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A deep dive into candlepin bowling, the obscure sport at the heart of Bowlaway

Elizabeth McCracken talks with us about the unique from of bowling behind the novel—Time Out Book Club's April pick.

By Will Gleason

One of the main themes at the heart of Elizabeth McCracken’s enchanting new novel, Bowlaway, is the idea of reinvention—not only the purposeful kind, when characters actively decide to transform their lives, but also the unexpected kind: when odd accidents, surprising loves and shocking deaths fundamentally transform people. Throughout it all runs a deep undercurrent of grief and the wry certainty that truth is often stranger than fiction.

The generational saga begins in the early 20th century, when a charismatic woman, Bertha Truitt, is discovered in a New England cemetery with nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin and a bag full of gold. Soon, Truitt opens an establishment that’s dedicated to the sport she says she invented: candlepin bowling. In the small town, the bowling alley goes on to play a central role in the eventful lives of her extended family and her descendents as well as the memorable local townspeople and more than a handful of dubious characters.

At this month’s Time Out Book Club meeting, we spoke via Skype with McCracken about her sweeping family epic, and then she answered some burning questions from our readers and staff. Weren’t able to read along with us this month? Pick up a copy of our May pick, Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer, and send us—by May 28—any questions you have using the hashtag #TimeOutBookClub. You’ll be able to get 20% off this month’s pick if you purchase the book from our independent bookstore partner, Books Are Magic. Just use the code "TimeOutBC" when checking out online or mention the club when buying the book in person. 


Photograph: Ann Sullivan

Our book-inspired cocktail this month is the Broad Street! It was provided by Jackson Cannon, the owner of The Hawthorne Bar and the bar director of Eastern Standard Boston and the Island Creek Oyster Bar.While approachable to classic coffee-cocktail lovers, Broad Street captures the trademark themes of weirdness and whimsy in Bowlaway,” says Cannon. “Pairing 16-year-old Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey with coffee, it’s a multifaceted, multilayered drink. Fashioned as a highball and served cold—to cater to New England’s sun-drenched beachgoers in summer—the Broad Street is finished with the addition of Benedictine whipped cream, which brings a nuttiness that naturally pairs with the touch of vanilla and maple syrup from the whiskey's bourbon and sherry barrel finish.”  

The Broad Street cocktail recipe
2oz 16-year-old Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey
2oz Birch Cold Brew
¾oz demerara syrup
One dash Bittermens Mole bitters
Benedictine whipped cream* 

Method: Whip-shake all but the whipped cream with one ice cube and strain into a highball filled with fresh ice. Top with Benedictine whipped cream.

Garnish: Grated nutmeg

Notes: Think of an espresso martini as a highball or a classic iced Irish coffee! Topped with a nutty whipped cream, this pick-me-up is just what some “sun-drenched beachgoers” will need to keep going all night.

*Benedictine Whipped Cream
4oz Heavy cream
1oz Benedictine whipped cream
1/2oz Simple 

Method: Place the cream, Bénédictine and simple syrup in a mixing tin and whip by hand until light and fluffy. Alternatively, place all three ingredients in a blender and lightly pulse until the cream becomes fluffy.


Photograph: The Hawthorne Bar

Thanks for joining us, Elizabeth!
Oh, my total pleasure. Thank you for asking me. 

First of all, I think we have to ask what inspired you to write an entire book around this rather obscure sport of candlepin bowling?
You know, I’m from New England, and so, to me, that's real bowling. I didn't know that there was another kind of bowling, really, except for seeing it on television when I was grown. All of the bowling alleys I went to as a kid, all of the birthday parties, were all candlepin bowling. It didn't occur to me that it was odd until I left New England and then became really interested in those things that are part of your childhood that you don't know are odd until you leave home.

Did it mean as much to you growing up as it does to some of these characters?
Oh, no. Nothing means as much to me as any number of things mean to my characters. I mean, I really enjoyed it. I loved it, but it was just sort of part of the fabric of my childhood. 

The bowling in the book often serves as a representation of love or grief. How did you see those things in the game, or how did they become clear to you as you were writing about it?
I think one of the things I was thinking about was the difference between candlepin bowling and regular bowling. It’s really a game of cunning and skill. Part of the thing that appealed to me about writing about it was that it's a very hard game with sort of the slenderest of rewards, which made it seem sort of right for making metaphors about. Also, whenever I write any kind of fiction, I always end up writing about grief and love, pretty literally and baldly. So chances are, anything at hand, I'll make a metaphor out of it for love and grief.

Another thing that comes up a lot is this idea of reinvention. A lot of these characters are reinventing themselves. Was that another theme you wanted to explore with this?
Yes, it's definitely thinking about that. And, again, it's something that I've tried to write about before because I'm just fascinated by people who reinvent themselves. The book started when I was reading my grandfather's genealogies, and I'm kind of interested, looking at family trees and seeing that, to some extent, any family reinvents itself every generation. I was thinking about the shape of a family tree. But, also, I’ve just always loved those stories when I was a kid about the stranger who comes to town with no past and is charming and takes over.


