At long last, just the right voice is found
NEW YORK -- A decade ago, Galaxy Craze was a rising starlet who turned her back on movies to write “By the Shore,” a coming-of-age novel about two children in 1970s England. The book was greeted with acclaim -- reviews and profiles featured a winsome photograph of the then-28-year-old, alongside rapturous descriptions of her work.
Then, Craze seemed to disappear. She married, had two children and began a second novel, which she struggled to write.
That novel, “Tiger, Tiger,” was finally published last month. It picks up, several years later, the main characters from “By the Shore”: The narrator, May, is now a teenage girl. May’s mother, as flighty as she was in the first novel, has left her husband and taken her children to an ashram near Los Angeles. The time is the 1980s, although it is only halfway through the book that cultural references make this clear. It is a deceptively slight, simple, haunting story, a meditation on a disintegrating family.
During a recent heat wave in New York, Craze, who is visiting from Massachusetts, finds herself with her 10-week-old daughter at Angelica’s Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village that she frequented when she lived in the city.
“Don’t worry,” she says, pointing to her daughter. “She’s usually pretty cooperative.”
In much the same style as her two books, Craze can be funny in a deadpan and self-deprecating way. “I know I shouldn’t be disparaging myself,” she says about the years she spent trying to write “Tiger, Tiger,” “but I’m not joking. I’m not trying to be like a pretty girl who says, ‘Oh, I’m so ugly!’
“Everyone said a second book is really hard,” she continues. “At first I was trying a whole new voice, and it wasn’t me. Right before I got married, I handed my editor a complete 380-page manuscript. She wrote back with a few edits and I threw it all away and started over again. I did that twice. That’s why it took eight years.”
Craze’s editor is Elisabeth Schmitz, the executive editor at Grove/Atlantic who discovered Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.” She signed Craze to a two-book deal in 1999. “I remember feeling so confident about her gift as a writer,” Schmitz recalls, “that I bought two books even though there wasn’t a word to read of the second -- I was too curious to know what she would do next.” What drew her to the work, Schmitz adds, is that “she has this unique ability to be lyrical and lovely and also surprisingly suspenseful.”
The trickiest part of writing “Tiger, Tiger,” Craze says, was getting the feel of the ashram right. As a child, she too spent time in such a place with her mother and younger brother.
“It was hard to get the tone of the ashram so it didn’t sound hokey. You know, it was like here” -- she waves an arm around the vegetarian restaurant -- “like when you meet people who describe themselves as spiritual but they’re the most uptight people you ever met.”
For a writer so concerned with the sad dynamics of a failing marriage and its effect on children, Craze is very open about her own family. She mentions that she uses cloth diapers and has a clothesline in her garden. “I have some homesteading roots in me,” she says, which makes sense in light of her childhood. Galaxy, after all, is her given name.
Craze grew up in England in the 1970s and moved back and forth to America as her mother left and returned to her father. Her father was a hairdresser during the 1960s, working on the likes of Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix. Being a mother herself, Craze sees her own mother more sympathetically than she once did. “She was 19 when she had me, so I wouldn’t say she had a lot of impulse control. She just did things as she thought about them. She wasn’t like a disciplinarian.”
When “By the Shore” came out, Craze insisted that her work was not autobiographical. “Did I really say that?” she asks now. “I guess that book was a little bit autobiographical. But with this book, the setting is not made up. You could never say this is a memoir, but some of the things in the book really did happen. We were there at the ashram for quite a long time. I took a lot of pieces from it. I have a lot of love for that guru still. I’m not going to say the name of the guru, because it can be a little bit dangerous dealing with people like that.”
Craze has always been a reluctant success story. As a student at Barnard, she stayed at the apartment of Joe Dolce, who was then the editor of Details magazine. She wrote a few essays for Details and went on to intern at Interview, where she was profiled as a rising unpublished author. On the strength of an accompanying photo, she was offered a part in Michael Almereyda’s “Nadja.”
This led to agents, casting calls and auditions. Although Craze appeared in a few films, her heart wasn’t in it, and eventually she enrolled in the creative writing program at New York University. Dolce, meanwhile, showed chapters of her work-in-progress to book editor Jonathan Burnham. He passed the material on to agent Kim Witherspoon, who informed her that “By the Shore” would be a hard book to sell.
As Craze remembers, her voice grows quiet, but the tone is not complaining so much as it is resigned.
“When I was younger,” she says, “I had more ego attached to writing. I’ve accepted that I am not going to be a famous writer. I don’t think I am ever going to be in the New Yorker, and I’m not a part of any literary circle.”
She picks up her baby, who has started crying. “I’m not ambitious like you need to be. Even if I write a good book again, I don’t think I’ll get a profile in Vogue. That’s not what’s important to me now. The important thing is to write a good book, and what really sells books is word of mouth. I’m happy in other parts of my life now, and I’m just so happy this book is done. I feel really lucky. I always thought it was a guilty pleasure to enjoy life.”