When I learned that Elizabeth McCracken was publishing Bowlaway, her first novel in almost 20 years, I wanted to write about it for this column. I’ve been a tremendous fan ever since I stumbled upon a galley of The Giant’s House, her debut novel, which went on to be a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award.
Megan Lynch, editorial director at Ecco, who bought North American rights to Bowlaway from McCracken’s longtime agent, Henry Dunow of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary, says she’s been a McCracken fan since her early days in the business. “Elizabeth was an established author when I started at Random House as a floater—a rotational associate. I discovered her writing in 2001 as a volunteer for an in-house magazine called Bold Type; I was immediately taken with her inimitable voice and style. Working on Bowlaway has been a dream come true for me, from my first conversation with Elizabeth, through the editing, to the final copy.”
When Dunow decided to go out with Bowlaway to a small and selective group of editors in December 2017, Lynch was on the list. They had worked well together on Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s bestselling debut novel, The Nest, which also went out after Thanksgiving, in 2016, and Lynch says that the running joke between them is that every December she expects another marvelous manuscript. When Lynch walked Bowlaway over to associate publisher Miriam Parker, another McCracken fan, the excitement was palpable.
“I spent the rest of that day and night reading, mesmerized,” Lynch says. “Bowlaway is a meaty old-fashioned story. I love that it takes us through a family, a business, tech, the role of women, small-town life in the 20th century.”
The book opens with “a body in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive.” The woman, Bertha Truitt, proceeds to sit up, “as though a stone bishop had stepped from his niche.” Her bag contains a corset, a bowling ball, a candlepin, and 15 pounds of gold. It’s the turn of the 20th century, and our mystery woman goes on to marry Leviticus Sprague, a black doctor, and open a candlepin bowling alley that becomes central to the story and the town of Salford, Mass.
Candlepin bowling? “It’s a New England thing, with straight pins and a smaller ball,” McCracken says. “Henry asked if I invented it, and I was flattered, but it’s a game I grew up with. I even have a trophy for being ‘the most conscientious bowler.’ You have to be a really bad bowler to get that trophy.”
McCracken explains that she always likes to have a non-novelistic subject as an organizing principle, and also tries to choose something that would be unlikely for someone else to write about. (Her last novel, Niagara Falls All over Again, had a vaudeville team.)
But finding her grandfather’s genealogy book led McCracken to this novel, she says. “What fascinated me were the names: 90% of the character names in Bowlaway are from his lists. I never worked this way before, where the names were the jumping off point for the characters.” Jeptha Arrison, Golda Bastian, LuEtta Mood, Nahum Truitt... As Lynch says, they’re “the most creative names since Dickens.”
McCracken tells me that she wrote three novels in between Niagara and Bowlaway—“a bunch of stuff that didn’t work out”—although she adds that she fashioned three stories “from the wreckage” of the first one for her collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, which won the Story Prize in 2014. She says she might actually go back to the second book. And the third? “I wrote it really quickly, with the momentum of having finished Thunderstruck, but the character belonged in a short story, not a novel.”
McCracken also says that she can’t abandon a project. “I have no half-novels,” she says. “I keep going.” She does say, however, that it’s “music to my ears when a reader says, ‘It’s good but not your best’—then I know it’s okay for me to stop working on it!”
Dunow is a great reader, according to McCracken. She sent him the first draft of Bowlaway in summer 2016. “We had a long conversation,” she says. “My first drafts usually have no plot. When I talk to Henry, he tells me what’s interesting.”
McCracken and Dunow go back 30 years. “Elizabeth is my longest-standing client,” he says. “There’s no author I cherish more. I met her on a trip to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She was a 22-year-old student. I left there with a suitcase full of manuscripts and read Elizabeth’s on the way home. A few days later, I had a deal with Susan Kamil at Turtle Bay Books for the nine brilliant stories in Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry”—released in 1993 (which Ecco is reissuing in February 2019).
Dunow says he sent Bowlaway to a “tiny group” and that Lynch and Ecco were the right fit. “I wanted to sell this book without drama, quietly, discreetly,” he says. “This is a rich story of an unconventional family and Elizabeth is a unique writer. I would recognize one of her sentences from a mile away.”
Bowlaway sold for a “healthy six figures” and has been bought in the U.K. and France, with other territories “brewing,” according to Dunow. “The reissue of Here’s Your Hat is just a lovely perk. Elizabeth’s stories never age.”
Lynch is excited to be publishing McCracken for the first time at HarperCollins. “I use the word magical far too much when I talk about this novel,” she says. “Elizabeth was a dream reviser. It was like alchemy.” McCracken had editorial notes in January 2018; the book was ready in May.
Bowlaway pubs in February 2019, and marketing plans include a tour, bookseller outreach, trade shows, and an appearance at Winter Institute, which Lynch notes is “a great place to build buzz.”
As for McCracken, she says she tries not to have hopes for books, so that she can be happy with whatever happens. But in this particular case, she notes, “Henry made the deal so easily that I had no time to feel tortured. There was no, ‘What’s going to happen to me and my book?’ ”