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
Interview by Ramona Cearley
I spent a lot of time researching at the old mission, La Bahia. I knew all the facts, but what I needed were the feelings, the sentiments, that accompany the place. It is difficult to describe but there is something very magical about the area.
Ramona Cearley: Let's begin with historical fiction, your genre of writing. Describe your process of writing a historical novel.
Elizabeth Crook: It's very much a slow process -- a process of groping -- and always a process of discovery, because the research is very exciting to me. Then I often have to turn back and cut out big chunks of material because I find that they're really irrelevant to the story that begins to develop. I'm not a writer that has a lot of vision in the beginning, so I don't know my characters very well when I start. The story often ends up being very different from what I planned. The thing I like about the history is the sense of a treasure hunt: you never know what piece of information you're going to find that will inform the story in some wonderful way. I like that history provides a backdrop. It's like having the stage already set for a story, and you have your touchstones there. All you have to do, rather than create the dramatic moments, is recognize them. You find them, you see them, and then you place your characters in them. So you have these guideposts along the way. When you are writing contemporary fiction you are completely on your own in a very wide and uncertain world.
Cearley: La Bahia, the Spanish mission in South Texas, is part of the story in Promised Lands. How is it significant in terms of establishing a sense of place?
Crook: You always have to know the places you're writing about. You have to have been there, and you have to have been there alone. I had spent a lot of time researching at the old mission, La Bahia. I knew all the facts, but what I needed was the feelings, the sentiments, that accompany the place. A man who worked there told me I could come one night and sit alone in the chapel. As it happened, I was on my way to Corpus Christi with my mother, so I asked if she could come along. She was also granted permission, after quite a bit of discussion, to go into the chapel with me. We stayed quite a while. It is such a mysterious place. The entire area of South Texas. The terrain. It is difficult to describe, but there is something very magical about the area -- specifically about the presidio. We had an unusual experience there. I don't want to sound flaky, but it brought me alive to the past in a way that I would not have been had I not had the experience. It made me feel that the things that transpire in this world hang on somehow in an unfathomable way and that that is a wonderful thing. If you can capture it in any sense -- even a fleeting moment of ascendance -- then you've done something that's nice.
Cearley: That is beautifully said. Do you follow a similar pattern with your work in progress?
Crook: The difference between writing historical fiction and contemporary fiction has become very apparent to me recently because the book I'm working on now takes place, in part, in the past and in the present. I think I started it that way because I mistakenly believed that if I only placed part of it in the past I would only have to do half as much research, which did not turn out to be the case. This book in fact has been more than doubly hard to write because it involved developing two sets of characters, two different stories -- integrating those stories in a way that's meaningful and relevant. And then cutting each one of them in half so that the book is a tenable length and making it fit into a whole. I have learned a lot. I've learned what is wonderful about writing historical fiction and what is difficult. The same with contemporary fiction.
Cearley: You spent part of your childhood in San Marcos, then lived in Washington, D.C., and later in Australia, where your father served as U.S. ambassador. What was your family's influence in terms of your writing?
Crook: The influence that my family had on my writing was primarily that my mother read to the three of us children every night for hours on end. We each had about an hour, so she was reading usually two to three hours a night, and we would all listen in on each other's stories with different levels of understanding. It was wonderful. It was a very bonding thing for the family and often a very cantankerous time, as you can imagine, but it formed all three of us in ways that have been meaningful in our lives. For me, it gave me a sense of language and story. My father was always quoting poetry and from that I got a sense of rhythm with the words.
Ceairler: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was your editor for The Raven's Bride and Promised Lands, published by Doubleday. What was that experience like?
Crook: Yes. That actually was a big surprise. The manuscript had been through a number of rejections and had finally landed with Texas Monthly Press, which was going to publish it, and we already had galleys in print. We had book-signing parties scheduled. And then Texas Monthly Press was sold to Gulf Publishing in Houston, which publishes no fiction. So I was without a home at that point.
We started submissions again in New York, and I had already been down every road there was to go down in New York. Doubleday actually had had the manuscript several times before, under several different titles. Also my name had changed in the meantime, because I'd gotten a divorce. So I think it was probably unrecognizable. Jackie just really liked the book, and that's how it ended up with Doubleday. She called me and said she actually wanted it. I think, at this point, my feeling about that was, Why?
But she was lovely to work with and a wonderful, very maternal personality. She was very shy, and therefore made me feel comfortable with her. She was not at all intimidating and had a certain reticence about her that was nice and very genuine. I liked her and was very sorry to lose her. She died the day that I started my tour with Promised Lands, and that was a book she had spent a lot of time with. So it was a sad promotional period for the book.
Cearley: Tell us about your most recent writing project.
