -- whatever caught our fancy. I think she gave me a gift and I learned a sense of story and rhythm from listening to her read. My father was also always quoting poetry. He loved language. I feel like I owe them, not just for something I got genetically, but for something they nurtured.
They were also a big part of the writing. Especially The Raven's Bride. My father had a very long illness and I would read to him at night what I had written during the day. He looked forward to it and made good comments.
AC: The fiction writer Cynthia Ozick wrote: "If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage." Do you agree?
EC: I think my writing is probably less courageous than contemporary writing because there's a protection in writing historical novels in that it's not likely to be confused with your own story. I have friends of mine that appear in Promised Lands, but you would never recognize them because they're wearing buckskins and ponchos. In fact, when writing the massacre scene I had to keep a sense of humor because it's the only way I could get through it. So I named those guys after old boyfriends whom I did not like. [Laughing] And they went down begging!
AC: Do you have any quotes which inspire you to write?
EC: [Elizabeth invites me to look at her refrigerator where various cartoon are taped up. She points out her favorite which shows a woman typing away at a computer and a couple watching her saying, "Walks in the woods. Afternoon naps. Emily tried everything. Who would have thought a little mousse in the bangs would spur another five chapters?"] Nothing serious. Really, for me it's just groping from sentence to sentence, feeling my way in the dark. I try to leave it in a place where I'm going to be inspired rather than where I'm at a loss. And then I just make myself turn on the computer the same time I turn on my coffee pot. There's not any philosophy behind it besides a compulsion to finish.
AC: What moments in your writing career have been particularly sweet?
EC: Placing the last period to the final sentence and knowing that it's good. Over Thanksgiving, I was staying with my parents and I finished the novel, but I was afraid to tell them because I was embarrassed. I thought I would cry. So I went around for three days saying I hadn't finished it. They would ask, "How long until the end?" I would say, "A little bit longer. I've got a little more to do" and then I would go up in my room and sit. [Laughter] I just couldn't bear to say I was finished. I had been working on this book for six years. But I finally told them. They went out and bought roses for me and I tried to read them the last few pages from the computer screen but I was sobbing, so my father came over and read the last pages aloud. That felt like a real victory.
AC: What are the bleakest moments of writing?
EC: I can't say it's when something tragic happens to your characters because those are bittersweet. If you've got it right there is a kind of sweetness to it because the emotion is very clean and intense.
I would say it's more the business end. As you promote a book you learn the six phrases that are going to inspire people to buy it and then you start to think: "Wait a minute, I don't want to trick people into buying my book." You want to appeal to the people who are going to love it. The sad thing is you have to do the promotion -- unless you're Cormac McCarthy. It makes a huge difference, I think. I know I've sold a lot of copies because I've been out there working hard to do it. And then the campaign trail -- the promotion tour is like a campaign -- peters out and you end up in Buda or Salado . . . [laughter] . . . on a gravel road. You can't find the place because it's hidden in the scrub oaks.
You have to become an extrovert and talk on the radio. You try not to stutter. It's not what most writers are best at. We're used to having time to think and to revise sentences. And yet more and more it's necessary for selling books because there are a lot of books coming and going and nobody's specifically waiting for your next one.
AC: Your editor -- the one that said your original ending was "cloying" -- was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It must be difficult to have lost her. What role did she play in your writing?
EC: She was my touchstone at Doubleday. When she bought The Raven's Bride, it had been through a lot of rejections. She called me personally instead of calling my agent and said that she'd read it in two days and wanted to acquire it. I was afraid to believe it. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop but it never did. When I went up to meet with her, she asked what I was working on presently and I told her about Promised Lands. She wanted an outline but I didn't know how the story would unfold itself. I like to figure that out as I go. So she convinced Doubleday to do a contract with me for two books based on my description of what the second book would be about. That was so great for me. She did me a big favor by giving this unproven writer a chance based on just a description of the setting and a few characters. Then she edited the book that became Promised Lands as I wrote it. Very meticulously. She worked very hard on it. She even edited one draft over the Christmas holidays.
AC: What have you been working on since Promised Lands?
EC: I'm working on a contemporary novel. Very courageous! [laughter] It's a story within a story and it's about a writer. In the first chapter he's winding up his promotion tour in Buda . . . [laughter] . . . reading in the conference room in the Adam's Extract building. I know that's not exactly in Buda, but I have learned to take liberties. That's all I know right now. I don't even know if I'll finish it. I've never written anything contemporary and I've never written anything that wasn't a tragedy. But I'm tired of the notecards. I don't want to do any research for a while.
AC: What are you reading now?
EC: Sarah Bird's Virgin of the Rodeo. I like it. She does contemporary fiction well. I'm thinking I can learn from her.
AC: You are hosting a fabulous cocktail party. What writers and/or historical characters, living or dead, would you invite?
EC: Ooooh. Gosh, I actually have to say it's my friends here in Austin. It would be Steve Harrigan and Sarah Bird and Larry Wright and James Michener because I admire him so much -- I think he is one of the most generous people. It would be people I know, the people I saw on Friday night.
AC: So you've already got your cocktail party?
EC: Yes. I've got it!