Eli Cranor is a writer’s writer. That’s a complicated tag to hang on someone and it comes with all kinds of implications and suppositions, so let me get this straight up front, too: He’s written the debut novel of the year: Don’t Know Tough (Soho Press). When your friends ask what book you’re reading, and you know that what they’re really asking is for you to tell them about something that they can get excited about, something they can tell other people in their life about and together all of you will enter into some kind of communion over this new, wonderful, unsettling thing – that book, this year, is quite likely to be Cranor’s new one. It should be anyway. It is for me. It’s a book about small-towns, football, violence, desperation, generational trauma and everything in between, and it’s about as exhilarating a reading experience as I’ve had in a long while.
But back to what I was saying about Eli being a writer’s writer. He runs this column, Shop Talk. It’s his, I’ve just borrowed it for a week in order to turn the tables. Over the last year and change, Eli has been taking with the leading lights of the world of crime fiction, talking about craft, discipline, routine, exercise, what kind of coffee they drink, what kind of pens they use, how many words they turn out a day, how they keep themselves going through all that heartache and joy back to the blank page. It’s shop talk.
Writers talking about writing. Before Eli was a writer – or maybe he was always one and there’s really no point trying to draw bright lines – he was a coach. A football coach. In the South. That’s the same dedication he brings to the craft of writing, so it wasn’t a great surprise to start our conversation with him reminiscing about those days, trying to squeeze a few pages, a scene, in between game tape and offensive line meetings. I’ll let Eli take it from there.
Eli Cranor: I wrote the first chapter to Don’t Know Tough on a lunch break. It was my last year coaching. I was coaching the offensive line, just sitting there having my lunch, and that first line came to me, “Still feel the burn on my neck.”
I coached for five years. Two years as an assistant, then two years as a head coach, a job I got mostly on my playing credentials. (I played college and professionally in Sweden.) With coaching I was way out of my league. That last year, I went back to being an assistant, at the Morrilton Devil Dogs, which is a great name. Going from head coach to assistant, I had so much weight lifted off me. That’s when I started writing more.
In the coach’s room, I would take a lot of shit. There’s so much sitting on a thumb in your nuts involved in coaching. Especially on game day, and especially if you’re an assistant. The boys get down there around two o’clock. The game’s not until seven. So I would write.
By the end of that season, I was already working on some of the novel. The last game of the year was a long bus ride to a playoff game on the other side of the state, and I remember writing on the bus. The coaches were giving me shit–”look at English boy sitting in the corner”–but the head coach had coached me in high school and he knew I needed a safe haven. As long as my job was done, he was cool with the writing. I was trying really hard to get something going. I knew I was about to be out of coaching. Football had been my life from ages 9 to 29. Twenty straight football seasons. When I got out, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I needed something.
Dwyer Murphy: How did you know you were done coaching?
Cranor: It was a combination of getting my ass kicked as a head coach and also being outside my mind trying to figure out how to help these kids, and how to win. Then my daughter was born. And I was sitting in this fieldhouse all the time with all these other guys. Some coaches can do it – they can be a dad and do the work. But that wasn’t gonna be for me. I knew I wanted to be more involved in her life. And the competitive part of me wanted something else to fill my time. That’s why I went back to writing seriously.
Murphy: A lot of writers who are parents seem to have had that experience. A kid was on the way and they thought, well this might be my last chance to really do this. It’s a special motivation.
Cranor: I remember writing so fervently in the months leading up to her birth, thinking exactly what you’re saying, that this is gonna be it, I need to have something substantial done. And for me, it wasn’t the case at all. William Boyle said something that resonated me with so deeply. He said that anything he’s written that was worthwhile came after he had kids. I don’t know if he meant that on an emotional level. For me, it’s just the time segments. There’s no greater motivation than putting your kid down for a nap and knowing you have an hour and a half and that might be it. So put the damn phone down. Quit messing around. My whole writerly life has been chopped up by naps and bedtimes and getting up before the kids to write.
Murphy: How does your writing day start? I take it you get going early. Seven days a week?
Cranor: When I’m working on a manuscript, I do everything I can not to miss a day. Life happens, things come up, but I don’t want to get taken too far out of the story. So, five o’clock on a writing day. I aim for word counts. I set a minimum of a thousand. That’s the old coach: getting a metric. But I don’t really set a maximum. I know that time is so precious. If I have a lot of time and the juices are flowing, I’ll go as long as I can and try to maximize a three or four thousand word day. But those are rare. They tend only to come at the end of a manuscript, when things have a certain momentum.
Murphy: Okay, set the scene for me. It’s five a.m. in Arkansas. You’re out of bed. What’s the house like, what’s the writing space like?
