A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Elizabeth Strout’s novel in stories, “Olive Kitteridge,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. Her new novel took more than seven years to research and write. “The Burgess Boys” centers on three middle-aged siblings haunted by their father’s accidental death. The guilt of one brother has defined his life, as well as that of his sister, brother, their spouses and children. The brothers fled small town Maine for New York City. But when their sister calls them home, buried family tensions erupt. Her teenaged son is involved in an incident that threatens the peace between the newly arrived Somali community and the locals.
- Elizabeth Strout author of “Amy and Isabelle,” “Abide With Me” and “Olive Kitteridge,” which received the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright 2013 by Elizabeth Strout. Reprinted here by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout, took seven years to research and write her fourth novel. "The Burgess Boys" is partly set in her fictional town of Shirley Falls, Maine, but its canvas is much broader, including New York City and Somalia. Elizabeth Strout joins me in the studio to talk about her new novel and her process of writing. I invite you to be part of the conversation.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call on 800-433-8850, send an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. It's so good to meet you. Good morning.
MS. ELIZABETH STROUTGood morning. Thank you so much for having me.
REHMAnd I'm sure you know by now that we did do a reader's review of "Olive Kitteridge," and so...
REHM...now, having you here in person is even more special. You've really been a writer all your life, haven't you?
STROUTI have been a writer all my life. I've been writing -- I don't have a memory of myself without remembering writing. You know, as a young person just writing sentences and just writing in notebooks, and just always putting everything almost right away into a sentence.
REHMAnd then studying how other writers wrote.
STROUTExactly. Absolutely. Absolutely. By the time I was a teenager, I was positive that this was what I wanted to do, and I read, and I would make lists of books for myself. I'm very much self taught in certain ways, and I would make lists for myself of books that I had heard about and that I needed to read, and then I would start, you know, well, how did they do this, and what does that mean, and when can you use first -- you know, all that kind of stuff.
REHMAnd you taught yourself.
STROUTPretty much I did.
STROUTI did, yeah. I took a class with Gordon Lish in New York City, and that was very, very helpful, very scary, because he's quite tough. But otherwise, I really -- I've taught myself and been very solitary in my learning.
REHMWhen you were a young girl, and you were beginning all of this self-taught writing...
REHM...what did your parents say? How did they react to what you were doing?
STROUTMy mother encouraged me, and that was one of the reasons I think that I thought of myself as a writer. She loved writing. I think she wanted to be a writer herself. She was the one that bought me the notebooks. She was the one who said, record what you saw today, even if it was just like we went to buy sneakers. She'd say well, you know, write what the man was like, because back then they had, you know, salesman.
STROUTSo she was very, very encouraging. My father was a scientist, and I think that he honestly did not understand what I doing right up until "Amy and Isabelle" was published. I don't think he ever understood it, and I don't think that's because he was a scientist, I think he just wasn't a person who read a lot of fiction or understood it.
REHMAnd fiction was your aim?
STROUTYes. Yes. Always, yeah.
REHMNever anything else, but fiction.
STROUTI was -- I just knew I was a fiction writer.
REHMAnd then how curious that you went to law school.
STROUTWell, yes. I -- for two years after college I just had, you know, worked a thousand different jobs where I kept on writing stories and sending stories out because I thought, well, I'm a writer, and I'll just do whatever I can to earn a living, and I had, you know, I didn't even get a nibble. I mean, nobody was interested in anything that I was writing, and it dawned on me that I would have to earn a living or I would serving cocktails at the age of 53. That's the number I had in my head, which, of course I have long since passed.
STROUTAnd that, at that time, seemed depressing to me. So I went to law school. I had a social conscience and I thought well, I'll go and I'll write at night, which of course was completely misguided. I just didn't know. I was young and I didn't...
REHMDid you like law school?
STROUTWell, I was able to do a lot a reading in law school, because I understand that, you know, essentially one had to pass the exam at the end of the term. I did like law school. I practiced law for about six months, and that was horrible. I also dropped out of law school. I had big doubts about it, and I dropped out for a semester, but I went back and I got an awful lot of reading -- fiction reading done during the law school years.
STROUTAnd I wrote my first very bad novel during the time that I dropped out. But I did go back, and I did appreciate learning to think in a different way. I really did appreciate that. Even as it was happening, I recognized it as a good thing. Being a lawyer, I was terrible.
