Elizabeth Strout is there

Although she has lived in New York City for most of her life, Elizabeth Strout looks to her home state of Maine for stories. Turns out, you can get there from here.
By Jack Smith | Published: August 1, 2013


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Photo by Michele Stapleton

Spotting a former 7th-grade student parked near the marina, Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher, asks if he’s going to invite her to sit with him. Without waiting for an answer, she opens the car door and settles in beside him. A large woman, she can barely fit in the cramped front seat. The young man, greatly depressed and suicidal, could do without her presence. But she gets him talking about his history since leaving Crosby, Maine, where this scene is set. She shares stories of her life, too – her son’s depression, her father’s suicide. Who is this woman who barges in on the life of her former student?

For one, Olive Kitteridge is small-town Maine – its people, their histories, their everyday doings. But she is more than a type: She is an outspoken, sometimes abrasive woman who barely tolerates her retired pharmacist husband; a woman who, during her son’s wedding reception, clandestinely sabotages and steals selected personal articles belonging to her despised daughter-in-law; a woman who breaks down in tears when she encounters a young anorexic girl on the brink of starvation. She is also the central figure in Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel-in-stories, one of four novels set in and explorative of small-town Maine.

As with other Strout protagonists, Olive Kitteredge is also a lens for the many trials and tribulations of ordinary folks in her small town ‒ and, on a more universal level, a perspective on the human condition itself. Strout’s work is never the idyllic, the pastoral – although it may be set there. Hers is traditional literary realism, sometimes with a satirical bite, as in her second novel, Abide with Me, in which the parochialism, gossip and pressure of small-town people might call to mind the pedestrian nature of the townsfolk of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Yet Strout is a writer of generous compassion for her many and varied characters. She pulls us intimately into their lives – and by extension, into our own.

Strout consistently does so through the use of the omniscient point of view, not such an easy task as many fiction writers can testify. Since her debut novel Amy and Isabelle, she has used this authorial point of view not only to create sweeping, memorable portraits of three Maine towns – Crosby, West Annett and Shirley Falls – but also to capture the feelings of the characters who inhabit these places. They live hard lives in these towns, with long winters and restrained warmth. They’re frustrated in their search for happiness and toggle from one kind of tragedy to another. Yet if Strout has a strong sense for the nature of suffering, she also provides abundant comic relief – often subtly humorous, at times laugh-out-loud funny. “It’s just life,” Strout says, “and life is funny.”

Strout’s fiction deals deeply with the personal but also moves on to the social – to class issues, primarily. In her most recent novel, The Burgess Boys, she navigates the religious and political as well. Here, Somalis who have found a place of refuge in Shirley Falls are clearly at odds with the town’s long history of homogeneity. Then a young citizen places a frozen pig’s head in the local Somali mosque. This event soon escalates, involving the legal system, politicians, the locals ‒ and the Burgess brothers, born and bred in Shirley Falls and filled with the fight of patriotism for their town.

The following is an edited version of my phone conversation with Elizabeth Strout.

You’ve been praised for your ability to “humanize characters.” How do you accomplish this? What steps did you take, for instance, to create such a complex character as Olive Kitteridge?

It’s the ability to imagine very deeply. It’s kind of like drilling down. I’ve gotten under the topsoil. Now I’ve got to go under the next layer, under the next layer, and so on. A lot of it’s unconscious, but as I try to think of it consciously, it is that sense of continually going down, down, down. I think it’s one reason it takes me so long to write. I just need to find out more and more and more as I go.

How do you determine the tensions and conflicts your characters struggle with? Do you plan these in advance, or do they come to you as you write?

I mostly do not plan anything in advance. I’m not a planner. I’m not very organized, so I tend to work in scenes, and they’re not necessarily in order at all. What I will try to do when I sit down to work, particularly in the first stages of a book, is to write what it is that I’m seeing or feeling most urgently at that moment. And then hope that it will find its way into the overall tapestry ‒ if it doesn’t, it just ends up on the floor.

You make use of the omniscient point of view in your novels, sometimes with fairly extensive authorial commentary. And yet we get quite close to your characters. How do you manage such a difficult balancing act?

