Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Elizabeth Strout talks about why the work matters more than prizes, why she brought back Lucy Barton in ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, how she writes and so much more.

"In her latest work, Strout achieves new levels of masterful storytelling." Starred Review, Publisher's Weekly

I first heard about Elizabeth Strout when Amy and Isabelle came out, and I was totally gobsmacked by the brilliance of the novel. I've been devouring everything she writes since, and a few novels back, I gathered up the courage to write to her and ask if she would read and blurb my novel. AND SHE DID. How generous and amazing is that?  I remember the week before she won the Pulitzer, I took courage in hand and wrote her again because I had finished and loved another book and I wanted to tell her. Again, she was so thoughtful, so gracious, and she didn't for a minute seem to believe she would win the Pulitzer. Prizes, as you'll read here, don't matter to her. The work does.

 Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, which wasadapted into an HBO miniseries that won six Emmys. Her other award-winning novels include Amy and Isabelle, Abide With Me, Olive Kitteridge, The Burgess Boys, My Name Is Lucy Barton  and Anything is Possible. Her book, Amy and Isabelle was adapted as a television movie, starring Elisabeth Shue and produced by Oprah Winfrey's studio, Harpo Films.

 I'm absolutely honored that she agreed to let me interview her. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Elizabeth.

 I absolutely loved Anything is Possible. Why did you bring back Lucy Barton?

 You know, I really wasn’t sure about Lucy in this novel.  I just wasn’t sure what to do with her.  I wanted her there, but I didn’t want to tarnish her voice from My Name is Lucy Barton.  So I played around with a few different things, and they didn’t work, and I almost gave up on her for this book.  But then I thought: Oh, if I just show her, without getting into her head – and that story is all third person Pete’s point of view – then I thought, That may work.  And so I decided to do it that way, to keep the camera sort of far away from her in a way.  If you see what I mean.

I'm fascinated by how writers write. How do you?

I never map things out.  My head just doesn’t work that way.  In truth, I’m not sure how it works, but I do know that I never write anything from beginning to end, not a story, not a book, nothing do I do from start to finish.  So I might be working on various parts of Mississippi Mary and also working on the story “Windmills” at the same time, and then I will finally focus in on one and get it finished, and then as I get more of the book done, I think, Mmmmm, maybe I will try the janitor who used to know her as a kid  ---  The only ritual I have to keep me going is the desire to try and make it good.

I am self-taught as a writer, except for a course I took many years ago with Gordon Lish.  And I think this helped me.  His course helped me, but the many many years that I worked on my own, I think they helped me.  Because I was not influenced by a way of doing things.  But it took me a very long time to find my voice.  I came to depend almost entirely on my ear – on the way the sentences sound.  Do they sound true? Do they have a pulse beneath them?  I also learned early on to have no judgment about my characters; I love them all, no matter badly how they behave.  And then my mind just works in a certain way, so I think that Olive Kitteridge and Anything is Possible reflect that particular way my mind works.

I remember you once saying that you were not thinking about the Pulitzer, you were thinking about your work. I loved that. Did winning change your life or your writing?

You are right that for me, it is only the work that matters.  This has always been true.  When I won the Pulitzer, I was surprised and very happy, but I don’t feel it changed my life in any personal way.  Professionally, it brought me many new readers, and I am so glad about that – but now I owe them a responsibility as I have always owed all my readers.  So there was a bit of a sense of that, more responsibility, but I was very glad to win it.  And because I have always had that sense of responsibility to my readers, that didn’t change.  I would write as well as I could for one reader, or one hundred.

It almost feels like with each book I am starting once more to learn how to write, but that isn’t really true.  The more I have written the more I understand a sentence, that is what’s true.  But each book feels different because each book is different, and it has to be, because form is substance, so the way the story is told -- is the story itself.  The Burgess Boys, for example, required a far more traditional type of story- telling technique because of the story it tells.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

One question I would liked to have been asked is about class in my work.  I think class plays a part in every book I’ve written, starting with Amy and Isabelle, and the fact that at the start of the book Isabelle thinks she is superior to the women who work in the office room at that mill.  And then each of my books handles class a different way.  My Name is Lucy Barton pushes it to the extreme, but I only mention this because I do think class remains something Americans don’t quite know how to talk about, but it is there in my books.  And I think class is not just income or education level, but more a sense of power or powerlessness that a person has as they live their life.

Thank you so much!

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