STROUTWell, I didn't know this about myself, but I'm not adversarial. I was just terrible at it, and when we're terrible at something, we don't really enjoy doing it.
REHMBut didn't you do gerontological law?
STROUTI did get a certificate of gerontology, and so -- and I was planning on doing that, and I did some elder abuse law when I was in law school. The one job I had after law school was with Legal services, and I did believe in it. It was specifically with elderly people, but I certainly believed in the job. I just wasn't good at it.
REHMSo we now have "The Burgess Boys."
REHMRead for us, if you would, from that prologue, and we can talk about where that took you.
STROUTOkay. There is a prologue, and then it goes into the first chapter. But the prologue is a narrator and her mother talking. I'm just going to read the very last section of it. "And so it began, like a cat's cradle connecting my mother to me and me to Shirley Falls, bits of gossip and news and memories about the lives of the Burgess kids supported us. We reported and repeated. I told my mother again about the time I had come across Helen Burgess, Jim's wife, when they, as I once did in the neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn.
STROUT"The Burgess's moved there from Hartford after the Packer trial, Jim taking a job with a large firm in Manhattan. My husband and I one night found ourselves dining near Helen and a friend in a Park Slope café, and we stopped near Helen's table as we were leaving. I had had some wine, I suppose that's why I stopped, and I said to her that I had come from the same town Jim had grown up in. Something happened to Helen's face that stayed with me. A look of quick fear seemed to pass over it.
STROUT"She asked my name and I told her, and she said Jim had never mentioned me. 'No. I was younger,' I said, and then she arranged her cloth napkin with a little said, 'I haven't been up there in years. Nice to meet you both. Bye bye.' My mother thought that Helen could have been friendlier that night. She came from money, remember, she said. She's think she was better than someone from Maine. This sort of remark was one I had learned to let go.
REHM"I no longer bothered myself with the defensiveness of my mother and her Maine. But after Susan Burgess's son did what he did, after the story about him had been in newspapers, even in the New York Times and on television too, I said on the phone to my mother, 'I think I'm going to write the story of the Burgess kids.' 'It's a good one,' she agreed. 'People will say it's not nice to write about people I know.' My mother was tired that night. She yawned, 'Well, you don't know them,' she said. 'Nobody ever knows anyone.'"
REHMAnd that is true. And what you did was to write the story of the Burgess boys in fiction, but it's actually based on something that really happened. Tell us what happened.
STROUTThere's an incident that occurs that based on something that really happened. All the characters, including the person who did the incident, are fiction, but I think it was in 2006 in Lewiston, Maine, there was a man who threw a frozen pig's head through a mosque. Lewiston has a population of Somali immigrants who have come over from their war-torn country, and in real life that incident occurred. This pig's head was thrown through a mosque, and it was just terrible, and it captured my mind.
STROUTI'm very attached to Lewiston in a certain kind of way, and so as I was writing "The Burgess Boys," sort of sketching it out, that fit right into what I was trying to say about issues of home and this and that. So it was very interesting to me, because as a citizen, I mean, it's a reprehensible act, and I was very interested in what do we do as a society about that? What laws do we use, or what services do we used, you know, how does society respond to let people know this is not going to be tolerated.
STROUTBut as a novelist, I had a chance to have a whole different take on it, and a I thought, well, I'll make up the person who did it. And I'm always telling my students to go against the grain, that's where the most interesting material will come from, and so I thought, well, instead of just making this like a bad person who's just racist, let me make him somebody who's really -- doesn't, you know, who's young, who doesn't really understand what he did.
STROUTAnd so in that way I created the character of Zachary Olson and his mother, who's completely baffled by all of this.
REHMAnd her two brothers.
STROUTAnd her two brothers, the Burgess Boys, exactly.
REHMAnd one of the Burgess Boys is the twin of the mother.
REHMAnd they're two very different men. One is extraordinarily successful as an attorney in New York, the other not so great.
STROUTNot so much. Not so much.
REHMAnd he's now a legal aid attorney.
STROUTThat's right. Appellant, because he can't really do the courtroom...
REHMHe can't really do the courtroom stuff.
STROUT….the stress of the courtroom, right.
REHMAnd he's sort of a run-down fellow.
REHMHe lives alone. He's been divorced, whereas his brother has great wealth, takes huge vacations, has even been considered for governor. So we have three major...
