Interview with Elizabeth Strout

March, 2013
Elizabeth Strout It's been five years since the publication of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, an elegant novel in stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. Her new novel, The Burgess Boys, took more than seven years to research and write; it pieces together the fraught history of a trio of adult siblings—Jim, Bob, and their sister, Susan—who have never recovered from their father's accidental death. Set in Strout's fictional town, Shirley Falls, Maine (also the backdrop of her 2000 novel, Amy and Isabelle)—the book depicts a community is in the throes of a painful identity shift: An insular cadre of Somali refugees, fleeing the violence of their homeland, are taking the place of younger generations of Mainers, who are trying to escape the state's economic difficulties. While examining the various meanings of home—both the Somalis' and the Burgess'—Strout also confronts the interpersonal clashes that arise out of fear and difference. "It's the things that we don't—and shouldn't—say in public," says Strout. "But that's why I love books." Author and interviewer Lynell George spoke with the acclaimed novelist about her latest creation.

Goodreads: There are many layers of tension—past and present conflict, familial and societal, cross-cultural—at work in The Burgess Boys. How did the novel begin to take shape in your head?

Elizabeth Strout: Originally the Burgess kids were tacked onto another story I had written many, many years ago. I only know that because I found it going through some old papers recently—"Oh my God, look at that! These little kids in the car." So it had been in my head obviously. This is not unusual that these things germinate for me this way. So I'd been playing around with them for quite a while. I just kept seeing the relationship between the brothers...that kind of tension, and it unfolded.

GR: While the accident that killed their father is part of their deep past, the incident that sets the present-day drama in motion involves their sister Susan's teenage son Zach—a loner who, bewilderingly to everyone, tosses a pig's head into a local mosque. This event really happened.

ES: [Yes], that incident in real-life with the Somali population [happened] in a town that's very dear to me, Lewiston [in Maine]. It caught my attention. It seemed to fit right into this—with the brothers and the sister that they've left behind. In real life that's a very reprehensible act, but as a novelist I get to say, Let's go make up a story that is more complicated than just "good and bad." It's always more interesting dramatically to go against what my natural inclination is. The novelist in me says: Let's make up something more complicated. Write against the grain, because I'm always interested in those crevices of the mind.

GR: What brought you back to Shirley Falls as this novel's backdrop—as the anchor the family has been tied to for better or worse?

ES: I had used Shirley Falls in Amy and Isabelle, and it was sort of an indistinct, northern New England town, and then I made reference to it in Abide with Me. I had become fond of it in my fictional mind.

GR: It's a home none of them can really escape—even if they have moved away physically like Jim and Bob to New York City. Or are they trapped there in their history, like their sister, Susan?

ES: It struck me as a very real situation. Particularly in this country, where we move a great deal and we do leave our siblings in one area and try to find a life in another area. And yet, especially as we get older, those are deep bonds. Even though we don't want them to be.

GR: So much of this book is an exploration of "otherness" and difference—between the Maine residents and the Somalis, among the family members. As you began this journey of writing these interlocking stories, did you realize it was going to be a study of such stark contrasts—and how did they begin to help form your main themes?

ES: I did not set out with a conscious idea of that—I almost never do. I almost always start out sketching something that feels very real to me, and in this case it is this fraught relationship between these brothers and where that came from and their flight to New York and how that seemed to have saved them—but of course nothing really ever saves you. That became the main thrust...but I did begin to realize that...all these things are connected. This is what you hope will happen. If you're writing from a truthful spot, these sorts of things will come out in a way that is sort of cohesive. So this sense of home—where is home? We can leave home because we find it too painful to stay there. Obviously the Somalis are in an extreme situation; it is life-threatening to stay [in their homeland]...whereas for Bob and Jim it's just as psychologically uncomfortable. So there is this sense of, What's it like to go out and start again? That sense of living as a foreigner.

GR: We also see drama unfold from the perspective of the Somali community in Maine. Those chapters are told in great detail and with intimacy. How did you go about your research?

ES: It was the biggest decision of the book. And it was something that I thought about the entire time I was working on it. I researched Somalia and the Somali community population in this country and even the camps. The research I did was just enormous. I would say there were four or five years where I just had books piled up. I got very interested in it. But even as I was doing it, I thought, "I don't think I can take on a point of view," but wanted to.

There was so much I absorbed—all these Somali proverbs. I realized in the final version that there is not one Somali proverb, and I learned 300.

GR: So really you were able to absorb a philosophy?