It’s something I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to get a handle on. I think of it kind of like a spotlight that is moving around the planet, and it swoops down and takes a very close look at one person and then kind of moves off into the landscape and then finds another person to concentrate on. You can’t switch point of view too abruptly. The reader doesn’t want to feel pulled out of the experience of reading. It works as long as readers can feel like they’re still tucked into that voice that’s telling them a story. I think it really comes down to narrative voice. If you’ve got the narrative voice strong enough, you can do that kind of swooping out of the intimacy of one person’s mind and then into the intimacy of another person’s mind.

Your settings are quite vivid. How do you manage to create such detailed settings? Can you take us through your process with an example, say, from The Burgess Boys?

I keep asking: What do I see? If Bob Burgess is going to walk down Seventh Avenue on Park Slope, what does he pass? What does that look like? I’m very much of an over-writer, which is why I revise constantly and throw away so much. I throw away tons and tons and tons of stuff, and so I will write all this, and then I’ll think: Which details do I really need to give a sense of what that’s actually like for him?

Your work deals a lot with small-town Maine. What draws you to write about this area, and what steps do you take in your work to avoid depending too much on fact and not enough on the resources of the imagination?

I lived in Maine for the first 23 years of my life. I’ve lived in New York City for 30 years. I didn’t really set out to write about Maine, but living here, I found that that landscape kept calling me, so a lot of that is memory because I come from generations of Maine people and it’s very deeply engrained in my DNA. It’s deeply familiar territory to me. For The Burgess Boys, I did take trips; I needed to see more specifically. The only thing I’ve ever used directly from life is the pig’s head incident in The Burgess Boys, and even then, though that was factually real, I conflated that with other incidents that had happened in that town. For instance, there was not a rally around the pig’s head incident, but a rally around something else that the mayor had done earlier. I used that pig’s head incident because it was very compelling, and it was just sitting right there in front of me. The real perpetrator actually shot himself before the trial and was older than Zachary, so I fictionalized Zachary and made him somebody younger and less knowing. I didn’t feel confined by facts because I was just using them as I needed them.

The Burgess Boys deals with an important social and political theme. You take up larger themes, beyond the personal, in your other works as well. Can you speak to this?

 If you’re really writing about life, they’re going to be there. And I think that once you see that, once you see what you’ve written, you can either bring them out a little bit more or dampen them down according to what you’re trying to do. All the way back to Amy and Isabelle, it always surprised me that people didn’t see that as a book about class because it is. Isabelle’s working in an office room of a shoe mill, and she thinks she’s superior; she thinks should be a teacher. She thinks she should be among the professionals, but she’s stuck with these working-class people, and for a long time, she is quite snobbish about that. But in Abide with Me, these are not working-class wives. These women have money, not much, but enough to stay home. So I think if you’re writing truthfully to your subject matter, these things will emerge. If I’m writing about kids who try to run away from Maine to go to New York and have a better life, then that stuff is going to show up because it’s there.

The Burgess Boys is somewhat experimental in narrative technique. It begins with a fictional prologue, written in first person, then moves into third person, in the novel proper, as a tale constructed by the first-person narrator of the prologue. Why did you choose this narrative technique, and what is accomplished by it?

It’s funny that I did that since I’ve never written a prologue before. I’d been working on The Burgess Boys for a number of years, probably about four or five, before I wrote that prologue, and one day I thought, well, why don’t you fiddle around with a prologue? I was doing it as a kind of exercise, and even if I had it, I thought I might very well not use it. But then as the whole book took shape, I thought I’m going to use it. It’s funny because it kind of goes against certain things I believe in as a writer. For instance, I don’t like to change from first person to third person. But there was something about it that is truthful. Wherever we come from, we sit around mothers or old friends, and we go: “I wonder what happened to that woman?” Or: “What happened to those girls?” That kind of storytelling is just so intriguing to me. You really do wonder, and you don’t know. And yet you realize as you grow older that they’ve gone on with their lives just as you have, and that’s intriguing. Here’s somebody that’s just going to tell you the story. It’s not a frame story because when I finished the last paragraph, I didn’t want an epilogue; I didn’t want the tone to change.

On the whole, your work tends to be “quiet,” and yet it’s full of
tension. How do you manage to achieve this tonal quietness in the midst of so much conflict?

