No one could accuse Elizabeth Strout of being an overnight success. Encouraged by her mother, she started writing as a child. That, she says, got her thinking about sentences. She started sending stories out when she was 16 but her first novel (Amy and Isabelle) wasn’t published until she was 43. And all that time she was writing. Reading and writing and wondering what was wrong with her sentences. If it’s not working for you, she told us, it’s probably about honesty.
Realising that people laugh at standup comedians because they say the unsayable, she signed up for a class and found herself onstage performing a routine that ‘made fun of myself for being a New England white woman. Until then I didn’t know that’s who I was.’ Until then, she had been avoiding writing about small town New England, which is, she says now, part of her DNA. Amy and Isabelle, set in Maine, was a best-seller but it took two years for her to get an agent. No one was interested until she contacted an editor at the New Yorker who had been rejecting her stories for years but ‘with increasing kindness.’ He looked at her manuscript and ‘the next day, I had invitations to lunch from five different agents.’
She made us laugh. Often. Her timing is perfect. She is droll and likeable and she draws her audience into her delivery, makes us feel part of the conversation. Which is pretty much her approach to readers too. She feels responsible to and for them, thinks about her ideal reader while writing. If she can make up characters, why not make up an ideal reader: neither male nor female, no particular age, ‘they need the book but they don’t know they need it.’
She wanted My Name is Lucy Barton to be porous, so that every reader can bring their own experience to it. ‘How do you do that?’ someone asked from the audience during the Q & A. ‘By leaving things out.’ If you write too much, she said, you come between the reader and the text.
Like Olive Kitteridge, the massive international best-seller that won the Pulitzer Prize, Strout’s latest book, Anything is Possible, is a novel in interconnected stories. It tells the stories of various characters who are connected to Lucy Barton; many of them were written while she was writing that novel. ‘These people interested me so much. For example Lucy’s mother says that Kathie Nicely came to a bad end and I thought, oh yeah? Why?’
Patty Nicely is a character in Anything is Possible. She has a story of her own and features in others. When Patty reads Lucy Barton’s memoir she experiences a profound inner shock of transformative recognition. ‘Lucy Barton had her own shame; oh boy did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it.’ More importantly, ‘Lucy Barton’s book had understood her.’ During the Q & A a woman stood up to thank Elizabeth Strout for that line. This connection between Strout and her readers is as strong as Strout’s connection to her characters, who are real to her. They come to her and show her things. ‘I don’t judge them,’ she says. ‘I just record them.’
Sinéad Gleeson was an ideal interviewer for this closing event of ILFD 2017. She knows the books well; her questions were not only well-informed but insightful. At least twice she surprised Strout with her observations. She remarked on the different forms of shame that male and female characters experience in Anything is Possible, as though shame is gendered. She asked how the characters would have voted in the most recent election. Strout said that the book was written before ‘that event’ – getting a laugh from the audience. Some of them would have voted for Trump, she said, but not Patty.
Sinéad Gleeson asked if it had been a conscious decision to include more men in these stories than in her previous work. Strout said no, there are very few conscious decisions. She asks herself what the reader needs, that part is conscious, it’s like a dance with the reader, but mostly it’s not conscious at all.
There is a line in My Name is Lucy Barton about writing: ‘If you find yourself protecting someone you’re not doing it right’. Sinéad Gleeson asked about this, if Strout ever finds herself protecting people. Strout said yes, and then she has to go back to it. ‘Write about life,’ she says. ‘If there’s someone you want to protect take that emotion they make you feel and transpose it to another character.’ (See above, about honesty)
She said her main interest is in class in America. ‘Every rural town has a family who are so poor they’re ostracised (like Lucy Barton’s family). Lucy crosses class lines; she stays behind in school; gets a scholarship, goes to college, gets out …’ Lucy goes to New York, as Strout did.
Sinéad Gleeson said that during this festival, Will Self said that most contemporary writers stay away from class.’ Strout’s answer was that ‘Amy & Isabelle is very much about class – It’s always been about class for me. I’m interested in the most ordinary people who just do their work … it’s not about education or income but the level of power they think they have in their situation. What is their internal life as opposed to their external life?’
She loves William Trevor. He is, she said, the master of the art of the glimpse. ‘He could flip a line so gently, turn it over on its back. He has gentle lines and yet he zeroes in. ‘There’s real darkness in them,’ Sinéad Gleeson said.
‘Yes, of course.’
There’s real darkness in her own work too – but always, as she says herself, moments of grace. Like Patty, realising that Lucy Barton’s book understood her, that she is not alone in her shame. Strout’s rare gift is that she can deliver darkness with a light touch, as though she knows how much it hurts.