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
Feeling a Powerful Compulsion to Write
by Fritz Lanham
Elizabeth Crook proves the theory that what sets writers apart from the rest of us is the compulsion to write. Not just the desire or the talent. The compulsion.
She started her first novel, The Raven's Bride, in 1983. Eight years and eight or nine drafts later, it finally saw print. She began research for her just-released historical novel Promised Lands in 1986.
"I went through a lot of rejections," Crook says. "By the time Douibleday accepted The Raven's Bride, it had already been to Doubleday three times under three different titles from two different agents, and by the time it was finally published, my name had changed because I was divorced. I'm sure (the manuscript) had begun to look familiar to them," she says, laughing, "but fortunately they have enough editors there that you can just try another one."
Crook's keep-plugging-away attitude has paid off. The Raven's Bride, a fictionalized life of Eliza Allen, Sam Houston's first wife, went through four printings in hardcover and was a national best seller. Her new book, Promised Lands, a sprawling epic of the Texas Revolution, has been winning favorable reviews and is already showing up on regional best-seller lists.
The 34-year-old Austin-based novelist, who was in Houston recently promoting Promised Lands, is serious but unpretentious about her work. Born in Hermann Hospital, she grew up mainly in San Marcos, where her dad was president of a Baptist academy and once ran unsuccessfully for Congress. The family also lived in Washington D.C., where Crook's father was head of the VISTA program under President Lyndon Johnson, and in Australia, where was was LBJ's ambassador.
After graduating from high school in San Marcos, Crook attended Baylor University for two years before transferring to Rice, where she studied creative writing under Max Apple and took a degree in English. With diploma in hand, she decided to write a novel. For a subject, she chose the enigmatic Eliza Allen, who 11 weeks after marrying Sam Houston left him under never-explained circumstances.
"I wanted to write about a woman who had been overlooked by historians or had been misrepresented," Crook said. "Most of the people who were writing about Sam Houston were men who were trying to justify Sam Houston and his role in the marriage. I didn't think the subject had been handled with any real sensitivity or with an open mind. I wasn't writing to try to place blame. I just wanted to tell a story and tell it how it might have happened."
Writing The Raven's Bride was decidedly a learn-as-you-go experience. "I didn't know how to write, when I first started, as far as developing characters," Crook admits. After the book came out, a reviewer praised her complex handling of point of view; she didn't know what the term meant.
Working on The Raven's Bride, she sometimes grew discouraged but never came close to quitting, she said. She had enough people -- writers and editors, not just family members -- telling her it was good. She knew the book had problems, she believed they could be fixed.
She also had the good fortune to be able to write full time. A family inheritance provided her enough money to live on. "I think I work extra hard because I feel such an obligation," she said, "If you're given that privilege, you have to use it well."
Even before The Raven's Bride was published she had started the research on Promised Lands. The latter follows two families -- one Anglo and one Hispanic -- through the course of the Texas Revolution. The book is hard-hitting, unsentimental and even-handed, treating all parties to the conflict with sympathy.
"I wanted to write a big, old-fashioned epic with love and war and a sense of humor," Crook said.
"This was just such fertile ground because you had all these different races and religions, and everybody wanted the land and everybody wanted it on their terms. It's a great adventure story. The book is not really about the war so much as about these individuals whose lives are drastically changed by the war."
As she got into the story, the Hispanic Texans -- who didn't want to sever the connection with Mexico -- came to play a larger role. "The more I researched, the more I came to know these people and admire their convictions," Crook said. She thinks her most compelling character is Adelaido Pacheco, a dashing gun runner and tobacco smuggler who ends up losing his country.
At the center of the book is the battle of Goliad and its aftermath, when some 400 captured Texans, including their commander, Col. James Fannin, were marched out into fields near Goliad and, on orders from Santa Anna, shot.
Nobody has wanted to dwell much on Goliad. "It was nothing that anyone was proud of on either side," Crook said.
But for a novelist, it's full of dramatic possibilities: Outnumbered, surrounded, without water, Fannin's men must decide whether to attempt a breakout. But that would mean abandoning their wounded, so they all surrender instead. Many of the Mexican soldiers ordered to carry out the execution are Mayan Indians, some as young as 12, who speak no Spanish.
Then there is the moral drama swirling around Col. Jose Nicolas de la Portilla. He is the 27-year-old Mexican army commander in charge of the prisoners at Goliad. He has to decide whether to obey Santa Anna's infamous order.
"He must have been in an excruciating spot," Crook said. "He wrote in his journal about how he spent the night in agony trying to make this decision."
"To me this is the untold story of the revolution. We've heard of San Jacinto and we've heard about the Alamo, but Goliad has been shied away from by both sides because it's just human and tragic and there seems nothing uplifting there."
Crook doesn't seem intent on whittling larger-than-life Texas heroes down to size. But she is emphatic that historical figures should be portrayed warts and all.
"I understand the concept of needing heroes -- I vaguely understand," she said. "But needing to believe they're perfect is something very different, and to me it's an illusion. I think the truth is better than a lie. It's richer, and there's more to learn from it."
The new novel is better written than her first, she said. She knows her tendency to overwrite, and "when I get in those modes, I just put the computer in delete."
Promised Lands also benefited from the attentions of Doubleday editor Jacqueline Onassis. Crook described the former first lady as meticulous and friendly, skilled at carving up a manuscript without hitting authorial nerves.
"I would come away from a session on the phone with her, where she'd told me that a third of the book had to go, and I'd just feel great," Crook said, laughing. "I'd think about it and wonder, why do I feel great -- a third of my book is bad and has to be cut. But she's been so affirming and so specific that you feel you're in good hands and that the book is getting the scrutiny it deserves."
Crook plans to set her next novel in the present. She's tired of the research, the hundreds of note cards, of having a head "cluttered constantly with the details of living in the wrong era."
Before she can get to that, she must hit Texas cities to promote Promised Lands, a novel that will almost certainly have most of its readership in the state. The "dog and pony show on the road" isn't her favorite part of the novelist's trade, but she's philosophical about it.
"I can't figure this business out," she admits. "I have no idea whether this book will find its audience or its audience will find this book. It seems to be so whimsical which books do well in the marketplace. It doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the book itself.
"I think it's what the cover looks like. I think it's marketing."