 Again, this goes back to the narrative voice ‒ this sense of telling a story. Kids still like to be read to – I hope they do – and that sense that I’m all comfortable and cozy and safe, so tell me a story – as long as the narrative voice is making me feel safe, and it has to be sort of a quiet, calm voice – well, then, bad or traumatic things can happen, but the reader will feel like I’m still in good hands because the narrator is not going to pull any tricks on me, or the narrator is not going to try to show off. It’s all going to be OK because that’s what the sound of the voice tells me.

One thing that makes your fiction literary is your insightful use of the language – for instance, in Abide with Me, where one of your characters feels like “the inside of his chest were being scraped by a serrated grapefruit spoon.” Care to comment on how you come up with such a spirited and apt expression?

My mother must have wanted grapefruit spoons. I remember that from a young age. I haven’t seen one in forever, but that image of scraping, it’s probably just a feeling I had at some point, or again, just that sense of imagining – imagining, imagining, imagining. What does this feel like? Just finding a way to render it that’s original – not relying on cliché, or conventional text, but what can I find that is truthfully what that feels like? A grapefruit spoon came to mind. A hundred and fifty things will dawn on me, so what I have to do is go back and keep the one that seems the best.

What advice do you have for beginning and early-stage writers?

I know the frustration which never goes away. You want so much to sit down and get it right. You have to learn to tolerate that frustration. You have to be patient and just keep writing. You’re only going to learn it by doing it and by reading. You read and you write, and you read and you write. That’s the hard part for beginning writers: having to accept that it may be a very long process. Also, you have to be willing to expose yourself ‒ to put your true emotions in your work, or it will be flat. It really won’t be something people want to read or find any comfort in reading because it won’t be conveying to them some aspect of the human condition that they’ve experienced but don’t know they’ve experienced until they read it ‒ and then they’ll say, “Oh, I’ve felt that.”

Jack Smith is the author of Write and Revise for Publication and Hog to Hog, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize.

THE STROUT FILE

Favorite music

“Beatles and Mozart. Mozart’s amazing. He’s got everything I love. I never tire of him, and I’m always surprised by him.”

TV shows you like to watch

Mad Men. It’s really nicely written and beautifully done.”

A food treat

“An old-fashioned candy bar like a Baby Ruth.”

Hobby unrelated to writing

“Piano playing. I took piano for 12 years, and so I really like to keep up with that. I play a lot of Mozart.”

Excerpt from The Burgess Boys

STROUT_BurgessBoysJim Burgess, a high-profile attorney who has worked himself up from lowly beginnings, has just received word of his nephew Zachary Olson putting a frozen pig’s head in a mosque. He shares the message with his wife, Helen, and his brother, Bob.

Helen and Bob turned their heads as they heard Jim hang up.

Jim stood in the doorway, his red tie loosened. He said, “We can’t go away.” Helen sat forward. Jim took his tie off with a furious pull and said to Bob, “Our nephew’s about to be arrested.” Jim’s face was pale, his eyes had become small. He sat on the couch and pressed his hands to his head. “Oh, man. This could be all over the papers. The nephew of Jim Burgess has been charged – ”

“Did he kill someone?” Bob asked.

Jim looked up. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked, just as Helen was saying cautiously, “Like a prostitute?”

Jim shook his head sharply, as though he had water in his ear. He looked at Bob and said, “No, he didn’t kill someone.” He looked at Helen and said, “No, the person he didn’t kill was not a prostitute.” Then he gazed up at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and said, “Our nephew, Zachary Olson, has thrown a frozen pig’s head through the front door of a mosque. During prayer. During Ramadan. Susan says Zach doesn’t even know what Ramadan is, which is completely believable – Susan didn’t know what it was until she read about it in the paper. The pig’s head was bloody, starting to melt, it’s stained their carpet, and they don’t have the money to buy a new one. They have to clean it seven times because of holy law. That’s the story, you guys.”

Helen looked at Bob. Puzzlement came to her face. “Why would that be all over the papers, Jim?” she finally asked, softly.

“Do you get it?” Jim asked, just as quietly, turning to her. “It’s a hate crime, Helen. It’s like if you went over to Borough Park, found an Orthodox Jewish temple, and forced everyone in there to eat ice cream and bacon before they could leave.”

“Okay,” said Helen. “I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that about Muslims.”

Courtesy of Random House