A Conversation with Elizabeth Strout

by Samantha Vorwald

 

Elizabeth Strout is no stranger to literary honors. Her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, was shortlisted for the 2000 Orange Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2009, her collection of connected stories, Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her sixth novel, Anything is Possible, was published this year to much acclaim. She recently visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series and read from her 2016 bestseller, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The next day, she sat down with Booth to talk about crafting characters, facing rejection, and drawing material from daily life.

Samantha Vorwald: In Olive Kitteridge and your novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, your characters seem so real, and the pieces almost read as nonfiction. I had to remind myself that they are indeed fiction. Is there any relationship between the characters and people in your real life?

Elizabeth Strout: Not really. There’s a part of me in every character I write, whether it’s male or female, because everything has to go through me. Everything I’ve observed or heard or whatever—it all has to go through me. I’m the one who makes these people up, and so there’s a part of me in some form in all of these people, but I really have made them up. But they’re so real to me, you know? By the time I’m done with them on the page, they’re very, very real to me. They’re just as real to me as anybody that I’ve ever met. So that’s hopefully what you’re feeling.

SV: In My Name Is Lucy Barton, she says that she can’t write about her own marriage, and she says that it isn’t a book about her marriage or why it failed. But she seems honest and upfront about other sensitive topics. Is this because you didn’t want the book to become about marriage, or is it because you feel that more closely matches Lucy’s character, to not want to write about her own marriage?

ES: Well, both. It’s all one and the same, actually, because this is about Lucy and about her crossing class lines. It’s about what that feels like, and it’s a lot about what her childhood did to her. So as I started to put it all together, I realized if the marriage is going to be there, it will take over in a certain way. And I just didn’t want that to happen. I thought, “Okay, then let’s just have Lucy state it straight out to the reader.” Her voice is honest, and there’s a purity, I think, to the voice. And so I thought, “Let’s just say straight to the reader this isn’t going to be the story of my marriage,” and so that kind of solved it for me. And then I could stick in the few details that I wanted to about the marriage, but I realized that would be a different story or would make her story lopsided in a way. Marriage is a huge deal. And, you know, she’d been married for a while, and I just thought, “All right, then let’s just not do that. Let’s just say we’re not going to talk about it,” which is Lucy’s voice.

SV: Lucy’s friend Jeremy tells her to be “ruthless” as a writer. Have you at times been ruthless as a writer, and would you advise this for other writers, as well?

ES: You know, it’s interesting, that word. I had Jeremy use it, and it sounded right to me. It sounded like something that Jeremy, with his different funny little complexities, would say. But it’s not a word I would use. And yet now that I’ve written it, I think that one does have to be ruthless, I guess. I guess what I would say is, if you’re going to be a writer, if you really want to be a writer, then you need to arrange your life around that. And that may appear ruthless to other people or it may not. I think, especially if you’re a man, it doesn’t really appear ruthless. You’re just doing your thing. This isn’t really about gender except that I said that, but I think that if you really want to do this, then you’ve got to do what it takes to do it.

SV: How do you think that might appear for other writers, or is it different for everybody?

ES: Well, I think it’s got to be different for everybody because there are particular circumstances. And now I’m going to go back to the gender thing, actually, because I think it’s more difficult for women to say, “All right, this is what I’m going to do. This is what I need. I need six hours a day by myself, and I might need twenty years of nothing ever getting published.” And who’s going to want to put up with that? But if you need to do that, you need to do that. Whereas I think it’s easier for a man to say, “This is what I’m going to do. Bye.”

SV: Why do you say it’s easier for a man to do it?

ES: I think that historically it’s been easier for a man to go into another room and close the door and say, “Okay, I’m not coming out for six hours.” I think it’s just easier for the man to have done that, in the past. It’s changing, obviously, thank goodness. But yes, I think everybody has to find their own form of ruthlessness. But you’ve got to do it. That’s my point. If you want to do it, you’ve got to do it.

SV: Your books and stories are not exactly dramatic in the sense of explosions and everything, but there is a powerful synergy that compels the reader forward. Can you articulate how this synergy would develop in a story?

