Issue 111 |
Spring 2010

About Elizabeth Strout

In a Washington Post article, Elizabeth Strout discusses how, as a girl, she played people-watching games with her mother. Together, they would imagine the lives of strangers they saw around town. "It seemed to me," Strout says, "from an early age, that nothing was ever as fun as that…The first ambition I remember having was that of becoming a writer. It seemed as natural as the fact that I would have another birthday…it did not seem a wish, but a fact of life."

Strout, the author of the bestselling novels Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, and a collection of linked stories, Olive Kitteridge, goes on to describe how her mother gave her notebooks and told her to write down what she had observed that day. "The idea was not to tell a story," Strout writes, "but to record the experience of the man selling me sneakers…so that recording the world was part of my first clear memories."

Despite her early ambitions, Strout had a circuitous route to authorship. She published her first short story, "The Suicide's Daughter," in New Letters after she graduated from law school at Syracuse. "I showed it to a few people," Strout recalls. "No one said anything." And it took another few years before she published a second story. In those early years, she was so reticent about her work that few people even knew she was a writer.

During that time, however, she had also started writing the novel that would eventually become Amy and Isabelle. The ten years she invested in that novel paid off, for it was instantly recognized by critics as a major achievement and went on to become a made-for-tv movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.

Amy and Isabelle dealt with the dark, unspoken rivalries in mother/ daughter relationships, and the secrets inherent in the lives of seemingly everyday people in small towns. Described in a Newsweek review as "a kind of modern Rapunzel," the novel touched a chord with many people, not only for its subject matter but for the beauty of its sentences.

Another eight years passed before she published her second novel, Abide with Me, a distinct departure from Amy and Isabelle. The story of a young minister in a small town in 1950s Maine, struggling with his faith in the wake of his wife's premature death, it too met with acclaim. As a New Yorker review says, "Strout has created an absorbing world peopled by characters who argue the merits of canned cranberry sauce…meanwhile dark fears…run beneath the surface of their lives like water under ice."

Three years later, she published Olive Kitteridge, which netted her the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and brought her work to the attention of an even wider audience. The collection's title character, Olive Kitteridge, who Louisa Thomas in The New York Times Book Review describes as being "like a planetary body, exerting a strong gravitational pull," is a large, awkward, opinionated New England woman who succeeds in winning readers' hearts, even as she sometimes shocks them with her unblinking honesty. As Thomas goes on to say, "she isn't a nice person," but she regularly surprises the reader with her "remarkable…empathy." Even if some readers don't like Olive, no one can forget her, and she seems destined to enter the canon of permanent American literary characters.

What all of Strout's work to this point has in common is small New England towns. Having descended from many generations of New Englanders, Strout's knowledge of the region is bone deep. Her father, a parasitologist, was on the faculty of the University of New Hampshire's Animal Sciences department, specializing in tropical parasites (an irony not lost on Strout), and the family lived in New Hampshire during the week, but Maine remained their emotional home throughout her childhood.

Although she does not speak directly of her father's influence on her work, Strout has strong memories of his lab as a place where she was allowed to wander freely. "I remember the chemical smell of the building, and even now it makes me happy to remember," she says, "because my father, though a very distracted man, was always glad to see me." One sees in this glimpse of her father shades of the mild-mannered Henry Kitteridge, Olive's long-suffering husband, and one of the sweeter male characters to emerge in recent fiction.

Strout admits that "the bleak loneliness of Maine has influenced me profoundly," but goes on to confess that "I didn't want that to be the case, so it took many years for me to accept it." Although it is not unusual for a young writer to struggle to find her material, Strout took a unique approach to addressing the challenge by signing up for a stand-up comedy course in New York, where she has lived for over twenty years. She was terrified by the experience of standing before a crowd at a comedy club, but she realized that what got the most laughs were her stories about growing up in New England.

Strout has spoken at length in previous interviews about her life in New Hampshire and the self-imposed isolation of her family. When asked about her childhood,she elaborates,"I ended up spending hours alone with tree toads and pine needles, and turtles and creeks, and the coastline, and collecting periwinkles, so I think it is right to say that my interests when I was young were the beauties of the physical world."

Her early training both for solitude and for observation is apparent in all three of her books. The New England landscape is as much a character as the people. And her characters are often both leery of and hungry for human connection. In the relationship at the center of Amy and Isabelle, Isabelle, a single mother, seeks, through isolation and strict control, to protect her daughter Amy from the things that damaged her as a young woman: not allowing her to go out with friends, living outside the town. Her efforts fail, of course, and there is inevitably a fierce struggle as Amy begins to assert herself, first by defiance and then through deception. The novel is a compelling narrative about the futility of such attempts to protect those we love.