Cranor: Our house is a split-level. We live on Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas. Which overlooks Mt. Nebo in Yell Country. That’s True Grit Country. The house is old and creaky. I’ll make my way through and get a cup of coffee. The basement isn’t finished. We remodeled the upstairs, but the bottom is just a cave of two-by-fours and you can see through the walls. My office is a framed-out area with a window that overlooks the lake.
It’s always dark when I get started. It’s a nice metaphor, because as I get warmed up, the day starts to take shape across the water. The lights come out. I’ve got a black cat named Binx who lives in the basement. It takes him forever to get situated. He walks across the keyboard as I’m trying to read what I wrote the day before. Finally, he gets settled in my lap about the same time the sun’s coming up, then I get going.
Murphy: Are you writing on a laptop? I know you’re always looking for authors who write longhand.
Cranor: I’ve probably written two or three manuscripts by hand, trying to emulate Elmore Leonard, using these thick, unlined pads and Pilot v7 pens. (Cranor holds up both to the screen.) But it just took so much time. Now, if I’m going to write a heady essay or a short story, I do still go at those with the pen. But with a first draft of a manuscript, that’s a race to get out as much as I can, so I’m on a laptop. There’s this Ray Bradbury quote: “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.” I’ve had that taped on my laptop for years.
Murphy: You’ve mentioned Elmore Leonard, Charles Portis, Ray Bradbury. While you’re working on a manuscript, are there certain writers you go to looking for tools, things you can use?
Cranor: It’s really just Dutch. I’ve read all forty-two of his books, some of them multiple times. I don’t know whether, reading Don’t Know Tough, you’d necessarily think of Elmore Leonard, but it’s all about the voice. Those books are on the shelf closest to my desk, and I’ll pull one off and read a paragraph or two, especially on days when things are kinda slow to get going.
Murphy: The voices in Leonard are so strong. There’s a real momentum to all that storytelling.
Cranor: And they’re so fun. That’s what I get out of him more than anything. When I’m bogged down, I can crack open any Leonard book, at any page, and be reminded that this is fun.
Murphy: Do you have any other tools, things you’re using to get you in the right mindset during the day?
Cranor: Ever since I started writing, I listened to Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. I listen to it on repeat. It’s like I’m meditating. I’ve got big noise canceling headphones. Those come in handy when you have kids. I start playing that album and it just puts me in the right headspace. It gets my brain going.
Murphy: How does the writing day end?
Cranor: Here’s the real confession: how I end my nights. After we get the kids down, I go back down to the basement, to my office, and I call my mom. I have to perform what I wrote that day. I really enjoy reading out loud and believe in the power of it. I didn’t start this until the pandemic, but it’s been groundbreaking for me. I’ll read out the thousand or so words, and it gives me a chance to hear it. It’s still a shitty first draft, but it helps me think about where the story is going. And my mother has never not liked something I’ve written. So everything I write is the best thing she’s ever heard. I end the night on that high praise. I hang up the phone and I think damn, this is really good. I can go to bed and wake up the next morning at five and I’m ready to go.
Murphy: When you’re talking to other writers, you often ask about exercise regimens, sports, physical activity. That always brings out something interesting in the conversation. So what kind of exercise are you doing? How does it factor into the writing?
Cranor: I don’t know that it works like this for everybody, but I’ve been saying this lately, a thousand words and three miles a day keeps the writerly blues away. That pretty much sums it up. We have a treadmill in the basement. Once I finish my writing, I go hop on the treadmill and do about thirty minutes or three miles. My wife won’t let me come back upstairs until she knows both of those things are done. Because if they’re not, I’m a mess the rest of the day.
I read something about Cormac McCarthy saying he had to take a shower after he was done every day. There’s something to that. You write it out, sweat it out, take a shower, and then you’re ready to be part of the world again.
Murphy: The atmospherics in your writing are so thick. For some writers, they need some distance from a place to find the space to write about it. They need some remove. I’m curious about you and Arkansas. It feels like you don’t need that distance, maybe the opposite, to write about a place.
Cranor: When I was a head coach, it was up the interstate a little bit into the actual Ozarks. Now we live in the foothills of the mountains, and where I’m from is the Delta part of the state, Forrest City, Arkansas, which is a completely different landscape and culture from the hills. The Delta has all sorts of old South culture. The hills, back in the 1800s, was just a bunch of people trying to scrape by and survive. They weren’t necessarily steeped in blues or literature or that culture of the Delta.
So really, I was removed from the people and places I was writing about.
