The World in a Single Frame: Elizabeth McCracken on “Bowlaway”

Few people could pull off an entire book where the main character is a bowling alley. And yet, Elizabeth McCracken, manages this feat seamlessly in Bowlaway, her triumphant return the novel after more than 17 years away. The book, which centers on a candlepin bowling alley in a fictional New England town spans almost one hundred years and three generations. Starting at the turn of the 20th century with Bertha Truitt, who decides to build the alley after being discovered unconscious in a graveyard with seemingly no memory of her past and nothing but a bowling ball, a pin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person, we follow a group of peculiar, at times estranged, but inextricably entwined families. Through World Wars, across multiple countries and the endless knocking over and resetting of the pins of gender, race, and sexuality, these families, in one form or another, endure. And no matter how far each of them strays, they are always pulled back to Truit Alley, which, no matter how many times it is renamed or madeover, holds their greatest joys and most profound tragedies.

McCracken has bowled the literary equivalent of a near perfect game in her nearly thirty year career. The author of five books of fiction and memoir, including her 1996 debut novel, The Giant’s House which was a national bestseller and the recipient of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers award, McCracken has been nominated for the National Book Award twice and won the prestigious Story Prize and a PEN Award, among many other accolades. With Bowlaway she continues her tradition of bringing unexpectedly loveable and absolutely strange characters to life.

I spoke with the author on the eve of her book’s launch about the joys of revision, strong female characters, and why the current president would make for a poor fictional creation. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. – Amy Gall

The Barnes & Noble Review: Are you a bowler?

Elizabeth McCracken: I was a really terrible bowler. But when you’re doing candlepin bowling it’s pretty easy to be terrible. It’s probably why fiction writers write novels about the things that they are bad at, to have the feeling of being good at them.

But what I always loved about candlepin bowling is, that even though there’s a limited number of outcomes once you throw the ball, there’s also the suspense, because the ball is lighter and the pins are lighter and they are more loosely set because they are smaller. You can roll a ball that looks great and have it knock over two pins, you can bowl a ball that looks no good and can knock over a bunch. And in candlepin, unlike ten pin, the pins that you knock over don’t get cleared away. There’s something that I find obscurely poetic about that: every box, which is what you call a frame, has the history of the balls you bowled before. You have to work with what you got.

BNR: The scope of this book is tremendous, stretching over one hundred years and close to a dozen characters. What was the research process like?

EM: I did research but in a looser way than I’ve done before. Both The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again were highly researched books. In Niagara, which takes places in Vaudeville and in early Hollywood it felt important to be accurate so that people couldn’t say, “Oh, that couldn’t happen because…” In Bowlaway, I was more interested in it being possible and less interested in it being accurate. So, the town in the book is imaginary and geographically can’t exist. It’s inspired by a number of cities just north of Boston including Somerville, Massachusetts which is where I first set the book. But then I came up against what was possible in Somerville, legally at the time, and I didn’t want people to stop the way that I was stopping and ask, “Is that right?” I was much more interested in for this book in the intersection between myth and fact, facts that seemed mythical and myths that seem factual. I did read books on bowling and on the Molasses Flood in Boston, and, through the wonder of youtube, where you can see anything you want, I sat, mesmerized for hours, watching complete strangers bowl just to get the feeling of that.

BNR: Having a fictionalized town would also, I imagine, make it so that anti-miscegenation laws in Massachusetts and the rest of the country wouldn’t apply to Bertha’s marriage to Leviticus Sprague [who is black] .

EM: Yes, and that’s also, in part why I made Leviticus Canadian, because there were no official laws against it there. But really I made Leviticus Canadian too, because candlepin bowling is big in the Maritimes where he’s from. There’s some research I did, which isn’t left in the book, but when I was thinking about his family background I was thinking his family were probably Black loyalists in the Revolutionary War, many of whom immigrated to Canada. And I wanted to do that research again to see, not what is necessarily usual, but what is possible. An obsession of mine is eccentrics and people at the far edges of statistical probability. I do know there were black doctors like Dr. Sprague born and raised in Canada and educated in Scotland but I didn’t do research to find out all the things that were available to Black people in Canada versus the United States at the time.

BNR: You did use a real incident in the book, The Boston Molasses Flood, which I had never heard about, but seemed pretty horrific.

EM: I was obsessed with the Molasses Flood, even as a child. I had a picture that a friend of mine gave me of the aftermath, of people standing next to the smashed up storage tank and the streets looking sticky. 21 people died, 150 people were injured, some people drowned, some people were bludgeoned. And the molasses moved at, I think, 35 miles per hour which is so fast. It was also an important moment in that it resulted in a class action lawsuit, one of the first of its kind, because the distillery company had neglected the tank and it had been oozing molasses for a long time.