REHM...characters there. Two brothers and a sister.
STROUTAnd their sister that they left in Maine, right.
REHMAnd then the sister's son, Zachary.
STROUTRight. Who does this act, and Susan, the mother, is completely appalled and doesn't know what to do. She's on her own as well. Her husband left her a long time ago, and so she calls upon her brothers, particularly the famous one. They're both lawyers, and she's like, help. And these brothers, the boys, the Burgess boys, have long fled to New York because of the tragedy that occurred in their youth. These three siblings have a tragic loss of their own father.
STROUTSo the boys have run off to New York. They're men, not boys, and Susan has to call them home.
REHMElizabeth Strout. Her new novel is titled "The Burgess Boys." She is, of course, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the novel in stories, "Olive Kitteridge." Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Elizabeth Strout is with me. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Olive Kitteridge," which we had as one of our reader's reviews several months ago. Her new novel, which took seven years to research and write, is titled "The Burgess Boys." And before we continue with the story of "The Burgess Boys," here from Twitter: Is there any classic or contemporary literature that Liz Strout goes back to for inspiration during her writing process?
STROUTI very often return to the work of Alice Monroe and William Trevor. They both just bring me comfort. They sort of compose me. They settle me down if I'm feeling, like, oh, this can't get done. What am I doing? How can I do this? And it's not that I am similar in style, it's just that they do what any good writer does, which is make you feel composed. And I also return to the Russians a great deal.
STROUTI just adore the Russians and Tolstoy and Chekov.
REHMAnd storytellers, you can't find much better than that.
STROUTYou can't. You can't beat the Russians. They're really fabulous. They let it rip.
REHMThey can be long and detailed, but they do...
REHM...tell great stories.
STROUTBut they do get right in there. Yeah, yeah.
REHMNow, you lived in Maine. You grew up in Maine. You lived in various small towns. So the ethos of Maine is in this novel. The gossip, the way stories are told, the way the evolution of a story gets magnified at the heart of this novel, "The Burgess Boys," is an accident. Talk about that accident.
STROUTThat's right. Even though the novel takes place with the three siblings grown, they all suffered the death of their father at a very young age through an accident involving a car. And all three kids were in that car at the time of this accident. And that's known rather early on in the book. So they grow up with this. What struck me as interesting or what I find interesting in terms of place and character, time and place, is that this accident took place in Maine.
STROUTAnd while other people in town might talk about it, they don't let the Burgess kids be teased. And yet what's also interesting to me about different cultures is that in that family, in the Burgess family, it's never talked about. So part of this book is the unpeeling of the layers of what that meant to all three children and then adults. And that's true, I believe, to the culture of real Maine. And I come from many generations on both sides of Maine.
STROUTThings happen and we don't talk about it. Now if they had been born in New York and, you know, they probably would have gone to therapy for a hundred years and talked about this and that and everything, you know. But -- and even now, I think, it might be different in Maine. But we're talking about a situation that happened in the late '50s in Maine. It's still talked about. Families go through, you know, whole lifetimes without mentioning something like this.
REHMAnd yet, all three of the siblings are in pain as a result.
STROUTVery much so.
REHMEven pain that they themselves do not honor, do not totally...
STROUTThat's right. That's right.
REHM...acknowledge as going on.
STROUTThat's exactly right. That's exactly right. That's exactly right.
REHMSo that the two brothers try to escape.
STROUTMm-hmm. That's right.
REHMAnd yet the sister stays. Why does she stay?
STROUTWell, I think part of that is her nature, because in spite of what happens to us, you know, tragic incidents or wonderful incidents, I think we have a nature. And Susan's nature is different. She was going to stay in Maine probably no matter what had happened. But Jim is clearly on the run, I think, from the beginning and becomes very successful as a part of that energy that drives him. And Bob just runs after Jim.
STROUTHe adores his brother. And his whole life is defined by loving Jim, who is five years older and was probably a little bit of a surrogate father to him. So these dynamics are all in place.
REHMIt's fascinating that one brother, Jim, has great wealth.
REHMAnd has access to expensive vacations with his family. The younger brother divorced, lives by himself in a nondescript apartment. How much communication is there between the two brothers?