Murphy: If there’s a literary tradition you identity with, how do you characterize it? Is it a blanket Southern tradition or something more particular?
Cranor: Both Don’t Know Tough and my next book fall within that Daniel Woodrell, Charles Portis tradition. Lately I’ve gone back more to the Delta. I was there all last week going through Jackson and Memphis and Greenwood. So down the line – as long as it grows legs and finds a home – it’ll probably be more steeped in the Delta side of the state.
Murphy: Can you take me through some of your journey, your writing career? How did it start? Where did you catch the bug and develop the discipline?
Cranor: Everything for me started when I was in college and I took a creative writing class at Ouachita Baptist with a dude called Dr. Johnny Wink. He has this tree that reaches very wide in the literary world. Andy Davidson went to this same small school and studied under Johnny Wink. Greg Brownderville, who runs the SMU creative writing department, is one of Jonny’s pupils. And there are others, too. It was my senior year, I hung around an extra semester to play another season. I was writing a story a week during the season, and I would slide it under Johnny Wink’s door and he would mark it up. Around that time, I found Larry Brown, too. So I was getting this good education in the work involved in becoming a writer. I heard about the documentary, The Rough South of Larry Brown. A buddy of mine was at Ole Miss and I had him burn it on a DVD and mail it to me. Me and Jonny Wink would sit around drinking bourbon watching this documentary. It really hit me. He was saying he wanted to try to do something bigger or different, to make something where there was nothing before. That’s what started it for me.
I’ve kept in touch with Johnny Wink all the way through, too. Today, still. I don’t call Mom on Tuesdays. I call Johnny on Tuesdays. He can only stomach one scene, but wherever we are in the book, wherever I left off the night before, I read it to him. And he’s an even bigger booster. He still reads everything I write before I send it off to anyone.
Murphy: What do you think of as your break? I’m always curious to hear from writers what they think of as that pivotal, breakthrough moment for their careers.
Cranor: For Don’t Know Tough, I wrote it that last year of coaching and into the next year. I had an agent, but he left the agency. Luckily, he didn’t submit it, but he did work on it with me a ton. Then I went to Oxford, Mississippi. I knew Ace Atkins from long before, we had the football-writer connection. I went there and met William Boyle and waited a couple months and sent him a note: ‘Hey, I have this manuscript.’ At that point, I had just about given up on Don’t Know Tough. It had gone through a lot of agent rejection. But Bill liked it and was willing to blurb it. And then Ace was kind enough to blurb it. So now I had a little in. I could query this manuscript and put their blurbs at the top. That was all at the start of 2020. And the full requests came pouring in, about thirty of them. By the time they got around to reading it, which was in March 2020, I got email after email from agents saying, ‘this sounds good, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, never mind in publishing. We’re not taking on a debut, grit lit author, there’s just no market for it, we don’t even know it the industry’s going to survive.’ All this doom and gloom.
I thought, fuck this, I’m going to do it on my own. Being from an educational background, I wrote a middle-grade book, because my parents were elementary school teachers. It’s called Books Make Brains Taste Bad. I was a big RL Stine, Goosebumps fan. It’s a story about a school run by zombies. The only way the kids can save themselves from the zombie brain buffet is by reading real books. So I did this, self- published it through Amazon, had a blast.
I was on the stage in an elementary school getting ready to do a talk about this book, and I had these zombie masks ready for the teachers to wear, when my phone dings. I got an email from Juliet Grames at Soho Press, saying that my book, Don’t Know Tough, was a finalist in this contest, the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Prize. I had completely forgotten I entered. Bill Boyle had told me about it.
Two weeks later, Juliet called again. I had won. At the time, I couldn’t imagine Peter Lovesey, living in England, would connect with a book about an Arkansas high school football player. Then I learned about how he was a teacher and very involved in athletics and he had won a contest, too. That’s why he wanted to do this contest himself. And I’m so grateful he did, or we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this.
Murphy: Final question. This is where you like to end your pieces. Why do you write crime fiction?
Cranor: I really and truly haven’t considered what my own answer to that question would be. I’ve coached and I’ve played football, but telling a story and telling it well — that brings us together. Stories are the foundation of humanity. To get to take part in that, I don’t know if there’s anything higher.
You spend these hours and days in this dark room writing stories and for what? Now that there’s starting to be an audience, maybe some good will come out of it. Somebody can read the story and it might change them.
That sounds like a bullshit answer.
Murphy: That feels real to me. At some level, everyone who does this must want that.
Cranor: Maybe it comes back to Larry Brown. He didn’t want to be a fireman anymore. I enjoy being a teacher, but if there’s anything in the world I could be, it’d be a novelist.