On a bluff overlooking the Hudson River 60 miles north of New York City, cats roam in the grass on a hill where locals dispose of sofas, mattresses and toilets. This is Newburgh, a town that consists of shells of houses, abandoned storefronts and dilapidated delis. It has a reputation for gangs and drugs, despite being across the river from Beacon, a thriving place that attracts lots of city dwellers looking for a quieter life.
The writer Elizabeth Crane and her husband, Ben Brandt, live in a 19th century brick house in Newburgh, behind a chain-link fence that’s kept padlocked so their dog, Percival Fontaine Barskdale Brandt, a rescue Catahoula, can wander the yard. Brandt is an artist and restoration carpenter, and when he’s not working on other people’s houses he spends his days renovating theirs, room by room.
“We really were not planning on buying a house,” says Crane. “We just didn’t think it was going to be feasible for us.” But in 2014, they realized it was actually more affordable to buy a home in Newburgh than to stay in Brooklyn.
Crane, who is 54 and goes by Betsy to her friends, published her first novel at 41. She met her husband around the same time while they were living in Chicago. On an overcast March afternoon, I met up with the couple at the Manhattan apartment of their friend actor Robert Sean Leonard. Crane looks relaxed and stylish in a cardigan over a pink and white striped shirt and ripped jeans. We drive north from the city, skyscrapers fading behind us, the minutes flying by as fast as the landscape.
In her new novel, “The History of Great Things,” Crane writes about the relationship between a deceased mother and her daughter as they tell each other’s stories to understand each other.
“Look, if I only tell you what I know for sure, your part of the story is going to be very short and possibly not as interesting as mine,” Crane writes in the voice of her mother. “You kept a lot of things to yourself, Betsy.”
Creating a narrative out of their lives is not only a way to get to know each other, it’s a vehicle for introducing her mom to her husband. There’s a poignant and hilarious scene in the book in which the dead mother attends her daughter’s wedding.
"—I’m not sure this scene is doing what I want it to, Mom. I feel like I’m just having you say things I think.
—Maybe we think some of the same things.”
The book is somewhat autobiographical; like her fictional counterpart, Crane’s mother was an opera singer who left her husband behind in Baton Rouge, La., to pursue her own career in New York City. Her mother made a modest living doing what she loved, but she was so dedicated to her art that even later in life the coloratura soprano gave a performance post-surgery, with half of a lung missing.
Crane was 6 when they moved to the city, and perhaps the startling transition at a young age triggered a lifelong habit of collecting things. Following the writer around her house, I notice a bear made out of coral buttons on one of the bookshelves in her office. The buttons belonged to her mother and both of her grandmothers. It’s sitting on top of a typewriter, which she took from a barn full of treasures that sat on her father’s property. Near the bear is a pewter baby cup engraved with her initials. There are even more mementos lining the shelves: her grandfather’s smoking tobacco, a nameplate from her tricycle, a Seamless Rubber Co. handball that was in her father’s childhood room. And on the bottom shelf, a photo of her glamorous mother, looking both confident and like she’s holding something back.
“I’m a little attached to things,” Crane admits as I take in all of the items. In the attic, afternoon sunlight scatters over rows of writing journals, starting from her teenage years. On the bottom shelf is a copy of “All I Know About Sex,” given to her in high school by her mother.
The upstairs bathroom features a claw-foot tub that Brandt found on Craigslist for $200; he purchased the sink in their downstairs bathroom for $50. This is a home of possibilities, made up of family keepsakes and discarded objects from strangers. It’s a work in progress, much like the inexpensive city that attracts artists.
“I actually hope to write about Newburgh someday,” Crane says later that afternoon as she eats a crepe and sips sparkling water. “I feel like this place is so complicated I could not possibly … I don’t know if do it justice is the right phrase, but I just don’t feel like I know enough about it to really bring it to life.”
That idea of not knowing something or someone fully is one reason she decided to write about her mother in her current book.
“I had to basically give her the ability to have an imagination like I do,” Crane says, who had a difficult but loving relationship with her mom. Seeing life through her point of view was difficult and painful but beneficial.
Her mother died in 1998, and that loss informs the book. Her mother once asked if she was always going to be a character in everything her daughter wrote.
“And I said, if you keep giving me material, then yeah,” Crane says with a laugh. “And somehow that’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
I suggest that her mother is perhaps her muse.
“Oh, God, I can’t believe nobody’s ever said that to me,” Crane says. “That’s insane. It’s insanely true.”
Filgate is a writer, contributing editor at Literary Hub and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Crane will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday.