Elizabeth Strout on writing

She didn’t like being alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.
— E. Strout, Olive Kitteridge

In May a friend and I drove to Traverse City to hear Elizabeth Strout speak at the National Writers’ Series. She’s been out on a book tour promoting her latest, Anything Is Possible.

I am a huge fan of her writing and couldn’t wait to hear her talk about her creative process. Strout is the author of Amy and Isabelle, Abide with Me, The Burgess Boys, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and my favorite, Olive Kitteridge. Frances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge in the HBO series. What surprised me about Strout was how animated she was. Gesturing with her hands. Abruptly laughing at herself. I imagined her as a quiet more contemplative sort—solely based on her fictional worlds. Perception doesn’t always mirror reality.

Here is some of what she articulated about the writing process and her books:

  • Her work is “rooted in childhood,” and the fiction tries to “get back to those primitive feelings.”
  • Escape, she says, is a theme in all her books, along with class constructs.
  • Before beginning a book, Strout has to “see and hear” the characters to know what they’re going to do.
  • In all her characters she recognizes a part of herself, but when writing, she has to “go to those places ordinary lives don’t want to.”
  • Literature is place, she said. “Then you drop your character into that place.”
  • It’s been “surreal” to watch her characters in movies.
  • In her 20s Strout took a comedy class in NYC to become a better writer.
  • “You have to understand; I was a white woman from New England.”
  • Learning comedic timing made her a better writer, she said. For six months she practiced law, but “wasn’t very good at it.”
  • Her parents were “skeptical of pleasure, ” and writing was not something they encouraged as a career.
  • She also has a gerontology degree and sold mattresses for a while.
  • Maine is always “in her, ” and her childhood was spent “in the woods” where she’d pretend and make up stories.
  • She thinks of all her books as novels, not linked stories or novel-in-stories as some reviewers have called Olive Kitteridge and Anything Is Possible.
  • Her biggest fear is “the work isn’t good enough.”
  • She likes a “messy desk,” writes scenes by hand then types them into the computer.
  • Her favorite authors are Alice Munro and William Trevor.
  • She loves to play the piano, and her least favorite word is delighted.
  • Her advice to aspiring writers? “Read good sentences like you would eat good food. Then write a lot because you’ll only get better.”