Elizabeth Crane is the author of two collections of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot and All This Heavenly Glory. Hagar Scher commented in a review of All This Heavenly Glory for the Chicago Tribune, "What separates Crane's book from the stacks of chick-lit novels that come out each year in time for beach-towel season is the bold, playful, at times experimental writing style and the infectious, skewed, at times absurdist humor." Crane will be a featured reader Sunday, July 30th, at The Charleston Bar, 2076 N. Hoyne, when Sunday Salon, a monthly prose reading series that originated in New York in 2002, hosts Other Voices Magazine for a special event that will also showcase writers Megan Martin, Geoffrey Forsyth and Emily Tedrowe. Crane is a regular contributor to Writer's Block Party on WBEZ in Chicago, and she teaches at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies and the University of Chicago. She also writes a blog at www.elizabethcrane.com called standBy Bert that she says almost a dozen people read on a regular basis.
Q: I've often thought about starting up a literary journal, and naming it Dead Flowers. "Dead Flowers," by the Stones, is my favorite song. To me, the song symbolizes a quintessential irreverence, and I do believe that in its pursuit of empathy literature should strive to show how a "fuck you" could be nearly elegant. What would you name your literary journal, and how would that name encapsulate your vision of literature?
Crane: My literary journal would be a cross between In Style, Paris Review and Tiger Beat. I think it would be called You Are Getting Very Sleepy. (Hopefully this would not be misconstrued in such a way that one would think it was the literature making them sleepy.) I have recently made a decision to devote all of my spare time to doing what I can to make short stories popular, including, if need be, hypnosis. At the moment, my plan is to make fiction writers into celebrities as big as movie stars. I'm not really joking. I do currently have top-secret but brilliant plans for making this happen. Nevertheless, I have had preliminary discussions about this literary magazine plan with friends, and I believe it's a good one. I think it's fair to say, at this point, that celebrities are the cornerstone to everything in this culture today, and that being the case, I figure it's time for writers to get their due. So I envision this: a literary magazine with interviews, stories and essays much in the vein of the Paris Review, but dressed up in glossy clothing like In Style or Lucky, with a fold-out-poster of a writer in the center — posed like in vintage teen magazines, feet apart, hands on hips, dressed in the hippest new clothes, looking sassy — but accessible! And then pages and pages of "Where the writers shop" (even if it's the fifty-cent bin at the local Village Thrift) or "What I'm wearing now" (especially if it's something they sewed themselves) or "Writers! They're just like us!" photos of writers at cafes drinking lattes, canoodling (of course), walking their dogs, looking at the Reader want ads. Actually, you know what? This may never happen, but it would make a great zine, and I think I need to get on it.
Q: Flannery O'Connor once said, "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." Have your experiences as a writing teacher informed you of your limitations as a writer? Vice versa?
Crane: I think I already knew what my limitations were as a writer. I can't describe nature, I can't tell a straightforward story with the perfect "arc" at exactly the three-quarter or four-fifths mark, I wouldn't know what a denouement looked like if it hit me in the face, and plot, well, if it happens at all, it happens by accident. However. I probably veer off from Flannery in a couple of ways. (Not to mention that I don't have an M.F.A. myself anyway.) One is that I prefer to encourage writers. I don't mean to say that I encourage them to just carry on writing bad stuff, nor is it to say I sugarcoat the publishing world for them. It's rough, and it does seem to favor a lot of generic, formulaic writing. Fortunately, this isn't what I'm seeing in my classes. I've seen incredible creativity and intelligent work from writers of all ages. Granted, I'm teaching at some pretty swank institutions of higher learning, and I'm sure that's part of it. These are bright folks. Nevertheless, if one is driven to write, it's something you don't have much choice about, whether you ever get published or not, and so I'm much more interested in helping my students develop what they're best at, taking risks (so that they don't crank out the same old stuff), and what I find happens for me almost every time is that I get so jazzed by even their weaker efforts, when I see them pushing themselves, one fantastic sentence, one great idea, that I just want to go home and push myself a little farther too. I hear George Saunders, pretty much my favorite, talk frequently in interviews about his limitations as a writer, and although I don't think of his work as limited in any way — more or less the opposite — I understand what he's saying, and I really relate to this. Knowing what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer is useful to me — instead of trying to fit into a neat box of lovely and poetic prose, I focus on what comes naturally to me — sometimes painful observations about the world wrapped in my twisted sense of humor, written in a way that real people sound, to me. Does that answer the question?
Q: Ten years ago I would have never, ever, used the exclamation point. I hate the exclamation point, everything it means to convey. But these days I find myself using the exclamation point more and more often within emails: "Thanks!" "See you tonight!" "The Sox are pissing me off!" What do you find yourself doing against your writerly will within emails?
Crane: Emoticons! Oh, dear god, emoticons. But here's the thing. I love email. Once upon a time I wrote letters. Many letters. Now, with the immediacy of email, not so many letters, but many more people write email than ever wrote letters. Personally, I prefer making efforts at proper grammar and punctuation, but I can be forgiving of those who use email for quick, casual communication. What I find to be lost in this electronic form, for reasons I'm not quite certain of — perhaps just the slant of the actual hand in the letters on the page, doodles in the margin, I dunno, but there's often a tendency for subtle humor to get lost in email, thus, occasionally, aided by the use of an emoticon such as a smiley face or a wink. But I'm not fluent. That's about the extent of it. And I'm tickled about the exclamation point, because I've actually come to LOVE them. As I mentioned, I have a story in my next collection called "My Life is Awesome! And Great!" which has only one or two sentences without exclamations. I also love all caps, though some people have told me that's shouting. I prefer just to think of it as a strong (and sassy!) emphasis.