It’s, pardon the expression, the sweet spot for me — of things that actually happened, but seem unbelievably unlikely and that are both sad and absurd at the same time. I went into this book knowing remarkably little about what was going to happen, but I do know that when I realized I could kill Bertha in the Molasses Flood I was overjoyed, which is an unseemly emotion concerning ones main character. I have tried to cram that flood into a lot of other writing and I was really happy that it worked this time.

BNR: Beyond research, how did you find the structure for this book and how to move between different perspectives so seamlessly?

EM: Largely, it was instinctive which is the only way I can do it. If I ever over -ntellectualize point of view shifts, then it feels like dancing while looking at my feet. I switched when I became interested in a character and when I felt like I needed to say something that I could only get from their point of view. It’s one of things I like about third person perspective, the ability to invade and display someone’s privacy. The book also started for me when I was reading my grandfather’s genealogy, and I was pulling names from it, so I wanted it to have the logic and flow of a family tree in which all the people on that tree are equally important.

I just realized this past week, it used to be that when I was writing a novel I had to fool myself every time that what I was writing was going to be the last draft. Even though I knew that I was very reliant on revision, I still said, “Okay, I’m going to get it right this time.” And then I would have to go through the devastation each time of that not being true. But this time I really knew I was going to do a lot of drafts, and the drafts really felt like drafts. They were more pleasurable and faster, and I don’t think it was because I was doing less work, I think it was because I knew and had finally accepted my process. I knew, I’m going to type the book over a bunch of times, I’m going to read it aloud a bunch of times, if there’s a chapter that’s not working I’m going to write it a bunch of times. One of the big things I discovered in the various drafts of the book is that whenever I got to far away from the bowling alley, the book lost its focus and stumbled. And once I figured that out, it really helped me to figure out what to cut and how to move through time.

BNR: One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “It was tempting to believe that if you made yourself small and light, beneath notice, you might be allowed to persist nearly anywhere. But meek women were tossed out and forgotten… what women needed to do was take up space. Become unbudgeable.” I loved the relationships between the women in this book and how they were all learning how to take up space. Was that something you were consciously thinking about?

EM: I have a daughter who is ten and the thing that she naturally and automatically requires from a book is a strong, female character. When someone says, “What kind of books do you like?” She says, “I like books about brave girls.” And even though there was no point in my writing where I thought I was going to write a book about brave girls, it’s the air we breathe in my household. For many women my age, but even just in general, it’s interesting and sobering to look back and see what we accepted as being normal for our place in the world at large, and certainly as writers, our place in the literary firmament. I think this has changed, but as a young writer, the serious, lauded writers of my age were almost entirely men.

I’m also aware of how, ven well-intentioned people talk to little girls. For instance, a stranger would say to my son, “What’s your favorite color?” and to my daughter, “I bet you like pink.” That people did not offer my daughter choices. I think there are other things people put on little boys that are also not fair but I was particularly aware of the fact that girls were constantly being told “We already know what you’re like and what you like.”

BNR: Do you think what you believe is possible for yourself has changed as the literary landscape has changed and as women have achieved more of a voice?

EM: I try my best when I’m writing something to never be interested in what will happen to it after, not because I’m pure and an artiste but because it will wreck it. Publishing is a lower ambition than trying to write the best book one can. But, if I take myself out of this equation, as someone who works with graduate students, it’s very exciting on behalf of them to know that the women are going to be taken as seriously. When I teach, one of my goals is that everyone is read in a similar way to everyone else, that we don’t read women as only writing “domestically” or we don’t read people writing about their own cultures anthropologically and sociologically, that we always start from the point of view and the knowledge that we are all trying to write literature, and that’s the way it should be read.

BNR: Speaking of what women have and also haven’t achieved, did the current administration change your focus for the book?

EM: Oh God, I don’t even know. I do feel like it’s like living inside someone else’s mental illness. When it’s over, we’re all going to go – the way you do when you leave a bad relationship or a town that you hated – “What was that? How did that happen?!” And I look forward to that. One of my characters, Nahum Truitt, did end up being slightly inspired by Trump but he ended up becoming much more sympathetic and believable. Because that’s the thing, as a fictional character, Trump is terrible!

BNR: Right, if you presented that as a story in class, people would be like, “Workshop that a little harder.”

EM: Right, they’d all say it’s too on the nose, no one would ever do that, you have get some sympathy in for him in some way. Most human beings are infinitely more complicated than even the most complicated fictional character, but I don’t feel like that guy is.

BNR: Well, to end on a more positive note, what is your favorite thing about language?

EM: Language is one of my primary concerns, so it’s hard to choose. But, I love language when it gets slightly surreal and lifts off from the direct, literal representation of what you’re trying to write. I use metaphor a lot to achieve that effect. I like when language makes something vivid and weird which somehow allows it to get at a deeper truth that the words are hiding behind.