ES: I really believe in the sentence. Every sentence has to have some heartbeat of life to it. Every sentence that gets put down has to come from the sentence before it and lead into the sentence that’s coming after. There has to be a “wholeness” at work, and there has to be a heartbeat in every sentence, if that makes sense. And it’s not easy to learn to do. I trained myself over the years to get rid of any sentence that’s dead weight. And so I think maybe that’s what you’re talking about, hopefully. That would be the business that carries it forward.

SV: The driving force.

ES: Yeah, because when I write, it’s very aural. My ear is very, very important to me. So the sentence has to land on the ear the right way, and then if that is landing on the reader’s ear the right way, they will be carried forward. But it’s something I’ve learned to hear and learned to do and to get rid of every twig—what I call twigs—every dead piece of wood. Just get it out of there.

SV: I was at your reading last night. When you’re reading your words in front of an audience, does it still hit you the same way on your own ears as it did when you were writing it?

ES: If I’m lucky. If I’m lucky, yes. I don’t read out loud that often. You know, I will read it to myself out loud at times. I used to read out loud to myself a lot, but then I began to understand that I could cheat myself and make it sound like it was good and it wasn’t. So I’ve cut back on reading aloud. Now I’m making sure my ears are actually hearing it in my head.

SV: Did you ever consider being something other than a writer? I know you were an attorney for six months.

ES: Yes, horrible, horrible. Awful . . . You know, I really never did. I had an awful long period of time before my work was accepted into the world. And there was one period of time back then when I’d probably been writing for about fifteen years with very little—a few stories here and there—but very little acknowledgment. And I did think to myself, “I have to stop. It’s just not making sense.” So I decided to go to nursing school. I was teaching at Manhattan Community College at the time, and there was a nursing program, so I went down to the nursing program and said I would like to apply. And they said, “Okay, well, here’s the application.” And the application was so confusing that I just thought, “Oh, forget it. I’m just going to stick to being a writer.” That’s the truth. I just couldn’t even figure out the application, and I just didn’t even really want to do it. But I just felt, “This isn’t working,” and then by the end of that day I thought, “No, too bad, I’m just going to try this story one more time—try it a different way.” And then there was one other time when I thought I would have to give it up, but I didn’t think “Oh, I’ll be a nurse” or anything. It lasted about twenty-four hours, and then I thought, “Well, let me try this story this way.” So I’m always, always going back and trying it one more time. But it was a long, discouraging time.

SV: What is it that you enjoy about writing fiction?

ES: You know, here’s my favorite thing about writing fiction. When I write—when I go to the page—I suspend judgment on my characters. And in real life, I’m sure I’m probably as judgmental as most people in real life. I try not to be, but, you know, it’s how we manage to make our way through life. We just make our judgments. But when I go to the page, I am so free of judgment of my characters, and that’s so fun. It’s so liberating because I don’t care how badly behaved they are—as long as they’re truthfully bad behaved, I don’t care. So I just love them, and they can do whatever they need to do, and I’m free from judgment. That’s my favorite part.

SV: What writers do you find yourself returning to for either joy or inspiration?

ES: Always the Russians. I’ve always loved the Russians. I love Tolstoy. I love him. And I love his short stories. I love War and Peace, I love Anna Karenina, and I love Tolstoy. And so I do go back to him every so often. And Chekhov, I love Chekhov. I mean, I just love the Russians, so they’re always there for me. And I love John Cheever, I love Updike, I love Philip Roth, I love Alice Munro, William Trevor. Those are sort of my standbys. Virginia Woolf.

SV: In your writing process, what do you struggle with the most, and how do you get past or work around that?

ES: What I struggle with the most—it tends to happen about halfway through making a book, because I don’t write from beginning to end. I don’t worry about plot because I’m just always writing these different scenes, and they’ll eventually connect in some way. However, before they’re actually connecting or before that has solidified enough, there’s a stretch of time where I feel like a washing machine where all the soap is coming out the doors. I feel like, “Oh, oh, oh dear, oh dear.” I just feel like I’m out of control of it, that I’ll never be able to pull it together in a structure that’s needed. And that can last for months, and that’s a difficult period because it makes me feel crazy with anxiety. I want to get it into a place where I can work, and so there’s always that period sort of midway through. Then I do eventually get it sorted out, even though every single time it feels like I won’t. It’s interesting. Every time, at that particular phase of it, I think, “Ugh, this isn’t going to happen.” But then it does. But that’s the most uncomfortable part.

