Elizabeth Crook, Kat Candler and Elizabeth McQueen are living their dreams through literature, film and music.
By Molly McManus, Photos by Annie Ray, Lauren Logan
What do a novelist, a filmmaker and a musician have in common? Our three October cover women are all writers in their own regard. Whether they are penning novels, writing a screenplay or composing a song, each woman creates entire worlds with their craft of choice through imagination and passion, helping to shape Austin’s creative community. As residents, we are able to experience the fruits of their labor, soaking up their talent, the education they impart and the entertainment they provide. Masters of storytelling through their various mediums, Elizabeth Crook, Kat Candler and Elizabeth McQueen each harness an authenticity within their work and lives. And you can catch each of them during Austin’s copious festival season this month at the Texas Book Festival, Austin Film Festival and Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Elizabeth Crook: The Art of Storytelling
Nestled on a rolling hillside, perched at the top of a steep and winding driveway is author Elizabeth Crook’s Tarrytown home. I had just finished reading her latest, Monday, Monday, and was slightly nervous about interviewing an established and eloquent writer whose grandfather just happens to be Howard Edward Butt (yes, of grocery conglomerate H-E-B). However, as soon as Crook opened the door, my fears melted away. She had a calm and mellow presence about her and was soft-spoken and engaging. We took a seat in her office, filled with bookcases and stacks of books on the floor (a writer’s paradise), and began to discuss the imaginative world in which she lives.
Monday, Monday, Crook’s latest novel, opens on a hot day on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. A student named Shelly is walking across the plaza when she is struck in her side by a bullet fired from the UT Tower. So the story of Monday, Monday begins on Aug. 1, 1966, recounting the first mass shooting on a campus in U.S. history. While the novel is a fictional tale, the tragic event is a true story in which the shooter, Charles Whitman, unleashed gunfire and ended the lives of 16 people, wounding 32 more. While this event is still very much seared into the minds of many Austin residents, Crook takes a different approach to the story, focusing on one of the victims, fictional character Shelly, and the course her life takes as she deals with the traumatic aftereffects of suffering an American tragedy.
In the months following the ’66 tower shooting, Whitman was featured in every major news source in the country. Time released an issue with his face on the cover and a map of the campus showing the placement of victims—stick figures in black signifying the dead and in red signifying the wounded—an extremely impersonal account of the murders. Crook, however, was inspired by a different kind of account, a more personal 2006 article in Texas Monthly written by Pamela Colloff.
“I found Pamela Colloff’s story so moving and so beautifully done, the way she stitched together these firsthand narratives of all these people who were involved that day and shifted the focus away from Whitman. That was, to me, the most compelling part of it,” Crook says. “I kept thinking, what is it like for all these people who were there, who were wounded or who lost someone they loved? When your life is drastically changed very suddenly by a violent act like this committed by a stranger who’s randomly targeting people, and you just happen to be one of those targeted, how do you deal with that and how do you go on from that?”
As she began to write the book, which took a total of seven years to complete, more school shootings unfolded in the news. In fact, since the violent December 2012 Sandy Hook incident alone, close to 100 school shootings have transpired in the U.S., ultimately changing the way Crook felt about her novel.
“It started to feel like a different story, not about an isolated event anymore, but about a social crisis, an ongoing situation in our country,” Crook says with a quiet intensity.
Released in April 2014, Monday, Monday is Crook’s fourth novel. Her debut novel was The Raven’s Bride, “a novel about a woman overlooked in most historical accounts, Eliza Allen, Sam Houston’s first wife, who walked out on him after 11 weeks of marriage for reasons nobody will ever fully understand.” With her second book, Promised Lands, about the Texas Revolution, Crook used fictional characters, allowing for more freedom and “a lot more liberty to make up the story.” Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis edited both of Crook’s first two novels, a “beautiful writer herself,” Crooks says, who was warm and motherly toward Crook during her initial years as a novelist. Her third book, The Night Journal was both contemporary and historical, alternating between two time periods, and was awarded the 2007 Spur Award for Best Long Novel of the West and the 2007 Willa Literary Award for Historical Fiction.
One of Crook’s strongest assets as a novelist is her attention to detail, the ability to paint a picture, to make the reader feel as though they are truly with the characters in the setting. Crook, with any novel she writes, allows for the story to tell itself, never starting with an outline because she has found outlines to be confining and to hamper the natural development and authenticity of the story. In fact, she began Monday, Monday as a “light, comedic and contemporary” book having nothing to do with the UT tower shooting until she read Colloff’s story.
