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Elizabeth McCracken captured the hearts of librarians with her first novel, The Giant’s House (1996), a tender and eccentric tale about a lonely Cape Cod librarian and one of her patrons, a literal giant. Her latest novel, Bowlaway (2019), demonstrates the same compassion for misfits, but this time over the course of generations. All of her work is marked by an appreciation for the esoteric, deploying details that connect the readers to the story in an almost magical way—except, of course, the worlds she writes about are very much our own. So these little facts have to come from somewhere, right? We spoke to McCracken about research, resources, and, of course, libraries.
BKL: How does your local library aid you in your writing life?
McCRACKEN: The Austin Public Library and the Austin Library Foundation are so wound into literary life in Austin, it’s hard to unpick them—we have a brand-new, astonishing building downtown, which offers both lovely day-to-day resources and world-class programming. Some of my favorite recent writers—for instance Kaitlyn Greenidge and Samantha Hunt—I heard of for the first time at the library’s annual New Fiction Confab.
BKL: Your latest novel is set in a fictional Massachusetts small town. What kinds of resources did you use to create the flavor of the town over the course of several generations? (Bonus points if this includes microfilm!)
McCRACKEN: Oh, the thrill of microfilm! One of my favorite sounds is the whiz of it through the machine. It feels almost like you’re flying through decades, as close to time travel as possible.
I did indeed look at old newspapers and magazines, and pamphlets, and oral histories, and catalogs of various entertaining coin-op machines. In my first inklings of the book, it was set in a real place (Somerville, Massachusetts, where I lived for years and worked as a librarian), but everything shifted when I put it in an imaginary town. So a fair amount of the flavor, I am delighted and embarrassed to say, is invented. But I also watched a lot of movies, particularly silent ones.
BKL: You have such a knack for immersing the reader in an esoteric world, like vaudeville in Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001) or candlepin bowling in Bowlaway. To librarians, this signals an author who nerds out on learning about some very specific stuff. Do you have any favorite resources you’ve used for any of your books? Is there one resource you turn to over and over again?
MCCRACKEN: I love specificity: the anecdotal, the ephemeral. I don’t think I could ever write anything that required me to consult tables and be highly accurate about dates. I like to read everything and anything, without method or expectations.
I’m a particular fan of books written by ardent and earnest experts, and candlepin bowling has a great one, The Game of Candlepin Bowling (1981) by Florence E. Greenleaf, which is “as told to Paul C. Tedford,” with an additional credit to “historian Carl E. Green.” I don’t actually know anything about Florence E. Greenleaf other than she loved candlepin bowling and self-published the book. I like to consult contemporary materials more for feel than facts (though I do love a good fact). For Niagara Falls All Over Again, I spent some time in the University of Iowa archives, which had a very small collection of vaudeville materials. This ended up being, in a way, more useful than a vast one would have been: it had been edited by time and fate, it—and I—could not pretend to be comprehensive. I tend to like to choose subjects which are documented in ephemera as opposed to well-researched books—ticket stubs, mimeographed programs, old videotapes. I like accumulation more than accuracy. I guess that’s sort of my literary aim, too.
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