Fiction In Conversation
New Routes in Fiction:
ELIZABETH STROUT with Alec Niedenthal
Elizabeth Strout writes fiction that adds and strips away. For every remarkable act of noticing, every tree rustle or bitter wind she gets across, her work hides the profound alienation—self divided from self, parent divided from child—that drives her characters on. In a sense, I think, that's why she's a religious writer. Not because she writes about characters with belief, but because she writes about people who seek themselves outside of themselves, restlessly reaching for some secret knowledge.
So you have Olive Kitteridge, a woman trying for gratitude and grace but they keep slipping away. You have Lucy Barton, the central figure of Strout's two most recent books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible—Lucy, who wants to, but can't exactly, reckon with her past. You also have Jim Burgess, loud star of The Burgess Boys, who’s desperate to shed his skin but can't silence his spiteful ego. These are quiet, incendiary books about the strains and anxieties of being only one person when on most days you take on ten, twenty shapes: man, woman, father, daughter, boss, worker, master, servant, Congregationalist, Somalian. They are less character studies—though they're that, too—than studies of spirits, sunken in bodies, seeking brief encounters with the truth.
I spoke to Elizabeth Strout over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I read the two most recent books in quick succession, over the holidays, and I’d just discovered your work. It’s always different reading much of what someone has written very quickly, when for you it’s trickled out over a period years.
It was striking to me how much more immediate and urgent, stylistically, those newest two books are. Even though Anything Is Possible has structural parallels to Olive Kitteridge, an earlier book. Was that a conscious decision? And why did you choose that as your frame and voice?
Elizabeth Strout: It was not a conscious decision. That’s the honest answer. It seemed to come as a result of the voice of my narrator, Lucy Barton, her first-person voice. I hadn’t written anything in the first person, except for the prologue to The Burgess Boys. I was not eager to do that. And so I kind of kept trying not to write it. And then finally her voice just became compelling to me. And then I thought, fine. Let’s go with this voice. Her voice drove me through that book. Her book has that almost elliptical quality to it. And so I was following her voice and her storytelling method.
Then, with Anything Is Possible, I was working on a number of those stories at the same time that I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton. I would write scenes about the different people he and his mother were talking about. So I think that sense of immediacy was translated into that book as well—it’s all of a piece.
Rail: You mentioned that the only time you’d written in the first person was the prologue for The Burgess Boys. That’s the last of your work that I’ve read and I remember thinking, reading those first few pages, this could’ve come out of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Strout: It’s interesting because that book was written a number of years ago. For years, I was doing research on the Somali situation and everything else that appears in that book. But that prologue formed when I was maybe two-thirds done with it, and I sort of thought that I wouldn’t use it, but I did. Because I was a little bit intrigued by the idea of a narrator saying, I will tell you this story. So I kept it. And looking back, I think it was the genesis of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Rail: In this pair of books, what pushed you to write about a region far from Maine, and characters facing desperate poverty—both of which are two new subjects for you?
Strout: I’m interested in class—I’ve always been interested in class. The poverty thing, I thought: I’m going to push this. I’m going to have this young girl grow up in desperate poverty. In every rural town I’ve been in, you see that family. You’re aware of that family. And so I thought, let’s go in there and find out what it’s like for her to be part of that section of society.
And then, rather early on when I was playing around with the voice, it came to me—I realized, this is a woman who comes from sky. There’s going to be enormous sky around her, as a child. That would be the Midwest. And I had been to the Midwest a number of times during that time period. And then I realized this story won’t take place in Maine, this will take place in a place with a huge amount of sky. My husband and I went back to the Midwest a number of times, so that I understood what I was writing about.
Rail: Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys both take place in the Northeast. What was it like stepping outside of your geographical ‘comfort zone’?
Strout: Once I felt confident about the topography of the place, it was freeing. And the people I’m writing about, these very white people, are in many ways similar to the people in Maine. As Lucy Barton’s mother says: we moved out West, because the strong people moved out West. In a way, the people are familiar. They’re Congregationalists. When my husband and I went out there, it was Thanksgiving and we went to a Congregationalist church that was having a dinner for people who couldn’t afford their own. There were similarities—I felt comfortable enough knowing who they were.
Rail: In your recent history as a writer, you haven’t had a main character who was a writer. A character who stands above everyone in that respect. What was that like?