Photograph: Courtesy Ecco

Yeah, I agree, and Bertha is such a captivating character. Was she based on anyone you know or someone in your family?
Nobody that I know. I only realized recently that I have a short story that I wrote years and years ago that was based on a photograph that I found in my mother's family photos—late 19th century, early 20th century—that said on the back: “Sarah Lavigne, who insisted she was a relative." I've always loved that totally cryptic inscription. I think maybe Bertha's related to that sentiment. One of the other things I thought about a lot when I was writing this book was [David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace’s] The Book of Lists, which is full of things like lists of uncanny arrivals and that sort of thing. And I do love these extraordinary figures that suddenly show up somewhere ordinary, and people try to make sense of them. 

Did you find some of these pretty extraordinary names during your research into these things?
Ninety-five percent of the names in the book are from my grandfather's genealogies—just taken straight out.

The only time I ever changed them was when I had to because of people having children, but Bertha Truitt, Dr. Leviticus Sprague, Jeptha Arrison, Joe Ware and LuEtta Mood are all straight from my grandfather's genealogies.

That's amazing.
I don't think any of them are relatives of mine or, if they are, they're very minor relatives. 

So Interesting. All right. So we're based in New York, obviously, but we sometimes write about weekend getaways. When you were writing this book, I was curious if you were inspired by any real-life New England locations that people could visit. Is there a candlepin bowling alley that people could go to if they've never played before?
Absolutely. There's a great one in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, called Sacco's Bowl Haven, which is a really old-school alley. Half of it—or maybe less than half of it—has been remade into a kind of delicious pizza place with a big, long bar. It's a huge amount of fun, that place.

That sounds great. Will definitely look it up. Was Salford, the main setting of the book, based on a real location?
It has elements of Somerville, where I lived for many years and where I was a public librarian. But it also has elements of a bunch of different cities that are just north of Boston, like Chelsea and Revere. And then, once I knew that it was going to be a mythical town, I made it more mythical.


Photograph: Edward Carey

Great. All right. Now we some staff and reader questions, if you don't mind.

“How did you balance or incorporate writing a book with these kind of fantastical, whimsical elements with a lot of these actual historical events like the Molasses Flood and different things that actually happened? Did you find it difficult to balance those things in terms of tone?”—Delia Barth, global video producer, Time Out
It's always been my belief that actual history is fanciful and whimsical or can feel like it, and the Molasses Flood is a good example of that. I love history that sounds like it couldn't possibly be true, and I'm delighted to say that several people have accused me of inventing the Boston Molasses Flood. I'm always flattered, and I'm always a little disappointed that I didn't invent it somehow, that there's no way to actually take credit for it. It feels like the kind of history I like is almost inseparable from myth and stories. The Boston Molasses Flood actually happened, but there were all sorts of little myths afterwards that said things like, for example, you could smell molasses in Boston's north end on hot days for decades and decades later or that the molasses traveled as far as Worcester on the wheels of carriages and that sort of thing. Invention and actuality seem very related to me somehow.

“The book has this surprising and really poignant ending where it kind of returns to the character of Joe. When you started the book, did you have the ending in mind?”—@leelawmw
Not at all. It really surprised me. In fact, I knew sort of amazingly little about the book when I started writing it, and Joe was a very minor character when I first began. I got to know him as I wrote him and realized how important he was and how much I wanted him to get out of Salford and have a better life. The first ending involved him but not in the same way. 

“What was your historical research into some of these things? I mean, the book touches on feminism, race relations and queer identity in the early 20th century. Where did you find the information about how those characters would be experiencing their lives then?”—Jennifer Picht, digital editor, Time Out
I read a bunch of different books and also contemporary newspapers and magazines. It wasn't an organized kind of research, largely because I didn't want it to be. I wanted to write about what was possible, not what was probable. I wanted the reader to be able to believe the particular group of eccentric people who are in the book but also know that their experience was extraordinary and unusual. And I read those books sort of as they came up, in the writing of it. I have another historical novel that's about vaudeville and the movies, and, in that case, I did a ton of research ahead of time and then almost no research while I was actually writing the book. In the case of Bowlaway, I was continually reading and researching as I was writing the book.

“One thing I was kind of curious about, since the book does follow a particular family throughout all these years, what advice do you think Bertha and her family could provide to different people about how to deal with different issues that come up in families?”—Danielle Valente, associate editor, Time Out Kids
One of the things that I was thinking about as I wrote the book is the strange passion that people have—have always had, but it seems particularly sharp these days—about who they’re related to by blood. My grandfather was a genealogist, so he was always sort of chasing these family trees and being delighted when his research led him to a relation who was really interesting. I'm sort of fascinated by how people really like narratives like that. It seems like the merest happenstance to call somebody family simply because you're genetically related to them. And especially these days, when people are discovering things with DNA tests but also building families in any number of really interesting ways that don't necessarily involve genetic relation, it seemed like an interesting paradox to think about. 

Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I really appreciate you talking with us today.
My total pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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