‘She just showed up’: Elizabeth Strout on the return of Olive Kitteridge
Pulitzer Prize winning author’s latest novel features the much-loved but difficult character
ELizabeth Strout: “I’m hoping that when the reader puts the book down, they have a sense of the world being bigger than they thought it was.”
If you have read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, then you will know that it is entirely in character for the eponymous heroine to show up uninvited. “I never intended to return to Olive,” Strout says, “but I was in a European country a few years ago, I was in a cafe and I opened my computer and she just showed up. It was the most bizarre thing. And I thought, okay, you’ve got to go with that.”
Strout’s new novel, Olive, Again is a series of interlinked short stories, all set in Crosby, Maine. Sometimes Olive is the star of the stories, and sometimes she flits around the edges, altering our perception of her.
“Olive is a lot to take. If she’s on every single page people are going to get tired of her,” says Strout of her cranky stubborn creation, who is redeemed by her compelling insights, and her many quiet kindnesses. “Olive is adored by many people,” Strout says, “I’m glad when people like her because she’s just so multi-faceted. She is so difficult, and she is so funny in her way. People can relate to maybe little pieces of her.”
In the new novel, Olive is older and more vulnerable, and “that horrible orange-haired man” occupies the White House. Her husband has died and she’s embarking on a new romance with a widower, Jack. Olive and Jack look back at lives that they fear they did not live honestly, and look anxiously forward to their new relationship. How seldom do we see the desires of older people on the page.
The glory of the novel is that it is filled with line after line of luminous truths. In one story, a young woman returns to town after her childhood home burns down and, in an astonishing conversation with a family friend, she grapples for an explanation for the suffering in her life, wondering if the answer is “to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can”.
Strout tells me this is her philosophy, and it is one that would seem to underpin her body of work. “It always surprises me when people talk about my work as being depressing because I hope that there is some kind of transcendence to it,” Strout says. “I happen to think there’s a lot of humour. But you know, humour and sadness go hand in hand.
“I’m hoping that when the reader puts the book down, they have a sense of the world being bigger than they thought it was. We’re just all doing the best we can. And it’s not such a bad thing there should be some sense of dignity to the attempts that people make to get through their lives. One of the best parts of writing is to just suspend judgment. People are very judgmental, and that’s what I’m hoping to give people, a reprieve.”
Strout’s work is influenced by her childhood experience growing up on a dirt road in Maine, with only great aunts and her grandmother for company. “I think that they were my first connection to the world because it was very isolated, these old women with their dry Maine accent. They were always sort of depressed [and talking] about their husband’s last dinner,” she laughs.
Strout describes Maine as beautiful but the sort of place from which a young person would be desperate to escape. “It’s old and it’s white and it’s in trouble. That dirt road was my whole world for a long time. And then I went to college in the city, I just loved it because I just wanted to see people.”
Her childhood was a solitary one. “I spent a lot of time alone and I was happy in the woods and down on the shore and picking up my periwinkles and walking around on the seaweed. As I got older, I think I was very lonely, I wanted to see people.”
Strout has lived in New York for 35 years but there is real love in her depiction of her home state, where she now spends more of her time. “I had been living in New York for about 15 years trying to write when I began to realise that I actually missed Maine. There was a nostalgic feeling for the way the light falls at a certain angle because we’re very northern… So I began to write about it. I had to leave it in order to see it.”
In this, she differed dramatically from her parents who she has described as having a fear of the world.
“They’re very much from Puritan stock. It wasn’t really until I got to New York and met all sorts of different cultures that I even began to understand. [My parents] had a sceptical view of pleasure, which is a nice way of putting it. They believed in hard work, and that’s what they did. There were never any big noisy birthday parties. And I was always a real talker. They were always telling me, please stop talking so much.”
They were “appalled” to see her move to New York and the theme of estrangement between parent and child is something she explores often in her novels. “My uncle told me one time that I had broken my father’s heart, which was a terrible thing for me to hear.”
After her father died, her mother began to visit her in New York. Readers of Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton will be unable to resist drawing comparisons.
“I did it to myself,” she concedes, “because I made Lucy Barton a writer who moves to New York from an isolated place. I think about why I can’t really write non-fiction comfortably. For me, to write fiction there has to be a distance between myself and the reader, even as I’m embracing the reader. I think about the reader all the time when I’m writing, but I have to move it aside from myself, with these characters. I’m not an autobiographical fiction writer. It has to be separate from me somehow.
I think it was really about the time I realised that I’m actually a white woman from Maine. And that’s what my voice is
“Ever since I was a kid on that dirt road, I think that the biggest compelling engine in me has always been the desire to know what it feels like to be another person. I just always have been pulled through life by that deep curiosity to know. It’s a frustration for me to not even know what, like, these fingers touching the desk would feel like if it wasn’t me. As a result I have watched and watched and listened to people all the time. I’m always trying to absorb the tiniest detail that I can see or hear from them.”
Strout’s success story is the tale of the long hard graft. Having written all her life, she had a very brief stint as a lawyer, and had some short stories published in literary magazines. Her first novel was published when she was 42.
“I look back at those years and I think how did I just keep on doing it? I’ve been going through those old awful stories in my studio and I realised, wow, I just was working so hard for so long. I think that I was convinced that if I stuck with it, I would be able to find my voice. There was no choice for me about it.”
Did she have many cheerleaders around her? “No,” she says very definitively. “I tried not to let people know I was writing, but people who knew, I’m quite sure they were embarrassed for me because it was like, why is she continuing to do this, its so awkward.” Strout cracks up at the memory.
She remembers early encouragement from her mother, who would always buy her notebooks as a girl. “My mother at first when I was younger and I said I really wanted to be a writer and she said, well you’ve never had any shortage of words. I think she thought maybe I would but then as time went by and I wasn’t particularly writing and I got some story published in Redbook [a US women’s magazine] and I told my parents and they were embarrassed by it.”
Her daughter Zarina, however, believed in her all along. “That dear child. She’d come home from school every day and say, did you get an agent yet Mummy? And I’d say, not yet honey. And she’d say, oh you will!”
There was also an encouraging editor at the New Yorker. “I would send him about two stories a year. I just came across one of the rejection letters and he said, this isn’t good enough for us yet but you should probably keep going because it’s better than 99.9 per cent of what comes across my desk.”
Strout’s felt her writing breakthrough came when she was more honest with herself and embraced where she came from. “I think it was really about the time I realised that I’m actually a white woman from Maine. And that’s what my voice is.
“The truth is that even though those years were very frustrating, I’m awfully glad I was not known earlier in my life as a writer because it just wouldn’t have been helpful for me. By the time my writing was reaching its stride, I was old enough to not let [the public part of it] affect me.”
She tells me that she recently found a note she made in her journal in 2009 on the day she won the Pulitzer Prize. It said, “Well, I won the Pulitzer Prize and this seems to impress people.”
It sounds like something the grumpy Olive might write.
“I mean, wasn’t I impressed myself?” Strout laughs, incredulous. “I was, I guess, but that’s how I recorded it. It was funny to come across that line and think, there we go, that’s my background.”
Olive, Again is published by Viking. She will be speaking at Trinity College Dublin on November 15th at an event organised by International Literature Festival Dublin.