Strout has written about how her own parents were very strict while she was growing up. For her and her brother there was no television, no newspapers. No parties, no dates. As Bob Thompson concludes in a Washington Post article, it's "small wonder that within this enforced isolation…Strout's mother became her world." As Strout put it in a previously published essay, "My parents came from many generations of New Englanders, and they had a skeptical view of pleasure." She adds, "My parents were not just traditional; they were strict with a rigidity that made me believe the world was a dangerous place and vice lurked at the door to combat virtue."

Despite this sense of isolation, or perhaps in part because of it, she loathed high school. She hated it so much that her mother finally consented to let her leave school her junior year, after which she applied and was somehow admitted to Bates College. "I loved college," Strout says, "but I was not an especially good student. It never occurred to me to study, I'm afraid, except in classes about American playwrights and…my criminology classes." She was having too much fun with what she describes as her "wacky theater group" to pay attention to classes.

It was James Hepburn, chair of the English Department at Bates College, who first took her writing seriously and encouraged her to continue. He allowed her to take several independent study classes with him where "he just let me write and he would comment, and I would turn in another story, and he would comment…it was enormously helpful, his odd belief in me."

Despite her inattention to classes, Strout did well enough in college to be admitted to Syracuse University's law school, which she describes as a "kind of trauma," though "the classes themselves were fairly interesting." She eventually graduated from law school cum laude, but not until first dropping out and then reentering the program after witnessing the desolate lives of women who shopped at the department store where she worked in the interim. To support herself, both before and after law school, she cleaned houses, worked in an ice cream place, worked as a secretary and a department store clerk, did office work for lawyers, and waitressed, as well as played piano in bars. Although she went on to practice law for six miserable months in Syracuse, she admits to feeling like "an unspeakably bad, incompetent lawyer for Legal Services." She quickly discovered she was not adversarial and left the profession.

While in law school, Strout met her husband, still a practicing attorney. Together, they have one daughter, Zarina, now grown. "For many years," she says, "my entire writing schedule was around my daughter…she was a good baby, and when she napped I would write. Because she napped best when she was in the car, I often drove somewhere, had her fall asleep, and would turn the car off quietly. So for a couple years, my writing time was done in a car in some warehouse parking lot or on a street in New York. Quite honestly, this worked very well." She adds, "I think working around her schedule was good for me. It took away choice, and I don’t do well with choice. There were very specific times when I could write, and so I did…Routine is essential. For years I would tell myself, three hours or three pages."

During her early years as a writer, when she was sending out her work, Daniel Menaker at The New Yorker became her mentor. "He rejected all my stories, but did so nicely, and with increasing encouragement to keep going. That was huge for me. I had the sense that he got what I was going for," Strout says. Years later, after struggling to find an agent for Amy and Isabelle, she reconnected with Menaker, then an editor at Random House, and he published the novel.

When asked about her writing habits, Strout says she likes to write first thing in the day: "There is something about the day not yet interfering that is helpful--a sense of wide quietness…I also sometimes write again late at night. I seem to frequently have a burst of energy just about the time the rest of the city is going to bed, and I might work for a few hours then." As for where she writes, she says, "I need to work in casual settings: at the kitchen table, on the couch, perhaps while riding the subway, sometimes in a coffee shop." She continues, "I write by hand for as long as I can before typing it up, and once I type it…I will cover it with penciled rewrites immediately. A freshly typed page makes me nervous. I am not an organized person, and I am happiest when I'm working with messiness, both on the page and in my immediate surroundings." She admits to liking a particular kind of notebook paper but says she'll write on anything. She feels the same way about pens, preferring how certain kinds (not a particular brand) feel, and "I love a freshly sharpened pencil; I am very happy when I have a freshly sharpened pencil."

Typically self-effacing, when asked to comment on how her career has changed since winning the Pulitzer, Strout says, "It has been wonderful…to see Olive get out there into the hands of people, many of whom seem to identify with her, or at least take her into their heart--or hate her, that's ok too…but my own little inner life of being Liz Strout hasn't changed."

As for what she’s working on now, she says, "I think I don't dare say much about my new work except that hopefully part of it takes place in New York City. Apparently I have to live somewhere for twenty-five years before I can use that landscape."