Where No Voices Existed

Bruce Holbert and Elizabeth McCracken

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

Whiskey author Bruce Holbert met author Elizabeth McCracken in their Iowa MFA program, where they became close friends. Though their careers have taken vastly different tracks, they have supported each other’s work for decades, and each appreciates the subtleties of the other’s characterization, style, and storytelling. In a conversation over email, the two revisit the earliest days of their writing careers, ponder craft advice they have been given over the years, and discuss how Holbert’s experience teaching high school students influenced him as a writer.

Bruce Holbert: Recently I was asked in one of those rather stock interviews what’s the best thing I ever received in the mail. I settled on a letter from you from about twenty years ago. I was pretty despondent, no agent, a few stories in magazines, but not much to show for my work. You were not only encouraging, you were encouraging in ways specific to me and my work. Once in Iowa after you’d landed an agent and I was lamenting that the same fellow didn’t take me, you said, very politely, that it was maybe because our writing was in different places. You meant you had developed farther than I had and you were right and I knew you were right, and I wasn’t offended because it was clear you wished nothing but good things for me. And that statement made it easier to believe the letter later, when you argued that my work was ready, publishers and agents were not.

That kind of sincerity, the mix of empathy for characters and your willingness to judge them honestly permeates your work. It’s clear you love them, while at the same time you are insistent on rendering them and their worlds as they are. Is that an aspect of craft or an aspect of McCracken?

Elizabeth McCracken: Really? I said that? (The first thing, in Iowa.) What a young jerk I was! Well, I can tell you that I have no memory of thinking that, just that I always loved your work.

I never know if I don’t exactly believe in craft or I’m just dumb about it. I feel like I can talk about it when I read other people’s work, a little, when I’m teaching, largely because I’m bossy. But I almost never think about craft while I’m writing. Do you? Occasionally away from what I’m working on I’ll think, Oh, I think I should change the shape of that chapter. When somebody reads my unpublished work to give me feedback, I can see they’re right, and the reasons for it. I can see places where I haven’t been practical—usually when I’ve changed my mind about what a book or a story is about, and I’ve been so pleased about the surprise that I want to pass the surprise on to the reader, forgetting that it doesn’t work that way. But with characters—I think my characters used to start out too good, and I had to rough ‘em up a bit in revision. Now I am more likely to have to cut my characters a break. But character is probably the place where I least think about craft.

I think my characters used to start out too good, and I had to rough ‘em up a bit in revision. Now I am more likely to have to cut my characters a break.

What about you? You have known Andre and Smoker for a long time. Have they changed in your head, as the book has changed? Do you think about craft?

Holbert: You were not a jerk. You were wise even when you were a puppy.

Like you, I don’t think about craft much, at least early on. I think of novels especially as a kind of sculpture. The first thing is to get a good hunk of rock. And the rock will have its own whims. Once I start whacking it with a hammer, the rock and I have to work together. If I fight the rock, it’s going to be a mess. If the rock says no, go this way, there’s usually good reason. Later, it comes down to sentences for me. I want to make them do their job efficiently and I have a kind of abbreviated language in my head that I was surrounded by growing up. It has a particular syntax and abruptness that I attribute to my father and his generation. When I go home I find myself falling into those rhythms.

As far as Smoker and Andre, the character that really turned the book around was Peg. I first wrote her as male, but I’d written several wild men and frankly I was bored by them. So when I decided the wild character was a woman, that’s when I got traction. To have the male characters dominated and haunted by this female act of nature, willing to embrace sex and power, well, it delivered aspects of the other characters I could not have imagined otherwise. I used to be criticized in graduate school for not writing female characters. The critics were right. I didn’t know what I was missing.

You have always been coy about your own craft, by the way. I wonder if you think it’s bad luck to talk about it. You have a superstitious streak. I recall your first story in workshop. Allan Gurganus quietly cornered me. Later, I was to find out he was concerned about my ineptness in workshop. He asked me what I thought of your story. My answer was, I thought I wished I had written it. He patted my back. Say it then, he said. What good teachers and peers I encountered that semester. There were hammerheads and trolls too, but somehow they had no interest in me. What do you remember from those days, craft or otherwise? Did they shape your work? Do they still? Sometimes I feel like it took me a long time to get away from the forces in that place because they were so powerful, though not because they were wrong.

McCracken: I think I was mostly hardheaded. I remember one of our dear mutual friends, who I would have thought was the hardest headed of all of us (as well as one of the most talented), saying that it took him a long time to stop hearing the voice of the workshop in his head after we graduated. That surprised me. It never occurred to me that you were supposed to listen to more than 10 percent of the advice you got. Still, I think a lot about Allan’s advice. For instance, if you have characters who’re having a hard time talking to each other, have one reach out and touch the other. That’s foolproof. Also: get your characters out of the house. General lessons of compassion and interest in human beings—I feel like Allan taught us that our characters were human beings and should be treated as such. My most unforgettable workshop happened in Frank’s class: I wrote a short story in which the narrator was so unreliable not a single person in the class knew what actually happened. What’s worse, they weren’t even confused: I had so buried the subtext that it was invisible to even the most sympathetic reader (and they weren’t the most sympathetic readers). A lot of grad student stories die of subtlety. That one definitely did. Most of what I learned—and this is still how I teach—is that most good writing advice is very specific to the story in front of you.

