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Book Critics Finalist Elizabeth Strout Relies on Her Unconscious

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Olive Kitteridge cover
Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
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An exclusive Authorlink interview

with Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge

by Ellen Birkett Morris

March 2009

 

Great writing consists of artful prose that reveals keen insights into human nature. Cultivating both the writing and the observation of human behavior is the job of the writer. Author Elizabeth Strout, whose novel in short stories OLIVE KITTERIDGE is now out in paperback, has mastered both.

This may be due to her mother’s encouragement. Her mother bought young Elizabeth notebooks and suggested that she describe the people she came across.

“When we bought new sneakers my mother would tell me to write down what the salesman was like,” said Strout.

Strout’s main character, Olive Kitteridge, is vividly drawn and runs through the stories of the inhabitants of a small town in Maine as they deal with love, loss, grief and change. Sometimes Olive is at the center of the story and sometimes at the periphery, but each time she appears we learn more about her unique brand of honesty and her approach to life.

 

Olive seems distant and stern at the start of the book, but by the end of the book the reader feels as if she is lying beside Olive and looking out the window with her as she grieves.

“Olive is such a force on the page I didn’t know if people could stomach her for a whole book,” joked Strout. She settled on a more episodic approach.

“I don’t write from beginning to end. I write scene by scene. . .”
—STROUT

“I don’t write from beginning to end. I write scene by scene,” explained Strout. The first stories in the book came to her as she was working on her second novel ABIDE WITH ME.

She worked and reworked a story involving Olive being taken hostage. “The hostage story was a huge challenge for me. I have always been interested on the Stockholm Syndrome (where hostages come to identify with their captors) and wanted to portray it. I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story and it took me a number of years to decide to tell it from the memory of a traumatized person, through splotches of memory,” said Strout.

Although she always wanted to be a writer Strout took a somewhat circuitous route to get there getting a Bachelor’s in English, exploring her love of the theater, earning a law degree and practicing law briefly.

She kept writing and began placing short stories in literary magazines in the mid- 1980s. Her future editor at Random House, Daniel Menaker, was reading her submissions to the New Yorker and writing encouraging rejection letters. Later, they would work together on her three novels, including the prize winning AMY AND ISABELLE.

Strout grew up when the short story, the works of people like Beattie and Carver, was all the rage. She said that after six or seven years of writing short stories she began to have trouble finishing them.

“My sentences began to change. One short story got longer and longer. I wasn’t looking to write a novel but the prospect of it was both freeing and frightening at the same time,” said Strout.

Her novels led her back to the novel in short stories, which allowed her to combine the intense focus of the short story form and a story arc that spanned much of Olive’s lifetime.

"The stories were written at different times and rewritten many times."
—STROUT

 

 

 

As for the challenge of structuring the narrative, Strout said she was aided by her unconscious. “The stories were written at different times and rewritten many times. I wanted to figure out the order before handing them in. It turns out that all summer I had put them in a pile in the exact order that I wanted to use them in,” observed Strout.

For her, each story begins “with some abiding image.” The story “Starving” came to her after seeing a young girl sitting on her boyfriend’s lap saying “Stop smelling me. I know you are smelling me.” A year later she showed up as Nina, an anorexic young woman in the chapter “Starving.”

Strout writes by hand and tries to keep to a schedule of three hours or three pages of writing per day. She admitted to a tendency to overwork and to get lost in her stories, especially if when she goes on a writing retreat, like the summer she spent in Provincetown, MA working on OLIVE KITTERIDGE.

"Hold on. Stay cool. Get your work so good that people will have to notice it. . ."
—STROUT

 

 

 

Strout teaches at the low residency MFA program at Queens College in Charlotte, NC. She advises new writers to “read and copy things they read (as painters do) and to live a little so you can draw on your every memory.”

She noted that many students see MFA programs as a road to publication and that they would do better to focus on the quality of their writing first.

“Hold on. Stay cool. Get your work so good that people will have to notice it,” said Strout.

As far as breaking into the business, Strout worked old contacts sending the manuscript of her first novel AMY AND ISABELLE to Random House Editor Daniel Menaker, who had rejected her short stories at the New Yorker but encouraged her to keep writing. She couldn’t get agents interested in the story, but Menaker snapped it up and helped Strout connect with an agent at ICM. When her agent at ICM left Strout sought and gained representation from Molly Friedrich of The Friedrich Agency.

She urges first time novelists to remain tenacious.

“It is a self-solving problem. You’ll keep writing if you can’t bear not too. If you don’t give it up you will get better and better.”

Strout is currently at work on her fourth novel.

About Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist, Abide with Me, a national bestseller and Book Sense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is on the faculty of the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and lives in New York City.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.