Elizabeth Crane on Building a Novel from the Conversations of a Mother and Daughter

Elizabeth Crane’s newest novel, The History of Great Things, is a series of imagined conversations between a woman named Betsy Crane and her mother, Lois. This novel isn’t simple autobiography, but is inspired by Betsy and her mother: narrative Betsy is an author, and narrative Lois leaves her life in the Midwest to pursue a career in the opera. As mother and daughter tell each other’s stories — some real-ish, some imagined wildly — Crane illuminates a kind of emotional truth that’s independent of facts. The History of Great Things is fascinating, heartbreaking, genre-inventing stuff. It’s not quite a memoir and not a kind of novel you’ve probably read before. But it’s wonderful.

Heather Scott Partington: The History of Great Things is told in alternating points of view, as a conversation between Lois and Betsy. You also interject conversations between them as they argue about the details of the story, who remembers what, and what could have happened. How did you settle on this particular structure? Did it evolve in layers? Can you talk about the inception of the novel?

Elizabeth Crane: I was really inspired by Percival Everett’s book Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. I hadn’t read him before that, which is a terrible thing that shouldn’t have happened that I am currently remedying by working my way through everything he’s written, but I was really hit by that book, which has a vaguely similar structure, though the two characters are a father and son. So my initial thought was just, what if I could sit down with my mom now and we could really try to tell each other’s stories? It did end up evolving some from there, because I had to make some difficult choices in terms of the direction the stories went, which seemed to be kind of infinite. Should they be close to real? Totally far away from real? So totally far away from real as to be absurd? Point-of-view choices became a little boggling, and I threw some early attempts out. In the end I kept it as simple as I could and just had them tell each other’s stories as they really might have imagined them to the best of my ability. But then it got weird because there’s almost twenty more years of my life since my mom died where she’d not even know any of the basic facts. So that George Saunders thing came into my head, as it often does–how do I fling my little car forward from here?

HSP: One of the things I like most about the interjections or arguments between Betsy and Lois is that they allow the reader to see you confronting and challenging yourself on the page. It reminded me of Dinah Lenney’s essay, “Future Imperfect.” It lives in that same wheelhouse of self-interrogation. From a reader’s perspective, it’s easy to read a piece of writing and think that it was conceived whole and complete by the author, and Great Things belies that kind of mythology in a fascinating way. What was it like to push yourself into uncomfortable situations (to say nothing here of the fact that you did this by creating a “you” character, and a “your mom” character to do it — we will get to that in a second)? Was it important for you that the reader sees it?

EC: Oh, I love that piece of Dinah’s so much. I think I’ll make my students read it this week, so thanks for reminding me about it! Anyway, it’s a great question–when I’m writing, I really try to put whatever anyone might think way in the back of my mind, otherwise I will for sure not write certain things at all. But I think of the questions I have as a reader, and the questions I have for myself about the work, and hopefully these address some of the ones the reader will have as well. But also, some of those questions and ideas Lois has about fiction are as true to her own ideas as I remember them, and I did think that there might be some readers out there with similar questions. As far as uncomfortable goes–this was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been writing a book. Does that answer the question?

HSP: Gender roles play an important part in the story: for Lois, they define much of her action, and for Betsy they define so much of her reactionary life choices. I want to ask a question here about strong role models in your life, and how you came to define your own sense of success. But I am realizing that is impossible to do without acknowledging that at the heart of The History of Great Things are many emotional truths and a fair number of literal truths. And, you know, names that are the names of you and your mom. So let’s deal with that first. (1) How were you impacted personally by real-life Lois’ ideas about the roles of men and women; (2) Did those ideas impact or inspire you to be who you are, and (3) how did that affect narrative Lois and narrative Betsy?

