Interview: February 16, 2007
February 16, 2007
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Bronwyn Miller, Elizabeth Crook --- author of THE RAVEN'S BRIDE and PROMISED LANDS --- recounts her experiences from a trip to New Mexico that inspired her most recent book, THE NIGHT JOURNAL, and describes how her own fears of loss and separation worked themselves into its plot. She also explains how her "lack of vision" works favorably when it comes to writing novels, and shares her most and least favorite aspects of the creative process.
Bookreporter.com: In THE NIGHT JOURNAL, you deftly blend traditional historical fiction with mystery. Was this a challenge for you?
Elizabeth Crook: Oh yes. The book didn't start out to be a mystery. It didn't even start out to be historical. I wanted to write an entirely contemporary novel. I had just completed a long historical novel, so my plan was simply NOT to do any research. Other than that, I was open to anything. But then my husband and I took a trip to New Mexico, and I wandered down into a Kiva at Pecos Pueblo, and the place just drew me in. It was not a big place --- just a circular underground room --- but for me, it was like the rabbit hole in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. It seemed to go deeper. Everything seemed to open to something else. That place was all about the past, and it started my heart pounding. So, I thought, "Well, here I go. Backwards, again. Back in time." I decided I would set only half of the story in the past and do only half the amount of research, which --- of course --- was a dopey idea. The book turned out to be doubly hard to write, piecing together the past and the present. Two plot lines. Two sets of characters. All having to work together. And a mystery thrown in, so that the pieces had to fall in the right order.
BRC: What inspired you to write this particular story? Had you spent any time in New Mexico before working on the novel?
EC: A blind weekend date with an arrogant artist years ago --- that was my first trip to New Mexico. I had grown up in Central Texas --- what's called the Hill Country --- and was used to hills instead of mountains, and to smaller, more pebbly kinds of rocks. I found the landscape in New Mexico astonishing, and wandered around like a Yahoo with my mouth open. The elevation gave me headaches. It was all mesmerizing and intimidating. The light seemed blinding. I was happy to come home. But then on the trip with my husband several years later, when I discovered Pecos Pueblo, the place felt different. The lack of atmosphere was liberating. Everything seemed open. I felt strangely euphoric. I went back several times while I was writing the book, and this was always the feeling I had. There is something magical about New Mexico. The air is electric.
BRC: Your characters are so vibrant and real, each with his or her own strengths and flaws. Almost all of them lost a parent at an early age, and are orphans in a sense. This is one of the dominant themes in THE NIGHT JOURNAL. Why was this theme of interest to you?
EC: I don't have any first-hand experience of what it's like to be orphaned. I'm rooted in my family. But I do have a preposterous dread of separations that has dogged me all my life. I was the kid who called home from slumber parties, who got homesick at camp, who never even considered going to a college more than three hours away from home. Once someone is in my life, he or she is there forever. Ask any of my old boyfriends. So….nope, I'm not big on separations. And it seems that what troubles us as individuals tends to find its way into our stories. In this case, that happened in exaggerated form.
BRC: Hannah, Bassie and Meg are each strong in their own way. In creating these characters, did you draw inspiration from anyone you know?
EC: Hannah basically invented herself. Creating her was like taking dictation. Bassie was only slightly more difficult: I knew Bassie. I had several cantankerous great aunts and a couple of persnickety friends with a few of her characteristics. Bassie is rougher than these women, she is not even fashioned after them, but my idea of her sprang from their personalities. Meg was my hardest character from the beginning. She was aloof and edgy because she was raised by Bassie, and I had to be true to that. If I made her a sympathetic character at the start of the book, then what would she need to learn in the course of the story? How would she grow as a character? I had to leave room for change.
BRC: The burgeoning friendship between Meg and Jim is intriguing because it's not at all predictable. How did you decide to handle this relationship?
EC: I handled it differently in different drafts. In the first drafts, Meg was more forthcoming about her attraction to Jim. But because Jim was married, I felt this made her seem predatory. Eventually, I decided less was more, and reined both characters in. Somehow this played out better and, I think, made the relationship more poignant and thought-provoking. It's interesting that the one topic that always comes up when I'm talking to book clubs is the relationship between Meg and Jim.
BRC: Hannah's journal entries describing her days as a Harvey Girl were fascinating. How much did you know about Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls before beginning your research?