“I couldn’t get that original story to interest me,” she says. “I didn’t care about the characters because there was nothing important at stake for them. I wasn’t emotionally invested in them.”
Once she claimed the tower shooting as a foundation, Crook found the story she was looking for, one she could commit to.
“The trick is finding a story that holds your attention, and then coming up with characters that you want to spend that much time with. For seven years, you’re having coffee with these people every morning. You’re spending your whole day with them,” she says, discussing the “un-reality” of it all, of living in a fictitious world that sometimes only she knows about.
Explaining that each chapter went through at least 30 to 40 rewrites, Crook illustrates her writing process, passing on her advice as a seasoned literary trailblazer.
“It doesn’t matter what the story is if the reader doesn’t care about the characters. When I’m reading a book myself, if I don’t care what’s happening to the people in it, then I’m emotionally disengaged,” she says. “It’s really important to have something pending in the story, something that really matters, something on the horizon that the reader is looking forward to knowing about or seeing or witnessing in some way.”
She describes her work ethic as a compulsion that often results in her working nights and weekends.
“I’m pretty obsessive about it. I do love it. There’s nothing more satisfying than to get that last sentence of a chapter just right,” she says. And it’s not until she’s come to this resolved place that she can enjoy the rest of her evening, noting, “If I haven’t produced something that day, I’m uncomfortable all evening. My grandfather used to have a saying, ‘What have you done today to justify your existence?’ We never had much of an answer for him, but that sense that we ought to stuck with [my siblings, cousins and me].”
When she’s not pouring over her research and spending long hours writing at her desk, Crook enjoys listening to ’60s and country-western music, going out to dinner with her husband and spending time with friends, all while raising her two children, Joseph, 18, and Lizzie, 13.
As we wrap up our time together, I begin to look forward to her next book, “1860s in the Hill Country,” which is the only description she’ll give me about it, and that I very well may be waiting seven years before I can once again escape into the beautiful and honest worlds Crook methodically formulates.
Kat Candler: The Magic of Moviemaking
The youthful, spunky, down-to-earth, just-one-of-the-guys vibe of Kat Candler is apparent to anyone who crosses paths with the filmmaker. As a screenwriter, director and producer, she hasn’t allowed the male-dominated factor in her industry to slow her down. In fact, she’s busier than ever.
I caught up with Candler by phone while she was on a project, writing in the Bay Area on a grant endowed by the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation to expand her award-winning short, Black Metal, into a feature-length film.
Candler cultivated her passion for filmmaking after experimenting in the world of theater, acting and playwriting while growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., and later when she attended Florida State University.
“I consumed movies as a kid and was obsessed with it, but didn’t know how movies were made or the mechanics of it,” Candler says. “I really fell in love with playwriting first and foremost.”
Her playwriting teacher urged her to start producing screenplays because of the organically cinematic nature of her writing.
“I figured out it wasn’t rocket science to make movies and realized that [filmmaking]was what I was truly in love with doing,” she says.
Moving to Austin after discovering the Austin Film Society, Candler fell into Austin’s up-and-coming film scene with the likes of the Zellner brothers, Yen Tan, David Lowery, Bryan Poyser and Heather Courtney. She took classes, stumbling through the difficulties of filmmaking with no technical training.
“Because I didn’t go to film school, the first several years of making film was my film school because I made every mistake in the book,” she says with a laugh.
She began to teach in the Radio-Television-Film department at UT in 2008, working with students for an Advanced Narrative Digital Production class.
“That’s when I found my voice and stepped up my game,” she says, mentioning that working with students made her, in turn, study film, soaking up everything she could. “That was really when my work got a lot better and I felt more confident in the stories I was telling.”
Fast forward to 2014, when Candler’s indie-feature, Hellion, was released and began to tour the festival circuit. The film, written and directed by Candler and which Entertainment Weekly describes as, “explosive” and “heavy metal lyrical,” screened at Sundance, South By Southwest, as well as the San Francisco International, Sarasota and Maryland film festivals, among others. With a stellar cast comprised of Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, Hellion, set in Southeast Texas, follows 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins), who loves motocross and heavy metal. Unfortunately, Jacob’s repeated delinquent behavior, as well as his father’s (Paul) neglect and drinking, results in CPS placing his little brother, Wes (Deke Garner), in the care of their aunt (Lewis). Having lost his mother, Jacob and his emotionally unavailable father begin the fight to bring Wes home by taking responsibility for their actions.