ES: Yes. So I just immersed myself in it, and then I had this image—I would like the point of view to be sort of marbleized. I don't want them to be front staged too much but a sort of marbleized slice going through [the narrative]. So by the time I found [the character] Abdikarim, I felt that he was a very real person to me, but I was still aware that it was a risk. I did talk to some Somalis—I met some people. People were very, very good to me, but it took time to build trust from people.

GR: Throughout the book you address subjects in our culture that we so often try to avoid—race and class as well as a casual racism and bigotry that people live with but seldom voice. As a writer, why was it important not to back away from this?

ES: Every so often I'd feel sort of nervous, because we live in such an age of political correctness. But as somebody who believes in writing down the human experience as it is really lived, to whatever extent we can really do that, it was very important to me. Everybody in this situation has a point of view, and I've always been interested in point of views and how vastly different they are. The cultural differences are so enormous that I thought, I just want it to be real. Like when I was writing Olive Kitteridge and she would do and say these awful things, and I would say, "Ouch! Ouch!" And then I would say to myself, "Oh, come on, just let her rip, no point in being careful. You know that people say these things or you know that they think these—so just try to do this as truthfully as possible."

GR: There is a very in-real-time feel to The Burgess Boys. But with news coming at us so fast, what is the challenge a novelist must confront to write books that are topical?

ES: That's a new thing for me to be that close to the reality of society. When the incident in Lewiston occurred, which was compelling to me because I had lived in Lewiston as a kid with my grandmother, I followed it. "This goes into this book." So at that point I was very careful to stick by the year—2006—that way I could at least control what I find [through research on] Somalia during that period, and I'm not going to go beyond that. But, I have to say, this was a much larger canvas [than previous books], and it was like, OK, watch out, I'm coming through, I'm not just clearing my throat anymore. That was new. I'm still recovering.

GR: The novel deeply examines how the past shapes us—our roles in other people's lives, our understanding of ourselves based on those roles. Each of these characters is burdened by how they see themselves in the family's history. How imprisoned by our personal narratives are we?

ES: I think pretty imprisoned. And of course they are all fake—not false—but fake as in made up. I was just reading Gabriel García Márquez, and he was quoting something from Julius Caesar. It was something like, "In the end it's almost impossible for us to be the person people think we are," and I thought, Wow, that's so interesting, because what is the self? It is so fluid. And who are we? [It's] very frightening, and that's why we don't think about it. That's always interested me. That's in Olive Kitteridge, too—how she sees herself isn't how other people see her.

GR: That's a nice segue into readers' questions. Goodreads member Emily Cunningham asks, "Your female characters are often 'difficult women,' emotionally brittle, hard to read, and prone to hurting others unintentionally, particularly their own children. What I like most about your fiction is how you illuminate the inner life of these characters, who are themselves inarticulate, at least where their most fragile emotions are concerned. What makes you interested in difficult women, and why do you tell their stories?"

ES: Well, I think that when I start out, I don't necessarily realize that these women are going to be difficult, and then I go deeper into their "fragile, inarticulate parts" and the frustrations they experience because they can't articulate their own emotions. They become difficult women as I get further into them. It's much more vivid on the page dramatically than somebody whose personality is just smoother or nicer. So there's that aspect of the craft, but there is also the psychological aspect, which is always something that I've always gone to literature for—those things that aren't spoken in ordinary life.

GR: Goodreads Author Caroline Leavitt asks, "I'd love to ask Elizabeth how winning the Pulitzer changed things for her in terms of writing—or did it? Does having that acknowledgement of your talents make it easier to write the next book or in writing the next book are you so deeply in the process, you don't think about that at all?"

ES: I'm thrilled that I won, but I don't have any conscious sense that it affected my work, because I've always had very high standards for myself. So I think when I am working, all I want is to be getting it to be as good as it can possibly be. So I'm in the work; I'm in that room with the characters. I'm not really thinking about anything else.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

ES: I like to work in the morning, and I guess the only thing that I do unusual: I move around a lot when I work—I just walk around—I move a lot, and I bring my work with me. It's one of the reasons I like to work at home, because if you're in a library, you can't just walk around.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

ES: So many wonderful writers have played a part. I was quite young when I started to read "grown-up" books. That's when I found out that there's a secret out there, and people are writing about it. Obviously in college there were the English authors: D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and those people. Then I discovered Russians, and they are so exciting because they are so extreme—their emotions are so gritty and real. John Cheever's stories had a lot of impact on me. William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Anita Brookner. I learned a lot about writing from Anita Brookner, because she could spin out a sentence—I would think, "Really? You just wrote a sentence and changed the point of view like four times." Philip Roth and John Updike. I'm leaving out 700 people! Tobias Wolff. He's amazing. Now, he puts things in people's mouths you're not supposed to say.