Crook: This book has been through so many different forms that it's even hard for me to talk about it. At this point I have no idea -- it could either be very good or pitifully mediocre. I wouldn't be surprised either way. The difficult thing about writing is you never really know whether what you wrote is any good. It's not like a test where you make a ninety-five. You put it out there, and all these different factors influence how well it does -- the jacket, the title, how much promotion the publishing company is willing to put behind it. So that in the end there's no final verdict, which is a little bit unsatisfying. But at the same time it's liberating when you're writing, because you know that if it isn't just top-notch nobody can ever prove that and hold it against you.
The reviews for Promised Lands were better than for The Raven's Bride, yet Raven's Bride sold better. It's a very mysterious process. I feel as if Raven's Bride was my first child that grew up to do all the right things, was socially adept, joined the Junior League, and was well liked, popular in school. Promised Lands was my more complicated, less easily understood middle child. I have no idea how this third child will come out.
Cearley: You took issue with the cover design of Promised Lands.
Crook: I'm still disgruntled about that cover. It's a big landscape with a large image of a horse head painted in the clouds. Everything is mostly purple. I'm not usually sensitive about gender issues, but I know Doubleday would never have put that cover on a man's book. They made it took like a romance, when it's a war story.
The first painting they did was even worse -- it didn't resemble any place I'd written about. It certainly didn't look like South or East Texas during the rainy season, which is when most of the story happens. It looked more like Utah in a drought. There was a mountain range in the background and a Conestoga wagon the likes of which had never been to Texas at that time. And not one stick of timber or piece of grass in the whole painting. There was a cow skeleton beside a desolate trail, and some kind of bushes that looked like tumbleweeds. I sent the person who was in charge some pictures of Texas vegetation and suggested that the artist might use a little purple phlox for groundcover if he wanted to use purple, but otherwise might tone that down. I was told the artist had grown up in South Texas, which I doubted, so I said that if he could name the mountain range near Goliad, then he could keep the dead cow. Otherwise to give me some trees. He ended up adding a few trees and painting a tree line over the mountain range and taking the tarp off the wagon. He painted grass over the cow skeleton. But he kept the horse head in the sky. I've tried to quit apologizing for that cover. I guess it's like having a baby -- you nurture it all you can before it's born, but then you just have to take what comes out.
Cearley: Do you already have another project in mind?
Crook: No, and I dread having an idea about another book. Once I have the idea, it's going to start nagging at me, and I want to enjoy the feeling of being finished for a while first. I only get that feeling about once every five or six years, and the rest of the time my mind is so cluttered with the research and the different drafts and the revisions I have to make, that I get too preoccupied.
I'm looking forward to going for a jog without a pencil and a piece of paper stuffed in my sock and driving carpool without having to pull over to make notes. I figure if I write about seven good books in my lifetime that'll be enough. I don't think I could do more than that. I have to go through too many drafts before it's any good or before I really define what the book is about. And I don't want to devote my entire life to writing -- that would be a shame unless I were a finer and more solitary writer. I'd rather have family and friends around. After my first marriage I thought all I wanted was my books and my dishes and some place quiet so I could write. So I set things up that way. Of course I was on antidepressants within a month. So, no -- no ideas presently, and no desire for any. I need a break.
Cearley: Promised Lands and The Raven's Bride have been reissued by SMU Press as part of the Southwest Life and Letters series. Would you select a passage from Promised Lands that we may feature as an excerpt of your writing?
Crook: This scene from Promised Lands takes place at night. A family's raft has overturned while they are trying to cross the Trinity River and leave Texas in the panic that followed the fall of the Alamo. A young woman named Katie has managed to rescue her grandmother and swim with her through the current toward the shore and to grab hold of a tree limb. She is now exhausted and feels she can no longer keep hold of her grandmother.
She was unaware of anything but holding on. She held her grandmother by one hand and clutched the limber branch within the other, feeling the soft needled leaves inside her grip, the limb giving with the weight as if it would stretch out forever, all the length of that long river to the sea. The water was a force of evil with its awesome power. Katie sobbed aloud, "I can't, I can't," and felt the current stretch her arms, felt the bony grip of Grand's white hand between her fingers like the hand of death. Grand never looked at her. She never, ever did in that long time they clung there strung together like cut paper dolls with the water tugging them apart. Grand was looking at the moon. She fixed her eyes on the light between the spiny branches and she clung to Katie's hand.
Grand was still looking at the moon and gasping at the air when Katie's strength gave out, her fingers letting go, and Grand sank underneath the muddy surface with her face still turned up toward the light. Katie called and called, but she knew then, and always afterward believed, Grand never heard her calling.
And even while she clung there in the branches of the cypress tree and saw Grand fly away beneath the littered surface of the Trinity, Katie thought how horrible for Grand to know, the final human touch she ever had, was someone letting go.
--Promised Lands: A Novel of Texas Rebellion
(New York: Doubleday, 1994), 454-455