EC: It was all new to me; I had never heard of Fred Harvey or his establishments until I discovered the Montezuma, which I found by accident. After that first visit to Pecos Pueblo, as I was pulling back on to the highway, I saw a sign that said "Las Vegas, 50 miles" --- or something like that. I thought it was referring to Las Vegas, Nevada, so I drove over there to see what was going on. It wasn't until I got to the outskirts that I realized I was not in Nevada. But I liked the town, and stopped at the Plaza hotel to ask if there was anything else to see in the area. The person at the desk told me there was an abandoned old ruin of a hotel called the Montezuma 10 miles up in the hills, so I drove up there to see it. Seeing that place from a distance, rising up out of the hills, I knew at once it would find its way into the story.
BRC: Which part of the book was more challenging to write --- the modern-day storyline or the journal entries?
EC: The modern-day storyline, by far. I had never written contemporary fiction before this book and was unable to strike the right tone, for the longest time. I also had trouble figuring out what the story actually was. The plot, which wasn't clear at first, became clear in the telling.
BRC: You wrote an article about writing historical fiction, and you speak about how you're not a fan of the first-person narrative. Why do you feel this way? What's the best perspective for historical fiction?
EC: Straightforward third person narrative seems to me like the way to go. First-person can be extraordinary if it's perfectly done, but I think more often the character who is telling the story comes across as self-absorbed. Most of us tend to dislike people who have a lot to say about themselves, or who notice themselves too much or tell too many stories about themselves. (Rather a creepy observation to make in the midst of an interview that is all about me. But, oh well.) At any rate, I tend to have the same negative reaction to characters who narrate books about themselves. It's just too hard to take them seriously. Unless they have a good reason to be relating the story, and the telling involves more observations about other people and outside events than it does inward reflection, or is extremely humorous and self-deprecating, then I'm impatient and annoyed. I don't like a character who is describing how they looked when they did something, or what inflections they used when they said something. I just want to see them do it, and hear them say it. I want omniscience and objectivity. I was walking a thin line here with Hannah because her journal, by definition, had to be first-person. I had to keep her from seeming too self-important.
BRC: Your novels feel so authentic and full of detail. How much research do you undertake for a book? Do you outline the plot before you start, or do you just follow where your characters take you?
EC: I let the research lead. It usually leads to intriguing bits of information I can then build the plot around. In the beginning, I knew nothing about Pueblos, railroads, Harvey Houses, or treatments for tuberculosis; I just started reading about New Mexico, and every subject led to another --- like a treasure hunt. I just had to recognize the historic events that would lend themselves to drama, and then construct the story around them. Half the problem was simply knowing what to leave out. Creating the plot is always, for me, a disorderly process --- like a long drive in a thick fog. I have no vision at all. I turn down wrong roads and waste a lot of time trying to figure out where in the heck I am. The advantage is that I end up in some unexpected places I would not have thought to go. I think a lack of vision strangely worked for me in THE NIGHT JOURNAL.
BRC: What would you like readers to take away from THE NIGHT JOURNAL?
EC: I hope they'll be entertained and moved by the story, find the history interesting, and like the characters enough to care what happens to them.
BRC: What is the most rewarding part of the writing process for you? Do you enjoy doing readings and book tours?
EC: I most enjoy inventing the characters and getting the sentences right. I least enjoy creating the plot; it requires too much confounding thought. I can never sleep at night with all that going on. Also, it's thrilling to me when a reader connects with the book; I enjoy that a great deal. My characters are the people I've had my morning coffee with for 10 years. I love sharing them with readers. It's like trotting my friends around and introducing them to people.
As for promotional readings and talks, I used to be nervous and would show up pathologically over-prepared. I showed up at bookstores with written scripts. But after a year of talking about this book, I'm more relaxed. Meeting people who are reading the book is like meeting people with whom I have friends in common.
BRC: As a side note, you knew Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and wrote a tribute in the Austin American Statesman after her death in 1994. How did you come to know her and what was your relationship like?
EC: Mrs. Onassis was my editor at Doubleday; she published my first two books. I was crazy about her. She was warm and affirming, but very exacting. I only met with her in person on a few occasions as I was chronically nervous about the idea of meeting with her and only did it by necessity. So, we did most of our work over the fax and the phone. We had lunch once at 21, and I still look back on that day and cringe at all the insipid things I said. I was in my 20s. She died the day I started the promotional tour for my second novel, and that was a book she had spent a lot of time with. So it was a sad promotional period for the book. I was heartbroken to lose her even though I didn't know her on a personal basis, only professionally.
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
EC: The book I'm currently writing involves a violent tragedy in Texas in the 1960s and the ways in which it plays out 40 years later --- in present day --- in the lives of people involved. It shouldn't take me as long to write this book, as I have a better idea of what's going to happen from chapter to chapter. I actually have an outline, which isn't to say I won't ditch it at some point and go driving off in the fog.