Elizabeth Crane

LitPark Gang Talks Loss

by Susan Henderson on March 21, 2007

On Friday, Mr. Henderson and I lost our friend Cletus, and then on Monday, we lost an awesome and funny woman we call Bargie. Bargie is sister to Jean Erdman Campbell (whom Bargie called “Johnny” – all four sisters had silly nicknames for each other) and sister-in-law to Joseph Campbell. She will be buried here:

These are photos from Christmas in Hawaii.

Funny, the topic today was going to be loss anyway, so now there’s just more of it. But when you read today’s interview, and when you think of your own losses, I think you’ll agree that the flip-side of this emotion is affection. We miss people because we care about them and because they matter. And loss also reminds us to be grateful for our friends who are still here and to not leave unfinished business with those relationships we still have time to improve.

Today’s interview is a gift from my friend and LitPark regular, Aurelio O’Brien. You might want to put the kettle on about now because this post is a little long, but it’s also worth it because it shows off what I always say is the best of LitPark – and that would be the community that hangs out in the comments section. So here’s Aurelio and some folks who should be familiar to you….


The November 13th Question of the Week was: “Is your mom proud of you? Do you let her read your work? Does she even know you write?”

This question sparked many interesting responses from LitPark writers, and the discussion continued and expanded beyond November 13th. Susan shared her own experiences with her mom. She also expressed interest in hearing some more from those of us who lost our mothers (or fathers) and how that has influenced our writing, so Noria, Carolyn, Grant, Betsy, Jim, Shelley, and I each put down some of our personal reflections.

Noria Jablonski:

My father’s kidneys failed when I was several months old. My first trip to the ER with a ruptured eardrum was when I was three. I spent much of my childhood in doctor’s offices and hospitals (conveniently, my ear doctor’s office was just across the hall from the hemodialysis center). We were bound by illness – his kidneys, my ears, so similarly shaped. Once we went to see a healer together, a man in Oregon named Dr. Hill. Dr. Hill put his hands on my ears (I had severe hearing loss from the constant infections). For five days, my father’s kidneys functioned again. He could pee. And for two weeks everything was so loud!

In all, my father had three kidney transplants and lived until he was fifty-nine. He died shortly after I began working on HUMAN ODDITIES, a collection of stories about the body gone awry. I’ve always felt a sort of kinship with Flannery O’Connor, not just in terms of our freakish subject matter, but because of her experience of her father’s death from lupus, which she would also die of.

My writing didn’t have real urgency until I figured out what my fundamental crisis was: the body afflicted. In her essay “On Being Ill” Virginia Woolf remarks how strange it is “that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

My father said that his body was his greatest teacher. That’s been true for me, too.

Carolyn Burns Bass:

Although my mother didn’t die young according to the calendar, I believe her spirit died early in her life. Disappointments, heartbreak, and self-condemnation sucked the life right out of her before I was born. She knew how to love, though. I never doubted that she loved me.

She’s been gone for three years now. I sat with her every day in the hospital during the two months that cancer baffled her doctors. She had been my mother for 45 years, but in those final days she became my friend, sharing secrets like girlfriends, admitting the disappointments, heartbreak, and self-condemnation she’d carried for decades. Her bravery in the face of death put a new face on the picture of her I keep in my heart.

Grant Bailie:

Almost everything I wrote about the mother in my first novel, CLOUD 8, was the literal truth about my actual mother. She died when I was 19. It was a slow death involving varying degrees of dementia.

My mother and I had always been particularly close – trading books (hard-boiled detective stuff, mostly) playing scrabble – before and throughout her illness. When things got particularly bad, I was the one making her tea and helping her to the bathroom.

Fluffy, Charlie and Mom

At one point toward the end, I remember, she wanted me to write her life story. I already had my ambitions of being a writer. She knew that, of course. The next Raymond Chandler.

