“She said, ‘I’m about to have a baby for the first time. I’ve read your books and I realise there are so many ways a mother can go wrong, and now I’m terrified’.”
Telling me this, Elizabeth laughs, and her cheeks dimple. “I said, ‘Please don’t worry, you’ll be fine!’ but I felt terrible!”
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning, Olive Kitteridge, Olive’s problematic relationship with her son Christopher is key: in last year’s Man Booker-longlisted My Name is Lucy Barton, Lucy struggles to understand her mother’s coldness, which verges on cruelty.
Most of Strout’s characters are flawed, yet it’s easy to empathise with them, and that’s because the author understands them so well.
“I don’t have any judgement for my characters, none at all. I know them well, so I’m kind to them. I let them be who they are. I am just there to report.”
The bulk of My Name is Lucy Barton was set in a hospital. A young mother, Lucy spends months there with complications after appendicitis, and her mother visits, sitting beside her bed for several days and nights, while the two reminisce, and discuss their neighbours from Maine.
“While I was writing the novel, and hearing their conversations about all these different people, I got interested in them. When the mother says, ‘Oh, Kathie Nicely, she came to a bad end,’ I was thinking, what happened to her? I would move to a different part of the big messy table that I work at and scratch out some scenes about Kathie Nicely, and then her daughters, the Pretty Nicely Girls.”
In the stories, published less than 18 months after the novel, we learn that Kathie Nicely left her marriage after a messy affair, thus alienating her daughters. And in Mississippi Mary, the protagonist waits until her five girls have left home, before marrying a much younger Italian. Her favourite daughter can’t forgive her, because she loves her too much. That one resonates with the author.
“I have just one daughter and I love her so much. It is staggering how much I love that child, and I worry about that — maybe I have loved her too much. Then I think, well can you love somebody too much?”
Zarina is a playwright. And that’s no surprise to Elizabeth.
“I always remember when she was knee-high to a grasshopper we were in the stationery store, and she had opened a notebook and she was sniffing at it. I realised, oh, bless her soul, she has the gene.”
Elizabeth is pretty fond of notebooks too. Her mother, who taught medieval English at University, gave her some when she was a child, telling her to write down what she had done each day.
“It was such a gift! She is the reason I am a writer. She was a fabulous storyteller. She would observe people and she made life magical. She’d look at someone walking down the street and say, ‘Look at that hem — it hasn’t been cared for in a while. She must be depressed.’ Or she’d notice someone in a hotel lounge and say, ‘second wife’.
“As a kid, that fascinated me.”
She has clearly inherited the trait. When I tell her I envy her for her insight, she says it feels natural to her.
“I’ve always felt, from a young age, that I could sense something about people that others didn’t sense. I’ve always had intuition.”
At 61, Elizabeth clearly relishes her success, and seems utterly at ease. She’s a wonderful companion, and laughter bubbles up throughout our conversation. But it was a long road to publication.
She started writing at four. She knew she was a writer, even back then. She left Maine for New York; married; went to law school; but wrote all the time. Occasionally a story appeared in an obscure literary journal, but she began to despair. There were two moments when she felt she simply could not go on. The first time lasted only an hour; then a new short story idea entered her head, but the second was more serious.
“When I wrote Amy and Isabelle, I couldn’t get an agent for two years. That book was just sitting there and it was so depressing. I thought, I’m going to have to think of doing something else, and I decided to apply to be a nursing student. I went to the department at this College in New York, and they said, ‘here are the application forms.’ They were so complicated, I thought, ‘forget this! I’ll just go back to being a writer’.
“It sold, eventually, to this man at the New Yorker who had been rejecting my stories for 15 years, but with nicer and nicer letters. I heard he had left the New Yorker and was at Random House. I contacted him. He read Amy and Isabelle and he loved it. He said he’d like to publish it, and ‘we need to get you an agent’. The next day five agents wanted to have lunch with me.
“It was published when I was 43. But in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t have success when I was younger. It might have affected me.”
I’m a huge fan of Strout’s work, both for the characterisation and restrained writing. I particularly loved the stories, and the way the link between them is, at times, so subtle. But I was a little wary before meeting her. In one of the stories, a character admits she’d like to say ‘Fuck you’ to some reporter who wants to know about her personal life. Does this mirror her view?
She laughs, and shakes her head.
“Publicity does feel weird because I spend so much time alone — well, not alone, because I am with these people, but they are made up. But I am always happy to meet readers because I have a reader in mind when I write. It’s ‘what does the reader need now?’ It’s like a dance.”
She’s here for a literary festival. And I can’t resist asking her about the event in New York, eight years ago, when a man stood, asked a question and said he was also from Maine. At the book signing, he introduced himself; they chatted and he left.
“It was so ridiculous. I watched him go out the door, and I thought, ‘that should have been my life’.”
As it turned out, it was. Jim Tierney had slipped her his email address; they wrote; met twice; he moved in, they married, and remain happily together.
“It’s amazing that these things can happen,” she says.
Elizabeth is pretty sure she would never have been a writer if she hadn’t left Maine. Yet it wasn’t until she started writing about her home state that the publishing deals followed.
“This sense of getting away is something I’ve gotten conscious of as I’ve got older. I’ve returned to Maine. We live in New York, but have this place there.”
Is she greeted as a returning hero?
“Nobody mentions my career. They’ll say, ‘hello’ and I’ll say, ‘Hi.’ Somebody might tell me, ‘oh, that last book was so depressing,’ and that will be it. The culture in Maine is based on never putting yourself forward. You’re not to draw attention to yourself in any way. So if you leave, and have done something successful, you are putting on airs.”
Published in The Irish Examiner, 24th June, 2017.
© Sue Leonard. 2017.