Elizabeth Crook on Writing, Research, and the Infamous UT Tower Shooting

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Untitled-1Elizabeth Crook, Austin novelist, sat down with our literary director Steph Opitz to discuss her latest novel.  Monday Monday is the story of the impact  that a tragic event can have on a person, how it can bond and severe, heal and scar.

SO: Where did this book start? You’ve mentioned that it wasn’t until you read Pamela Colloff’s piece in Texas Monthly about Charles Whitman that you incorporated the UT shooting into the story…so what was the story before that?

EC: In the early drafts there was no bloodshed, no illegitimate pregnancy or adoption, no devastating flood and no tragedy at Devil’s Sinkhole. There was a mother and her two daughters, a portrait of a nude—painted over—and a few intriguing secrets. Writing, for me, is a long untidy process of continually trying to inject more relevance, more urgency, and more emotion. In this case, it took me seven years.

SO: Clearly you did a tremendous amount of research to depict the infamous shooting, and it doesn’t stop there, the entire book is seeped with a rich portrait* of Texas in 1966 to the early 2000s …what was your approach to collecting all this information? (*pun intended, there are incredible descriptions of paint/painting and artistry)

EC: My approach involved the usual kind of research in books and online, but the greatest help was talking with people who were students at UT in the sixties and were there that day of the shootings. No amount of research was actually going to take me to that day, so my job was just to listen and imagine my characters there. Other parts of the book take place in areas from Padre Island clear out west to Alpine, and learning about those was just a matter of growing up in Texas. I love writing about landscape and weather. As for the scenes that involve the paintings of my character Wyatt Calvert, I knew nothing about tempera painting when I started. That was a steep learning curve.

SO: What has been the public response to your portrayal of the experience of being on the plaza during the shooting? Living in Austin yourself, you must hear a lot of personal accounts of that terrible day.

EC: The response has been extremely generous and positive. I’ve always been aware that this was not my story—it belongs to other people, and I didn’t want to trespass on their tragedy in a careless way. A lot of people still living in Austin were affected by what happened, and for their sakes I wanted to get this story right.

SO: Are there other elements of your novel that have raised eyebrows/received special attention? It certainly hones in on a group of people who are defying norms (reproductive rights, mixed-race marriages, affairs, to name a few…)

EC: My characters aren’t perfect people but they’re essentially good people, and they find their way through life the best they can–like most of us do. When Shelly starts across the plaza that day, she has a plan for her life. Wyatt and Jack do too. And then the shots are fired, and none of the plans are possible any longer, and the characters have different lives from those they thought they would be living. They make grave mistakes, and do wise and extraordinary things, and in the end there’s no way to untangle the strands and look at all the ways things might have been different. If their lives aren’t messy and complicated, and if the moral dilemmas don’t pose real life questions, then readers wouldn’t have any reason to identify or care much about the story.

SO: You’ve mentioned it took you seven years to write this book, that’s a long time to stay with a story and characters….do you miss them?

EC: Yes. When I’m writing I sometimes forget that I’m pulling the strings. It’s a little shocking at the end to remember that these people aren’t going to say or do anything else after I let go. That’s one of the reasons I love book clubs like this one. They allow me to catch a glimpse of my characters again, through the eyes of readers.

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The Texas Book Festival in partnership with the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation to celebrated the publication of Elizabeth Crook’s newest novel Monday Monday, this year’s Mayor’s Book Club selection.  Recap of event here.