“That was a fun day at work”

Au­thor El­iz­a­beth Strout talks about let­ting her char­ac­ters do what they need to do

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - MARY ANN GWINN

El­iz­a­beth Strout is one of Amer­ica’s most ad­mired lit­er­ary au­thors. Her novel “Olive Kit­teridge,” about a flinty, hard-to-love Maine school­teacher, won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into an HBO se­ries that won eight Em­mys. “The Burgess Boys,” her story of two broth­ers haunted by a ter­ri­ble child­hood ac­ci­dent, is in devel­op­ment by Robert Red­ford for HBO.

Her new novel “Any­thing is Pos­si­ble” (Ran­dom House) con­tin­ues the story of her best­selling novel “My Name is Lucy Bar­ton,” as Strout moves from the life of Lucy Bar­ton, small-town out­cast turned fa­mous writer, to the peo­ple Lucy knew, loved and hated in her small Illi­nois home­town.

Strout has won prizes and read­ers by writ­ing about anony­mous peo­ple with big se­crets, and she writes with great com­pas­sion, even as she ex­poses her char­ac­ters’ vul­ner­a­ble cores.

Q: I’ve been read­ing one of those “how to write a novel” books. It tells the would-be nov­el­ist to cre­ate bi­ogra­phies of all their char­ac­ters be­fore writ­ing the story. But in this case, af­ter you pub­lished Lucy Bar­ton’s story, you de­cided you wanted to write an en­tire other book of char­ac­ters who knew Lucy. What led to that de­ci­sion?

A: When I was writ­ing “My Name is Lucy Bar­ton,” when Lucy and her mother would chat about dif­fer­ent peo­ple, I just got in­ter­ested in those peo­ple. I would move to a dif­fer­ent part of the ta­ble I write on and scrib­ble dif­fer­ent things on dif­fer­ent pieces of pa­per about Mis­sis­sippi Mary and the Nicely girls and other char­ac­ters in the book.

Q: “Any­thing Is Pos­si­ble” tells stories about dif­fer­ent peo­ple in one small town. They add up to a novel. “Olive Kit­teridge” has a sim­i­lar struc­ture. What do you like about it?

A: I think it’s the way my mind works. It just feels very nat­u­ral to me to do it that way, to have ev­ery­body have their day in the sun.

Q: It’s like walk­ing down the streets of a small town and be­ing able to look in all the win­dows.

A: Ex­actly, that’s kind of what I’m af­ter, in a way.

Q: Class is a big theme in “Any­thing is Pos­si­ble.” In “Dot­tie’s Bed and Break­fast,” Dot­tie, who grew up poor, thinks: “(T)his mat­ter of dif­fer­ent cul­tures was a fact that got lost in the coun­try these days. And cul­ture in­cluded class, which of course no­body ever talked about in this coun­try, be­cause it wasn’t po­lite, but Dot­tie thought peo­ple didn’t talk about class be­cause they didn’t re­ally un­der­stand what it was.” I agree with Dot­tie. Why is class Amer­ica’s blind spot?

A: I’m glad you picked up on the class thing. I think all my work has been about class. It’s there all the time. It’s right there in our faces.

Q: It cer­tainly reared its head in the elec­tion.

A: It sure did . ... I’m not from a poor back­ground. My fa­ther taught at a col­lege; my mother was a writ­ing teacher. It was not a lav­ish up­bring­ing; we were New Eng­land Pu­ri­tans. (But) I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the ru­ral poor. Ev­ery town has a fam­ily that’s os­tra­cized be­cause they’re poor. It’s hor­ri­fy­ing to me, it’s just aw­ful.

Q: I heard you say once that when you were a lit­tle girl, you al­ways won­dered what it would be like to be another per­son. Does that still mo­ti­vate you as you cre­ate your char­ac­ters?

A: I have al­ways won­dered that, ever since I un­der­stood — oh my word — that we’re never go­ing to see the world ex­cept through our own eyes. I never got over that. It drives me crazy. That’s the motivating force be­hind my work. The idea that we’re iso­lated be­hind our own skin is just fas­ci­nat­ing to me. If we can get in­side the emo­tional truth of another per­son, we can break down those bar­ri­ers and be more em­pathic.

One of the joys of writ­ing is that I sus­pend all judg­ment. It’s fab­u­lous. When I stop writ­ing I be­come judg­men­tal, but when I’m writ­ing I sus­pend judg­ment.

Q: In an in­ter­view last year with NPR’s Terry Gross you talked about how it takes a cer­tain ruth­less­ness to por­tray char­ac­ters hon­estly, and yet you also seem to care about your char­ac­ters very much. How do you bal­ance those two things?

A: You just let them do what they need to do ... I just let them do it with as large a heart and as large a cam­era as I can. I do re­mem­ber one day when I was writ­ing “Olive,” I thought, oh, I should be care­ful. She is kind of harsh. Then I thought, you should just let her do it, you should just let her rip.

Q: I will never for­get the scene in “Olive Kit­teridge” when Olive steals one shoe from a pair in her daugh­ter-in-law’s closet, be­cause her daugh­ter-in-law has a com­pul­sion for or­der and Olive knows it will drive her crazy. Did that ac­tu­ally hap­pen?

A: I didn’t even know she was go­ing to do it. That was a fun day at work, let me tell you.


Au­thor El­iz­a­beth Strout says when she writes she tries to “do it with as large a heart and as large a cam­era as I can.”


“Any­thing Is Pos­si­ble,” by El­iz­a­beth Strout; Ran­dom House

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