I sat at her bedside the dutiful son with pen and legal pad, but little of what she said by then was coherent – or maybe I was only a poor transcriber. I waited for some detail to grab me, some storyline to evolve – she repeated the same few facts over again; disjointed tidbits about a sickly childhood, leaving school by the 6th grade, not being taught to swim because her mother feared drowning. I had heard it all before in some form or another, but wrote a few words down to remind me of it later.

But later, she died and I lost the notes. My first book then, was like a chance to reclaim some of those lost notes, as well as some happier memories. She made cardboard wings for my sister and me when we were kids. That’s in the book too.

And my second book, which I had thought would be about something else entirely, still ends up with the protagonist in the arms of a long lost mother – though now, admittedly, she is portrayed by a gorilla, which should not be seen as a negative reflection of my mother, who was not remotely gorilla-like.

Elizabeth Crane:

I was in my thirties when my mom died at 63 after a few years struggle with lung cancer. As an opera singer, she had been a militant non-smoker, as well as taking incredibly good care of her health overall. Her death had much to do with my writing on several accounts. One that I always say I’d give back, is that it was the single biggest loss I’ve ever experienced, and there’s no doubt that my writing has considerably more depth because of it, and not just simply in the stories I’ve written specifically about losing her.

Many people related to me had the unfortunate luck, within just a few years of this time, in addition to my mom, my dad and stepdad, to come down with several varieties of cancer (plus a stroke and some Parkinson’s for good measure) – dad and stepdad are alive and well, fortunately, but all of this just highlights the need to connect and to cherish my (pretty awesome now, have to say) life while I’ve got it. It just informs my worldview in a completely different way – not a morbid one at all, but certainly a more complex, melancholy, bittersweet one.

The other is that it really did hit me like a lighting bolt that life was (sometimes) short, and that in terms of writing, which I’d been doing since I was eight but not with any great effort to put it out in the world – it was time for me to get on it, and I made a decision to take a year off after she died, finish the book I was working on, and get an agent. (I did that and finished and sold my first collection as well.)

My mom was an incredibly complex character. Everything that the words “opera singer” imply and then some. She got a masters degree in social work in her 50s and also became a reiki master. She battled depression her whole life, I’m sure, which manifested in all kinds of ways. We got along well, much of the time, fought at other times. Lots of mixed messages – she was an artist, but basically discouraged me from being one – I might also have become a singer myself. Part of it was that she had struggled and didn’t want me to, part of it was, to me, just a fearful outlook that’s been hard for me to shake until the years including her illness and after. Now – for me, any struggles are just part of the deal I’m willing to take.

I must direct you to “Year-at-a-Glance” and “Christina” in WHEN THE MESSENGER IS HOT and – well, pick a story in ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY, and she’s probably in there too, and there’s a nonfiction piece in an anthology coming out next year called Altared – my mom was a definite product of her generation (when I saw The Hours, Julianne Moore absolutely crushed me – I feel sure my mother had felt an similar dissatisfaction with what was expected of her – and she ultimately did choose a different life for herself, but there were costs, I believe, her marriage to my dad among them), a master seamstress etc, and sewed a dress for me 15 years prior that I actually had updated and wore to my wedding (several years after she died). I mention it because, well, that’s my mom. She gives me stories and a wedding dress from the beyond.

Jim Tomlinson:

Looking back, my mother’s life seems not fully realized. I’m not sure she’d agree with my assessment, though. Maybe.

She left school at thirteen (eighth grade), to help support her family, she explained later. This was about 1927. No doubt her father thought education beyond that was wasted on a girl. She played violin her last year of school in the high school orchestra. She went from that to working full-time at the local pencil factory in small town Illinois. She worked in factories until, in her early twenties, she married my father, who felt it reflected badly on him if his wife worked. He worked for the post office, delivering mail. She stayed home and raised two sons and a daughter.

Betty Tomlinson, 1960

My mother loved books. There were always books in the house, books she’d bought, second-hand books she’d picked up, and books borrowed from the library. She read Pearl Buck, James Michener, and Readers Digest condensations of the popular novels. In time, I think she felt shame over not having a high school education. She was well read for a small town woman of her day with a better-developed vocabulary than mine is today. Her friends were the ladies of her Methodist circle. If she were alive today, she’d be in book clubs, I think. She’s not, though. Cancer took her many years ago.

