Every MFA candidate in the New Writers Project receives a Crawley grant their first summer in the program, which gives them vital, liberating support to focus on their work. The Crawley Grants come through the generosity of John Crawley, author of 14 books of fiction, most recently the just-published The Perfect Food. Elizabeth McCracken sat down with him after he met with the New Writers Project students to talk about his recent book Letters from Paris, donating to the University of Texas, and the writing life.
Elizabeth McCracken: Do you write every day?
John Crawley: Oh yeah, every day. I may be writing a character study for a book three years from now. Just hey, this kind of person would be neat; what would they do? It’s all in a notebook, and I’ll get back to it someday. It’s how Clare from Letters from Paris came about. What would a poet from that generation – how would she sound? I went back through my notebook years later and said “Oh, boy, what a neat book this would be.”
I had a character by the name of Scott Keen who was a journalist. And his love interest was a photographer, and they were in Paris during the student unrest of the 70s and she was photographing this wrinkled, old, black poet who was sitting there having coffee, and the woman wouldn’t look at her. She would just look away.
Throughout the book, her poetry is read out loud. She appeared in another book and then in another one. Again, cameo roles. One day I went back through my notes and said, Wow, this would be a great character to develop into a novel, and to tell that viewpoint of all the change from the first World War to the second to the civil rights movement and the human rights movement, her fight for human equality as this voice that is out there. And to be teamed up, best friends with John Dos Passos, who makes the opposite metamorphosis, who goes from being the leftist to the conservative, and they’re going in opposite directions. It’s kind of a nice tension in the book.
EM: Were you worried about writing about politics?
JC: No. I jump into it all the time. It’s not only part of the story, and part of our history, it’s a way of looking at literature rather than just character A and character B. There is this filter that’s on top of them now, and the politics made part of that filter more real to me. As he was turning to the right and she was turning to the left, this friendship still somehow eked its way back to the surface. So, I hope the people from his family don’t mind me having used him so liberally, but it’s historical fiction.
EM: You went to UT?
JC: Right. I was an English and history major. I took my first creative writing courses here. I did it in the English department, because if you did writing and journalism, you had to be able to type and I was a horrible typist. You could longhand your stuff in the English department at that time.
I had a professor named Cherry Watson, who was very instrumental in molding me and working with me. He saw the talent, I guess, somewhere along the way. One day he looked at me. After class, he held me back and said “You ought to be a writer.” I said okay, there’s my profession. How do I make a living at it?
At that time, there was no MFA program and I didn’t want to go to Iowa and be that cold, so I went into advertising. I spent 35 years writing real fiction. You worked in the spring and the summer to get everything ready to launch the new car models in September, and you would write all your TV commercials and produce them so when the new TV fall series came out your fall commercials were parallel with them.
After that, you had a down period of time of about four or five months. So one year I said “Well, I’m not going to just waste this time; I’m going to write a novel.” So, I wrote a novel. It was the very first time that I had sat down to write from start-to-finish a complete work. Now, I’d done short stories and I’d done poetry. Now, I’ll tell you how long ago this was. This was on one of those big, black floppies. You remember them? I lost it. Could not find it. So I went on with what little life I had left after that, and I moved to Dallas after a while. I was living in Southern California at the time. I moved to Dallas, and unpacking boxes, I found that disk. Now, this is years later, so nobody had disk readers of that size. I found one guy that had one and said “Can you print this out for me, or do something with it?” He did. I had the story, and I sent it to a publisher in New York who loved it, and the rest is somewhat history.
EM: How long does it take you to finish a book?
JC: Well, they vary. The fastest one I’ve ever done is a book called Stuff. Michele [Stephens, Crawley’s wife] and I were in bed watching the 10:00 news one night when the Bastrop fires were going on. I think it was 2011. She turned to me and she said “What would you grab if a fire was coming at us?” And I know she was hoping I’d say “Oh, I would sweep you off your feet and take you out the door.” I said the guitars. That didn’t go over well.
But it was a good question, and I played that in my head. What would I take? What would I get? What has meaning in my life? Then poof, this idea came in. What a neat way to tell a story about someone’s life, by the things they grab on the way out of the house with a natural disaster pending. In the story, the guy has about 90 minutes to evacuate his house and stuff. As he reaches for a thing, then you go backwards in time and say, “Oh, this was when my son was in Boy Scouts.” And his whole story starts to unveil by the stuff he’s getting out. That book came together from start-to-finish in about six weeks.
Most of them take about a year, at least 14 months. And some are longer. I wrote a book, The Uncivil War, that I must have researched for two decades before I sat down, I had other projects going on at the time. That started with a question. A friend of mine and I were shooting a commercial in Washington, D.C., and we had a couple of days off. His brother knew the administrator of Gettysburg and he gave us a tour, a guided tour, which was wonderful. And we got to Cemetery Ridge and talked about Pickett’s Charge and all that. And Steve turned to me and said “Can you imagine what the world would be like if Pickett had made it to the top?” Wow, our whole nation would’ve been divided.
In my book, it starts in the future, ten years in the future, but the nation is still divided. It all starts with a question.
So, I never know where a book is going to come from. This latest one I’m writing came from I saw a newspaper article about farmers in Belgium rebelling against genetically-modified grains in the United States. I went why would they do that? So, when I got into it: Ah, here’s a novel.