GR: What are you reading now?

ES: I'm reading this amazing nonfiction book by Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. And I just finished Anne Enright's latest, The Forgotten Waltz, which was really very nice. I read a few books at the same time, so when I was talking about Márquez, I just finished that book last night, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. It is almost like a long poem—and that's so different from, say, Katherine Boo's book—this sort of magical realism/poetry thing going on in one part of my head and then these terrible incidents Katherine Boo is writing about. It's unusual because I think of myself as a mini-tasker. I can't talk on the phone and do something else at the same time—but I write that way. I never write from beginning to end—I write a scene here and then one there, and when I was working on Olive, I would work on them at different times, in bits and pieces. But that's only with stories and words: Then there comes the day when you have to roll up your sleeves and say, I have to tell the story—here we go.


Interview by Lynell George for Goodreads. George is a Los Angeles-based writer.

Learn more about Lynell and follow what she's reading.

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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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message 1: by Rivera (new)

Rivera Sun Thank you for this fascinating interview. It was very in depth and well-articulated. I grew up in Auburn/Lewiston and was child when the Somali population began to grow in the area. I just returned this year as an actress/author on tour and was stunned to see the expanding mindset of the culture and to hear both the beautiful and challenging stories of the area I grew up in. I am excited to read The Burgess Boys! Thanks, Rivera Sun


message 2: by Janet (last edited Mar 05, 2013 04:56PM) (new)

Janet Jensen I loved Olive Kitteridge, especially because of the complexity and depth of the characters. Thanks for posting this insightful interview. Now I've added some titles to my reading list.

Janet Kay Jensen, Author
Don't You Marry the Mormon Boys
The Book Lover's Cookbook
Gabriel's Daughters (Fall 2013)


message 3: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Always love author's insights! I'm struck by the many similarities between your writing experience/process and those expressed by Anne Tyler! I have always been "afraid" to approach writing myself because I have never been able to envision one clear plan or plt for a story/book, however, I find it easy to create "scenes." Hopefully, this is the impetus I need to get serious with myself about writing! I found it extremely interesting that most people in my book club didn't "like" the book Olive Kitteridge simply because they despised her as a character! However, I had some sympathy for her as a person, perhaps because my mother had much the same personality--few to no societal "filters," so that may have provided me with some additional insights... Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience and thoughts.


message 4: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Jackson Thank you for this interview. I agree with the author that The Burgess Boys is much more ambitious, and yet I found it had the same fearless depiction of characters that I admired in Olive Kitteridge. And I loved her account of editorial decisions she made around the pig's head incident. This interview reveals what a solitary and complex process her writing is.


message 5: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Barter Where Can I find this book in Canada?


message 6: by Harriet (new)

Harriet Love i loved Olive Kitteridge. Many of my friends disliked the book because
of Olive's difficult character...But i found her tactless but honest.
A breath of fresh air.
harriet love


Elaynecrysthomps You are still very elegant and inspiring
I loved .. Thank you! A hug here in Brazil


message 8: by Audrey (new)

Audrey Mabee loved Olive Kitteridge, loved knowing more about it's fabulous author and will look for The Burgess Boys as soon as I close off this computer.
Thank you


message 9: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Trask Looking forward to this. Must reread Olive Kitteridge sometime. Loved it!


message 10: by Barb (new)

Barb James this just came in today! I can't wait to read it!!!!


message 11: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed Elshafey Thank you for this good view
I agree with the marvelous author that the burgess boys are much more aspirant especially because of the depth of characters
thank you
Ahmed ali elshafey
dyefast@yahoo.com


message 12: by Nordinedécor (new)

Nordinedécor Nordinedécor wa w


message 13: by Nordinedécor (new)

Nordinedécor Nordinedécor thanks


message 14: by Marion (new)

Marion Coro I am reading THE BURGESS BOYS and what strikes me most about it are the sweeping generalizations of Mainers -- what we eat, etc. It seems to oversimplify Maine people in a demeaning way. As a native, I find myself offended. The emphasis on Ms. Strout's website that she has lived in New York over half her life seems to underline the impression that Maine was a place from which SHE took flight so she could exploit it as a source of mockery.

She finds life in New York fascinating -- as I'm sure it is -- but views Maine as colorless. I want to tell her to go find some other state to ridicule for its backwardness.


message 15: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Culshaw I've read Olive Ketteridge which was great. I liked the idea of a number of short stories put together where Olive appears as an insignificant character is some or as a heroine in others. We all enjoyed this read at our book club.


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