I still quote you every first day I teach. You once told me that coaching basketball was a matter of saying, “Don’t stand like that—hey. Nice shot.”

I feel like we were taught to be terrified of anything approaching omniscience, anything that seemed the least bit complicated, point of view-wise. It’s probably why I wrote mostly in first person for so long: I was afraid of putting a foot wrong! That’s definitely a thing I learned in graduate school that I wish I didn’t. That, and a distrust of summary, which I love.

One of the things I remember is that you once revised an early novel from first person to third (or maybe the other way around). Do you ever write in first person these days? Because your language is so distinctive—so full of muscle and strangeness—I wonder how you think of that third person.

I think for me the voices were so powerful because I came from a kind of wasteland where no voices existed.

Holbert: I think for me the voices were so powerful because I came from a kind of wasteland where no voices existed. I was a sponge and I soaked everything up. However, I forgot a sponge is a sponge, not just what it holds. You had a kind of confidence from the beginning. It was a strange confidence. Not arrogance, just a certainty that you were interested in doing the work and that you had a soul with particular resources to close the deal.

You’re right subtlety is a pitfall. Frank, who I never got along with, still delivered one comment on a story that I have never forgotten. He called the end of a scene “cryptic.” It appears to mean something, but what it might mean isn’t delivered. Better to mean nothing then to pretend to mean something and not deliver.

I can’t believe you remember that line from basketball. I just saw the kid who initiated it the other day. Sometimes it doesn’t matter where you stand if the ball goes into the hoop.

I remember Allan, again Allan, telling us that the best third person is closest to first person and the best first person is closest to third. I think I took that to heart. My third person sometimes verges on stream of consciousness and I am likely to enter anyone’s head at any time. I don’t spend much time with omniscience between, though. So in a way I think I’ve always been writing first person to a certain extent. I am working on a novel now that is in the first person. It’s a about a character with Alzheimer’s so in a way it calls any point of view into question. I feel good about it, mostly just because I managed to develop a project using “I” instead of “he” or “she.” It’s kind of an epistolary thing so I didn’t have much choice.

I remember Raymond Carver once saying in an interview that short stories are much closer to poems than they are to novels. Your novels are a treat, but I feel like your stories are where you really make me envious (and your memoir which is tragic and gorgeous), where I seem to have had better luck with longer forms. Do you think what Carver said is true? Is there a more vast difference between stories and novels than people might think?

McCracken: If I am not mistaken, that was a question on the Iowa MFA exam! “The short story is halfway between a poem and a novel: discuss.”

I do think that novels and short stories are pretty different. On a sentence level, they might be the same, but not past that. The way characters work is completely different; plot is completely different; time. Nearly everything, really. There was a long period of time when I wasn’t writing short stories, and I liked to insist that short stories were much harder to write than novels. I don’t believe that now. Novels are much more forgiving, form-wise, but they’re also goddamn novels. They are harder to construct, even if I do think you can get away with more. Short stories can be held in their entirety in your head. For me, I can come up with an idea, think about it for a couple of weeks, and then put it on paper, and it will look at least something like I had thought it might. (It won’t look like its earliest glimmers, but it’ll look like it did when I sat down to start typing.)

It’s still pretty common in graduate workshops—I remember this happening at Iowa; it happened to me—for critics to suggest that the workshopped author turn a particularly highly populated or chronologically complicated story into a novel. To which I say: more time has been wasted in trying to turn a good short story into a failed novel than I’d like to think about. I don’t know if I still have the forty pages of a novel I tried to weave out of a short story at Iowa. That was as far as momentum got me before it failed. It’s like transplanting a child’s organs into a grown-up body. There’s nothing superior about either: they’re just built differently.

More time has been wasted in trying to turn a good short story into a failed novel than I’d like to think about.

I’m excited to read the new novel! I know that your third person might not be fully omniscient, but it’s beautifully fluid. It has properties that aren’t just close third. (I would come up with examples but I’m home with strep-ridden children today, and my Holberts are in my office.)

Here’s my question for you: you taught for years, and you also wrote. I wonder both what teaching high school did for your writing, and also what it meant to you and means to you that you ended up publishing your first book more than twenty years after you got your MFA, and now are about to publish your third book in five years?

Holbert: The kids are sick? Boy, I hated that. I felt so bad for mine when that happened. They, however, didn’t always have the same sympathy for me. One winter I had pneumonia and my temperature was spiking, like 104 or something, and Luke goes to The Guinness Book of Records and finds the record and starts piling blankets on me. “You’re close dad, a few more degrees.”

