John Crowley

Filling Up, Pouring Out

“I really didn’t want to be a writer,” John Crowley says. The author, now 75 years old, is speaking from his kitchen table in rural, sun-soaked Conway, Massachusetts. On the drive up, I passed through wild green fields and beneath the dense canopies of oak woods still dripping from a summer rainstorm. The house itself is eccentric, with wild potted palms at the top of a crooked staircase, haunting marionettes amid colorful walls and even a taxidermied armadillo. In the sprawling yard, beyond a red barn, empty bathtubs wait to become planters and a massive tree looks magical.

Crowley has recently retired after 22 years of teaching creative writing at Yale, and his newest novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, published last year, is part of a long career that’s produced dozens of novels, short stories and documentary films. The World Fantasy Convention has recognized him with its awards for best novel—honoring his 1982 breakout Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament—and for lifetime achievement. Harold Bloom, the legendary critic and New Haven local, has named him one of the best living novelists.

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As a younger man, however, Crowley just wanted to make movies. After an army brat childhood spent in places including Maine, Vermont and Appalachia, he moved to New York City to pursue his dream. “You could live very cheaply there,” he says. “The first apartment I lived in, I was renting for $100 a month before I found a cheaper one… It was a terrible time in the city. It was filthy, crime-ridden, falling apart, dangerous, ugly—but it was kind of exciting too. A lot of vice you could get into. I got into a small amount.”

During that time, Crowley had some successes, beginning with America Lost and Found (1968-72), a documentary series on the Great Depression and the photographer Walker Evans. More films followed, on the World’s Fair and Pearl Harbor, as well as a Smithsonian-sponsored piece on nuclear power, for which he hired his now-wife, Laurie Block, as an assistant. She took to the work immediately, and now he works for her. They’re currently making a film on Helen Keller.

Despite his burgeoning documentary career, Crowley felt he didn’t have what it took to be a great filmmaker. “The medium of movies is not film or light,” he says. “The medium of movies is other people. You have to have a talent for getting other people to do what you want. I didn’t have any talent for it.”

On the page, it’s a different story. Crowley’s novels tend to be massive in scope and ambitiously structured, taking on multiple generations and time periods, playing with the harsh dividing lines of genre to create works that are part sci-fi, part fantasy and part literary fiction, all touched with romance and gothicism. His is a unique, exhilarating breadth, and most readers and critics have struggled to place him within the modern canon.

Crowley is unconcerned with his mutability, and turns back to the language of film to describe himself: “Think of those actors who are never cast as the star. They’re either the villain or the friend, and they never look or act the same way twice… That’s the kind of writer I am.”

His first published novel, The Deep (1975), is loosely inspired by the War of the Roses. Beasts, published in 1976, is interested in recombinant DNA. In 2005’s Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, he does a literary impersonation of the famous playboy, while Four Freedoms, released in 2009, focuses on a group of social outcasts building military bombers during World War II.

Ka, his newest novel and the one we’ll be excerpting over the coming days, is a tremendous late work, showcasing Crowley’s lyricism and insight and the quiet confidence with which he investigates the murky depths of history and loss. It follows the adventures of Dar Oakley, a crow—or as the book formats it, a Crow—who has learned to communicate with humans, and who reincarnates in different eras and places. It’s a meditation on death and time, the latter of which, in Crowley’s works, is often seen as cyclical and collapsing as opposed to linear.

But it’s also a novel about storytelling, offering insight into what it means to spend a life filling oneself up and pouring oneself out. As Crowley writes of his Crow: “He, Dar Oakley, was himself inside a story, which was also inside him, packed within him like another Crow, and he knew now why he had for so long felt both crowded and empty.”

John Crowley
Where to Buy: Amazon | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | RJ Julia

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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