STROUTThere's a lot of communication and a lot of it is sort of abusive from the older brother to the younger brother. But Bob doesn't seem to care. And I've had people say to me, boy, Jim is so mean to Bob. But the way I looked at it was, that's the language they have developed. That is how they have learned to communicate with each other. And it's absolutely fine with Bob because it's attention. It's attention.
STROUTAnd I think you find it even with children that come from abusive parents that even if a parent is being abusive, it's considered attention by the child. So I think that Bob does not respond to the way his brother talks to him, the way readers might respond, which is fine. Or the way even Jim's wife sometimes says, Jim, you know, go easy on him. And Bob is always like, oh, that's okay. He's my brother. He's just being my brother.
STROUTSo they are bizarrely close, I think. And they do talk a lot. Jim -- they live near each other in Park Slope. But it's the kind of communication that is -- has its own life and stems from way back, from an older brother being rather teasingly merciless to his younger brother.
REHMHow long did it take you to write "Olive Kitteridge"?
STROUTThat's -- a long time. Part of it I did rather -- in a rather concentrated section of a year. But it took a long time. Some of those stories -- I think the story where there was the hostage, that took almost 10 years to write that story.
STROUTYeah, I was halfway through that story before I had started -- before I discovered Olive Kitteridge as a character. And then I was like, oh, wait, let's put Olive in there. And then that helped a lot.
REHMThat was a shocking story.
STROUTRight. And I had to read a lot about hostages and about situations. You know, I wanted to make sure that I wasn't putting forth something that was false.
REHMAnd it took you seven years.
STROUTWell, this was huge because I needed to find out as much as I possibly could about the Somali community because I actually take on the, you know, the point of view at one point of -- or as a marbleized kind of version in there. Not just one point but a number of times I take on the point of view of an older Somali man who has come and lived here.
REHMAnd when you lived in Maine, as you still do.
REHMPart-time. Was there an immigrant community that came into Maine?
STROUTYes. It did begin. It did begin around, you know, around 2000. And so I wasn't -- I was living mostly in Manhattan but I was very interested in watching it. And that's why I was very interested because Maine is the oldest state. Demographically, it is the whitest state. And so to have a dark-skinned population move in to their community is a very big deal. And they have done remarkably, I think wonderfully most of the time.
REHMMost of the time.
REHMBut there has been an acceptance...
STROUTAnd support in all this.
STROUTBut, exactly, you know, there's always, you know, it's quite a shock to a lot of people to have to...
REHMAnd that's happening all over the country.
STROUTIt is. It's happening all over the country.
REHMI think of Minneapolis and...
STROUTYeah, the largest Somali community is there, you're absolutely right. Seattle, I mean, there's I think six points of entry. But then they go to a secondary -- that's why they're called secondary migrants in Lewiston. So it is, it's happening all over the country. You're absolutely right. And has been for a number of years, yeah.
REHMAnd as I watch "60 Minutes" recently, I was looking at the Somali lost boys and how they had been dispersed around this country by the State Department...
REHM...so that some successful, some not so successful. And I'm sure the same is true in Maine.
STROUTYes, I'm sure.
REHMHow did they find work?
STROUTWell, I think that -- well, that's a problem because they don't always find work. But they are very entrepreneurial, at least in Lewiston. I can't speak for the, you know, entire population. That would be -- it just wouldn't be accurate for me to do so. But they're very entrepreneurial. They've started translation companies. They have, you know, cell phone companies. They have -- many different businesses have cropped up in Lewiston.
STROUTAnd Lewiston was a dying city, unlike -- I mean, not unlike many cities in Maine. The textile, the mills were gone, have been gone for about 30 years. And so, a lot of, you know, we need these people to come in and start businesses.
STROUTAnd work, yeah, exactly.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones now. We're going to go first to Arlington, TX. Good morning, Shannon. And you're on the air.
SHANNONHi, thank you. Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I have a general question and a specific question. General question to Elizabeth is, what is your working habit? The second one is, how do you handle the flow of information versus the writer's block? Flow of information meaning, you read an article, you say, uh-huh, that's a great novel right there. But I like to write and I have that problem. I have so many ideas.
STROUTExactly. Exactly. Well, let me start with the second part of your question because that is an issue, all the information. And there was an awful lot of information that I consumed about, particularly about the Somali situation because I was starting from scratch, so I needed to read the history of the country and the history of the refugee camps and, you know, what happens when they come here and what the communities are like here.