Strout: It felt very risky. Honestly, I don’t find that writers are that interesting. I thought, that’s a negative thing. But I wrote about her staying after school and reading, and I thought, let’s look at this. Let’s make her a writer. Once I gave myself permission to do that, I thought, okay, let’s go ahead and do this. But it felt risky—it did.
Rail: After writing that, do you still maintain that writers are uninteresting?
Strout: On the page, sure.
Rail: I remember reading a review of My Name Is Lucy Barton that drew a comparison between it and recent works of “autofiction.” Stylistic similarities, and it’s a reflection on writing and trauma that’s at times memoirish in style. To me as a reader, however, it was a character study. That’s what put it apart for me.
Strout: Exactly. She just happens to be a writer. It’s about Lucy Barton and her travels from such desperate conditions to arguably being a middle-class or upper-middle-class woman in New York City, which is so far away from her beginning—and what was that like for her? That’s what I was really writing about.
Rail: In my opinion, over time, the idea of cruelty has come more and more to the fore of your work. It was there in Olive Kitteridge, in the relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s there in The Burgess Boys, in the relationship between Jim and Bob. Cruelty and generosity, and this dialectic between them. In The Burgess Boys, the larger society is usually an instrument of cruelty. And kindness is usually manifested on the individual level, if that makes sense. Am I right that you do have a past as a lawyer?
Strout: A million years ago, I was a lawyer for six months.
Rail: Where does that concern for cruelty and kindness and justice, really, come from? The political atmosphere? Does some of it stem from that same interest in the law?
Strout: Interesting question. I’m not sure what the answer is. I think all of the above, to some extent. But also, as I’ve gotten older and absorbed more life experiences, I think that sense of the contest between good and evil is—which is what Tommy Guptill is interested in in his own way—always apparent. And apparently it’s become more apparent to me. I’m not sure. That’s a good question.
Rail: Do you find that most of your concerns as a writer, most of what you’re drawn to—in a different sense, Lucy Barton’s wide sky—is that an unconscious kind of process? Or do you say, I’m interested in X for Y reasons?
Strout: Most of it is unconscious. I don’t know until I’m getting something down what it’s going to be. I never start with a theme or an idea. I start with a person, a shaft of sunlight. But it’s not until it’s done that I realize what it’s about. Toward the very end I become conscious, but it’s a tremendously unconscious, or subconscious, process for me.
But back to cruelty, I think in the last two books, the cruelty is both societal but also personal in nature. There are personal aspects to it as well that counterbalance the kindness. There’s the social too—what wars have done to men. But there’s a personal, individual-to-individual level to the cruelty as well, in these most recent books.
Rail: A follow-up question. When you’re dealing with those situations, especially in those two books it’s so pronounced, especially in the character of Lucy’s father. Who is a deeply disquieting character. I think he’s the distilled essence of the kind of masculinity—what trauma can do to the male ego—that you’re interested in. For example, so much of My Name Is Lucy Barton read so smoothly. And then once I got to this scene in which Lucy Barton’s brother is stumbling down the sidewalk in boots. That scene is horrifying. It wouldn’t work so well if everything around it were equally horrifying.
How do you handle balancing moments like that? That wouldn’t have had such an effect if you hadn’t thought, first, that Lucy’s father wasn’t such a bad guy after all. And then suddenly you see this.
Strout: And yet at the end of that scene, the father is holding his son. They’re weeping together. That was very important to me. It was clear this father had been asked to do things he was not capable of doing in the war. It broke him. Some men come back and are not broken, but this man was broken by his experiences in the war.
I’m never interested in writing good or bad, no. I’m interested in all the complications that make up a psychology, and so for him, he was capable of these cruelties and yet felt such terrible remorse. That humanizes him, I think. It makes it more interesting for the reader.
Rail: That he’s both capable of doing the one thing and the other thing.
Often, reading your work, and the work of other writers who are dealing with moral questions in a non-moralizing way, I find that it’s not so much about good or bad, but just getting the psychology and the setting and the character right. Once you do that, there’s no bad or good to contend with.
Strout: Bad and good, that’s melodrama. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the incredible messiness of what it means to be human.
Rail: I hope this doesn’t sound obtuse, but The Burgess Boys is on my mind because it seems like such a prescient book. Especially—so many things—the Me Too movement, resurgent nationalism, and Jim Burgess feels like a liberal Donald Trump. This total showman with his screwy ego, and it’s interesting because that and Anything Is Possible both orbit around one character. In a sense The Burgess Boys orbits around Jim in that Jim’s experience, his perspective, is never given directly. That was something I found compelling in that book. I wanted to know what was happening in his head, but I also knew the book couldn’t handle that, structurally.