Aaron Paul, who’s best known for his role in Breaking Bad, saw Candler’s genuineness for the project and immediately joined the team.
“I read the script, and I just thought it was so unbelievably honest and so beautiful. The story was just living and breathing on every single page,” he says. “It was apparent, [Candler’s] passion and her love for every single one of these characters. And I love it when people are in a project for the passion of it, the art and their belief in it.”
“I got the script and it was like finding a diamond in the rough, which is a rarity these days,” Lewis says. “It was a story I hadn’t seen before. And I loved that the voices of the kids felt so truthful.”
It is arguable that the young actors in the movie steal the show, even with the amazing performances by Paul and Lewis. Candler auditioned hundreds of young actors, many of whom were from Southeast Texas and had painful stories to share with her.
“It was heartbreaking to hear about them dealing with stuff that was well beyond their years,” she says.
These real-world small-town kids—often bored and angry, which frequently leads to getting into trouble—were the exact same kids she had included in her script. Candler had conducted dozens of interviews for the role of Jacob, until Josh Wiggins, who had never acted, came to audition.
“When Josh walked in, he had this great look, and he started with these scenes and dialogue that came effortlessly for him,” Candler says. “He’s a pretty phenomenal actor, he’s highly intelligent and highly aware and he takes the craft very seriously. … He grew so much as an actor and he’s just a solid kid with a great big heart.”
Candler gave Garner, Wiggins and the rest of the young actors homework. They were to write character outlines to understand their relationships to one another—How long have they been friends? What did they do last month together?—in addition to listening to heavy metal CDs and getting to know one another so that the closeness of the friends in the film was believable and relatable.
Candler’s care and attention to character development, as well as her knack for research through a journalistic approach, allows her to create stories that are honest and convincing. While writing Hellion, which transitioned from a short to a feature-length film, she conducted extensive research by talking to refinery workers, CPS personnel, sitting in barbershops and attending football games and motocross matches. Along the way, she kept tweaking the script bit by bit to reflect the conversations and stories from the people she met.
“My ultimate goal is to be honest on screen and to connect emotionally to audiences, regardless of [the story]I’m telling,” Candler says. “I really love the writing process. It’s like a big puzzle. You’re trying to figure out how the pieces come together.”
Asked about her favorite aspects of the filmmaking process, Candler enthusiastically replies, “I love the research. I love talking to people and figuring out their stories and what makes them or the place click or be unique or be special. I love being on set. I love seeing the words come to life. I love the production design. I love working with the actors.”
Candler shares this inherent love for her multifaceted work with her students, passing along her directorial approach and words of wisdom from her years in the business.
“The three things I tell my students are to be nice, be professional and work your ass off,” she says, noting that she, herself, has a “no-asshole policy” on set.
“When I was little, my dad told me, ‘Your reputation is everything,’ and that definitely stuck with me throughout my life,” she says. “It’s a small community…everybody knows everybody and you want to be the person that people want to work with, be on set with or hire.”
While Black Metal is filling Candler’s days in California, she’ll be sure to make an important stop when she returns from San Francisco.
“I go to Torchy’s Tacos a lot. That’s usually the first place I go when I get off the plane,” she chuckles.
Elizabeth McQueen: New Attitude, New Chapter, New Sound
Austin musicians provide a certain energy that’s unique to the Live Music Capital of the World, a cool factor and artistic culture and possibly the reason why more than 100 people move here each day. Elizabeth McQueen happens to be one of these musical ambassadors, an influential force in Austin’s music scene for more than 10 years.
In another lifetime, McQueen might’ve been a comedian. She has a flair for storytelling and her impressions are spot-on as she recounts her many experiences of performing, writing and getting started in Austin’s music scene. She’s lighthearted in nature, easygoing but expressive, drawing you in as if you’ve known her for a long time. On this afternoon at a coffeehouse in Cherrywood, she’s in a short, white floral dress and brown cowboy boots, wearing her now-signature chunky glasses and curly, long-on-one-side hairstyle.
“I’m in this weird position,” she tells me, “where it’s not like the freedom of youth anymore. … I’m committed in all these ways to all these things, and that’s not really the youth-filled vision that people have of themselves.”
