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
Presently, author is immersed in past
Elizabeth Crook hoped to forgo intense research for her new book, but the history drew her in
By Jennifer Modenessi
Contra Costa Times
The first time author Elizabeth Crook came to California, she followed her grandfather's footsteps all the way to Jack London's doorstep.
Standing with her 3-year-old son on the threshold of the famed writer's door, Crook imagined her Depression-era twentysomething grandfather, who'd come out West to work the harvest, roaring down the road on a borrowed motorcycle, hell-bent on meeting his literary idol.
And there Crook was, decades later, relishing the fact that she was in her grandfather's footsteps, in the exact location where he once stood.
Being in direct connection with the past is something the Austin, Texas-based author obviously cherishes. Nowhere is that more evident than in her recently published novel "The Night Journal."
Crook, whose book tour made a stop in Walnut Creek in February, has made a literary career out of her love for the past. Her previous novels "The Raven's Bride" and "Promised Lands" were steeped in historical details, deftly evoking the American South and Southwest of the mid-19th century.
Researching the past
With "The Night Journal," Crook, who confessed an aversion to the enormous amount of research undertaken for her previous novels, wanted to do something different. "I've been trying to get out of the research business," she says with a laugh. "I wanted to write a contemporary story."
But the allure of the past proved inescapable for the 47-year-old novelist. Knowing that she wanted to set her next book a little further west ("The Raven's Bride" takes place in Tennessee, "Promised Lands" in Texas), Crook began toying with the idea of placing the story in New Mexico. On the suggestion of a friend, she visited Pecos Pueblo and its ancient underground ceremonial kivas. Suddenly, Crook knew there was no escaping the past.
"When I went down into one of those kivas," Crooks recounted, "It was just magic. You go down there and there's this bit of dust floating around in the light that comes from the entry above. You just really feel the timelessness of those places.
"This is really something I want to write about," Crook thought," but unfortunately, it takes place in the past." Crook knew what that meant. "I'm going to have to do a lot of research again!" she told herself.
That research included everything from learning about train wrecks to dialysis mechanics, forensics to Southwestern archaeology. Complicated by getting married, raising a family and an admitted struggle with the "chaos" of writing, the novel took Crook almost a decade to complete.
"When I got so enamored with Pecos Pueblo and thought I wanted to set something there, I thought I'd just do half of the book in the past. Then I'd have to do half the amount of research," Crook recalled. "Of course, it didn't turn out to be easier -- it turned out to be harder, because you're developing two sets of characters in two different time periods and you're writing two stories that you then have to integrate into one, and each one has to be cut down to attainable size rather than the size it wants to be. I did not know starting out how difficult it was going to be!"
"The Night Journal," then, is a testament to the skill Crook has in tying the present with the past. The novel explores the profound effect history has on the living. Crook's two strong female lead characters, dialysis water system engineer Meg Mabry and her famous grandmother, Claudia Bass, are women whose circumstances are a direct consequence of either holding on too tightly to or running away from the past.
Meg has spent her whole life avoiding the diaries her great-grandmother Hannah Bass, a Harvey Girl and wife of a railroad engineer, wrote at the close of the 19th century. Meg's grandmother, Claudia, is a historian and author, famous for editing and publishing the diaries.
When a proposed building threatens to disturb the graves of Claudia's pet dogs, buried amid the ruins of Pecos Pueblo where her parents once lived, Claudia and Meg face some harsh truths about their family history. And for the first time, Meg turns to the diaries to discover the truth about herself and her family.
Crook uses the diaries as a literary device which transport both the reader and protagonists into the past. The reader can enjoy a contemporary mystery and intergenerational drama while reveling in Crook's gifts for conjuring up bygone times through detail and the mannerisms and vocabulary of her characters.
"When you're writing in the past, you can be a little more decorative with your language, a little bit more florid, and get by with it," Crooks said about her writing process. "If you're writing in contemporary voice, it can start to sound really pretentious. With the contemporary story, you have to weigh every word and decide if it's necessary, is it too much? With the past, it's much easier to let go and listen to the voices you hear and record it."
That may make Crook sound like a bit of a medium, and it's really not too hard to imagine the diminutive blond author at her computer surrounded by ghosts from the past. Her voice is that authentic.
"It's funny, because several people have thought that (Hannah's) journals were real and that I built the contemporary story around the journals," Crooks said. "That, of course, made me happy, because that means they had the right authenticity in the tone."
At her mother's knee
That authenticity might have as much to do with childhood experiences listening to her mother read historical novels aloud as with Crook's considerable talent. "My mom read to us all the time," Crook reminisced. "When I look back at the books she chose, there's a lot of the old classics that happened in a different time period. Even though they might not have been historical fiction, they would have been written a long time ago, so they have the sense of transporting us back to a different time. I think from a very young age, I was very comfortable with leaping back into different times.
"With historical things, even though some of the stories were troubling, it just gave us a sense that there is a reality in history that is comforting, simply because it's true and it teaches you the lessons of how people have lived their lives and how you can live your own and how you fit into the context of the bigger (picture.)"
Crook is in essence describing her own book because it, too, deals with legacies and often painful, troubling truths. "I think with this book, it's about that whole feeling of legacy and the past and how history does not exist in a vacuum, but it takes place along a continuum," she explained. "It's about the decisions people make in their lives and how they have an effect on their descendants and on the future in ways that those people never fully understand."
It says a lot about Crook that she's so focused on learning from history in its many facets -- collective, emotional, political and personal -- and has made that her literary pursuit. Though she has no new novel planned, you get the feeling that it's just a matter of time before the voices of the past come calling again.