STROUTSo there was an enormous amount of information. And I did go through many periods of feeling almost panicky about how do I, you know, I'm not an organized person. And so, how was I going to maintain or keep all these information that I was getting. And I think, for me, what would happen -- I would sort of have it in separate piles. That's my idea of being organized. You know, here were the camps and here was the immigration and here was, you know.
STROUTBut -- and so I would continually flip through the material, continually, continually flip through the material as I went forward with the narrative of the whole book. And then something would stand out to me, like, oh, okay, this is -- I need this now. Now I need this. So that was sort of the best I can tell you about that. But it was overwhelming, I will say that. In general, my process is that I just write -- I'd like to write as early in the morning as possible.
STROUTThat's the best thing for me. I also notice that I often have a second wind about 11 o'clock at night. So if I'm available to myself, then I often -- not often, but I am perfectly capable of sitting back down at 11:00 and working for a couple of hours then.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thank you, Shannon, for your call. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. It was interesting to me that you set the novel and stuck to it in 2006. Why was that so important?
STROUTWell, part of that was because I wanted Zachary Olsen, who committed this crime, I wanted this to happen during Ramadan. In real life, the incident that I called upon to use did not happen during Ramadan. It was, I think, in the spring or early summer. And somehow being, you know, you wanted to push things, push the envelope. And it seemed that much more important, that much more offensive, that much more upsetting that Zachary would have committed this crime during Ramadan.
STROUTSo I had to go and look very carefully when was Ramadan occurring during 2006 and it was in the fall because it, you know, it changes slightly every year. And so that was really what positioned me there was to have it when Ramadan was. And the idea that Zachary honestly didn't know what Ramadan was. And some people say, well, that's not believable. But, in fact, it is. If you go very far outside of a city, if you go into rural areas or even not rural areas. There's tremendous amount of ignorance still.
REHMAnd before 2006, how much before then had the Somalis arrived?
STROUTI think that they had been there about five years, give or take, increasingly. You know, they had first started to come in just a little bit from Portland. It was Portland, ME, where they were originally, had originally been located. But Portland, the prices, the rentals are high. People like Portland, ME. It's a very nice little city.
STROUTYeah. And so they found Lewiston, which like I said, you know, the mills had been closed for some time and rent was pretty cheap. And it was, by their standards, safe. And so there began this influx of secondary migration.
REHMAll right, here's a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Terry.
TERRIHi, Diane. Thanks so much for taking my call. Diane, you're the best.
TERRIYou're fabulous. I just wanted to say that I read "Olive Kitteridge" and it was so phenomenal. And things don't usually stick with me. And I just wanted to say there's one part where Olive has something in her teeth. And your capturing her shame was so realistic and so powerful to me that it just has always stuck with me, her, you know, reactivity level was just phenomenal.
REHMShe is with her son and daughter-in-law at that time.
STROUTSon and his, right, his new wife. Yes.
REHMAnd what happens?
STROUTRight. I think what you're referring to is the time when she drizzled ice cream down the front of her.
TERRIRight, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
REHMThat's it. That's it.
STROUTThat's right. She drizzled ice cream down the front of her and she was so upset that they did not tell her this. That was the level -- she felt betrayed. And, of course, realistically, given how messy their house was and everything, they probably didn't even notice or care. But for her, she had humiliated herself and also not been told.
REHMShe's not been told and she was so angry because she was ashamed.
REHMThen she leaves.
STROUTShe leaves. That's right. That's right. She just felt it was too much betrayal.
REHMThere was another act of shame in that story about her daughter-in-law and son getting married. And now...
STROUTOh, right, the dress.
REHM...that she had made a dress. That she was so proud of.
STROUTShe'd worked on it.
REHMAnd decorated it and thought, I'll make my son proud and she heard her daughter-in-law talking behind her back about what a hideous dress it was.
STROUTI know, I know.
REHMShe felt terrible.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break. When we come back, more of your calls, your comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd I must correct myself. Of course it was the lost boys of Sudan and not Somalia. Forgive my error. Here's an email from Elizabeth. She says, "Two of my book groups read "Olive Kitteridge" a couple of years ago. I thought the book was one of the best I'd read in several years. Sadly most of my friends didn't agree with me. Later I came to the conclusion that the content of the book just came too close to home for most of us who are in our sixties." What do you think about that comment?
