"What’s one thing nobody knows about me?” the much-profiled author Elizabeth Strout repeats, in response to one of those hokey questions that reporters employ as the interview clock winds down. “I am very dull.” Dull? Really? Modest maybe, shy probably, quietly sagacious for sure—a steady tortoise rather than a flashy hare in the writing game... But dull? Definitely not.
On January 12, just six days after Strout’s 60th birthday, Random House will publish her fifth novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The author won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of connected short stories about a prickly septuagenarian math teacher. Last fall, HBO’s miniseries based on the book, which starred Frances McDormand as Olive, took home six Emmys. Strout watched the awards show a day later on Hulu. “I was surprised it got so many Emmys,” she says. “A story like that in this day and age? I wouldn’t think it would be hip enough.”
Olive Kitteridge is no Homeland, but in her fiction Strout frequently returns to the themes of home and the most tender family relationships. The unassuming everyday stories of mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, often set in Strout’s home state of Maine, sometimes, though, bump up against contemporary issues like racism and immigration (The Burgess Boys) or teacher-student trysts (Amy and Isabelle). Her unsentimental writing and sharp-eyed vision elevate the quotidian, finding truths that are at once heartbreaking and illuminating—and never, never dull. In one memorable passage from Olive Kitteridge, for example, Olive seeks respite from her son’s wedding festivities in the bedroom of her pretentious new daughter-in-law. With impressively mean-spirited ingenuity, Olive steals one of her daughter-in-law’s shoes and later throws it in a Dunkin’ Donuts dumpster in town. She also steals a single earring. Nothing dull about Olive, either.
An isolated child, Strout grew up in the small towns of Maine and New Hampshire, the only daughter of strict religious parents, and has long been an astute observer. “I have been writing sentences since the time I was old enough to hold a pencil,” she says. Her no-nonsense mother, now 88 and still living in Maine, gave her daughter notebooks to record her impressions from an early age and ferried her to libraries to check out books. But popular culture was not on the family’s cultural menu; Strout had only seen two movies by the time she left high school. Her father, now deceased, was a “scientist with a big heart.”
On their way home from a Congregational service one Sunday morning, Strout’s father chastised her for making fun of Clara, a churchgoer with a ridiculous hat. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything,” her father said. That advice, Strout notes, was “almost death to a writer.” Nonetheless, she says she gets her honesty from her mother and her decency from her father. “I like to think I come to the page without judgments. I always have hope for my characters. I have to come with a purity of heart.” It could be that innate decency that keeps readers coming back to her books. Though Strout’s first book, Amy and Isabelle, wasn’t published until she was 41, it and subsequent titles have consistently made the bestseller lists.
Scores of dedicated fans show up to readings given by Strout, a charming if self-effacing author whose stature and Waspy good looks can make her look like a disheveled Meryl Streep. At a reading at New York City’s Symphony Space on the occasion of Olive Kitteridge’s publication, one audience member asked Strout if she really knew people in Maine who were like her characters. Strout assumed that the man asking the question was probably one of those “summer people,” not someone who, like her, spends four seasons in the state. But later he was the first in line at her table, and asked her to sign several books for his grown children. As it turned out, he was a native Mainer and a former attorney general for the state. Jim Tierney and Strout married after a short courtship, and they share a Manhattan apartment as well as a condo in Maine.
Tierney is not the only man—or fan—who altered Strout’s life. Another of the author’s angels was Daniel Menaker, the former fiction editor of the New Yorker. After Strout graduated from Bates College—a small liberal arts school in Lewiston, Maine—and took an unlikely detour to Syracuse University’s law school, she moved to Brooklyn with her first husband. While she was a stay-at-home-mother raising her daughter and was later working as a writing teacher, Strout wrote in her off hours at her kitchen table. Much of what she produced was short stories that she sent to the New Yorker.
For more than 15 years, Menaker passed on each and every one of Strout’s submissions, but the rejection letters became longer and more encouraging. When she finished the draft of her first novel after working on it for more than six years, she had no luck finding an agent. On a lark, she sent Menaker an old-fashioned handwritten letter that began: “You probably don’t remember me...” Menaker, who was by then an editor at Random House, not only remembered Strout but bought the manuscript. He also sent her the names of five agents to consider before they completed the contract negotiations.
Strout credits James Hepburn, an English professor and mentor from her Bates years, with opening her mind to the wider universe of ideas. “Bates changed my life—it brought the world to me,” she says. Hepburn made Strout believe in her writing abilities. Whenever a paper was due in his class, he allowed her to submit a short story instead—and then he’d critique it. “I took every class he taught for two years,” she says.
If those college classes helped Strout find what she calls “her footing in storytelling,” it’s motherhood that has propelled the content. “The mother thing is obviously big,” she says. “I am perfectly aware that I keep coming back to it.” She adds, however, that she also consciously pushes “the boundaries of family life into a larger context.” Amy and Isabelle is a mother-daughter tale set in the town of Shirley Falls, Maine. The novel’s main characters are Amy, a bashful blonde 16-year-old, and her single mother, Isabelle, a secretary at the local mill. The friction in the relationship hinges on alienation and sexual secrets.
Similarly, estrangements and secrecy sneak in again to Strout’s newest exploration of family ties. My Name Is Lucy Barton also involves a daughter—though this one is middle-aged—and her elderly, distant mother who reunite for five days and a series of revealing conversations in Lucy’s hospital room, where she is recovering from a mysterious and life-threatening illness. In the new book, Strout has left Maine as the setting for the first time and made the title character, of all things, a writer living with her husband and children in New York City. Even Strout seems surprised by this turn of events—both the place and the profession. “Can you imagine a writer writing about a writer?” she joked at a press luncheon. She says her characters wander into her mind unbidden; she writes scenes and dialogue on scraps of paper until the story takes hold. At first, she thought Lucy Barton was going to be a short story, but gradually she came to realize that “Lucy wanted her own book.” According to Strout, “the subjects dictate the form of the story. A short story is short because that’s the story.”
And an interview is only as long as the author’s publicist allows—presumably on the author’s behalf. I was unsatisfied with Strout’s last answer about being dull and thought she might say something more unlikely, such as that she was a stand-up comic (Strout actually did once take a comedy-writing course to counter her writer’s block), so I reach for another lame evergreen to draw her out: what would she have liked to do if she hadn’t become a writer? “I think I would have liked to be a doctor, an internist,” she tells me. “I’d like to hear people’s bodily complaints and then diagnose them.”
Carrie Tuhy is a New York writer and world explorer.