Author of the Month: Eli Cranor

By Susan L. Peterson

Eli Cranor knows all about football. He played the game at every level, from peewee league, high school and college to even a year of professional football in Sweden. He then went on to coach Arkansas high school football for five years.

Although he no longer is physically involved in the game, he draws from all those experiences to use in his writing. And if his award-winning debut novel “Don’t Know Tough” is any indication, he is on the front end of a winning streak. The New York Times called it “one of the best debuts of 2022,” and USA Today listed it as one of the best books of the year.

In this murder mystery novel, Coach Trent Powers uproots his family from California to become head coach in Denton, Ark., a fictional town that will ring familiar to River Valley residents. Billy Lowe, a troubled player who reminds Trent of himself, is a star running back who is tormented by an abusive family member. Coach Powers takes Billy under his wing and into his home, but his motivation for doing so is suspect.

It’s a sometimes brutal read that evokes themes of what it means to be a man and how well-intentioned family members can be our downfall or our salvation.

Cranor’s path to becoming an award-winning novelist shares many parallels with his football career. Both entailed lots of practice, disappointments, tenacity and the help and support of family and friends.

After five years of coaching, around the time his daughter was born, he took a full-time classroom teaching job. He put his Ouachita Baptist University degree in English into use by teaching ALE (Alternative Learning Environment) students who had difficulty learning in a typical classroom. He began writing a sports column, short fiction and other online columns. But he always had the dream of writing a novel.

Over several years he revised his manuscripts numerous times, each a different version, finalizing “Don’t Know Tough” in 2017. But in order to get a large publishing house to even look at the book, he realized that he needed an agent. He sent out hundreds of pitches and received nearly as many rejections.

Just as some doors seemed to be opening in 2020, COVID-19 brought the publishing world to a screeching halt. With nothing to lose, Cranor sent his manuscript to the Peter Lovesey Crime Writing Contest. The promotion read: “Ready to wobble your way towards becoming a published author? Submit your manuscript by 11:59 p.m. on April 1, 2020, for the chance to be published — and don’t worry, this is no April Fools joke.” Cranor never believed a noted British crime writer would have any interest in a book about an Arkansas football coach, but he sent it off anyway and thought little more about it.

Determined to become a published author despite a pandemic, Cranor changed gears and self-published a children’s book, “Books Make Brainz Taste Bad.” Aimed at the middle grades, it addresses the importance of literacy and lessening screen time. The book was a hit – kids and parents loved it.

He was literally standing in the wings to talk to a group of students when he received the call that “Don’t Know Tough” was selected from more than 200 entrants as a finalist for the Peter Lovesey award. Soon after, he found that Peter Lovesey personally chose “Don’t Know Tough” as the winner.

Things changed dramatically after that. He received his award on Dec. 4 at a virtual 50th Anniversary Gala hosted by Murder by the Book, a Houston independent bookstore. Agents began to knock on his door.

As promised, Soho Press released the book on March 22 of this year and it garnered rave reviews. His schedule now includes international literary events, podcast and TV appearances and book signings where fans stand in line to get his autograph.

Part of the book’s appeal is Cranor’s unique writing style. His method of character development includes switching from first to third person and using different dialects. At times his writing is almost poetic: “Arkansas hills produce crazy like the Earth’s mantle produces diamonds; enough heat and pressure to make all things hard.”

Cranor now teaches online for Virtual Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Youth Services. He loves it, believing literacy can make a difference in the lives of troubled youth by helping them to develop empathy. He even notes its importance in his book when Coach Powers has Billy read “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Recently Cranor began writing another column, “Where I’m Writing From,” that appears on Sundays in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. His second book, “Ozark Dogs” (Soho Press), will be released in the spring next year. Usually he writes early in the morning, and then at night he reads to his mother, referring to her as his “secret weapon.”

Cranor, his wife and two children love living along the shore of Lake Dardanelle, along with their black cat and an Australian sheepdog. To find out more, visit or his Facebook page “Eli Cranor – Author Page.”

“Don’t Know Tough” has been described as a fast-paced “Friday Night Lights” with raw characters and lots of twists and turns. It is available wherever books are sold.

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