STROUTI think it's very interesting. And having been on the road a great deal for "Olive Kitteridge and meeting many people who had quite strong opinions one way or another, I was so struck with people who would very openly say to me, well I'm Olive Kitteridge. And I would think, well that's really interesting -- you know, to myself I would think, that's so interesting that you know that about yourself or that you're not threatened by that or that it's okay with you to have particular responses to people.
STROUTSo I think that what she's bringing up, which is the opposite, that, you know, hypothesis that it's the opposite that people don't want to acknowledge the Olive Kitteridge in them could very well be true. I mean, we don't -- we have an idea of who we are and we don't really want that to change. You know, it's how we get through life is that we sort of -- you know, we cling to what we think is the better part of ourselves. And if there's something that maybe hits too close to the bone then we're not interested. We don't want to like that person. We don't want to be like that person. We don't want to go there.
REHMAnd there's a lot about Olive Kitteridge not to like.
STROUTAbsolutely. That's why I was always so struck when people said I'm Olive Kitteridge.
REHMHow was it to write about her and to try to bring in the many, many facets of this woman who has so much in her history about which she's resentful and tiny little nuggets of happiness?
STROUTWell, the main thing I had to watch myself, and I became aware of this early on, was to not be careful with her. Because there was a part of me that would pull back from writing about someone who had these harsh aspects to her nature. And I would think, oh, I'm not sure I want to -- you know, and then I would think, come on Liz, just, you know, let her be Olive. Let her do this. Go ahead. Don't be careful. Don't be protective. I'm a writer of fiction. I'm here to report on the human condition. And this is her story. And it touches on many people's stories, so let it go. Do it. Do your job.
REHMSo you know many Olive Kitteridge's or pieces of people...
STROUTPieces of Olive Kitteridges, yep.
REHM...who create an Olive Kitteridge.
STROUTThat's right. That's right. It was certainly -- again, it's that sense of pushing to the envelope -- pushing...
REHMBut not one person.
STROUTNo. No, no, no, no, no, no.
REHMWas she difficult to create?
STROUTShe was difficult to deal with on a rather regular basis, you know, but I loved her. I loved her. So it wasn't -- you know, it wasn't an unpleasant thing except for, you know, writing it.
STROUTShe's always difficult.
REHMTo Portsmouth, N.H. Hi there, Sherry.
SHERRYHi. Hi, Diane. Thank you. First-time caller here. I love your show.
REHMOh, I'm so glad. Thank you.
SHERRYAnd Elizabeth, I love "Olive Kitteridge" and I'm excited to read your new book.
SHERRYI'm kind of wondering -- and you said it took seven years to write and your -- and, oh, it was longer. How do you keep motivated, I guess? It just seems like I need my little checkboxes daily or weekly...
SHERRYSo, you know -- and being from Maine too I want to say I enjoy the books thoroughly because I feel like I can put myself there. So it's wonderful. But I think, oh how do you do it?
STROUTWell, that's a good question. I sometimes wonder myself. And, you know, the truth is I -- mostly I love writing. It's very -- there are many days when it's -- it's like any other job. There are many days that it just doesn't work. You know, anybody comes home from work and said, well that was a really bad workday. But there's -- but I love it. I need to do it. It's a compulsion. I have always wanted to do it. I have trained for this for my entire life. I believe in what I'm trying to do. I want to get across something that's honest, emotionally and psychologically that can provide to a reader an area that can go and find some sense of composure, as I said earlier about Alice Monroe and William Trevor providing me.
STROUTSo I wish I could work more quickly but it seems at this point that's really not going to happen. So it's a matter of kind of accepting it and just saying, one day at a time.
SHERRYThat's great. So it doesn't bother you. I mean, it's good you have it, yeah.
STROUTWell, it does but...
SHERRYFantastic. Thank you. Thank you very much.
STROUTThank you very much for calling.
REHMAll right. Bye-bye. Let's go to Wenatchee, Wash. Betsy, hello.
BETSYGood morning. I love your show and I love Elizabeth Strout.
BETSYI have a couple of comments. One is that I read "Olive Kitteridge," loved it so much I recommended it to my older sister who's in her mid seventies. She started and took it out and put it in her large garbage can outside her house where it sat for three days. And something you had written early on pushed her to go back outside, collect the book again and she loved it.
