About The Author
Elizabeth Strout is the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, as well as The Burgess Boys, Abide with Me and Amy and Isabelle. She has won numerous awards and been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize. She lives in New York City and Portland, Maine.
In her new book, My Name is Lucy Barton Lucy is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn't spoken for many years, comes to see her. Her unexpected visit forces Lucy to confront the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of her life: her impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, her escape to New York and her desire to become a writer, her faltering marriage, her love for her two daughters.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Elizabeth Strout about skirting around the big issues, her writing process and resisting the temptation to judge her characters.
Author photo © Dario Lasagni courtesy of castello in movimento - castello di fosidnovo
Questions & Answers
Lucy describes how one small thing a person says or does can lead to a total re-evaluation of them: ‘the soul deflates and says: Oh’. Can you identify with her sense of the telling detail? Can you share an instance of it from your own experience?
When I wrote about Lucy – “the soul deflates and says: Oh” – it came to me naturally at the time. This is how I saw her experiencing that moment, and it felt true to me. I can identify with it – in the sense that it feels true -- but I can’t say for sure when in my own life this has happened to me.
Lucy is inspired to write by another author she admires as a person as much as for her writing. Were you similarly inspired when you started out?
You know, I started being a writer at such a young age, probably around four when my mother gave me notebooks and said, “Write down what you saw today,” that I probably missed the sense of inspiration Lucy gets from Sarah Payne. I share her sense of quiet awe though, as there have been many writers I have met over the years that I have been in awe of quietly.
How do you feel about Lucy’s feeling that we all ‘only have one story’. Do you feel a pull to refute this in your own writing?
Again, when Sarah Payne says to Lucy, We all have only one story, it seemed to me to be part of what I was writing about with Lucy and her story. It had the ring of truth to it, for this book, is what I mean. I think I have many stories to tell, although to some extent there are similarities: I write about families.
Lucy and her mother skirt round the ‘big’ subjects but still manage to achieve a kind of mutual peace. Do you think there is a lesson to be learned from that approach?
Lucy and her mother do indeed skirt around the “big” subjects of their past, and I think it is not altogether a bad thing. It worked for them in that situation. They were able to enjoy each other quite a bit, considering the pain of the past that united them.
Social media has gone a long way towards encouraging the glib and superficial kind of bumper sticker philosophy that Lucy bemoans. How do you think we manage to convey sincerity in these days of public sentiment overload?
This is an excellent question: how do we manage to convey sincerity in these days of public sentiment overload? I think we manage by writing as truthfully and completely as we can. And this truthfulness will be heard in the tone of the work, the sound of the sentences that convey it. I think that is the best that we can do, really.
You’ve written before about the mother-daughter relationship. Is this a theme you consciously set out to explore?
I have written about mother-daughter relationships before, although they are different mothers and different daughters. I always write what feels most urgent to me at the time, so it’s not like I consciously set out to write about any one thing. I have also written about father/daughter relationships. And siblings. As I said, I do tend to write about families.
How did you feel about the movie version of Amy and Isabelle and the tv mini-series of Olive Kitteridge?
I thought they did a fantastic job with Olive Kitteridge, I was very pleased with it. And I liked Amy and Isabelle, though it was on network television and broken up with commercials, which I had (stupidly) not thought about.
Your writing has a beautiful economy to it. How much do you find yourself paring away at longer texts during the editing process?
I re-write constantly, so I am always paring away. Always. I want only the essence to be there in the end, and this takes practice. It’s almost embarrassing to say how much I re-write my sentences, always looking for the right sound.
Your book shows the impossibility of ever fully knowing another person and therefore of not being able to judge them. Do you find yourself having to resist the temptation to judge any of the characters you create?
Another great question: do I find myself resisting the temptation to judge my characters? You know, I think I pretty much let them be who they are, but I remember writing Olive Kitteridge and worrying that I might be too careful, that I might not want her doing some of the things she does. And then I very consciously said to myself: Let her go, let her be Olive. That was a moment I always remember.
Can you say anything about your next project?
I would love to talk about my next project, but I can’t. It takes the energy away from it to speak of it, so I have to hold my tongue.