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Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout spent decades finessing her unique narratives, often using her own upbringing as a touchstone.

Transcript

Today, Elizabeth Strout is a literary powerhouse. The author of seven novels, six of them bestsellers, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for her bestselling collection of linked short stories, Olive Kitteridge. In 2014, it was turned into an Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries. And, in 2019, the book’s hugely popular sequel, Olive, Again, reunited readers with beloved characters. So it’s a good thing that Strout didn’t give up when she failed to get published by age 30 or even 40. Her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, came out in 1998 when she was 42. Many were surprised by her success, but not her daughter, Serena.

Elizabeth Strout: She had grown up, you know, eating her breakfast off the tops of manuscripts. She just always believed I was a writer. She’d come home from school when she was really little and she’d say, “Did you get an agent yet, Mommy?” And I’d say, “No,” and she’d say, “Oh, you will,” and she just believed in me. It was very interesting and so sweet.

Despite her relationship with her own daughter, Strout’s stories often revolve around strained parent-child relationships. Her characters face and work through discord and estrangement. They get knocked sideways by events that test or reveal their love. In 2016’s, My Name Is Lucy Barton, for example, filial ties bind but also cut.

Elizabeth Strout was raised in rural Maine by parents she has described as skeptical of pleasure, true to their Puritan roots. But encouraged by her mother, the young Strout filled notebooks with sharp-eyed observations about daily life in small-town New England. She was interested not only in outward appearances but in the hidden, inner lives of the people she encountered.

Strout: It is just about one of my earliest memories of just watching. Just watching people. We didn’t have a television, we lived in very isolated areas, both in New Hampshire and in Maine. So my sense of observing people goes back so far. And it’s not just observing them, it’s like I will look at somebody and think, oh what does it physically feel like to be in that pair of jeans? You know? So I’ve done that for so many years that it’s what my imagination does.

But putting her imagination to work for money seemed at first unimaginable. After getting an English degree from Bates College in Maine, Strout spent a few years bouncing around from waitress jobs, to temp work. She even played piano in a bar. Then she decided she wanted to be a legal aid attorney. But almost as soon as she tried it, she learned that practicing law was not for her. So she got married, had her daughter and for the next 16 years juggled fiction and family life. Teaching at a community college while continuing to quietly but doggedly write her own stories. Strout and her husband would eventually part, but still, she says their union fundamentally changed her understanding of relationships.

Strout: My parents came from Puritan stock. That’s an entirely different culture. Which of course I didn’t know because I was brought up in it. They’re not particularly demonstrative, there’s not a lot of—

AJC: Hugging and.

Strout: Hugging or kissing or anything like that. And then my first husband was Jewish. And it was amazing. It was like a whole barn door had fallen off and I realized, wow! You know there’s this whole world out there. Because they would talk about anything. And they would hug and kiss and my father-in-law would kiss my husband when he first saw him. You know, it was just an entirely different culture and it was so amazing to me. And that’s much more how my daughter has been raised.

AJC: Was it frightening to you or was it exciting to you, or both?

Strout: Both. At the beginning, it was a little frightening. Because I’d just never seen anything like it in my life. And as time went on, I realized this is a wonderful thing that’s happened to me. To be allowed to see this.

Today, Elizabeth Strout lives with her husband, James Tierney in New York City and in Maine. The quiet seclusion of her home state has always been her sanctuary. She goes there to drop in on her old friends, both real and imagined. 

AJC: Because these characters feel so real to me…

Strout: Yeah?

AJC: I’m actually very interested in how real they feel to you?

Strout: Oh they’re so real to me.

AJC: Like relatives?

Strout: Probably closer.

AJC: Really?

Strout: Yeah.

AJC: Wow. So, therefore, do you miss them when they’re written?

Strout: Yes.

AJC: Do their stories go on after you’ve written them?

Strout: Sometimes they do. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re gone.

AJC: Is that just because they—

Strout: Because I love them, I just—I’m like oh yeah, let’s you know, let’s see what they’re up to.

Strout: And when they came out, then they still had been sitting there.

AJC: Yeah, waiting. Right, right. It’s interesting.

Strout: Yeah, it is. It’s very interesting. But, you know, I don’t know ahead of, I mean, I don’t know until I do it that they’re gonna show up again. And then I realize, oh yeah. Absolutely, let’s go.

Olive Kitteridge for one, insisted on an encore. Strout’s seventh novel, Olive, Again, received rave reviews and spent weeks in the upper regions of the bestseller charts. Now 64, Elizabeth Strout is today still faithful to her Puritan roots. Keeping her head down while marching steadily on into her next chapter.