EM: Do you revise a lot?
JC: Oh, yeah. Yeah. A case-in-point on the Letters from Paris, the story begins with actually a lecture series by a professor about Clare de Fontroy, and that’s to set her up in the reader’s mind to know what you need to know so that her letters make sense. I bet I wrote and rewrote and wrote and rewrote those lecture notes 200 times. I probably spent maybe as much as three months on those notes alone. I already knew where the letters were going. I knew how her life was going to break down. But I had to get you to a certain point before I could start the letters for her relevance to make sense in the book.
Then I had to figure out well how would they have gotten these letters, and where did they come from, and who got them, and what were they like? Well, you might as well put it in the book and make the reader fight for that too. Then you have to do it interestingly enough. But yeah, I go back and rework and rework and rework.
EM: I wanted to ask about how you decided to donate to the New Writers Project at UT.
JC: I guess I came up on some computer as “Go call this guy.” I was not a member of the ex-students association. I was one of those invisible graduates that had come through Austin, gotten my sheepskin after I paid my parking tickets, and then left and built my career. And all of a sudden one day this guy calls me on the phone and says “Hey, my name is David Livingston. We have this big, five-billion dollar program at the University of Texas where we’re trying to raise all kinds of money, and we want to talk to you.” And I told him, I don’t have five billion dollars. He said “Well, have breakfast with me. I think we can cut your portion down a size.”
So, we met and just instantly I liked David. He had all kinds of great idea. He said “What area interests you?” I said I love creative writing, and I’ve taught a little creative writing and I’ve been involved in writing all my life and my career. He said “Well, let me introduce you to Dr. Cullingford.” So I came to Austin, and I thought we were going to do something, maybe a scholarship or something like that, and she immediately shook her head no. She goes, “I’ve got a better idea.” In fact, Dean Diehl was there that day, and they were both on the same page instantly: let’s make something available for graduate students. People are always doing stuff for undergrads. There’s tons of programs. But graduate students, you don’t understand that summertime where you’re having to flip burgers or fix bicycle flat tires or whatever it is to make it to the next semester takes you away from that actual thing of writing.
These people have such a short time to develop their craft. They need that summer. And I went “Okay.” So, at that point, it wasn’t even my idea. By then, I’d decided I wanted to give some money to the creative writing track, and this was the best way to do it. It really came from that. The money actually came from a trust my father left me. My dad was a doctor, and he never thought I had a real job as a writer. He always wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. This was kind of: “Okay dad, look what we’re doing now. We’re helping folks.”
I was lucky, because I got a job right out of school in advertising getting to write. There are a lot of people who don’t get that chance. They’ve got to make it on whatever manuscript they’ve got their hands wrapped around. The fact that I get to help 15 people a year or whatever the number is, it’s just mind-boggling to me. Michele and I were talking about it driving from Dallas down to Austin. You have no idea the lives you’re touching. And then they come up and hug you.
I never knew a poet, per se, and to meet these kids who are into poetry and so moved by it? It was so much fun writing poetry for Clare, I got to do something I’d never done before. And now then to meet these kids who their whole life is wrapped around it, that was really thrilling.
EM: What are you working on now?
JC: Well, the thing I’m working on for next year is a book of short stories based on a fictitious community in east Texas. It’s kind of like a novel, but it’s a series of stories told about the people there. I don’t know, it’s really hard to do. It’s maybe three years out, the way it’s going.
EM: That’s where you’re from?
JC: I grew up in Kilgore, yeah, and my dad was the doctor for the Rangerettes, the drill team. We had more knee surgeries on the Rangerettes than the football team ever had. As soon as I could get out of east Texas and get to Austin, I did it. I loved my time at UT. You know, it’s kind of funny. I joined the ex-student association now and I’m involved with this and Dean Diehl has me on some programs and President Powers has me on some, and I feel like I’m integrated into my university again. Here all these years I was away from it and it did fine without me, but it sure seems to be doing really good with me because I’m enjoying it.
EM: What advice do you have for young writers?
JC: I think the most important thing is to be true to your story, what’s inside of you, and to work on it every day. We were talking about it here this afternoon with some of the students, and I said the story, the concept, is the metal that you’re going to work with, the words are the alloys that you’re going to mix in with it. And sometimes you want it to be more malleable, and other times you want it to be strong. Sometimes you want it to be shiny; other times you want it to be dull and dark. Someone should not remember your work for the words, unless you’re Shakespeare – we’ve done something special with him – but they should remember your story. And when your words don’t get in the way and they’re the alloy of the story, I think it makes great writing
One of the important things is I spend a little bit every day facing that damn computer. I actually think a blank sheet of paper is friendlier than a computer screen. But I may write a sentence and Michele will come home and say “What did you do today?” “Oh, it was productive. I got a sentence.” And she’ll look at me like oh, yeah? Sometimes just one sentence can do the trick, and sometimes it opens up a paragraph and chapter or whatever. But every day you’ve got to put yourself out there on the line and practice that craft.
I have found, just like a musician, if I don’t write every day and I come back to it, I’m rusty. I’m not as good as I was when I left. And I’ve got to practice hearing the voices and getting them out of me and listening to the muse and following it.
It’s a calling that–well, it can be good and it can be bad, but it is a calling.