Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry. She won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award in 2002 for her collection, Niagra Falls All Over Again. She's a graduate of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is the James Michener Chair of Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin.
What bothers you most about the English language today?
Oh, the English language! Can’t I love it unconditionally? I try to. That means (I tell myself) I have to love all of its morphing twisting magnificence. When I was young my father once grumpily said that he felt a backwards baseball cap was meant as a thumb in the eye of society. I thought that was ridiculous, but now I find certain clothing styles invoke the same response in me. (Example: I recently saw a guy wearing an upside-down side-cocked sun visor indoors.) Which is to say, I have grown old, and don’t want to complain too much about the English language today (or kids today, for that matter). But I do lament (as my father did before me) that transpire now means “happen” and not, as it once did, “came to be known.” And also goddammit: all right is two words, no matter what the dictionary says these days. There’s a good chance that in 40 years, after the floods, people zipping by on scavenged jetpacks with their scavenged baseball caps on backwards, I will be in my rocking chair saying bitterly, “I remember when ‘all right’ was two words.”
If you could have any 5 dinner guests, dead or alive, fictional or non-, who would they be?
Every time someone (no matter how famous) answers such a question with live people (no matter how famous) and doesn’t include me, I’m petulant. (I don’t even like dinner parties: I’m just a petulant person.) So I wish to have a dinner party and invite everyone who isn’t those people. Particularly if they know me. If I’m feeling less petulant: Laurel & Hardy, the Nicholas Brothers, and my grandmother Jacobson. Of those, I am certain my grandmother would come, and she would be enough.
What word or phrase do you overuse?
Lovely. Just ask my students. I also cannot give up my attachment to my 10th grade love of the word awesome.
What is the first book you truly loved?
Eloise by Hilary Knight, and my love hasn’t diminished. It’s funny with undertones of sadness (where are that girl’s parents?), it has excellent food, great architecture (I love buildings in books), and Eloise herself is one of the most perfect unreliable narrators in modern fiction.
If you could only recommend one book, which would it be?
At my first library job, I worked with a woman named Sheila Brownstein, who was The Reader’s Advisor. She was a short bosomy Englishwoman who accosted people at the shelves and asked if they wanted advice on what to read, and if the answer was yes she asked what writers they already loved and then suggested somebody new. She was absolutely brilliant at her job, and knew there was no Universal Book. (This is a tragedy and a comfort for a writer. You shouldn’t try to write a book that everyone loves, because such a book cannot exist. On the other hand: waaaaah, why doesn’t everyone love my book?) All that said: the book I recommend most often is Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country, not only because I love it but because not enough people have read it. It’s a masterpiece.
Do you prefer print or e-books?
I own an e-reader but I use it almost exclusively to read things that aren’t books—student theses, unbound galleys. I like seeing my physical progress through a volume, particularly if it’s a big book. For various reasons (bathtubs, cups of coffee, small children) it’s better if my reading technology is waterproofish, as printed books are.
Do you have a favorite sentence from a book? What is it?
“There is no earthly reason why I should dally with her in the margin of this sinister memoir, but let me say (hi, Rita—wherever you are, drunk or hangoverish, Rita, hi!) that she was the most soothing, the most comprehending companion that I ever had, and certainly saved me from the madhouse.” From Lolita. I mean, holy cow, look at that thing! Second place: “No, I do not like your hat.” It’s from Go Dog, Go.