Monday August 10, 2020

The strong stuff

Novelist Elizabeth Strout is a straight-talking, charismatic figure - just like her beloved fictional creation, Olive Kitteridge. With her latest novel, Olive, Again, she returns to familiar ground. Nadine O'Regan meets her

Nadine O’Regan

Arts Editor and Columnist

24th November, 2019

Elizabeth Strout wasn't looking to meet her second husband when she met the man who would become her second husband.

He was in the crowd at a book signing in New York. "The first in line," Strout recalls, with a smile in her voice. They spoke for a bit and, as he left, she looked at his retreating back, and thought about the fact that in another life, they might be together. "That should have been my life," she said to herself. What she didn't know was that he had secretly slipped her his email address. They wrote to each other; met twice, moved in together and got married.

When I meet with Strout, the bestselling author of Olive Kitteridge, her husband Jim Tierney is by her side, backstage in the Dargan Theatre in Trinity College Dublin. Two days before, the couple celebrated ten years of marriage together - and it's obvious from the way they interact with each other that they're as happy now as they were on the day of their wedding. "Her first marriage was a starter marriage," Tierney jokes, beaming at his wife. Tierney is a lively presence: retired now, he was formerly attorney-general of Maine and he's an imposing and charismatic figure.

So too is Elizabeth Strout. When we meet for this interview, she is about to give a talk in front of hundreds of people, who have arrived to Trinity College because of the brilliance of the books she has written, which include Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, My Name is Lucy Barton and her new novel Olive, Again, which returns us to the story of Olive. Backstage, eating Reese’s Pieces, Strout looks not remotely fazed by the prospect of heading out to be scrutinised by hundreds of her fans. Then again, as she says herself, she's been preparing for a life in writing for quite a while.

"I wrote from about the time I was four years old and my first book was published when I was 43," Strout says, with characteristic understatement. "So that was quite a bit of writing time."

Now 63, Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, a remarkable novel which tackles themes of family relations, marital strain and loss, concentrating on Olive, a plain-speaking, sometimes tyrannical, and often terribly kind Maine woman who will win your heart, even as you blanch at her actions. If she seems larger than life on the page, she appears that way too to her creator. "The original Olive showed up when I was unloading the dishwasher," Strout says. "I felt a presence behind me and I knew she was a large woman and I could hear her in my head as she said, 'It's high time everyone left'. She was so vivid."

Olive Kitteridge was reimagined for an Emmy-winning HBO mini-series starring Frances McDormand. But when Strout writes Olive, although she loved McDormand in the role, it's not McDormand she thinks of; Olive remains her version of Olive. In Olive, Again, her sequel, which was recently selected as an Oprah Winfrey book club pick, Strout returns us to Olive's life, tracing with remarkable empathy and precision how Olive is advancing in years. She marries for a second time, to the wealthy Jack; she continues to fret about her wayward and difficult son Christopher, and she and the other characters contend with the indignities of ageing.

If the book is occasionally humorous, it's more often incredibly dark in its themes and evocations of its characters, who intersect via linking stories in the book. There’s librarian Cindy Coombes who has lost her friends as she succumbs to her cancer diagnosis. There are Fergus and Ethel McPherson, the married couple who have split their house down the middle with duct tape, the better to avoid dealing with each other; and then there's Olive herself, who is ferocious and terrified as she grows older and more lonely.

Strout thinks there's a reason she is so invested in the topic of ageing as a writer; as a young girl in Maine, she grew up with few peers, no television, but many elderly relatives in the community. "I did have an older brother, but he had no interest in me at all, and I had great aunts who lived down the dirt road," she recalls. "My parents didn't laugh a lot - they're very much from Maine - and my aunts were depressed. They loved to talk about their husband's last meals. They would say, 'I'm so glad he had his mackerel the way he liked it'. That was the music of my youth."

Strout herself slightly recalls the character of Olive. Although she has a ready smile, you sense immediately that she doesn't suffer fools gladly. Clad all in black, with sharp black glasses set against a sheaf of blonde hair, tied up at the back, Strout uses her words sparingly, and makes them count, chastising herself at one point when she uses the word 'literal' in a sentence needlessly.

Bred on books (she had the entire Hemingway canon) and copies of The New Yorker magazine, Strout showed promise at an early age. She attended Bates College, graduating with a degree in English in 1977 before attending Syracuse University College of Law, to undertake a law degree, in 1981. "I was trying to write, but I still had a social conscience and I thought, 'I'll go and do something'," she says. "I was young and very misinformed."

A sequence of jobs followed as Strout moved to New York to find her way into the world of fiction. "I look back and in my memory, I just understood that it wasn't good enough yet," she says. "For years and years, I was writing and reading, and writing and reading. I somehow believed I could do it, if I could find my voice. And then I finally did. I was trying to write like how a writer would write, as opposed to writing how I would write."

Married and living in Park Slope, raising a young daughter, Strout took writing classes with the famed Gordon Lish, editor of Raymond Carver's work. "He was a terrifying teacher," she says. "He was very frightening and could be unbelievably critical. I was so terrified the first time I took his class that I took it again. He said things that were helpful, so I went back and absorbed them. The best thing he did was leave me alone. Only once or twice he would look at me with a little bit of interest."

Did she tell other people she was writing? "Never," Strout smiles. "If you say you're a writer, the next question is: what have you published? Then they look at you with such pity, as though you're leaking grandiosity. Only my first husband and daughter knew, because she would eat her cereal on top of the manuscripts that were piled up on the table. She would come home from school and say, 'Did you get an agent yet, Mummy?' and I'd say 'No', and she'd say, 'Oh, you will!'".

Strout's daughter, Zarina, now in her thirties and a playwright herself, proved entirely correct. Although Strout got off to a slow start, when she started publishing fiction, readers quickly found themselves drawn to her fresh, vivid and refreshingly unsentimental style, which contains echoes of her writing heroes, Alice Munro and William Trevor. Fundamentally, these are books about character - and Strout’s heroine Olive proved so successful that there were women in Connecticut who formed ‘Olive’ groups, getting together each week in their local Starbucks to talk about their favourite Olive moments.

Even still, Strout wasn't prepared for the phone call she received from her agent in 2009, to tell her she had won the Pulitzer Prize.

"I was in Las Vegas when I found out," she says. "My agent was furious with me because I hadn't been answering my phone. She said, 'You're the only writer in this country who doesn't know it's Pulitzer day!'" Strout laughs.

Delighted as she is by her success, the impression you form from Strout is that the greatest battle she faces in life is not the one to receive acclaim from readers, or from Pulitzer Prize committees, but rather to impress herself on the page - and to find honesty in her language and the correct tone.

"I've never written to be seen," she admits later, as she looks out onto a sea of readers in Trinity. "I'm quite surprised to be here, frankly. I've always written for a reader - it's like we're in a dance and I have to take the lead. With my novel Amy and Isabelle, I remember thinking every day, 'I hope this reaches one reader who needs this book. Let me give them a sentence that they can be comforted by, and that is truthful'."

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout is out now, published by Penguin

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