Strout: I knew that writing it. I knew we wouldn’t be able to enter his head. We just witness him.
Rail: How did you realize that?
Strout: It’s unconscious. It’s sensing something. You say, that’s going to stay that way. I don’t know where I make these decisions, but they arrive, and only in hindsight can I look back and rationalize it. But we do get into Bob’s head a lot—his brother’s head—and to get inside Jim’s head would be so jarring to the reader, that I thought we need to observe Jim from Bob’s point of view, and from everyone else’s, but we won’t go inside his head. I don’t know how I made that decision. But I remember realizing early on that Jim will simply act and react, not think on the page.
Rail: That’s fascinating. It’s almost like watching him on TV or something. It’s an interesting effect. That has the added benefit of preserving dramatic tension.
Strout: Because if you knew what was happening with him, it wouldn’t be as interesting.
Rail: How did you plot that book? It’s so richly plotted.
Strout: It took on many, many drafts. I had so much excessive stuff that got cut. We kept veering off. I had Bob arrested, going here and there… I thought, we have to make this straightforward now. After six years of working on it, I thought okay, let’s start at the beginning and see how we can get to the end here.
Rail: A linear plot. No tricks.
Strout: Right, and at that point, after living with this book in so many iterations, it was like taking a thread and saying, let’s pull this, tightly, together.
Rail: Another thing in that book that was so interesting—something I hadn’t been able to put into words in fiction writing beforehand—in a book like that, there’s a scale of empathy, almost. In terms of which characters are capable of more empathy and which ones are capable of less empathy. When you look at Bob Burgess, who’s very empathic, kind of a mess, but can empathize. And then you see Jim Burgess’s wife, Helen, who’s someone you sympathize with, but at the same time so much of her experience is her, is Helen.
Is that something you’re aware of when you’re creating these characters? Or do your characters emerge naturally?
Strout: They emerge naturally. With Helen, I wanted to give her a fair shot. She is Helen, she’s limited in many ways. And she doesn’t know that. Because she’s Helen, you know? But I wanted to give her a fair shot. Let’s make sure we’re being as open-hearted to Helen as we can be, given she’s Helen. That’s who she is. I wanted to make sure we can see her with some open-heartedness, to the extent she was available for that.
Rail: Do you try—does every one of your characters get that treatment?
Strout: I hope. Even Jim, I was aware of the pain he was in, that made him behave the way he behaved. It came from such pain and guilt. I was aware of that. Hopefully some of that will leak to the reader. But yes, I hope to give all my characters the fairest possible representation. No matter what they do, how badly they behave.
Rail: It wouldn’t be interesting to you otherwise.
Strout: It wouldn’t. One of the pleasures of writing is the suspension of judgment. In real life, we judge people all the time, even if we don’t want to. But when I go to the page, I’m not judging my characters. That’s a joy for me in writing.
Rail: I keep harping on this idea of the stylistic difference between the last two books and the other books. There’s so much rich language in The Burgess Boys and Olive Kitteridge. There’s some of that in the last two books, but really, there are other stylistic things going on. That’s not what they’re about. Did you miss that as a writer?
Strout: It wasn’t until it was over that I realized how different they were. With Lucy I knew, but it wasn’t until they were both finished, in particular Anything Is Possible, that I realized I had used a very sharp, clean knife. Sharper and cleaner than previously.
It could be that I’d reached a point where that was something I developed into, as a writer, but more likely it was what the story demanded. The form of the story is the story. The story demanded that clean sweep.
Rail: It gets across this urgency to connect, the desperation of a lot of these people
Strout: Yes, exactly.
Rail: Among other things. That’s so interesting. There’s so much imagery in Olive Kitteridge that gets stuck in your head. In Anything Is Possible, it’s more specific feelings that characters have.
Strout: Yeah. I’m vaguely aware of that.
Rail: Is there a constant joy across these works? Whether it’s the richer, more belabored mode of Olive Kitteridge, or Lucy Barton? What do you come to the page for?
Strout: The messiness of being human, the variety of ways it plays out. If I have a character that arrives—I’m never sure how they arrive—then my job is to go in there and find out what’s going on.
Rail: Is there a kind of person who doesn’t interest you?
