Life & Culture

Wingate winner Elizabeth McCracken: ‘My fear is being boring in the service of accuracy’

Elizabeth McCracken on the restlessly shape-shifting novel that won her the literary award for the best book to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader


In the summer of 2019, ten months after her mother died, the American novelist Elizabeth McCracken spent a few months with her family in London, a city she had previously visited with her three years before. She was trying to write short stories but wrestling to get them into shape. A friend, also an author, mentioned that she was currently writing a work of autofiction — the currently popular genre that adheres as close as possible to the facts of its author’s life. It struck an unexpected chord with McCracken who, during her walks through Clerkenwell and along the Thames, had been thinking a lot about her mother, as a “way of keeping her close”. Perhaps, she thought, she could write about her mother instead.

This month McCracken’s novel The Hero of this Book won the Wingate Prize, the annual award given to the best literary work, fiction or non-fiction, to “translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader”. It’s a short, taut, restlessly shape-shifting novel in which an unnamed narrator, on holiday by herself in London, spends a Sunday walking, taking in landmarks from the London Eye to Tate Modern, the Bridge Theatre to St Paul’s Cathedral, a building “as startling as an elk in the road”, she writes. Not long previously her mother’s home in Iowa had been sold and the combination of the two events sparks a fury of memory and thought in the narrator, whose voice is witty, self-questioning and ruminative by turn as she recalls a woman who was fiercely unsentimental, sure-minded and full of life. One favourite observation: “She liked to quote her favourite New Yorker cartoon, a man on an analyst’s couch, saying, ‘I had a difficult childhood, especially lately.’”

McCracken, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — the lodestar of creative-writing courses in America — is a National Book Awards finalist and the author of several acclaimed novels and short-story collections. She also teaches creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin, and perhaps as a consequence of that, The Hero of This Book is in constant conversation with itself over what sort of book it actually is. McCracken is firm that it is a novel — yet she acknowledges too that the central character, a tiny vital Jewish theatre-loving editor and academic from a “small railroad town” outside Des Moines, is 100 per cent her mother. Why not call it a memoir? “Partly because my mother hated memoirs about parents!” she says. “She worried about memoirs in which parents were blamed [although The Hero of This Book isn’t about blame at all]. She wasn’t interested in the modern memoir in which someone writes about their problems. She was a real pull-yourself- up-by-your-bootstraps kind of person. But also, she aesthetically really believed in novels.”

As does McCracken. In the book the narrator worries over how best to write about her mother, even while acknowledging that “she cannot be represented in any autobiographical or fictional or autofictional prose, not even this sentence I’m currently typing”. What emerges is a woman who is both fiercely defined and yet, like the best characters in literature, refuses to be pinned down. This is in keeping with McCracken’s own perception of her mother, who had cerebral palsy yet who as a child McCracken never understood to be disabled. “That’s just the sort of person she was,” she says. “I tried to fictionalise her but every time I did it made her less interesting. But I also wanted the freedom of the novel. My greatest fear as a writer is being boring in the service of accuracy. I’m quite suspicious of the idea that one’s personal experience is essential for fiction, which probably explains my dislike of autofiction as a genre.”

McCracken grew up in Iowa. Her parents met at Drake University and both worked in academia. Her mother came from a Jewish Reform family who, says McCracken, were part of the melting-pot generation: her grandmother, whose grandfather was the first Orthodox rabbi in Des Moines, always had a stocking at the end of her bed at Christmas. But her father — 6ft 3” to her mother’s less than 5ft — was a Presbyterian, and they were married by a rabbi in a hotel because no Des Moines rabbi would have them in their synagogue: McCracken’s father didn’t convert. “In the end they had to get a rabbi from out of town.” She herself grew up attending synagogue on Fridays and church on Saturdays, although she insists it wasn’t a particularly religious upbringing. “My parents had made a decision about not assigning a religion to us [she has a brother, Harry]: we could chose what we were interested in. We were mainly brought up on Gilbert and Sullivan, both my parents were committed Anglophiles. That’s something I’ve passed onto my own children [she has a son and a daughter with the English writer Edward Carey]. Yet although I was not brought up with the idea of religion, I entirely understood myself as the product of two people who were. Both had very similar notions of social justice and morality, and this idea that religion without good deeds is nothing.”

She perhaps always wanted to be a writer. Her mother — an editor — was a huge influence. “Whenever I was stuck for the right word I’d ring her up and she’d always give it to me,” she says. In America she is now fully established as a novelist with an unerring feel for the granular textures of every day life. Whatever the protestations aired in The Hero of This Book though, it would be misleading to think she has never written directly autobiographically: her 2008 book An Exact Replica of A Figment Of My Imagination detailed her agonising experience of stillbirth. “That book was the easiest book I ever wrote in terms of the writing of it. I wrote it in three weeks and it ordered something that I didn’t understand. When I was at grad school we were always told writing isn’t therapy. And I was telling a friend who had also studied there that I while I knew that to be true, writing that memoir had saved my life. He said, can’t writing be both? And I thought, yes, it can be.”

She found The Hero of This Book more difficult “because I spent a lot more time thinking hard about form and worrying about what family members would think. My conclusion is my mother would really like it, although she would probably wish I hadn’t written about how messy the house was.” We chuckle over whether it’s a suitable winner of the Wingate Prize – after all, it’s not specifically about Jewishness at all, although her mother does display a fondness for chopped liver sandwiches. “I intended it to be about my mother, and my mother is Jewish, and her Jewish identity was very important to her. But I must be honest, at each stage of the process, when the longlist was announced, and then the shortlist, I did each time think, ‘well this is as far as this book is going to go!”

The Hero
of  This
is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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