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Mama Said: Elizabeth Crane's "Great Things"

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Last Updated: 05/03/2016 11:47 am
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The History of Great Things includes an appendix of family photos and press clippings from Lois Crane's operatic career, adding to the rich broth of fiction and fact Crane has brewed. Before writing the novel, she made two separate attempts at a memoir "about growing up in New York with this person as my mother. Manhattan had a profound effect on me. I came there in 1967 from a house with a yard and a two-parent family. That chapter about Betsy crying for a month? That's basically true."

A promising singer, Crane sang in the New York City Opera children's chorus, playing (among other things) a marketplace extra in "La Boheme" and a cherub. As an only child, she was often adrift in a world of adults. But she also shuttled back and forth to Iowa to visit her father, now remarried and with a stepfamily. The two households could not have been more different.

She went to college in Washington, DC, moving back to New York for a deadening series of short-term jobs in her 20s. "A lot of things sidetracked me," she says. "My mother told me not to be a singer—a weird message to get from somebody whose entire life was about being an artist." There was also a great deal of drinking, with brief stabs at writing. 

Ever since she read Harriet the Spy in third grade, Crane had longed to be a writer. But her early efforts didn't take flight. "I was trying so hard," she says now. "Letters were where I found my voice. I used to write rough drafts of my letters and work on them. People would tell me I should be a writer, and I'd say, 'I do write, but not like this.' Then I started to read books by Rick Moody, Lydia Davis, and David Foster Wallace, people I felt were writing like themselves. It really cracked me open."

Eventually she found a job tutoring children on movie sets, including Macauley and Rory Culkin on Richie Rich. The production was based for six months in Chicago. "I really fell in love with Chicago," says Crane. "I thought, 'What do I have to do to move here?'" Two years later, a friend offered her an apartment she could afford. "It turned my life around in a weird way," she says gratefully. She taught at a preschool and started to write more seriously.

She also met her future husband. They spent several more years in Chicago, then moved to Austin, where Crane wrote and taught writing while Brandt completed an MFA program in sculpture.

After a short stint in Brooklyn, they moved to Newburgh a year and a half ago. "Our friends said, 'So you moved to the country?' But we really didn't. Newburgh really feels like a city—the landscape looks very familiar to me."

Newburgh's scrappy resurgence, multiculturalism, and fine architecture excite them both. Brandt's rehab company, Newburgh Sash and Restoration, specializes in period windows. From their own upstairs windows, they have a sidelong view of Mount Beacon and "a sliver" of the Hudson River. And there's a fenced yard for a very important dog named Percy. 

Crane currently teaches at UCR Palm Desert's Low-Residency MFA program, which she calls "a dream job." She supervises five to 13 students online, a relatively light workload compared to a recent semester when she was an adjunct professor at three different colleges. "Funnily enough, I was jamming out stories that semester. I get inspired by my students," she says, adding, "Time has nothing to do with being neurotic. I've gone several months without writing. It's not a good look on me."

She's "closing in" on a new story collection called Turf. Is she done writing about her mother? It seems like a bottomless vein. "I still can't listen to opera," Crane admits. "It's much too emotional. Any role for a coloratura soprano, I have heard hundreds of times. I've heard it rehearsed."

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