REHMIt's a good thing the garbage collectors haven't picked it up.
STROUTI've never heard a story like that. That's a wonderful story.
BETSYBut I had read it through and enjoyed it so much. But what I'm calling about is that yesterday in the New York Times magazine you are quoted as saying that you read "The Pink Maple House" as a child.
BETSYIt's by Christine Noble Govan who was a wonderful children's author. And she lived on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee where we both lived. She taught me -- she was my librarian for 33 years.
STROUTGet out. That's wonderful.
BETSY...in grammar school on Lookout Mountain.
STROUTOh, that's wonderful.
BETSYAnd she started me on my love of books and reading. And I read "The Pink Maple House" when I was eight years old and it still sits in my mind clearly...
STROUTI am so excited to hear this.
BETSY...and other characters. And so you just made my week when you wrote that -- when it was in the paper yesterday. And I thought, oh a wonderful thing. Rumer Godden is my author -- my go-to author to calm my mind, to order my mind. And her novels -- "China Court" among them -- just kind of settles you down. It's built on the details of daily life.
BETSYAnd they're so vivid that -- and you do that in "Olive Kitteridge." It is the small detail that is so telling.
STROUTWell, details -- you know, just ordinary life is what's so interesting to me. But I'm thrilled to meet -- I guess we haven't actually met but we're meeting over the phone -- somebody who loves "The Pink Maple House." This is very fun for me. Thank you so much.
REHMBetsy I'm glad you called. And to Kathy in Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning.
KATHYGood morning. I'm so happy to be talking. I'm an avid listener of your show and I love Elizabeth Strout.
KATHYI grew up in Maine. I grew up in Lewiston, Maine.
KATHYAnd I was listening so intently because I loved "Olive Kitteridge. I did it with my book group actually. I was so excited about the story and I recognized so many people in her personality. It's very fun to read. But what compelled me to call just now is that you said earlier in the show how families in Maine years ago would bury what happened. And in your story with "The Burgess Boys" you talked about an accident where the father was killed in a car accident. And the same thing happened in my family. My mother was killed in a car accident and my brothers were in the car.
BETSYAnd the town was kind and everyone knew my family. And everyone was reassuring it's important but no one talked about it. It was the same thing that you expressed earlier. And that statement that you made just compelled me to call because it is so true the way it happened.
STROUTOh, poor -- I'm so sorry.
REHMTell me, how old were you, Kathy, when your mother died?
KATHYI was just ready to graduate from high school. I was 17 years old and my boys -- my brothers were younger. So it was a very, very difficult time for my family. But what made it very strange later as an adult was realizing just what you had said, that the culture was not to explore it.
KATHYThe culture was not to have everybody, you know, ruminate and talk about it. It's not.
STROUTYeah, and that makes it so weird. That makes it an extra layer of just such strangeness to a horrible event.
KATHYAnd I talk to friends now who don't believe me. They think, well how could that possibly be true?
STROUTRight, exactly. That's right.
KATHYBut it was the way we grew up. It was the culture that we lived in.
STROUTThat's right, that's right. It's very hard for people to believe it if they come from a different culture. You're absolutely right. I'm so sorry.
REHMKathy, I'm so sorry for your loss. You know, I am beginning to wonder, Elizabeth, whether you escaped Maine to go live in Manhattan.
STROUTWell, let me tell you. I certainly talked a lot from the time I was born, and that's a little bit of an embarrassment if you're from Maine, to be the kind of blabbermouth that I am. And I think I was always -- I did want to talk. I wanted to talk about everything. And I wanted to read about everything. And I wanted to -- I did. I did want to be -- I love people. I love watching people. And we lived in very isolated areas. I mean, our house -- the two different houses that I grew up in were very isolated. Nobody -- at that time you couldn't see anybody around.
STROUTAnd I just loved seeing people so I love to live in New York. I love to look out the window and see people. I love to ride a bus. I love to ride a subway. I just love it.
REHMDo you think you offended anyone by your need to talk?
STROUTWell, I think that my father was somewhat embarrassed. I do remember at Thanksgiving when the relatives would come, of course and they were all very Puritan relatives. And I remember my father said to me, well watch my hand. And if I'm touching my tie that means you're talking too much. And so I remember him touching his tie and I don't know if it worked or not. I probably just kept talking. But one wasn't -- you know, I certainly remember that, yeah.