The cancer arrived when I was in high school. At least I think that’s true. We kids were so protected from knowing such serious things that I can’t connect it to other events, to a particular school year or sports season, proms or girlfriends. Grandparents died, not parents. I remember the bandages after the mastectomy, the burnt skin on upper chest and neck from radiation treatments, and afterwards the scars that sometimes showed at her neckline, the weakness on one side from chest muscles surgically taken with the breast. She had to ask for help carrying the heavier grocery bags into the house. She rearranged her kitchen, unable to reach top shelves anymore.

Recovered, she looked for her first job since marrying. I don’t know what discussions she and my father had. Their life together was hidden from us. She applied at the town library, where she had used up so many library cards. Without a diploma, she didn’t qualify as assistant librarian. But she could be assistant to the assistant librarian, and that became her part-time job. And she loved working among all those books and being among the people in town.

I left town for college, graduated in engineering, visited home when I could, joined the Navy two days ahead of the draft, and married a Rhode Island girl. We settled in New England after my military service.

The cancer came back when I was in my early thirties. She wasn’t feeling well during our trip to Illinois that summer. She didn’t name the beast, though, and I was deeply involved in the turbulence of my marriage. I hardly noticed.

That fall she went to the hospital a couple times. There was fluid in her chest to be drained, she said. Nothing to worry about. We planned to drive out for a visit over Thanksgiving, if she felt up to company. Sometime in October my father phoned from the hospital and put Mom on the phone. Long distance phone calls were rare extravagances in our family. I remember thinking how unlike Dad, calling like this. I talked to Mom for a few minutes. She sounded very weak. She talked about procedures the doctors were considering, about her discomfort in the hospital bed, how she hoped to be home soon. Then she asked if I could come see her. I remember thinking she must be confused. “I’ll see you over Thanksgiving,” I said. “It’s only a few weeks.”

“I don’t know if I’ll make it,” she said. I thought she meant she didn’t know if she’d be home from the hospital by then. It was only later that night that what she must have meant dawned on me. And it is the greatest regret of my life that I didn’t go see her the next day, or the day after that.

She died in that hospital a week later, my father and sister at her bedside. I’ve always felt that I owed her so much more as a son than I ever gave her.

I tried to write a longhand novel a couple years after that, and a typed one after that. And when I started writing short-shorts fifteen years ago, one of the first was “The Little Violinist,” a narrative based on my father’s telling of first seeing my mother, how she swayed as she played violin in the high school orchestra, how she walked with long, proud strides along the railroad tracks, walked to work in the pencil factory.

The story, “Flights,” which appeared first in and then in my short story collection is very much about her and my father and the desire that some vestige of them be remembered.

There are times when I feel as though, by being a writer, I’m repaying some cosmic debt for shortcomings as a son, that I’m living another version of her life in her stead, one she might have lived, had she been born in other times, under other circumstances. She had the inclinations of a writer – the love of books, of language, of a story well-told. I don’t know that the thought ever crossed her mind, though, don’t know if she considered it possible. There is much about her that I can never know. But I do know that she’s the reason I’m a writer.

[Someone needs to give Shelley a book deal so I can put the photo here!]
Shelley Marlow:

My relationship with my father was complicated. As a teen, I asked for a typewriter for a birthday present. My parents never gave me one. I always thought it was because they didn’t want me to write about situations that they were not able to process. Also, they wanted me to be an artist. My father was a self-taught artist. While I was growing up, he worked in his tuxedo store until 8 at night. So I probably didn’t see him much all week, only on Sundays.

He died when I was an adult. We healed a lot about our relationship when he was dying. One gift he left was all about working ceaselessly until a project is completed. He also taught me to see beauty in everything, especially trees. I still have a few small pieces of particularly fragrant wood he’d collected for carving.

