A few things to know about Elizabeth McCracken, in no particular order: She’s hilarious on Twitter. She likes to spend her very early mornings swimming in Austin’s Barton Springs Pool. She can write incredible sentences, smooth but barbed with a deliciously sharp wit. She’s not wild about the term “autofiction,” and her new book is definitely a novel, not a memoir. It says so on the cover, clear as day. She thinks this piece should be titled “The McCrackenaissance,” and she’s right.
The author of eight books — three story collections, four novels, and a memoir — McCracken is the James A. Michener Chair in Creative Writing at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches in the university’s two creative writing MFA programs and in the Department of English. Teaching keeps her busy, but so does writing: Of those eight books, three have been published in the last four years. She’s been so prolific that this profile was assigned before I knew her new novel was scheduled for release. “Start reading now,” my editor said, “she’s bound to publish something new soon.”
He was right. McCracken’s new novel, The Hero of This Book, debuted in October 2022 and has since made many a year-end round-up of the year’s best books. The reviews are raves, even if they aren’t always quite sure how to describe the book or its hero. It says “A Novel” on the front cover, but there’s plenty of reason to doubt the standard “This is a work of fiction” boilerplate.
The plot itself is relatively straightforward. The narrator, a writer who bears a striking resemblance to the real Elizabeth McCracken, including her name and large chunks of her biography, takes a long walk around London and thinks about her recently deceased mother. She visits the Tate Modern, takes a spin on the London Eye, and catches an inventive adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Interspersed among these episodes are sections about her unusual mother, a charmingly original woman whose oddities and stubborn strength of character come through in technicolor. And if the narrator of the novel resembles McCracken, there’s no doubt whatsoever about the mother.
“I recently found some notes in which there was a mother character who was nothing like my own personal mother,” McCracken tells me when I meet her for coffee on a warm October day. “For a little while, I struggled with this imaginary mother, and then I changed it to somebody who is unmistakably my mother and it became much easier. Partially because it’s easier if you already know everything when you’re writing a book. I didn’t have to go, ‘oh, would this character do that?’ I’m like, ‘Godammit, yeah, the character did that and I know it!’”
The mother character loves boats and hates all professional sports. She claims to have invented the mojito and children’s Tylenol. She loves giving gifts, is bad with money, and has beautiful hair about which she’s particularly vain. She has very odd, tiny feet, which give her considerable trouble. She walks with canes and then a walker and finally motors around on an electric scooter. Over the novel’s 177 pages, the narrator examines pieces of the mother’s history and personality, layering these details and hundreds more like dabs of oil paint on a canvas. The result is a stunning portrait of an unusual, generous, and stubbornly joyful individual as well as a meditation on personhood and loss writ large. What are we, McCracken seems to ask, but collections of traits, perhaps unremarkable taken one by one but wonderfully singular when combined? And what remains when we are gone?
“Once, I would have said that I knew everything about my mother, even what she didn’t tell me,” the novel’s narrator says. “I was wrong. I only knew the stories she liked to tell, not the ones she’d prefer to forget.”
McCracken grew up the child of two academics and as part of a larger cast of lovable eccentrics. The family moved around when she was young, with stints in Portland, Oregon, and abroad, before settling into the Boston area. There, her parents both accepted jobs at Boston University, and McCracken soon attended the university herself. (Her mother edited the alumni magazine; McCracken remembers helping to transcribe her interview tapes.)
After finishing both a B.A and MA at Boston University in four years, during which she studied fiction, poetry, and playwriting under such teachers as Sue Miller and Derek Walcott, McCracken looked to join an MFA program. After applying to a few in both fiction and poetry, she was accepted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to study fiction writing “with a tiny bit of funding,” she says. That decided it: she was now a full-time fiction writer.
After two years in Iowa, McCracken worked a few odd jobs, followed by library school and a stint in a library circulation department. But she never quit fiction, and soon was offered — and took — a series of visiting teaching positions that afforded her a relatively itinerant life, the years punctuated by periods of teaching and writing. It was during this period that she met her husband, the writer Edward Carey, and the two eventually landed at UT Austin full-time.
Since joining the university some 13 years ago, McCracken has published two story collections and two novels, in addition to other essays and short stories. Her work shows a soft spot for oddball eccentrics that feels rooted in a genuine understanding. That’s not to say she spares them her wit, which can be cuttingly exact, but that a warm generosity softens the blows. Whether her characters are inventing candlepin bowling (as in 2019’s Bowlaway) or falling in love with marionette puppets (in a story from 2021’s The Souvenir Museum, nominated for the National Book Award), the reader can’t help but be charmed by them, because it’s clear McCracken is too.
Her creative life is still punctuated by the demands of teaching writing — it’s a job that comes with a hefty reading load, with many student stories and novels to get through each term — and she gets most of her own work done in the breaks between semesters.