After getting her chops up with the celebrated country-western band Asleep at the Wheel, McQueen has been experimenting with a different sound while currently writing for her next project, the first time she has put together an album with a theme.
“I’m working on a record that’s really about where I am right now, at 37. I’ve been married for 10 years. We have two kids. I’m thinking a lot about the joys and heartbreaks of being committed,” she says.
Following her recently released album, The Laziest Remix, on which she teamed up with long-time friends, St. Louis’ The Brothers Lazaroff, to implement elements of electronic, retro jazz, hip-hop, funk, noise rock, R&B and reggae, her next project will continue to meld these sounds as she fashions her “old-school, mid-20th century jazz” vocals to the experimental new music while placing the personal at the center.
“It’s exciting because I feel like I’m actually trying to say something. But it’s daunting because people could think it’s really boring. Or they could hate it. And that would be really tough to take,” she says with a smile.
Coupled with her new sound, McQueen has recently applied for a grant from the city for an art installation.
“I want to connect these [new]songs that are about domesticity…to this technology that is pseudo-holographic,” she excitedly explains. “We want to create a giant holographic pyramid that you can walk in and control images with your movement while thinking about commitment and maybe have people have a transformative experience in the center of it.”
McQueen has released four solo albums—The Fresh Up Club (2003), Happy Doing What We’re Doing (2005), The Laziest Girl in Town (2010) and The Laziest Remix (2014)—in addition to contributing to more than six of Asleep at the Wheel’s albums, including Grammy-nominated album Willie and the Wheel (2009), on which McQueen sings with Willie Nelson on I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.
Born in Little Rock, Ark., and raised in Columbia, Md., with an innate ability to sing, McQueen joined forces with Asleep at the Wheel, playing, recording and touring with them for eight years.
“I felt really lucky to hook up with Asleep at the Wheel because there’s not a lot of popular music with people that sing [jazz vocals],” McQueen says. “It was a real blessing because my voice was a perfect fit for the music they did.”
During the eight years spent with the Wheel, McQueen and her husband, Wheel drummer David Sanger, spent five of years touring with their two young children in a sprinter van, traversing 49 continental states, in addition to Hawaii, Canada and Europe. When McQueen’s oldest daughter entered kindergarten, she decided to part ways with the Wheel, embarking once again on her solo career.
These days, you can find her playing with the poppy, electronic, space-trippy trio EMQ, as well as the jazzy Elizabeth McQueen Trio, both groups made up of Lauren Gurgiolo, “an incredibly creative guitar player,” and Lindsay Green, “an awesome bass player, moog player, totally creative guy,” who each challenge her, pulling her out of her comfort zone, as they are “sonically way more far out than I am.”
The far-out sound and concept that McQueen is moving toward are just the kind of weirdness Austin craves.
“Austin is a really open town in a way that some music towns aren’t,” she says. “People are like, ‘You know what I want to do? I’d like to start a band and have a puppeteer who will be the lead singer and we’re going to do some movie stuff and have a string section.’ ‘Sounds awesome!’ ‘OK, let’s do it.’ And then you find people who want to be in the band and then people come to see you. It’s pretty crazy and beautiful.”
Although her project doesn’t include a puppeteer as lead singer, the openness of Austin has allowed her to think outside the box and push forward with her own sound.
McQueen’s charismatic personality and dedication to continuing on her unique path has secured one of Black Fret’s 2014 nominations for one of the 10 $10,000 grants the nonprofit is handing out this year at their Black Ball event on Nov. 8 at the Paramount Theatre.
“Win or lose, grant or no grant, [Black Fret] is creating a community of people…who want to be connected to music and musicians and support musicians. That’s just a beautiful thing,” she says.
Also in support of local musicians, McQueen is a DJ at KUTX on Saturday mornings, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. She hopes to add a podcast to feature local artists, who they are listening to and who they’re inspired by.
“The creative process is infinitely amazing to me,” she affirms.
McQueen, in all of her versatile glory, will continue to uphold the heart and soul of Austin through her music and art, all the while juggling her roles as wife, mother and businesswoman.
“The goal for the next 10 years is to stay creative while balancing being a mom and present person. I would love for EMQ to become a thing where I could selectively take it places and put on an installation and bring something beautiful and transformative, but at the same time, not let my ambitions get in the way of my kids’ thing too,” she says, her commitment to this new chapter of her life ringing true.