Aurelio O’Brien:

My mother grew up on a small farm in South Dakota. I visited there only once. I was about six. I remember that it was flat and dusty, the mosquitoes traveled in clouds, and that my hunched-back old grandma had a mustache and smelled of mothballs. Her old, weathered house had come from a Sears catalog.

Mom was born and raised there, but she was brave – when she was 18 she left the farm and moved to NYC all on her own. This act of courage had two motivations: first, to get out of South Dakota, and second, to avoid the only two single men in the area she would have been doomed to marry.

While out walking the streets of Manhattan in search of a job, she peered through a large picture window. Someone inside saw her and asked her in, then inquired if she needed a job. Just like that! It was a gym. My mother had never exercised a day in her life, but the farm work and her genes had given her an ideal figure. She became the receptionist who sat in that same picture window of the gym, signing people up.

She met my dad in NYC; he was in the army at the time and briefly stationed there. They married and moved to Utah for dad’s GI education, then to California.

Even away from South Dakota, farming was in my mother’s blood. She wanted to raise children, so she raised a flock of them. Six of us in all. (Two more step-kids came after her passing.) She was a devoted mother; a neighbor once wryly commented that my mom was “the only woman they’d ever met with six only children.”

Mom was definitely homespun, but surprisingly progressive. She made everything from scratch: I remember egg noodles drying on the backs of kitchen chairs, she made all my sister’s clothes on a little black portable Singer, and no one could bake a better pie crust (I think she used lard with just a daub of bacon fat, maybe???) But she loved 50’s modern furniture (cutting-edge at the time), art, music, museums of any kind, and marveled at new technology.

She insisted all of her kids were brilliant. I was too young at the time to be embarrassed by this public proclamation.

She died of cancer when I was seven.

I was pondering what part of me is like my mother, or what main influence she left me with; it would have to be her enthusiasm for life. She was an extremely positive person. Mom was interested in everybody and everything, and I know this influences my writing in its general tone and the way I approach my characters.


Maybe after reading today’s post, some of you have letters to write or phone calls to make. Well…? xo


Elizabeth Crane

by Susan Henderson on March 14, 2007

Some writers’ styles are so identifiable, you can practically parody them – David Foster Wallace, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Nikki Giovanni, Lemony Snicket. Today’s guest is one of those writers that, if you’re given two or three sentences, you can say, “Oh, that’s an Elizabeth Crane story.”

How would I define her writing style? Breathless, playful, totally charming, and funny. But she’s funny in a quirky, heartbreaking, underhanded kind of way I don’t know how to describe except to include excerpts of her writing throughout the interview, and so I’ll do that.

If you’re a LitPark regular, you’ll know today’s guest as Betsy. But I’m going to get all formal on you for half a second and say, Please welcome the remarkable Elizabeth Crane.


Your writing has such an identifiable style. How would you define the style and voice of ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY?

Thanks for saying so! You know, this may not make sense in light of the writing, which might seem a bit complex (?) but I try to write really naturally – what I mean is that to a great extent, I like to write how I think, whether it’s first, second or third person, present, past – or future tense. If I have to work at it too hard, I know it’s not going to work at all. Is that actually an answer? To this question?

Charlotte Anne also knows that all kids don’t keep their Beautiful Crissy dolls (with the beautiful, “growing” hair) as pristine as she would, if she had one, that there are kids who cut their dolls’ hair, or lose parts of games, and that some of them will invite you over for a playdate saying that they have a certain game and then that turns out to be a lie, or don’t know where they even keep things, which she will usually consider when invited over for a playdate, seeing as how what’s the point, really, if there are only parts of things to play with.
– from “Perversion #1: The Beautiful Crissy Experience,” ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY

What kind of response have you received?

