By Laura Castellano
Elizabeth Crane exudes happiness. Her broad smile and frequent bouts of laughter seem to come easily. “I don’t know if it’s just my nature or not, ” she says, “but I certainly have not always been this happy.”
The acclaimed author explores the aforementioned sunny attitude in her new book of short stories, “You Must Be This Happy To Enter.” Crane’s past collections, “All This Heavenly Glory” and “When the Messenger is Hot,” touched on failed relationships and death. The new stories have a decidedly more uplifting theme (though the same sharp wit). Her optimism, she says, comes partly from teaching at “fine schools” (including the University of Chicago and Northwestern) from her recent successes as a writer, and from the solid relationship she has with her husband.
Crane’s opener in “You Must Be This Happy To Enter” sets the tone. The narrator faces rejection after rejection while simultaneously exclaiming (literally) about her “awesome” life. But the beauty of the piece is that this woman recognizes your bewilderment of her seemingly gloomy situation: “You might ask, how can anyone be happy when there are so many problems in the world! And I would say, those things make me sad too! But I am still happy!” The narrator’s failures are peppered with humorous anecdotes that are, what else, just a little bit depressing. “She keeps saying, my life is great, great, great,” Crane explains. “It doesn’t sound that great, but I think, well, that’s her. I wouldn’t be the one to say that isn’t her genuine joy.”
Because Crane’s characters reveal themselves to her as she’s writing, she spares judgment. This is because the characters often come to a realization about themselves near the end of the story. “They don’t change their whole belief systems overnight,” she says. “They have, like people do in real life, just tiny little shifts where they see something maybe slightly different than they saw before.” These changes are rarely foreseeable, but when they happen the found-insight is inspiring.
There have been tiny shifts in Crane’s life too, and they have resulted in her newest outlook. She met her husband in her early forties, shortly after her first collection was published in 2003. Now, instead of failed relationships, she often writes of successful ones. “Banana Love” is a hypothetical account of a man who loves bananas and his wife who has an intense repulsion for the fruit (the wife avoids the produce section in the grocery store). “The essence of the story was based on this idea that, god, my husband and I get along so well,” says Crane. “Like, what would we do if we had this difference; some weird, random difference?”
Crane’s inspiration does not come exclusively from her idyllic marriage; it also comes from her favorite TV shows in which real people have a warped sense of reality. “The line between fame and real life, it’s just becoming blurrier and blurrier,” Crane says. “I think a lot of people are willing to sacrifice their privacy for what they think fame might be.” One of Crane’s characters, Betty, conveys this message in a less serious manner. While perusing at the craft store Jo-Ann Fabrics, she gets bitten by a zombie and then turns into one herself. The answer to overcoming her zombie issues, Betty decides, is to go on a reality show. She does. And she gets help. Kind of.
Hold your judgment (that’s a potential topic of her next collection by the way). Crane’s characters are not necessarily human, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the usual issues. And that’s what make the characters genuine and the stories so charming.
But most rewarding is the final story in her collection, “Promise.” It is a message to an unborn, adopted child, giving him advice, while also revealing her own parental anxieties. Crane admits that she and her husband, who have no other children, have considered adopting. The story, obviously semi-autobiographical, reads: “You will watch TV. If anyone tells you TV makes you stupid or ruins your life, you tell them your mommy watches TV and she wrote three books and teaches college.”
Crane’s optimism is infectious. The rave reviews probably add to her cheerful manner, she says, though they are not crucial. “It was certainly my own confidence of the material that allowed me to put it out there in the first place,” she says. “If I didn’t feel good about it, I wouldn’t let a publisher read it, or a friend read it, or anybody.” But now that she has let the world read her work, she can enjoy her other successes: her marriage, her teaching and even her embroidery. “I can’t even imagine how I could be happier,” she says. “And I kind of think that things are only going to get better.”
Elizabeth Crane reads from “You Must Be This Happy To Enter” February 7 at Quimbys Bookstore, 1854 West North, (773)342-0910, at 7pm. Free.