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
Eliza mystery lured writer
Butt granddaughter writes about Sam Houston and mystery wife
by Andrea Wright
Thirty-two-year-old Elizabeth Crook spent her early childhood in San Marcos, then lived in Washington, D.C., where her father was director of Vista under Lyndon Johnson, and in Australia, where her father served as U.S. ambassador.
She spent the remainder of her childhood in San Marcos, attended Baylor University in Waco and Rice University in Houston. She graduated in 1982 with a bachelors degree in English. Crook is the granddaughter of Howard E. and Mary Butt of Corpus Christi. She now lives in Austin.
Question: In an article, Liz Carpenter writes that you "wanted to write about a woman who has been overlooked or misrepresented by historians." Did you set yourself this task first, then come upon Eliza Houston as a possible subject?
Answer: I was groping in the beginning. I did want to write about a woman, and I didn't want someone who has been portrayed repeatedly. Eliza was the perfect person because she was such an enigma: there was so much mystery around her.
Q: Why did you choose this topic? Did you concentrate in women's studies or have you always been interested in women's issues?
A: No, I just think that women have not been dealt with seriously in history to the extent they should be. It was an attempt to vindicate Eliza, who has always been portrayed as a selfish child.
Q: What sort of books and magazines do you read?
A: Well, I'm a very slow reader -- it's my curse -- so I choose very carefully. I don't read magazines much. When I read novels they are usually the classics, and when I choose a contemporary novel it's one that has been highly recommended in reviews. I really don't read many novels, because I always feel what I'm reading should be something that goes toward my work.
I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly since I'm researching my second novel, set in the context of the Texas revolution. It requires extensive reading on a number of different topics, the ranchers, gun-runners, the slave traders, Anglo methods of ranching as opposed to Hispanic methods of ranching, armaments of that period, (how) they bring the arms in on ships, so I have to know something about the ships of that period.
Q: Did you complete the manuscript before presenting it to a publisher? And was Texas Monthly Press the first publisher you approached?
A: Oh, no. I had a lot of rejections. In fact, one agent in New York finally gave up on me. I completed it in a 750-page draft; it was not very good. What I have now is a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite. It was a finished sort of something, but it was not "Raven's Bride."
The outcome was the result of my working with Stephen Harrigan (editor at Texas Monthly). Originally it was scheduled for publishing in '89 by Texas Monthly. Then they rescheduled it for fall of '90. It had gone through everything and was ready to go to press and Texas Monthly Press was sold (to Gulf Publishing of Houston). But what you see now is essentially what Texas Monthly Press was going to put out.
Q: Were you given an advance to live on? If not, what did you live on while you wrote the book for three years? And do the three years include the time you spent on research?
A: No, I wasn't given an advance. It's kind of personal, how I lived. Just say I lived. I had a job at a bookstore for a while and have worked on it since 1985. Everything was intermingled -- the research and writing -- so it's hard to break it down how much time I spent on one or the other.
Q: Your press packages describe how your friend Bill Moyers contacted Jackie Onassis at Doubleday and asked her to read it. How large a part do you think knowing the right people in the right places plays in succeeding in having a manuscript read and published by a major publishing house?
A: I can say that it plays a large part in getting it read and almost no part in getting it published. I've known Bill Moyers since I was a child. It went through a long line of readers and a number of rejections before he took it. But no one is going to publish it (a manuscript) if they don't think it will sell.
Q: Did you have an agent from the outset?
A: I never submitted it anywhere without an agent. I had a very good agent; it just wasn't a very good manuscript at that time. Then another agent took it over and she's the one who took it to Texas Monthly. She is still with me, she's out of Washington, a wonderful agent.
Q: "Raven's Bride" reads as if it were written for scripting. Did you write it with TV or film in mind?
A: No, but I always thought it would make a good TV or feature story; it's an interesting love story with a lot of pathos and intrigue. I've sold the movie rights since it was published.
Q: How much control will you retain over the movie production?
A: I think none. The producer, Karen Learner, is very knowledgeable, very enthusiastic; she's on her own on this. I don't know anything about film, about scripts, so I trust it in her hands. All I can do is hope she stays with the book the way it is.
The book the way I wrote it is always going to be there on the shelf. (The movie_ may enhance it, it may change it, but it's not going to have any bearing on my book. It's a different form, a different endeavor.
Q: Why isn't the reason the marriage (between Sam Houston, the Raven, and Eliza Allen) ended in 11 weeks a simple open-and-shut case of him being either oversexed or sexually abusive?
A: It would have been uninteresting and I think wrong. I think the reason no one's been able to solve it is they've approached it from the angle of "who's wrong?" I think my explanation is better. I don't care who's at fault. Like all relationships, there is fault on both sides. Except by way of historical accounts. I want to vindicate her from (previous accounts) but not necessarily from any wrongdoing in the relationship.
Q: Why did you choose the subject you did for your next book, dealing with the Texas Revolution?
A: The time period was good because I had already done a lot of research on that period, and it was sort of logical to follow Sam Houston on into Texas. I don't deal with him, though, except from a distance. Mostly this (next book) is historical fiction; all my characters are fictional that I deal with intimately.
For instance, (the battle of) San Jacinto will be a scene, and Houston will be seen from a distance, but I won't be dealing with it from Sam Houston's view.
One of my favorite characters is a Hispanic rancher. What they faced during this period . . . very little is known about it from the Hispanic viewpoint. Dramatizing that can be helpful in demonstrating how relations are strained today.
I hope to tell it with a sense of pathos and humor as well. It is also a delightful period of time.