Elizabeth Crane describes her first attempt at a novel as the loosely autobiographical story of a woman for whom “everything that could possibly go wrong at one time goes wrong and she goes on a road trip with this horrible guy–just the totally wrong boyfriend–but kind of gets something out of it anyway.” The novel was never published, for which Crane is glad, but a few years ago it did land her an agent. And when she turned her attention to a collection of short stories, When the Messenger Is Hot, the new manuscript “got snapped up pretty quickly.”

Crane, 41, was raised on the upper west side of Manhattan by her mother, a professional opera singer, and her stepfather. After graduating from George Washington University in D.C., she worked in a video store, waited tables, studied acting, tutored kids on movie sets, tried singing, moved to California for 11 days, and worked as the assistant to the producer of a failed sitcom back in New York. After she decamped to Chicago in 1996, she started teaching preschool, but she quit to write full-time in 1999. Messenger was picked up by Little, Brown in November 2001, and this spring an editor from the house who was on a panel at BookExpo America pegged it–along with the Saturday Night Live tell-all Live From New York–as one of his hot picks for the coming year.

Like the failed novel, the stories in Messenger (published this month) draw heavily on personal experience. But Crane says she’s using it differently now. “For years I tried to write…not in a conservative way, but I was trying very hard to write things that were nice,” she says. “And very tight, in terms of beginning, middle, end. But that’s not my specialty. And then I started to read more…I started to read a lot of things that were more inspiring to me, like Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore. And I suddenly realized that I have license to do what I wanted to do.”

The stories are all markedly similar in tone, characterized by a conversational, almost affectless style. The plots often take semifantastic turns, and few characters have anything so prosaic as a name. Some pieces feel slight–“You Take Naps,” for example, is a four-page laundry list of the ways in which a woman feels she and her younger paramour are mismatched. But most of the time Crane’s idiosyncratic voice can propel her peculiar tales into the realm of universal experience.

The title story is, on one level, about the elusive perfect first date. But it’s also about the heroine’s search for a reason to believe in God. That she’s able to find proof of His existence through this vehicle is a typical third-act twist that Crane swears has little to do with her own experience. “The essence of the true story is in the story,” she says, “but that particular aspect of the story definitely does not reflect my own beliefs.”

She often trades in archetypes to get her point across, going so far as to title a story in which the purported subject is simply a dizzying blur of contradictory character traits “The Archetype’s Girlfriend.” In “The Daves,” every guy in the world is named Dave until the bewildered heroine–who may or may not be named Jennifer–meets a Dave who may in fact be the right Dave and, in a leap of faith, rechristens him Steve.

In “Return From the Depot!,” one of the strongest pieces, the narrator, struggling to cope with her mother’s death, discovers that mom has simply been stranded at a North Dakota bus depot for three years. “You try living on cheese crackers and coffee with ‘whitener’ for three years,” she gripes upon her return. “It’s not nutritious.” She goes on to star in a sitcom based on her life, marry Alan Thicke, and have lots of sex–until one day she’s gone as suddenly as she reappeared.

“Obviously my mother didn’t come back from the dead,” says Crane, whose mom died in 1998. “But I felt like she was going to. She hasn’t, but that’s how those kind of ideas come about.”

The stuff she’s working on now, she says, is even less autobiographical. “Maybe I’m finally getting an imagination,” she says. “I have a lot of stories–I think I’ve had an interesting life and I’ve done a lot of different things. But it’s starting to occur to me that there are things outside of my own little universe.”

Crane will read from When the Messenger Is Hot at 7:30 on Saturday, January 11, at Quimby’s, 1854 W. North, 773-342-0910. It’s free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.