By and large the response has been nothing but positive. (Ok, there was that one random blogger, not a litblogger, just a regular person, who said the first sentence was so annoying they couldn’t read on… why are the one bad ones the ones that stick in my head? I can’t quote any of the good ones…) It’s weird, this book didn’t get a lot of press when it came out for reasons that are a bit maddening, but nevertheless, in spite of that, what press I did get has been very good, and, this is the part that amazes me – I feel like it’s the little book that won’t die, because over the last two years since the hardcover came out, more in the last year even, since the paperback, it seems to have fallen into the hands of some pretty visible people who have gone out of their way to champion it, and so long after its paperback release now, it’s like the little book that could.

Me and Ben at the Golden Gate bridge last summer.

On our so-called date we had lunch at Peretti’s and he asked me stuff like, Who are you? Where are you from? What do you think about god? I’m not sure anyone really has the time to hear my feelings about god, which are muddled at best, but I love that someone asked anyway.

Can you describe your writing process and how you tap into this voice? I have to say it reads as if the character just takes hold of you and you have to chase the story with your pen.

That’s such a cool observation and image. On occasion that’s true. It’s the most fun when it works like that, anyway! I wrote a 45 page story for my first book in three days and hardly revised it at all. And I liked the way it came out, but was like – wow, was I in a blackout when I wrote that? Basically, though, my writing process is pretty simple. When I’m in writing mode, which isn’t always (I wish it were, but work work sometimes prevents – other times I’m too obsessed with crafts although that weirdly fuels my writing in ways I can’t explain – I wrote my third book in the midst of major craft blog obsession/sewing & embroidery binge), I like to write in the mornings, ideally, when I’m most awake, and then once I have a first draft – I expand and expand and then fine tune and fine tune, eventually on a word level. I know when I get to the point where I’m changing ands and buts that it’s about time to let it go.

Reasons I Don’t Want to Be Friends with You
1. you’re uptight and should try pot it might help
2. you’re jealous you should try sex it might help
3. bitch
– from “A Malicious Use of the List Format,” ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY

As far as tapping into the voice though, that’s a bit of another story. For me, it was about learning to trust the voice that was always there. Years ago, I used to think I should write like Jane Austen or I don’t know who, people who described – lovely things – and I worked really hard to write in this sort of formal, structured way that really wasn’t me. Meanwhile I’d write LONG letters to friends that I’d revise heavily before I sent them, and my friends always loved them – but I had no idea that I could write stories the same way, that I kind of was writing stories. And then, very late in the game, I started reading writers who were more experimental in their style, writing in a way that I could really relate to, and I realized that I had that license too, and that’s when my writing really changed and that voice came out.

Charlotte had heard it said many times in the program that A.A. wasn’t a hotbed of mental health, but this hadn’t stopped her from using it as a dating service.

This was a weird and wonderful choice – the stories told by Charlotte Anne regarding her childhood are written in present-tense, and the more current stories are written in the past tense? Was this intentional?

Yay! You might be the first person to notice this or at least to point it out. It was intentional. Shouldn’t be much of a mystery that much of the story here is based on my childhood, and my thinking is that – for me anyway – sometimes those memories seem more crisp to me than things that happened last week, if that makes any sense, and so I reversed the tenses to point that out. I just kinda think that – childhood seems to be something that is always with us, that has so much to do with who we become, and as far away as it gets, it always seems very present to me.

My rock star moment.

Her stepfather’s devotion to Charlotte’s mother is displayed partly in the way he looks at her after all these years and partly in the way he laughs too loud when she says something funny even though mostly what she says that’s funny isn’t meant to be funny, for example she likes to tell jokes except she can’t ever really remember them, and she’ll say something like, Oh there’s this frog, and he’s in a bar, or on a bar, and he says to the bartender, “Bartender” – something about peanuts – oh wait, I think there was a whatdoyoucall, a rabbi or a priest, and then she cracks up, and she kind of does this when she tells stories too, and you know she knows what she’s trying to say, but you have to kind of help her fill in the blanks, sometimes, or put the story in the right order, which is not to say that she is stupid in any way, because she isn’t, and which is more a sort of charming characteristic than a humor-oriented characteristic, and which arguably does have its appeal.
– from “Jesse Jackson, He Lives in Chicago,” ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, Thank God this manuscript landed in the right hands because I can see how there might be pressure to tie the stories together into a novel or reign in the sentences. I think there’s a magic in the way the stories are shaped, and certainly in the way Charlotte Anne’s mind works. Did you have to fight to keep this a collection of stories or made into something that resembled what’s already out there?