There are many benefits to living with another writer, says McCracken, not least that they’re more likely than the average lay person to understand the importance of solitude and focus. McCracken does most of her writing in her campus office, and Carey often writes from their home, though sometimes those habits switch. But no matter who’s working where, there are some basic rules. Morning writing time is sacred; if someone’s up early to write, the other doesn’t say a word until they’re out the door and on the way to the office.
That’s to protect what McCracken calls “a sort of dream space that you can get into if you can write in the mornings and don’t have any interaction with another human being.” Something of that dream space is evident in the resulting fiction. The New York Times called her novel Bowlaway “a dark fairy tale of American oddballs,” and the characters in The Souvenir Museum are always finding themselves in situations just barely this side of reality. A woman finds her long-ago boyfriend in a Danish Viking exhibit; a bereaved mother hears birdsong on the radio and sees her children in loafs of challah; two characters fall in love after one emerges from inside a giant marionette.
Sometimes the absurdity lies even closer to hand: at Legoland and Schlitterbahn, or in cultural confusions at a family wedding in Ireland. Here’s there’s no particular magic at work aside from the sparkle of McCracken’s irony and imagination, but it’s more than enough. Even when punctuated with loss of all kinds, her stories feel lit from within by her humor and intelligence.
But “even when” may give the wrong impression: There is almost always loss in McCracken’s work. Characters lose lovers, mothers, fathers, and children. McCracken herself is no stranger to bereavement, and her experience seems to have enabled her to capture its contours with enormous sympathy and without ever getting lost in the dark. Her one memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, is about the loss of a stillborn child and the birth of one living. It’s a beautifully straightforward book, about a life-altering grief but also life-altering love. Its author knows something about loss, both how deeply it changes a person and also how they can keep living, carrying it with them.
It’s not surprising, then, that The Hero of This Book also deals with loss, but gently, with calm and practiced hands. The narrative is also one of grief, but here mixed with memory. The focus stays concentrated on the remembered mother, bursting with flamboyant vitality.
The idea for the book came while McCracken was really walking around London and thinking about her mother, who’d recently died. Once begun it progressed quickly. Then, just as quickly, it was interrupted.
“I wrote about two-thirds of it, and then my editor reminded me that I had promised them a short story collection,” McCracken says. “She said, basically, it’s on the schedule. We need to have it. So I put this book aside and frantically worked on the short stories for The Souvenir Museum. It was fairly dire, some of the most panicked writing of my life, writing short stories for the rest of that book. But then I finished that and I was about to pick up this book on spring break in March 2020, which obviously I did not do.”
The pandemic brought McCracken’s writing to a halt for all of that 2020 summer, but in the fall, with a semester of leave and determination, she began to find her way back into the story. She and Carey rented a backyard studio near their Austin home to give themselves time and space to write, and it was there that she finished The Hero of This Book, working through multiple ideas of what the book could be to find what it is now.
“When I started, it wasn’t my inclination to write a book that’s like what this turned into,” McCracken says. “It was a question of, how do I trick myself into doing it? And I was like, ‘I know, I’m going to blow people’s minds.’” She planned to write the book as a kind of novel-cum-craft-manual hybrid, the narrative interrupted by notes about the writer’s choices. But McCracken couldn’t figure out how to format the craft sections, and most of that material ended up on the cutting room floor. “I think it was just me trying to protect myself, to make it clear this really isn’t a memoir and I’m making these different decisions as an author,” she says.
The final version of the book is more subtly experimental, “essentially a novel about writing a memoir,” McCracken says, “if that’s not too tricksy a thing to say.“
“If I were writing a memoir of my mother, I might not have done it,” she continues. “But also, it would have been a different project. There’s fairness in memoir that you have to think about to some extent. Not novels. You don’t owe anybody anything. It’s a novel; I made it up. When I went on book tour, some people would ask me a question and I would pick up the book and say, ‘It’s a novel, see! It says so on the cover. That’s legally binding, you can’t fool me.’”
Just after she finished writing The Hero of this Book, McCracken got an unexpected message on Instagram. It was a photo of her first book, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, sent by a reader who’d found it on a hotel room’s style shelves. But this wasn’t any old copy. It was the one McCracken had given to her mother, her markered inscription still sharp on the flyleaf.
That inscription now appears at the start of the new novel, a dedication twice over. “For Mom,” it reads, “whose life history I will continue to mine, but who will never — no matter what she or anybody else thinks — appear as a character in my work, being too good for the likes of me + my characters.”
It’s appearance caused McCracken some brief anxiety. “I was like, oh God, is this a sign? Is this legally binding?” McCracken says. “But actually it was funny, and it’s the perfect start. I mentioned it to a friend of mine, that this is my mother talking to me, trying to stop this project. And my friend said, it’s just your mother laughing. She thinks it’s hilarious.”