Elizabeth McCracken’s career is a steady and unassuming success. This may be due in part to her lack of interest in self-aggrandizement. “I haven’t been a public librarian myself for more than 10 years now,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “but I retain what I like to think of as an air of civic acceptance.” And indeed, she does—she’s unpretentious, kind, and less concerned with a bust being rendered in her honor so much as cataloging other figures.
McCracken has written six books and won a PEN Award, the Story Prize, and been both a finalist and longlisted for the National Book Award. Nonetheless, she’s not exactly a household name. Now the 54-year-old is preparing for the publication of her short story collection The Souvenir Museum (Ecco, Apr.).
When asked what characterizes her work, McCracken, who teaches fiction at University of Texas at Austin, pauses to give the question real thought—and to let her cat out. “Well, there’s always a cat in my books,” she says, sitting back down in front of an ajar wooden dresser. “I also tend to write about eccentrics. I’m interested in people who are different because of pure bloody-mindedness. People who do not feel obliged to conform, people who don’t necessarily feel the same societal...” She laughs at herself. “Now I’m sounding pretentious, and I can’t stand the sound of my voice. I said ‘societal.’ God. Why am I expounding on this?”
Reassured that she’s been asked to expound and is not being pretentious, McCracken concludes, succinctly, “I’m interested in people who are emotionally different.”
Her bloody-minded eccentrics are on full display in The Souvenir Museum. And they are aware of their place in history. In the story “It’s Not You,” for example, the narrator looks back on a stay at a hotel when she was heartbroken and had an encounter with a famous radio psychologist. But the retrospective narrator warns: “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.” In the title story, the narrator muses on the meaning of souvenirs: “Souvenir: a memory you could buy. A memory you could plan to keep instead of being left with the rubble of what happened.”
This theme of time lost pervades McCracken’s work—as does a sense of mirth over life’s ephemeral nature. That the title story of her new collection takes place at a real souvenir museum is also no coincidence: McCracken and her family collect antique knickknacks, and they are clustered throughout the house. The author clearly treasures the long-lasting. She’s been with her agent, Henry Dunow, for over 30 years, and she’s long been married to playwright and novelist Edward Carey.
“There’s no author I cherish more,” Dunow says. (The author Ann Patchett must feel similarly, since, as she once told NPR, McCracken is her favorite—and often only—early reader.) The author-agent match was made when McCracken was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Dunow was a fledgling agent. They began their careers together and have stayed loyal to one another ever since.
“After all this time, I’m still in awe of her,” Dunow says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that I would recognize an Elizabeth McCracken sentence from a mile away, so singular and distinctive is her prose, so unlike anyone else writing today. She has a way of putting things that is entirely her own: an earthy, pungent way with language; a sly and feisty wit; a piercing insight expressed with such precision it might make you smile, shake your head, or even gasp.” And, he adds, “an array of characters you could not meet anywhere else.”
Despite mostly writing fiction, McCracken also put her own character on the line with her aforementioned memoir, which Reagan Arthur (then at Little, Brown) published. The moving book is about the death of her first child, whom she lost, stillborn, at nine months. Amazingly, the book was written as she literally nursed and rocked her second child (born a few years later) in her lap.
The memoir grew out of McCracken’s urgent need to process her still-present grief coinciding with the arrival of her new bundle of joy. She goes back to the raw aftermath of the tragedy, writing, “At that moment I felt so ruined by life that I couldn’t imagine it ever getting worse, which just shows that my sense of humor was slightly more durable than my imagination.”
This experience appears to help McCracken keep things in perspective, and to stay extremely productive. During the pandemic, she’s felt an obligation to make the most of her writing time, which she notes is an immense privilege in itself. “I always have the sense when I’m working on something that I’m aware of what I will regret in the future,” she says. “Because I had a semester’s leave this year during quarantine, I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I couldn’t get work done during that time.”
And so McCracken and Carey rented a shared space; one would write while the other stayed home with the kids. “I’m all about avoiding the self-loathing I can avoid,” she says. “There’s plenty of self-loathing I cannot, that is coming for me one way or the other. But getting work done is one of the arenas in which I can mitigate it.”
When she was teaching, McCracken also saw the many small treasures to be unearthed under these unusual circumstances. “I found it quite dear to see my students on screen,” she says. “The very shy people in class were less shy. I found, at the end of the class, watching everybody disappear, sort of unbelievably poignant. There was one guy who was always the last person to click away. It was very sweet.”
Asked to predict what kind of trends in fiction this pandemic era might bring, McCracken says she thinks we might at first see many books set right before the coronavirus hit, until writers gain more perspective and comfort with the subject matter.
“After 9/11,” McCracken says, “a ton of fiction writers I know, including me, went, ‘We can’t write fiction anymore. Nothing that we could write could speak to this moment.’ We were like, ‘We’re going to be poets.’ Then everybody, I don’t even know how long it took, was like, ‘No, actually, we didn’t mean it.’ The human mind’s ability to forget atrocities is impressive. We want to write.”
Rachel Krantz is a journalist and author of the forthcoming memoir 'Anything but Monogamy' (Harmony, fall).
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age at which McCracken’s first child was stillborn.