REHMHow did that affect your mother?
STROUTWell, she was a talker herself. She's a storyteller herself. So -- but she loved Maine and she's from Maine and she is a real Mainer and takes great pride in being from Maine. So I guess she made due and she had, you know, a couple friends and they would talk but...
REHMDid you think you ever experienced repercussions in your friendships, your schooldays in Maine because you were such a talker and a close observer that other people sort of either drew away or...
STROUTI was different, there's no doubt about that. I don't know if children thought that I talked too much. It's hard to know. I really don't know what they thought. But I...
REHMYou felt different.
STROUTYeah, I did, I did. I did, yep.
REHMWhat did that mean in terms of having friends?
STROUTWell, I've always been able to rely on my own inner resources. And I did have friends but I think that any writer really, really needs to know how to be alone and how to be alone -- not just work alone but to be alone in the responses to their -- you know, it's a solitary endeavor in many, many ways. And I've often thought that my childhood gave me a very good training for that ability to retreat into myself.
REHMNot only then were you a talker. You were having internal dialogue.
STROUTYeah, yeah. I knew how to keep myself company.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Sterling Heights, Mich. Good morning, IJ. You're on the air.
IJGood morning, Diane. Thank you very much for taking my call. You're a national treasure.
IJI just wanted to call in, as I told your receptionist, because I had not heard any male voices to call in to say what a wonderful book the Kitteridge book is. And I just wanted to say that it's one of my favorite reads.
STROUTOh, thank you.
IJI recommend it to all of my male friends. How many of them take it up, I don't know, but I love the book. And I just wanted to add another voice to the chorus of accolades you've been getting this morning.
STROUTThank you so much.
REHMIJ, tell me what factors you loved so much about "Olive Kitteridge."
IJI guess going back to what one of the other readers -- what one of the other callers said, it's like watching somebody, being on somebody's shoulder, all the things that are embarrassing, all the things that are good. There was nothing -- there was absolutely nothing hidden about her.
IJAnd that is so refreshing. I mean -- and it's personal because you reflect as you read things and you see these things coming about her. Then I started reflecting on my own self. When she was embarrassed, I was embarrassed. When she was happy, I was happy. And so that would be my comment on it.
REHMAll right. I'm so glad you called.
STROUTIt's a wonderful response. Thank you.
REHMThank you. And finally to Reston, Va. Good morning, Erin.
ERINGood morning. I also grew up in Maine, not in the city but in the country where it took seven towns to make a high school.
ERINDecided to disappear when I was sixteen-and-a-half and went off to college. But the "Olive Kitteridge" book was just amazing because I could see so many personalities of the Maine culture. That said though, Mainers tend to be extremely welcoming. When you drive down the road, everybody waves.
STROUTIt's true. That's true. That's also true.
ERINYou know, it -- exactly. It's -- you know, it takes a little while for them to warm up, you know, just like Olive. She was reserved but -- and it takes a while to warm up but they do warm up.
STROUTOh, yeah. No. I think that Mainers -- it's like New Yorkers only in a very different way, that there's a friendliness -- or a decency immediately available to you, especially if you're in any kind of need.
REHMDo you think -- go ahead -- do you think Olive really warms up?
ERINIn a Main way, yes.
STROUTIn a Maine way.
REHMIn a Maine way. What do you think, Elizabeth?
STROUTWell, I think that Olive's very Olive and I think that she's right out there -- you know, yes. I think she has her moments of what we would almost call tenderness. Yes. I think when she sees Kevin Colson in the car, she has a sense that -- you know, of what he's doing there. She just -- you know, she has a very deep intuition like, I'm going to get in that car and I'm not going to get out of that car until I find out what's going on. And I think that the girl who has trouble with her eating -- and, you know, she's very moved by that. So I think that she has deep feelings. And I think that she is very reactive as a former caller-in-er said.
REHMAnd watching a young woman jump...
REHM...off a bridge.
STROUTYeah, well, falling off -- yeah, the ledge, yeah.
REHMWell, if you enjoyed "Olive Kitteridge," you have a big treat in store for you with "The Burgess Boys." That is Elizabeth Strout's new novel. And I want to congratulate you. It's wonderful.
STROUTThank you very much. It was wonderful to be here. Thank you so much.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”