By Chris Babb
For The Arkadelphian
Exactly 10 years ago this spring, Eli Cranor was hired in his first job as an English teacher and assistant football coach at Arkadelphia High School. Fast forward to spring of 2022 and Cranor is involved in another first that involves English and football – although in a much different way.
Cranor, now an author and teacher in the Alternative Learning classroom environment in the Russellville School District, is in the middle of release week for his first novel, a crime novel set in a fictional north Arkansas town titled “Don’t Know Tough.”
The book is set for a March 22 release date and is available for purchase anywhere books are sold including Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other retailers. The book is also available on order from Russellville bookstore Dog Ear Books, which sponsored a release party for Cranor last week prior to the book release. Information on ordering from Dog Ear Books can be found here: https://www.ilovedogear.com/pre-order.
Cranor says the simplest way to describe the book is “Friday Night Lights meet Ozark.” Cranor’s book uses the backdrop of a high school football player and the small-town high school team pursuing a state championship that elicits comparisons to the 1990 book-turned-television-show “Friday Night Lights” based off of Odessa Permian High School in Texas, but also has content similar to that seen in the hit Netflix series “Ozark” which is in its fourth season.
“If you’re familiar with Ozark, that’s where this book falls,” said Cranor. “With the regard to having the thriller element, a crime element, some mystery and then having some more mature subject matter. But it also has the relationship element of a Friday Night Lights kind of book.”
Cranor says a good way to summarize the book is that it’s about a very volatile high school running back from an abusive household; a coach from California who thinks he can save the boy; and a murder on the eve of the playoffs that threatens to tear their small Arkansas town apart.
While the last decade has seen a significant change in the career path from football coach to author that catches some by surprise, Cranor says he’s not surprised at the twists his path has taken. There’s at least one other person who isn’t surprised, either.
Cranor took an Advanced Creative Writing class as a senior at Ouachita Baptist University as a part of his English major. Cranor recalls that one of the large assignments for that class, taught by OBU English professor Dr. Johnny Wink, was to write a 2,000-word short story. Cranor didn’t wait until the deadline to do the assignment, and actually went above and beyond – while playing his last year of college football.
“This was my last year, and I would write a 2,000-word story a week,” said Cranor. “I’d slide them under Johnny’s door at night – usually on a Thursday – and then by Monday, the start of the next game week, he’d get back with me with notes and revisions. We did that the whole semester. I’d had classes with Johnny before, but from that moment on I just thought, ‘If I could do anything in the world, I would love to tell stories.’ “
Wink also saw the potential in Cranor as a writer during his time in the “Bugtruck” – the moniker Ouachita language and literature students, professors and alumni have given to their department.
“Eli has always had a tremendous energy when he expresses himself,” said Cranor’s professor-turned close friend. “When he gets involved in something, he seeks people out. I had been hearing about him and seeing this big guy around the department, but when I met him, I was immediately taken by his energy, intelligence and wit.”
Not only did Wink see Cranor’s intangibles, but he also saw his skill in writing when Cranor would ask him for feedback on stories like the ones he slid under his door.
“When you’re reading students’ work, you’re hoping to find good things,” said Wink. “But at some point when you read the work of a student like Eli, you reach a point where you stop thinking about being a teacher and realize that you’re just reading good writing.”
By the end of that semester, Wink knew there could be a future in writing for Cranor.
“When the semester ended, I knew that this guy meant business,” said Wink. “He had the energy and the skill and with a little bit of luck, who knows where he could go.”
Cranor’s energy and skill – combined with that little bit of luck Wink mentioned – have landed him with on the doorstep of the release of his first novel which has earned early praise from critics and was spurred on by the award-winning short story which served as the basis for the novel.
Originally a short story, “Don’t Know Tough” won the Robert Watson Literary Prize from the Greensboro Review in 2017 and then the novel version won the Peter Lovesy First Crime Novel Contest in 2020.
In the weeks leading up to the novel’s release, Cranor’s work has been listed as one of the top five crime novels to watch by the New York Times and also recognized as a “major work from a bright, young talent” from USA Today.
Readers from Arkansas – particularly Arkadelphia and the Cranor’s home of the River Valley area – might recognize some veiled references to the areas, including characters and locations.
Set in the fictional town of Denton, Arkansas, the high school colors of black and silver and Pirate mascot give a nod to Dover, Arkansas, where Cranor’s parents reside now. A reference to Main Street in Russellville and other geographic locations around the state such as Eden Falls Cave and Linker Mountain near Russellville are included as well.
When it comes to characters, Cranor used personal history as the basis of some of those main characters in the book including the two coaches who serve as primary characters.
“I tried to pull just enough from all the places I’d been, that when someone was reading it they might think ‘this isn’t Arkadelphia, this isn’t Clarksville, this isn’t Morrilton, this isn’t Dover’.”
The more experienced coach called “Bull” who tries to give advice to the younger head coach Bull calls “Hollywood” is pulled straight from Cranor’s time at Arkadelphia. Bull is who Cranor considers one of the lone true heroes in the story.
“The books opens with the coaches lining the field,” said Cranor. “That was such a new thing for me when I started at Arkadelphia. We called Coach (Eric) Hart ‘Old Bull’ or ‘Bull’ and he called me Hollywood when I had my Ray-Bans on and my hair all slicked up.”
“I tried to paint the character of Bull as clearly as I could in the book,” added Cranor. “He’s such a good character. He’s probably as close to a hero or at least a good guy as there is in the book, so I felt okay with really making it clear that this was him. Plus, his relationship with the head coach who is from California, who he calls ‘Hollywood.’ In the book, it’s one offensive coach and one defensive coach and how they go back and forth.”
Cranor is currently on a release tour with stops in Little Rock, Nashville, Tennessee, and stops in North Carolina. Those from the Arkadelphia area interested in hearing from Cranor about his new book are invited to hear Cranor on the evening of Monday, April 4, when he and fellow OBU BugTruck alum Greg Brownderville will be speaking. Cranor said that a limited number of copies of the book will be available that night as well.