Elizabeth Crane releases her first novel this year after several successful short story collections (“When the Messenger is Hot,” “All This Heavenly Glory,” and “You Must Be This Happy to Enter”). “We Only Know So Much” centers around the multi-generational Copeland family—a husband and wife caring for their older relatives and two children. Otis, the charming nine-year-old, seeks to understand the nature of love and crossword puzzles. Priscilla, whose mother recommends she should “try not being such a bitch,” has few ideas for her future besides immediate fame through a reality show. We spoke to the author, who spent many years in Chicago, about her new book, the influence of reality television and inspiration.
How was the process of writing a novel different from your previous short stories?
Well… it took longer! I’m cracking myself up here. I would imagine this answer would be different from each author who’s done both, but in my case, since I originally thought I was writing a short story, for about sixty or seventy pages I was able to tell myself it was exactly the same. It wasn’t until I had a complete draft that I realized that structurally, I had a bit more work to do to accommodate the different form.
“We Only Know So Much” has four generations of people living in the same house—unusual in American families. What led you to put all those people in the same house?
Originally, in the earliest draft, I just had the four younger Copelands; but I was thinking a lot about my dad, who was struggling with Parkinson’s disease, and how his real cognitive decline would be a great mirror for Gordon’s concerns in that area. So I added a version of him, and threw in a version of my grandmother as well. My dad and my stepmom had, as Jean and Gordon do, moved into their parents’ home to care for them when they were older, and I thought the addition of these older generations opened up the story a lot for each of the Copelands in one way or another.
Right at the beginning, the mother’s lover dies. Why was it important to start the story that way?
This is Jean’s cross to bear. I wasn’t looking to make this event some shocking twist; you learn right away that she’s been unfaithful, and why, and she’s got to find ways to deal with it, but really now has no one to turn to without confessing. So she struggles.
Gordon is such an obnoxious person. Was it hard to write an unlikeable character? Do you worry that the reader might get sick of him?
Ha! It’s really interesting to me, now that the book is out and I’m getting feedback on it, how everyone has different ideas about who’s likable and who isn’t and so on. Personally, I genuinely like all of them very much, though in real life I’d be more inclined to want to spend time with some more than others. They were all great fun to write, though, and I tried to draw each of them fully enough so that even if you didn’t want to be their best friend, you could find ways to empathize with them.
One of the characters wants to be on a reality show, and her mother later urges her to “make [her] own reality.” What do you think about the influence of reality television on people today?
I watch a lot of it, probably as a good chunk of the audience does, mostly because I remain fascinated by what people seem to want to share on TV. An interesting case in point: the only reality show I had any interest in being on was “The Amazing Race.” So my husband and I applied. The application was, if I recall correctly, thirteen pages long, and in addition to asking if I had tattoos (and maybe fake boobs, I can’t quite remember), one of the questions was “What marital issues would you like to work through on national TV?” I should have probably known, reading that question, that “none” wasn’t the right answer, because it was such a telling question.
In terms of the influence it’s had, I don’t think it can be understated, and if you watch the movie “Cinema Verite,” about the making of what was essentially the first reality show—in the seventies—“An American Family,” you learn a lot about how being public in this way plays into aspects of our humanity. Personally, I think anonymity is underrated, but at the moment that almost feels nonexistent. But perhaps you’ve caught me in an existential mood… I am doing a bunch of press right now!
Priscilla’s dollhouse really captured my imagination. Did you have a great dollhouse like that, or are you like me in that you just wish you had one?
My dad made a marvelous one for my sister, but I was already in college by then. So he made me a single room (inspired by Mrs. Thorne’s rooms at the Art Institute), and it had parquet floors he laid in himself, wainscoting, wallpaper, working lights, day and night photos to change out to put behind the windows and an always-growing collection of real, miniature books for the shelves. For Priscilla, I just adapted the idea to what Theodore imagined she would want.
It sounds like you find some inspiration from your own life—your father’s illness, the dollhouse. How do you react to the criticism, generally pointed at women writers that diminishes the personal experience of the women, while a male writer’s experience is seen as more “universal”?
I react with… some frustration? I’m certainly in Franzen territory, subject-wise, but I think the fact of my gender is always going to make some people read it a certain way, no matter what we write about or no matter if a male writer is drawing in any part from his own life (both genders sometimes get flack for that, and sometimes don’t, I think). Generally speaking, I try not to think about it or to let it dictate what I write, which will always be simply whatever I happen to be interested in at the time.
A lot of the story is set in the Copeland’s suburban home. Did you imagine this family living in any particular city or neighborhood?
Yes. In fact, it’s described as a large property in a small Midwestern college town, and the house is the hundred-year-old house that belonged to Vivian and her husband, which the younger Copelands then move into. It bears a slight resemblance to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where my Crane family is from, but Mount P. didn’t have some of the geographical things I wanted—a lake, for example—so I made it fictional. But it’s not meant to be the suburbs at all. This is a small city with, you know, a square. They don’t even have a mall… that’s in the next town over, much to Priscilla’s dismay. I grew up in New York City and don’t really know thing one about the suburbs.
Elizabeth Crane reads from “We Only Know So Much” June 21 at Women & Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299, at 7:30pm.