EC: (1) Oh man. Success is one of those words (and its frenemy ambition) that are tough ones for me to parse. I did have to work hard on letting go of any ideas of success I thought the world might have had for me so I could aim for a life that I wanted for myself, which mainly meant writing and trying to find meaningful work. It took a while. (Also: filing Reactionary Life Choices for a future memoir title.) Anyway, I was impacted greatly, and in a lot of ways, but ways that are a little hard to measure. It’s my idea that she had a great deal of internal conflict about gender roles. Obviously, she grew up in a time when they were more clearly defined, and some of those old ideas stayed with her. And then she crossed into an era when that began to change, and that appealed to her and it probably opened up a lot of opportunities for her, but some of her more traditional beliefs were still hard to shake or reconcile. Sometimes it seemed like she’d take these ideas as they suited her, though, because she might just as well say, “Fuck that shit!” about some idea of propriety, like let’s say cursing in polite company. Anyway, the easiest way to say it is that there were mixed messages, and so especially when I was younger, I’d take on her ideas–like there was something wrong with me if I couldn’t find a guy (vs. making a perf legit choice to be single). For sure, she expected that I should be able to support myself, and that was absolutely not an idea she grew up with, and/but, I think at the very least, it’s fair to say that she liked having a husband with a steady income.

(2) All this said, I really do think the fact that she relentlessly pursued her goals did far more for me than anything she ever actually said. She did what she wanted to do. I personally got a little sidetracked on the way to doing what I wanted, but in the end, that’s the message that won. And make no mistake: as a little girl, I was in awe of her. Lots of my friends moms worked, but mine was on the stage in fancy costumes singing opera, and I got to travel around the world with her. It felt very glamorous and special to me.

(3) It definitely affected the narrative usses, because so much of what’s in the book are things I wish I could have had the courage to talk much more with her about in real life. I tried to get some of this on the page, and I think the dialogue between the chapters definitely reflects a certain way that we engaged with each other. My whole daughterly thing was always about wanting to be understood, the quintessentially angsty young person cliché, but something I came to at least wonder about, and kind of gave to Narrative Lois (I think that might be her new name, thank you) was that maybe Real Lois understood Real Me better than I gave her credit for. I mean, maybe she didn’t. But that’s why fiction is awesome!

HSP: There is interesting tension in the story about these two women who both want, as Betsy says, “to mean something.” But for Lois, meaning something is defined externally, and for Betsy it is different — internal and external, which really made me think about how writing allows us to control what we put out into the world — what we reveal, what we don’t reveal, etc. How did the idea of truth (“imagined realism”) affect the writing of this novel? As the characters both tell each other, it’s not a memoir. But it is something that feels so emotionally true, even as we see it evolve on the page. Can you talk about what that meant to you as you wrote it?

My own brain causes me enough trouble. Imagining being in hers hurt my heart.

EC: I’m really glad to know that came across for you. I think the main thing, because I knew I was going to veer farther and farther away from real stories, was that the characters had to be real. So what you’re getting in the book is very true to me and my mom, personality-wise at the very least, and I hope, emotionally. In a certain way, it should seem like writing about my own inner life would be easier, I know how I feel/felt, right, but writing about my inner life from someone else’s view, in a way that might be close to what’s emotionally true, was not easy. In some ways it was much easier for me to imagine what it might be like to be in her head than it was for me to imagine what she truly imagined about what was in mine. Ultimately what it meant was that I had a greater-than-ever empathy for how challenging it might have been for her to exist in her head. My own brain causes me enough trouble. Imagining being in hers hurt my heart.

HSP: Did it mess you up to write as your mom writing your story and vice versa? I loved this book and I couldn’t put it down, but it kind of messed me up for a few days after I read it. I mean that as a compliment. It really made me think in a way that was both uncomfortable and kind of beautiful, and I certainly didn’t live it. How did you go there long enough to get it on the page? If your answer is something like “that’s a dumb question, Heather, because as a writer it’s my job,” I will understand.

EC: Ha! Um, all caps YEAH. It was surprisingly painful, and I say surprisingly because at my age, after years of therapy and everything else, I think “Oh, I’ve worked through this, you know, I’ve got plenty of distance or whatever, I’ve written about her before” and that may all be true, but she had a profound influence on my life in the way that same-sex parents often do, particularly ones that had any kind of issues and had maybe not lucked into the thing that would have really helped them. I’m tied up with her in all kinds of ways, still, for better and worse. I hope that was of use here. But I really thought it would be different when I sat down to do it. HA, again.

HSP: So many authors are put off by questions about the autobiographical nature of their prose, but you have always been very open and honest about it. Do you find that’s more freeing to just let people know that you’re drawing from life, or do you still get annoying and weird questions? Did you wrestle with the naming of your characters at all, or were they always Lois Fred, and Betsy?