I like what you say about novels and short stories. And there were always wingnuts in graduate school and elsewhere who suggest everything be turned into something else. I do believe the two are genetically different. If you plant a pumpkin seed the result is not going to be carrots even if they are both orange. I tend to think stories are more difficult, probably because they have been more difficult to me. A novel’s shape is usually large but fairly simple, a chase, a failing relationship, a tour of duty, and you can hang a lot of what you are doing on that line and keep the momentum moving forward. I think that same kind of momentum can ruin a short story because it’s familiar to readers and I think short stories rely a good deal on the surprise inherent in revelation and discovery. Writing them, it seems to me, is an act of faith in yourself as a writer that the project will reveal something to you, because if it doesn’t reveal anything to you, it’s not likely going to do it for a reader. A novel’s revelation seems to occur through a slower stacking of events and narrative that together after two hundred pages slowly bring something amorphous into a form more recognizable. It relies less on surprise. In fact, surprise, unless handled very carefully, can weaken a novel.

Teaching high school. It’s strange: in some ways it was a terrible disappointment. So many teachers end their education when they get a degree. They don’t read in their field. And I thought being a writer would lend me some degree of credibility in English departments. Instead, it made me an object of resentment at times. I was never viewed as someone who knew writing. You had to be from the institutional school of rubrics and graphic organizers to hold that position. But, on the other hand, and this was more true than the other, teachers work hard and care for kids, especially if they are working in a school environment that encourages them to do so. I was lucky, I had bosses who recognized the need to teach the kids in front of you, not the ones you might wish were in front of you. They would get together with you and try and solve problems. Two days before I retired I got punched by a student for only the second time in my career. He’d gotten into a scrap with another kid and I broke it up. I looked in the kid’s eyes and you could see he couldn’t find the off switch. So he hit me. Then like ten seconds later, I’m telling him it’s cool, he does it again. This happens three or four times. Finally he storms out and I followed him. You could see he hated himself over it.

Punching a teacher is a big deal. A felony some places. Expulsion, juvenile hall, etc. And if you follow the book, the next step is police involvement. But my boss thinks there’s a book for each kid. I took this kid to the office and let him tell the principal what happened. He told it straight so I didn’t add much. The principal saw on his records he had a blow up in the past, but it was four years ago and that he’d been seeing a therapist since. He wasn’t a danger, and putting him into the legal process would wreck him, so we decided to retell the story in a way that permitted the school to suspend him for a couple of days, then bring him back. I’d be retired by then, so no rematch, but outside of that, everyone felt like we’d moved toward solving the problem rather than exacerbating it. Teachers and counselors monitored his behavior and he was fine. And I was no hero. Most any of the teachers I worked with in my career would have worked the problem the same way. It’s the bosses that permit you to who are really rare.

So when I think about teaching, I think mostly about individuals and hope. I’m a pretty awful cynic and general misanthrope except when it comes to kids. They still care about justice and nobility. Too many adults give that up and just want to keep the lawn mowed.

They still care about justice and nobility. Too many adults give that up and just want to keep the lawn mowed.

Not publishing anything for years, then bringing out three books in five years. Well, I was always working on different stuff. These three books were years in the making and all in some sort of shape when I sold the first. I feel relief, mostly. I told my kids, if you work hard and you have some talent that is hooked to what you love, well sooner or later that will deliver you. After twenty years they were beginning to wonder if the old man was lazy or lacked talent.

I am working on some stories. Mostly about male ineptness in the new world. A real stretch for me.

I have a final question for you. Did you believe I was going to get the work out in the world eventually or were you as shaky on my chances as I had become?

McCracken: I always believed it. Without a doubt. Even when it seemed to be taking, you know, a while. Whiskey most of all—I love all of your work but this is the book that is particularly dear to me, probably because it’s the funniest. I mean, it’s also dark and strange, but a lot of it makes me laugh (largely because of the darkness and strangeness). That bear: I love that bear. But also the characters, who I feel like I’ve known for a long time. Giant chunks from versions of your novels have always stuck in my head—like the snowstorm that opens The Hour of Lead.

I, too, believe that hard work and talent find their way eventually, particularly for a writer like you who doesn’t sound like anybody else. I am looking forward to the adjective Holbertian working its way into the language.

It’s also true that talent without hard work is a total dead end. It surprised me that it took a couple of decades—I first read a version of Whiskey when Gus was an infant, and he is now in fifth grade—but I also knew you were always working. Yeah. I never doubted it.

Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, and The New York Times. He grew up on the Columbia River and in the shadow of the Grand Coulee. His great-grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee. Holbert is the author of The Hour of Lead, Winner of the Washington State Book Award and Lonesome Animals.

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of five books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (stories), the novels The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again, the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and the forthcoming Thunderstruck & Other Stories. She has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She has taught creative writing at Western Michigan University, the University of Oregon, the University of Houston, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, Austin.