Tough as Nails, Meaner than a Junkyard Dog – The Sweet Writing Life of Award-Winning Novelist Eli Cranor

WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES courtesy Eli Cranor

Sep 1, 2023 | Featured, People

It’s one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon when award-winning novelist Eli Cranor walks into Dog Ear Books in Russellville, Arkansas. Conjure up an image of a nose-to-the-grindstone writer, and you might imagine rounded shoulders, a gaze rising above a pair of strong eyeglasses, the slight paunch of someone who sits for too long, day after day, bathed in the artificial glow of a computer screen.

Eli is none of that. The former football star—quarterback at Russellville High School; quarterback at Ouachita Baptist University; quarterback for the pro team, the Carlstad Crusaders in Sweden—moves with the grace of a longtime athlete. He’s spent twenty-nine of his thirty-five years keeping his eye on the ball, first on the field and later as a high school coach. With that behind him, he now swims every day, not far from his house on nearby Lake Dardanelle.

In the water, he is alone with his thoughts, and those thoughts are anchored in what he’s writing. The rugged stories that materialize are set in fictionalized towns in Arkansas, populated by characters wise in the ways of the Ozarks.

In both of his novels, Don’t Know Tough, published in 2022, and Ozark Dogs, published in 2023, Eli shows the underbelly of Arkansas, the places where poverty abounds, where desperate people who dare to dream at all, dream modestly, and football is always the biggest game in town. Arkansas is a character itself, where survival can depend on how well you know the land, how well you can navigate the cliffs and valleys, waterways, and woods. Especially when someone’s hunting you down. Because in Eli’s hard-boiled books, there’s always someone out to get you.

The nation has taken notice of his writing, of lines like this one: Arkansas hills produce crazy like the Earth’s mantle produces diamonds. The sentence is given extra meaning when you consider the Crater of Diamonds in Murfreesboro, the only place in Arkansas or the nation where diamonds are mined.

In a stroke of acclaim rarely given to first-time novelists, New York Times writer Sarah Weinman praised Don’t Know Tough in her review, in March 2022. The book was later named one of the Best Crime Novels by the prestigious newspaper. It also won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by An American Author and was the winner of the Lovesay First Crime Novel Contest.

Eli carries these accolades carefully, holding them in grateful hands. As he walks past a display in Dog Ear Books, where copies of Ozark Dogs sprawl across a prominent shelf, he smiles, drawing in the light around him. He is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey. He has a covey of soft bracelets on one wrist. He has sunglasses tucked in the V of his shirt. Later he will laugh and say that a noted writer once described him as “a bald, bearded, white guy from Arkansas.”

Eli dedicated Ozark Dogs to his father, penning: for Dad, who taught me how to write with a bucketful of baseballs.

Baseballs. Not footballs. Curious choice of words.

The story goes like this. Eli’s dad, Finley Cranor, did teach his son how to write, but not in the way you might imagine. “By the fourth grade, my dad thought I was becoming too much of a jock,” Eli says. “So, the summer leading up to the fifth grade, he made me write a page in a journal and read twenty pages of any book I wanted, before I could get on the bike and go play with the kids. I did this until I was a sophomore in high school.”

Eli strokes his beard, so long it covers his throat. “’You’re not coming out of the room, son, until it’s done,’” he mimics his father, his voice booming.

As the only child of two devoted schoolteachers, Eli had the good fortune of growing up feeling safe and loved. He learned perseverance, the relief of tackling a project early in the day. He visited a magnitude of worlds contained in the pages of books. But that was not the end of the story.

“Dad used to make me throw a hundred strikes from one of those five-gallon buckets. He would sit on the bucket of baseballs and hold his catcher’s mitt, and he would call the strikes. Who knows how many pitches it would take to get to a hundred called strikes? We did that every day, and I hated it. We would go to the beach with our whole family, and before it was time to hit the beach, we’d be out in the condo parking lot.”

Like a kid who recovers after being forced to take bitter medicine, Eli now appreciates the rigor of his childhood. Most days, he’s up at five in the morning, writing longhand, waiting for the sun to rise.

While he credits his dad for giving him the gumption to write, he also says he wouldn’t be where he is without Ouachita Baptist professor Johnny Wink. Eli would likely be writing legal drafts, arguing cases in court, if not for him.

“It was my junior year when I took Intro to Creative Writing.” Eli makes a zero with his thumb and forefinger, then holds the circle to his eye and says, “Johnny Wink wears Coke-bottle glasses. Only wears homemade, screen-printed shirts, with couplets from Shakespearian sonnets—like ‘Winged speed no motion shall I know.’—on them.

“Johnny has a parlor trick. He has all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets committed to memory, still, and he turns eighty this year, and he’s still teaching. He’d walk in with the collection of sonnets, and he’d throw the book on the table, and he’d ask somebody to pick a sonnet. You’d pick sonnet fifty-one, and he’d say, ‘Pick a line.’ So, you’d say line nine, and then he’d recite it. He does it like this: he walks, and as he walks, he goes through the sonnets sequentially. Early on, I asked him why he did it. Johnny said, ‘It’s beautiful furniture for the brain.’

“I felt a spark in that class. I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I then took Advanced Creative Writing with him, and to this day, I call him every Tuesday. He’s my momentum because every week, I have to gear up because I read to him at the end of the call. He’s a big cheerleader, but you can kind of gauge when he really likes something, so I pick the best scene I’ve been working on.”

As Eli is describing what led him to the page, a woman with short hair and a bright T-shirt stops by to say hello. She’s just finished reading Ozark Dogs, and says, “I was up until three in the morning, Eli. I had to find out what happened.” Eli beams, chats for a minute, and the woman moves on.

Eli taps his sandaled foot, takes a sip of the coffee he bought when he arrived. Just outside the door and across a parking lot sits the Methodist church where he grew up, and where he still plays music. Eli’s wife, Mallory, was a schoolmate, although the two didn’t connect until after Eli was home for a break, when he was playing football in Sweden. They now have two children, a daughter who’s six and a son who’s three.

Another new development? Eli’s the brand-new Writer in Residence at Arkansas Tech University, just over a mile from where he sits. “It’s a dream,” he says, describing the writing class he’ll teach, the high schools he’ll visit to introduce kids to the college. The time he’ll carve out to write.

Already, his third novel is on its way. Broiler, which tackles the chicken industry in Northwest Arkansas, will be published in 2024. Eli sighs, the first sign that he might understand he’s working at breakneck speed in an industry that’s known to move slower than traffic after an Arkansas ice storm.

There are so many stories to tell. Ones with characters like Bunn, Belladonna, and Evail Ledford. Jeremiah Fitzjurls, Dime Ray Belly.

Eli rubs his neck and looks at the time. His next stop is the lake, where he’ll swim and hope for a new story to emerge. The lakes and rivers and creeks of Arkansas hold secrets, and sometimes Eli can hear them. It’s the same with the Ozark hills, where somebody will be dreaming big tonight. An actual brick house one day. A night’s sleep not interrupted by someone fighting in the house. No more shut-off notices from the utility companies. Eli hears it all, and when he transfers it to paper, the story becomes magic.

In his hands, an entire world appears, purely southern, authentically Arkansas. You may not know tough before you read Eli, but you certainly will once you’re finished.

Eli Cranor’s books are available locally at Bookish in Fort Smith, Chapters on Main in Van Buren, and Dog Ear Books in Russellville. Don’t Know Tough and Ozark Dogs, published by Soho Press, Inc., are also available from all major bookstores.

Do South Magazine

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