“I always knew I was a writer. I don’t have a memory of myself when I didn’t think I would be a writer.”
Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009 for OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Robert Redford is planning to turn Strout’s 2013 novel, THE BURGESS BOYS, into a TV miniseries. Her latest novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, won an AudioFile Earphones Award and would win the award--if there were such an award--for touching the hearts of all who experience it.
Strout says, “I always knew I was a writer. I don’t have a memory of myself when I didn’t think I would be a writer.” Reality took hold when she left college. “I ran into trouble because nobody cared that I was a writer!” She laughs. “I couldn’t get any stories published or anything.” So, she went to law school. She thought, “I have a social conscience, and I’ll be using words, and I can write at night. That was so misinformed!” Eventually, she did go to law school, dropped out, wrote a novel, went back to law school, and earned her law degree and a certificate in gerontology. “I thought, ‘If I’m gonna be a lawyer, I should do something I want. I could help older people.’ So I did that.” She laughs again. “I was a lawyer for six months. I have to tell you, I was a terrible lawyer!”
After she moved to New York City, she taught literature and basic composition in the English department of Manhattan Community College. She taught there for 13 years. “I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED those students. They were the salt of the earth. A lot of them had been brought up through the NYC school system, and they didn’t really know that reading could be a joy. It was so exciting to get them to be excited about books.”
Strout has always been a reader. Which authors have influenced her writing? “As a kid I started with John Updike and then went on to Hemingway.” As she began to develop as a writer, she read Alice Munro and William Trevor. “And, of course, I love all the Russians. Everyone I’ve read has influenced me.”
She has listened to pieces of her own books on audio and has always been very pleased with the narrations. “The person who’s reading the book to the listener becomes my narrative voice. They [the two voices] mingle together so that ultimately it will become the same book. When it’s well done, I think the listener will hear that narrator as if it were my voice coming up off the page.” She’s delighted to hear that Kimberly Farr’s narration of Lucy won an Earphones Award.
Her 2013 novel, THE BURGESS BOYS, was based on a real incident that occurred in Lewiston, Maine: A man threw a pig’s head into a mosque. Because she was going to take on the persona of a Somali person, she knew she had to learn as much as she possibly could about the Somali culture. “It’s not as if I could walk into the Somali community with my bleached-blond hair and just say ‘Hi. What’s it like to be you?’” She did seven years of research, reading extensively about the history, geography, and culture of the country because, she says, “I knew that if I didn’t enter the Somali experience, the Somali characters would always remain ‘the other.’”
Her newest novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, opens a portal into the mother/ daughter relationship. No matter how real it feels, though, the novel is definitely not autobiographical. Her truthful, painful insights come from her intuitive nature. She’s never taken a psychology course, but she listens and observes. “I think I’ve always listened. I find people to be THE most interesting thing in the world. I just try to tell the truth, even when it’s hard.” When she started working on LUCY, she didn’t know it would be her story. “I was sort of fiddling around with it, and then Lucy kept coming back around the desk.” When she writes, she writes little sketches--tiny scenes. “I’ll write a few of them every day. I have this huge table that I work on, and I just keep spinning them around. They’re not necessarily connected at all. Eventually, one will come back around.” LUCY came back around. “I realized, ‘OK, I have to pay attention to this,’ and then I finally realized that her voice was what was getting to me, and I had to let that voice unravel.”
Unquestionably, it is a voice listeners will not soon forget.--S.J. Henschel