Five questions with: Author Elizabeth McKracken

Reading: Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway

Prairie Lights — Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.

Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway, released Feb. 5.

Quirky and engaging, funny and serious at once, Bowlaway is a book that makes you think. The story of a bowling alley and the family which owns it is part historical novel, part family saga and part pure whimsy.

The book begins in 1903 with the discovery of middle-aged Bertha Truitt lying stark naked and unconscious in a graveyard with only a bowling ball, a bowling pin and several bars of gold. She quickly establishes herself as a local celebrity by opening Truitt’s, an establishment devoted to the New England sport of candlepin bowling. Bertha soon proves that she has no fear of breaking societal rules, and her business will continue to operate for the next sixty years, passed down through generations of family and family connections. Throughout this time, Truitt’s (later renamed Bowlaway) affects the lives of countless people, especially those who own it or work there.

Themes of self-determination and social expectations pervade the story. Those characters who are courageous enough to step out of their conventional roles win a measure of success and content; those who follow a predetermined path never gain true happiness or self-knowledge. But unmitigated happiness is not granted to anyone. Childhood pain and adult experiences affect every character.

There is a raw humanity in the book that evokes sympathy for even the least admirable. Those who are deeply flawed, or deeply hurt, or who cannot break away from legacies of birth or upbringing are treated with compassion by the author, despite their often problematic behavior. No one is immune to human failings, and author Elizabeth McCracken uses those failings to deftly interweave stories of people whose best and worst natures are in conflict.

McCracken writes in a wry style that is uniquely her own: beautifully resonant with a sardonic sense of humor, with the absurd as likely as the commonplace. Descriptions are idiosyncratic, creating the sense of a world in which anything might happen. Foreshadowing stops just short of telling the reader many characters’ ultimate fates. This does not detract from the story; instead, it forces the reader look for clues as to why and how the characters will choose their paths. Likewise, some details about the characters are divulged long after they are first hinted at, which compels the reader to consider the reasons for their behavior and choices before those motivations are revealed.

The book touches on the complexity of social issues such as sexism, homophobia and racial intermarriage, but never preaches; its strength is in showing how the characters themselves stand against prejudice or fall to it and how their choices inspire others to reshape at least a small part of the world.

Bowlaway is a delightful and intriguing story, and well worth the investment of a few nights of reading. It may quickly become a favorite for those who enjoy peeking behind the façade of normalcy.

McCracken, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum who has also taught there, answered some questions for Little Village ahead of her upcoming Prairie Lights reading.

What inspired you to write Bowlaway, and how did you choose the sport of candlepin bowling to write a book around?

I am a New Englander living in Texas. I didn’t realize how much of New Englander I was till I moved to Texas. So I was contemplating New Englandish things and remembered the candlepin bowling alleys of my childhood. It seemed like a fine place to set a novel.

Given that part of your setting comes from personal experience, are there real-life events, other than the obviously historical elements, that also inspired parts of your book?

I’m trying to remember! Not much, I don’t think, though there are definitely bits of me in every character.

Since, as you say, there are bits of you in every character, did that make it easier or harder to write your characters? Which one was your favorite character to write, and why? Did you have a least favorite character?

I don’t know if it makes it easier, I only know it’s how I’ve always done it. I had a lot of fun writing Nahum, though he’s not my favorite character, just entertaining. Either Joe Wear or LuEtta Mood are probably my favorites — though I am fond of all of them for different reasons.

What prompted your choice of writing about 60 years of the 20th century? Was it the social and economic injustices, the prominence of candlepin bowling, were you just drawn to the time period, or was it something else entirely?

The driving force behind this book was always genealogy. The character names came from my grandfather’s genealogies, and what I wanted to get at is how genealogies have plot — these people begat that person — and also no plot: It’s random. I wanted to cover three generations. (I think it’s more like 70 years, but I was specifically vague.) But I’m always obsessed with the 20th century, even 20 years into the 21st.

One last question: What is your next project?

For the first time in a long time, I don’t know what my next novel is! I probably will start thinking about it at the end of my academic semester. I’m tinkering with some short stories though. (I’m always tinkering with short stories.)

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