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
The Louis L'Amour Project - Elizabeth Crook Interview
Today's interview on The Louis
L'Amour Project is with Spur award-winning novelist Elizabeth Crook,
whose 2007 novel The Night Journal took home the prestigious
Western Writers of America prize. I was going to try and make some
tangential point about how Louis L'Amour also won a Spur award in
1968 for his novel Down the Long Hills, but I couldn't think of a
clever enough way to tie it back to the interview. So, I'll just say
what I want to say in a few clunky parts: 1) Louis L'Amour won the
Spur award in 1968 for his novel Down the Long Hills; 2) Elizabeth
Crook, my interview subject today, also won a Spur award last year
for her novel The Night Journal; 3) Louis L'Amour writes well
in a churn-out-tons-of-stuff-of-mostly-high-quality sense; 4)
Elizabeth Crook writes well in a
she-really-writes-good-lasting-prose sense. I can't really emphasize
the distinction between 3 and 4 enough. L'Amour's writing draws you
in with any number of common--though well-executed--literary
devices, action being one of them. Rarely am I drawn in simply on
the merits of the prose itself. Read one paragraph from Crook's The
Night Journal, though, and it sinks into you, or you sink into it,
or something like that. What I mean is it draws you in in a
different way than L'Amour, and since I've been reading tons of
L'Amour lately, revisiting The Night Journal was a welcome change of
Ms. Crook and I began the interview with a discussion of genre. Classification-wise, The Night Journal is somewhat of a chameleon of a novel. Though it won a Spur award, to call it a Western is like calling a decathlete a runner. It's true, but one could say so much more about it.
CJ: What do you think of the term "Western" as a genre classification? Do genre considerations guide or influence your writing process in any way?
EC: I got hooked on TV westerns back in the early sixties when I was about five, mostly because my brother was addicted to them and wouldn’t let me watch anything else. He was older, and since the law of the west was fairly entrenched in our household, whoever was bigger got control of the television. I sat mesmerized, and horrified, through hundreds of gunfights and became emotionally involved with everyone in Bonanza and Gunsmoke. When I started escaping to a neighbor’s house to watch what I darn well pleased, it turned out to be The Big Valley. Every afternoon my friend and I would pour grape juice over mounds of ice cream and settle in to see what was happening with Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Evans and the boys in The Big Valley. As for whether genre considerations influence what I write, they don’t at all, but I might sell more books if they did. The Night Journal is a hodge-podge of historical fiction, western, mystery, and contemporary domestic drama. It doesn’t settle into a specific market, reviewers have a hard time describing it, and sometimes it gets classified weirdly in bookstores. But from a writer’s standpoint, I like that it’s hard to categorize. It seems like the Western genre has crept out of its casings during the last few years, and expanded to include books and movies we wouldn’t originally have thought of as westerns. The Night Journal is a case in point. But the defining aspects of westerns are still pretty much in place—namely landscape and conflict. In other books the conflict can be internal, but in westerns it usually plays out on a big stage.
CJ: Was there a defining moment or point at which you realized writing was what you wanted to do?
EC: When I was six I wanted to be a ballerina. By the time I was eight I was fairly sure this plan wasn’t panning out. I began aspiring to be an “Aquamaid” at a resort called “Aquarena Springs” in my hometown of San Marcos: Aquamaids got to wear mermaid tails and feed milk bottles underwater to Ralph the Swimming Pig for an audience submerged in a “submarine”. But then I heard through the grapevine that Ralph was actually a series of Ralphs that were made into bacon when they acquired a certain poundage and started to sink. Not wanting to risk the bereavement involved in forming that kind of doomed attachment, I changed my hopes to being a singer and sat around with my hair in my face droning Mac Davis songs. Writing was sort of a last stand. Come to think of it, it was the only “talent” I had that anyone asked for more of.
CJ: Does literary "influence" play a role in what you write? That is, do other authors influence you, and if so, how?
EC: I think when you’re a writer most of what you read influences you. The rhythms get into your head. In middle school I wrote a paper on Hemingway and none of the sentences had more than five words. Then I wrote a paper on Faulkner and no one could tell what the sentences meant. The author with the greatest influence on me is my friend Stephen Harrigan, who critiques everything I write before I even bother to show it to my agent or editor. He’s a truly great writer—author of Gates of the Alamo and other books you might know of, and his instincts about what’s working in a story, and what’s not, are just about perfect. My books would be very different without his influence.
CJ: The Night Journal has earned lots of notice and acclaim. Did you anticipate this? What do you think of its reception?
EC: The Night Journal received two awards that I’m terribly proud of—-the Spur from Western Writers of America, and the Willa Literary Award from Women Writing the West. Both these groups are filled with great writers and good people. As for anticipation, you never know what to expect of a book. They’re like kids: you bring them into the world, fret about them, and then at some point there’s no other option but to turn them lose and see how they do. It took me ten years to write The Night Journal, so that was a big ordeal. I knew from previous books not to count on anything in terms of sales. My first novel—-The Raven’s Bride, about Sam Houston’s disastrous first marriage—-sold well and got attention, but my second book—-Promised Lands, about the Texas Revolution—-didn’t. Promised Lands was a better book in my opinion, and it’s still my mother’s favorite of the three I’ve done, but I doubt anyone who isn’t a blood relative has ever heard of it. Which is to say expectations aren’t worth much in the book world.
CJ: You live in Austin, which appears to be a very nurturing place for artists. What impact has your location had on your writing?
EC: I love Austin. It’s great here. I don’t mind the heat. I grew up thirty miles down the highway in San Marcos, and I’ve still got family there, so I guess I’m pretty well rooted. I love the writers in Austin. We stick together. We all like each other and go to each other’s book signings in case no one else shows up. When Larry Wright won the Pulitzer last year for The Looming Tower we all strutted around for weeks, until some sourpuss among us noted that it was actually Larry, and not the rest of us, who won the prize.
CJ: What projects do you have planned for the near future?
EC: I’m halfway through a novel set in two time frames--Austin in the 1960’s and Alpine (Texas) in present day. It started out to be a small, lighthearted, humorous book about family relationships; I was tired of writing war stories and tragedies. But by the end of the first chapter two of my characters had been gunned down by a sniper, so I had to re-think the humor idea. The story actually begins with the tragic shootings from the U.T. Tower in 1966, and then picks up with the (fictitious) life of one of the victims and two of the rescuers forty years later when they come together again at a bed-and-breakfast in Alpine, Texas.
CJ: Kind of a longshot, but The Night Journal reminds me of a combination of Wallace Stegner and A.S. Byatt. (I'm thinking Angle of Repose and Possession, with their focus on investigating and reconstructing past events.) Have you read these, and if so, have they influenced you?
EC: Is there anything you haven’t read? Angle of Repose is one of my favorite books. I fell in love with it in college. When I submitted The Night Journal to my agent she got very excited because she said it reminded her of Angle of Repose. I’d be a dope to compare my writing with Wallace Stegner’s, but that book probably influenced me in ways I didn’t even realize while I was writing The Night Journal. And yes, Possession is also a favorite. I love the mystery, the reconstruction of history, and the way past and future define each other.