…the main thing that’s irksome is that on occasion there’s this implication that there’s a lack of imagination involved if you use things from real life in fiction.

EC: I think the main thing that’s irksome is that on occasion there’s this implication that there’s a lack of imagination involved if you use things from real life in fiction. Which makes no sense. The opposite is actually true for me; I really, really struggle with writing non-fiction about myself, sometimes the same material I’ve written about in fiction. It’s not because I’m not willing to share it. It’s a weird creative block where if I know it has to be true, my writing, generally, goes deadly dull. (It’s something I want to do though, so I’ll keep trying.)

Character names: they were always Lois, Fred and Betsy, no wrestling. I changed a couple of names of other real-life people if I thought they might conceivably see it as less than flattering, regardless of it being made up. Because it will be read as nonfiction, by some, some in my own life I’m sure, even though that very topic is discussed in the book itself. But the names thing was again inspired by Percival Everett, even though it’s been done by a very long list of other writers as well. (see also Ruth Ozeki below) It just seemed like yet another way to play with the form, to acknowledge where these characters came from but challenge a reader to think beyond what that might mean.

HSP: If literature worked like Pandora: Say someone read The History of Great Things, and was like YES, THIS. THUMBS UP, I am going to hang out on The History of Great Things book station… What else would be next in the rotation? The rest of the fabulous Elizabeth Crane oeuvre, naturally. But are there titles by other authors you’d recommend? I can’t think of anything that uses your “super-weird blend POV-science” because it is distinctly Cranian, but are there other books that you love that challenge the notion of truth? Or are related in a different way?

EC: Ha! I love this question. For sure the Percival Everett book. I fear putting things on this station that will imply that I think that I deserve to be in their company, but I also have to put Long Division by Kiese Laymon in there, if ever there was a POV-sciency book I think that one is it. For sure A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble is fresh in my mind (you can’t ever go wrong with Kelly Link), maybe Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce, a little Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli because why not, a little The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim, a little Walker on Water by Kristina Ehin.

HSP: What are you working on now?

EC: Augh! A story collection. But three months ago I was working on a novel. Story collection! I’m stickin’ with it! It’s close. Ish.

HSP: There is a wonderful exchange between Betsy and Lois where Betsy is explaining reviews and why she writes stories — not just happy stories, but complicated and sad stories — and Lois talks about why she would never want to read anything complicated or sad. Betsy explains why she writes, and in a roundabout way, why she reads. What have stories meant to you? Has that changed at different points of your life?

EC: Oh god, it’s changed and changed so many times. I always liked weird/different/dark things best, from the time I was a kid. Hard to say what that was about at the time. I had an illustrated book of Mommy, Mommy jokes that so were so not funny, not even then, but I think the subversiveness of it was still appealing. Hm, why has this not ever come up in therapy? Anyway, even with a book like Harriet the Spy, recognizing myself in a misfit girl in New York City when I was eight meant everything to me, and that she had a sort of outlet in writing completely changed my course. So there’s that. Actually I couldn’t get enough of books about kids in New York City back then, misfit or not. I’m sure now that I was really trying to process where we had landed, which was so overwhelming at the time, and truthfully, I’ve spent my life trying to figure out my relationship to that place, and I still read a lot of books on that subject (Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York is a favorite, also hello Vivian Gornick!). I was actually telling Ben, though, that I didn’t really get into reading short stories until well into adulthood — my vague memory from high school and college is that once in a while there’d be one like Flowers for Algernon or The Lottery that spoke to me, but for the most part I remember thinking I didn’t ‘get’ short stories. Which is weird because we had a Norton anthology (that I still have, with my old notecards in the back) that had some pretty great stories in there. For a long time in my twenties, my reading was very weirdly all over the place (True crime! Judith Krantz! Tama Janowitz!) and then at some point I finally figured out how to locate writing that I really dug. And once I came upon David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Rick Moody, Lydia Davis, Ali Smith, my head more or less exploded. I just had no idea that writers could do what they were doing, this marriage of story and exciting prose I hadn’t seen. It did something for me that I hadn’t learned in school, that there was room for me to write not like them, but like myself. And of course, you know, the other obvious reason I love fiction is the same as anyone, to learn about how other people live, which is everything.

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