Dang! That’s so nice. I didn’t have to fight to keep it a collection, no, my editor at Little, Brown, Reagan Arthur, was a real champ for me like that. This is where the answer gets a little tricky though, because L,B did want a novel, yes, and this was supposed to be marketed more along those lines, but it wasn’t marketed too much at all (see above vague answer), as it happened. But I didn’t write this as a compromise. I always planned a Charlotte Anne book of stories. I had about half the stories written when I decided to fill it out.

There are not many published authors who exclusively write short stories. Alice Munro, George Saunders. There’s always that pressure from agents and editors to write a novel. (When Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver tried this, I remember thinking, No, no, no, this isn’t the form you were born to write!) Can you talk to me about the value of the short story and why you choose to tell your stories in this form?

Ha! I couldn’t agree more. I LOVE LOVE LOVE short stories. That’s the simple answer. And can I say, if in some distant future universe, my name gets mentioned alongside names like that again, man, I will go to my grave one happy camper. There are numerous novels that I’ve loved over the years (I hope the novelists won’t get mad at me here – is this my controversy? I didn’t post on that subject because I don’t think I have any stories), but there’s something about the short form where I see the most exciting, original writing – in terms of what floats my boat, anyway.

A painting by my husband that hangs in our living room.

. . . . not in search of an Owen Wilson “type,” not ISO anyone who looks, acts, sounds like, or does an impression of Owen Wilson, is search of the actual Owen Wilson . . . .

I think part of why that might be is because in a longer form you’re really bound to keeping this consistent story going for a long time, and one might tire of a more experimental style like mine in a longer form, or, as a writer, it may just be more difficult to keep up. I’m not sure – certainly there are numerous examples of people who do it well, but I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them. I have no plans to write a novel, though I did feel that pressure for a while, I’ve decided to let myself off the hook. Every time I try, I write a hundred or more pages and then decide it doesn’t work and then all I can think is there’s four months gone by where I could have been writing stories. In the end, I write short stories because I love them, and it’s what I’m best at. I wrote a novel, sort of, that got me an agent but didn’t get sold (thank god, now)- whereas my first collection got picked up in about 5 minutes – and I took that to heart. Now I’m just trying to make peace with the possibility that I might never be rich. Although I have a scheme in mind to popularize short stories once and for all, and if I had any time and smidgen of money, I’d do it. It baffles me that people say they don’t read because they don’t have time? Um, short stories? Are short.

Me and my best friend since 7th grade (Nina Solomon, also a writer) at Happy Ending (I was doing a reading there) last June.

During a rerun of Donny & Marie they had rated all the girls in their class on a scale from “excellent” to “fair” and were the only ones in the “excellent” category while most fell off the scale into “poor,” never questioning that they might not be home on a majority of Saturday nights watching Donny & Marie if their excellence were univeally recognized, always maintaining among themselves that they did so “by choice.”
– from “Brooklyn,” ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY

Who are you reading these days, and what are you working on now?

Well, let’s see – there are about ten books on my nightstand (there were twenty, but it was becoming wobbly) – four of them are about dogs (we just got our first), the others are: Noria‘s book of stories, Human Oddities, Sara Gran’s novel Dope, God’s Gym by John Edgar Wideman, two books by Golda Fried, and Blink, by Malcom Gladwell. That stuff kills me. And also I still haven’t finished Gary Lutz’s book of stories, Stories in the Worst Way, but his writing is insane…ly great and original.

I just finished editing my third book of stories, YOU MUST BE THIS HAPPY TO ENTER, from Punk Planet, out in September.