SV: As you mentioned earlier, you took a lot of rejection at the beginning of your writing career. I’m wondering what was going through your head. What would you say to writers who are facing the same rejection struggles?

ES: Well, I’m the poster child for rejections. I was forty-three when my first book was published. I remember hearing Raymond Carver say that he kept writing long past the time when it made sense to stop. And I did the math, and I realized, “Okay, I’ve gone a lot longer than you.” So I really did go a long time without much acknowledgment. But what kept me going was that I just wanted to do it. And also what kept me going was I understood intuitively that my work wasn’t yet good enough. I always understood that. So there were people who were saying, “Well, you should go have lunch with that guy at the New Yorker that’s nice to you.” And I was like, “Why would I want to have lunch with him? My work isn’t good enough.” What’s the point of talking somebody into publishing a story? I didn’t want that. I wanted my work to be good! And I understood that it wasn’t quite good enough, but I also understood that it was getting better. So that was helpful to me. And then there was an editor at the New Yorker for fifteen years who kept rejecting my stories, but his rejection letters kept getting longer and longer, and he was helpful to me. But mostly I was just always trying. I just kept trying. I understood it wasn’t good enough, I understood that it was within reach, and I just had to keep going. And I was surprised that it was taking me so long. I just thought, “Ugh, boy, I had no idea you’d be this slow.” But I did eventually figure out how to get those sentences down in the right way. I figured out how to make a muscular sentence that could carry all the stuff it needed to carry.

SV: So you think it’s down to just the power of the sentence alone?

ES: I do. I mean, not that anything is separate, because it’s always the whole, but you can’t have a piece of writing, I think—and people disagree with this—but I do not think you can have a piece of writing that’s worth anything without every sentence being good. Every sentence.

SV: Last night at your reading, you said that writers should write about the things that aren’t normally written about or spoken about. And later you explained that some of the names came directly from your own family members, that you would combine them with a separate family name, like your Aunt Olive and then the Kitteridge family name. I was wondering, what would you say to writers who have a difficult character they want to write, one who is based on somebody they know?

ES: You know, I think go ahead and do it. Just go ahead and do it. Because, first of all, when you think you’re writing about somebody, the moment you begin to write, it’s not that person. You may think that you’re using this person, but on the page they become different automatically. It’s so interesting. So you’re not actually writing about that person, but if that person has something to say in your life that’s helpful for you, do it. Write it.

I think it’s a very, very good question, because I think it’s what keeps young writers from daring to write. They feel like they could lose the relationship if they wrote honestly. Joan Didion said writers are always selling somebody out. I’m not sure I would put it that way, but I really think that, as I said before, if you’re using somebody, they’re going to be different immediately on the page even if they feel that they’ve been used. They’re not. They’re just different.

But the other thing—the most important thing I think a young writer needs to know—is that it’s yourself you’re going to be revealing. So you may worry that you’re going to base it on somebody else, but it’s always yourself that you’re really revealing, and that’s very hard to take. You know, I remember somebody saying, “Being a writer is like standing in the middle of the turnpike without your underpants on.” Oh, god! And I always remembered that because there’s some truth to it. But you know what? If you can get over that, then you can write anything. Like my mother once said, “So how can you write about life if you’re not going to write about life?” And it was so great because, yeah, use everything that comes your way. Just use it. And understand that people may not like it, and that’s okay. But you’ve got to do it. And the person will change anyway. But that’s what I would say. Go for it, go for it, go for it. Now that sounds ruthless.

Samantha Vorwald is currently a fiction student in the MFA program at Butler University. Before coming to Butler, she graduated from Upper Iowa University in May 2016 with degrees in communication studies and English. She hopes to work for a literary magazine one day.