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
'Raven's Bride' a success now, but author struggled for years
by Elizabeth Bennett, book editor
Austin author Elizabeth Crook is on a roll.
Her first novel, The Raven's Bride, is getting both critical and popular acclaim and already has gone into its third printing. Crook herself has been the subject of gossipy notices in USA Today and the New York Times, plus major features in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. And she's been the honoree at a fancy New York publishing party that included such guests as Walter Cronkite, Tony Randall and Judy Collins.
It hasn't hurt, of course, that Crook's editor at Doubleday is Jacqueline Onassis. Or that the person who introduced her to Onassis is television superstar Bill Moyers.
But in spite of such help in high places, Crook still spent more than six years struggling to write and sell The Raven's Bride, a historical novel based on the mysterious first marriage of Texas hero Sam Houston. And like most first-time authors, Crook had trouble finding a publisher when she completed the first version of her book in the late '80s.
"It was 750 pages (long) and terrible and burdened with all this history," recalls Crook in a Houston interview. "It was a big mess. I went through all these rejections (from publishers) -- probably 12 -- and I had one agent and switched to another one. And when finally Texas Monthly Press accepted the manuscript I thought 'Why?'"
Working under the direction of writer Steven Harrigan, Crook rewrote The Raven's Bride -- the published version is 369 pages -- and Texas Monthly Press scheduled it for publication in the fall of 1989. Then the press had financial problems and was purchased by Gulf Publishing Company in Houston. But Gulf, unfortunately for Crook, doesn't publish fiction.
Once again she started searching for a publisher, and once again the rejection letters started pouring in.
"At that point I just despaired," says Crook, 31, a third-generation Texan who grew up in San Marcos and studied creative writing under Max Apple at Rice University. "And that's about the time Bill Moyers called."
Moyers had seen early drafts of the book and encouraged Crook to keep working on it. (He was a former boss -- Crook worked as a production assistant on one of Moyers' television documentaries. Moyers was also a longtime family friend of the Crooks; once press secretary for LBJ, Moyers knew Elizabeth's father when he was director of VISTA during the Johnson administration.)
"He read the final version and sent it to Mrs. Onassis, his editor at Doubleday," explains Crook. "She told me she read it in two days."
Onassis didn't do any more editing, adds Crook, "but what she did was see it through the publishing and promotion process. She's wonderful, and she'll be my editor for the book I'm working on now."
The Raven's Bride is the fascinating story of Tennessee governor Sam Houston and Eliza Allen, a spirited young woman from a prominent family, who fell in love and got married in 1829. But the wedding ended in disaster. After 11 weeks, Allen walked out on Houston, causing him to resign his office in disgrace and leave Tennessee to live with the Cherokees before eventually ending up in Texas as president of the republic.
Neither Houston nor Allen ever revealed what happened, says Crook, who has done extensive research on the subject and written about it for Southwestern Historical Quarterly. And Crook's novel is her own version of what transpired between those star-crossed lovers.
The problem, she believes, was that "the most public of men married the most private of women."
Sam Houston, contends Crook, was "a great hero but a terrible husband. I would have left him, too. There are those men and women to admire at a distance but not to be embraced. His ego and eccentricity and wit -- all those things we admire in a hero -- would not be so endearing in a husband. Sam and Eliza were drawn together, but they were incompatible in the end."
Meanwhile, Crook is about 200 pages into her second novel, which will deal with only fictional characters, she says. She's surprised and delighted that The Raven's Bride has done so well, but she's not expecting to strike it rich.
"It's selling so much better than I thought it would, but I don't have any idea yet about money. It's too early. I have sold options to the movies and I'll make about $2 off every book that sells.
"But I have six years of research in this," she adds with a smile. "Usually you do well to break even with a first novel and that's my hope with this book."