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Elizabeth Tells All

Award-winning local writer, Elizabeth McKenzie visits Bookshop Santa Cruz

Elizabeth McKenzie needs a strong cup of coffee. She just blasted into California on a plane from Italy and she’s a little wiped out. The up-and-coming member of literature’s elite is headed home to Santa Cruz, where she’ll begin another exhausting, but rewarding adventure—a book tour for her first novel, “MacGregor Tells The World.”

The long-time local, a 1981 UC Santa Cruz grad, is already winning praise for the book, a sweeping story about a handsome, 22-year-old man with a fondness for exquisite literature. But McKenzie has long been an avid and successful writer, finding gigs with publications like The New York Times, Threepenny Review and The Atlantic Monthly. In 2005, her first book, a collection of short stories called “Stop That Girl,” had readers swooning over her captivating writing style. There’s no doubt they were excited when hearing that the author had another book coming out.

In the read, McKenzie’s protagonist,  MacGregor West, is not particularly “doing anything” with his life, but he has enormous potential. He also has a crappy car (full of junk) to boot. This hero of sorts is an orphaned young man. His mom bailed on him, then died when he was young. He never knew his father. Raised by his aunt (his mother’s twin), and growing up with his cousin, Fran, Mac has a few obvious hang-ups and frustrations about the way life has treated him. He’s a little bruised, to say the least, with a tendency toward self-sabotaging himself when things do go well. Still, even though his car and his life are less than impressive, these things don’t stop him from pining for a girl he falls madly in love with—at first sight.

Her name is Carolyn Ware, the daughter of a famous  author, Charles Ware. The elder Ware long ago wrote a best-selling novel (think “On the Road”) about his wild adventures with long-time pal, Bill Galeotto.

Mac has a stack of letters that his deceased mother left for him with Charles Ware’s address in the sender’s corner. Knowing that these letters may have some sort of connection to his past, Mac tracks down the Ware residence and there he instantly finds Carolyn. What follows is a rapid and zany love affair between two people brought together by fate. As good luck would have it, even more secrets unfurl. It’s a story that will sear into your mind, and stay with you. The characters don’t leave your consciousness, which is yet another reason why McKenzie is a stalwart writer.

GT caught up with McKenzie right after she landed in California, following her trip to Italy. We poked around her brain for some insights to her success.

This is now your second book. Was your first book, “Stop That Girl,” a success?

It was actually chosen for a few different things: a “Newsday” book of the year, and the Library Journal best book of the year. It was on a shortlist for the story prize—a big, cool prize in New York. NPR listed it as a summer reading pick.

How long have you been writing?

Since I was a kid. I started writing poetry and was into journalism for a while. I was always writing, collecting works, keeping journals, published my own magazine and so forth.

How did you get your start writing professionally?

It was a slow process, sending stories out, pulling myself out of the actual world of journalism and magazines and holing up in Santa Cruz, writing stories one by one, getting them in literary magazines and I was finally able to sell my collection. It (“Stop That Girl”) came out in 2005.

How long did it take you to write “MacGregor Tells the World”?

I wrote a first draft maybe 10 years ago and worked on it for about two years then. Time went by and I worked on it again. I cannibalized that draft and wrote a whole other book. … I was writing it up through the copyrighting process in January and February [of this year].

What’s your writing process like?

I get up in the morning and do whatever I can get done before noon. In the afternoon I have to do other stuff. (She has a son who will soon start second grade.) I start at 7 or 8 and always leave something dangling from the day before. When I finish, I print what I did that day and at night, after dinner, I edit what I did. [In the morning] I enter my edits and that launches me. I try to get [done] three to five pages a day.

Why did you set this book in San Francisco and Redwood City?

I lived in the city and on the peninsula as well, when I was going to grad school (at Stanford) and after that for a while. I love the name Redwood City. For some reason it amuses me. My father grew up on the peninsula. I have a fondness for it, and it has changed so fast. The city? What’s not to love? Growing up in Southern California, it was the Emerald City to me, a place I wanted to be.

The friendship between Charles Ware and Bill Galeotto sounds like something from “On the Road.” Was this intentional?

Like Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac. It’s not like I intentionally cross-reference and make it resemble anything particular. I was very steeped in that culture in college and after, I was very interested in it for a while.

What’s your advice for someone who has written a book and wants to take the next step?

You have to keep writing in the face of a huge vacuum. If you can keep doing it in the face of that, and you’re still productive and enjoying it, sometime, you’ll have that breakthrough.

Elizabeth McKenzie will be speaking at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 12 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information about her novel, visit macgregortells.com .
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