Strout: At this point, by the time I sit down to write something, if that person’s been in my head enough, I’ve already decided on him or her as a character. But there are people who, if I can’t find them, if I can’t describe them deeply enough, they get thrown away. I’m not sure why some people are not accessible to me and some are.
Rail: I’ve been thinking about this experience of looking at the page and seeing something that’s working, or not, and not knowing why this. This profound ignorance. A paragraph you spend days on—why this paragraph? How do you know when something is working for you?
Strout: It took me so many years of apprenticeship to figure that out. To understand when I was doing it the way it needed to be done. It took me years. At this point, I hope I recognize more quickly that something is working and something is not. It’s like, when I was a kid I would wander through the library and pull books down from the shelf, and I can remember feeling there were certain books where the printed text seems to rise off the page. You entered it. It came up to me. That’s a little bit of what the feeling is when I know it’s working. This is coming up to meet me. It’s a sensory thing.
Rail: I talked to the great writer Tessa Hadley several months ago, who said a very similar thing. We were talking about how you know what’s right and what’s not. She said, among other things, the paragraphs just look right.
Strout: Something about the words that gently rises off the page. That sense that they don’t stay down there flat.
Rail: And how to turn that from a readerly sensibility into a writerly sensibility. That’s the apprenticeship part. How did you find your material?
Strout: I kept trying and trying for years. All through my twenties I wrote constantly. I dropped out of law school, wrote a bad novel, worked in a department store selling mattresses—oh my God, all the terrible jobs I’ve had. It took me ten years of writing and reading, reading the good writers.
I’d been living in New York for quite a while—I started writing [my first book] Amy and Isabelle as a short story. I didn’t believe I was capable of a novel. Nobody wanted that story, thank God. Then I think my training began to kick in a little bit. And I realized, on some low level, there had been a nostalgia at work the whole time I’d been living in New York. I was able to return to that—I know these people, I know the setting. I was able to write Amy and Isabelle, and I remember thinking as I wrote it, finally, I’m writing the way I want to be writing.
Rail: And you knew that on the first draft of that book?
Strout: Oh my goodness, no. There were so many drafts of Amy and Isabelle. Toward the end of that book I realized, now I’m doing it. It was sort of feeling myself being able to get my scalpel into that part of the mind, which I hadn’t been able to do before. Now I was in there, really in there.
Rail: So what were you missing those years?
Strout: I was trying to learn my voice. This was back in the minimalist days. Everyone was writing those. I was very influenced by that—I kept trying to do that, but I wasn’t a minimalist. I had to work through and realize that wasn’t my voice. My voice was more of a relaxed, storytelling voice that’s going to go into all sorts of details about this and that. There was an effort to work through what I should’ve been doing.
Rail: As a reader, your work is definitely tinged by the minimalism of that time.
Strout: Specifically the latest ones, yeah.
Rail: But I learned from reading you how to write sentences that are tightly constructed but look loose. In a way that approximates speech. And I realized as a writing reader that’s a carefully constructed effect. But it can come off as offhand or casual, which makes it much more powerful when you nail something just so. It does seem to me there’s an inheritance of minimalism there.
Strout: I had to find my voice. In order to do so I had to imitate other voices. That storytelling voice is my voice. It changes, but it’s mine.
Rail: Does everyone who tries to write books need to go through that tutelage period? Of parroting other voices?
Strout: I don’t know. There are young people that come out and have a splendid voice immediately. For me, I had to teach myself how to write.
Rail: Much of it comes to readerly sensibility as well. And sometimes you can’t do that. Sometimes that’s not where your talents lie. So you write imitation books, imitation stories. Do you have a place and time that you write every day?
Strout: I love to write in the morning, after I’ve had breakfast. That would be the perfect day for me, if I could write for three or four hours in the morning and put lunch off until I get so hungry I have to eat. There’s something about lunch that breaks the spell. But that’s my ideal day, to write in the morning and maybe poke around a little in the afternoon.
Rail: But the imagination kind of dies after anything resembling lunch.
Strout: It’s so funny. It takes something away from the concentration.
Rail: You lose that agility.
There’s this beautiful Updike quote where he talks about how you only have the kind of fortitude to face the darkness and depth of what you feel at night—alone, before God—in the morning. I think it’s really true.
Strout: Do you know which book that’s from? I love Updike.
Rail: Self-Consciousness. I haven’t read that one, but it’s from this interview Terry Gross did with him.
Strout: I’ll have to look at that.