Elizabeth Strout: "The Burgess Boys: A Novel"

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:55
Thanks 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 REHM

11:07:29
Give us a call on 800-433-8850, send an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. It's so good to meet you. Good morning.

MS. ELIZABETH STROUT

11:07:46
Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

REHM

11:07:48
And I'm sure you know by now that we did do a reader's review of "Olive Kitteridge," and so...

STROUT

11:07:56
Yes.

REHM

11:07:58
...now, having you here in person is even more special. You've really been a writer all your life, haven't you?

STROUT

11:08:07
I 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.

REHM

11:08:23
And then studying how other writers wrote.

STROUT

11:08:26
Exactly. 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.

REHM

11:08:52
And you taught yourself.

STROUT

11:08:55
Pretty much I did.

REHM

11:08:56
Yeah.

STROUT

11:08:56
I 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.

REHM

11:09:13
When you were a young girl, and you were beginning all of this self-taught writing...

STROUT

11:09:19
Mm-hmm.

REHM

11:09:21
...what did your parents say? How did they react to what you were doing?

STROUT

11:09:28
My 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.

REHM

11:09:47
How wonderful.

STROUT

11:09:48
So 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.

REHM

11:10:08
And fiction was your aim?

STROUT

11:10:11
Yes. Yes. Always, yeah.

REHM

11:10:13
Never anything else, but fiction.

STROUT

11:10:15
I was -- I just knew I was a fiction writer.

REHM

11:10:18
And then how curious that you went to law school.

STROUT

11:10:24
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:10:54
And 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...

REHM

11:11:06
Did you like law school?

STROUT

11:11:08
Well, 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.

REHM

11:11:32
Interesting.

STROUT

11:11:32
And 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.

REHM

11:11:52
Why?

STROUT

11:11:53
Well, 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.

REHM

11:12:03
But didn't you do gerontological law?

STROUT

11:12:07
I 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.

REHM

11:12:27
So we now have "The Burgess Boys."

STROUT

11:12:31
Yeah.

REHM

11:12:32
Read for us, if you would, from that prologue, and we can talk about where that took you.

STROUT

11:12:41
Okay. 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

11:13:19
"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

11:13:46
"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

11:14:10
"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.'"

REHM

11:14:44
And 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.

STROUT

11:15:02
There'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.

STROUT

11:15:39
I'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.

STROUT

11:16:07
But 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.

STROUT

11:16:35
And so in that way I created the character of Zachary Olson and his mother, who's completely baffled by all of this.

REHM

11:16:43
And her two brothers.

STROUT

11:16:45
And her two brothers, the Burgess Boys, exactly.

REHM

11:16:48
And one of the Burgess Boys is the twin of the mother.

STROUT

11:16:54
That's right.

REHM

11:16:55
And they're two very different men. One is extraordinarily successful as an attorney in New York, the other not so great.

STROUT

11:17:08
Not so much. Not so much.

REHM

11:17:10
And he's now a legal aid attorney.

STROUT

11:17:13
That's right. Appellant, because he can't really do the courtroom...

REHM

11:17:16
He can't really do the courtroom stuff.

STROUT

11:17:17
….the stress of the courtroom, right.

REHM

11:17:18
And he's sort of a run-down fellow.

STROUT

11:17:23
Yeah. Yeah.

REHM

11:17:24
He 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...

STROUT

11:17:42
That's right.

REHM

11:17:43
...characters there. Two brothers and a sister.

STROUT

11:17:47
And their sister that they left in Maine, right.

REHM

11:17:49
And then the sister's son, Zachary.

STROUT

11:17:53
Right. 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.

STROUT

11:18:24
So the boys have run off to New York. They're men, not boys, and Susan has to call them home.

REHM

11:18:31
Elizabeth 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.

REHM

11:20:05
And 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?

STROUT

11:20:54
I 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.

REHM

11:21:21
Really?

STROUT

11:21:21
I just adore the Russians and Tolstoy and Chekov.

REHM

11:21:25
And storytellers, you can't find much better than that.

STROUT

11:21:28
You can't. You can't beat the Russians. They're really fabulous. They let it rip.

REHM

11:21:32
They can be long and detailed, but they do...

STROUT

11:21:35
Yes.

REHM

11:21:36
...tell great stories.

STROUT

11:21:36
But they do get right in there. Yeah, yeah.

REHM

11:21:39
Now, 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.

STROUT

11:22:12
That'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.

STROUT

11:22:49
And 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.

STROUT

11:23:21
Things 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.

REHM

11:23:46
And yet, all three of the siblings are in pain as a result.

STROUT

11:23:53
Very much so.

REHM

11:23:54
Even pain that they themselves do not honor, do not totally...

STROUT

11:23:59
That's right. That's right.

REHM

11:24:01
...acknowledge as going on.

STROUT

11:24:02
That's exactly right. That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

REHM

11:24:05
So that the two brothers try to escape.

STROUT

11:24:11
Mm-hmm. That's right.

REHM

11:24:12
And yet the sister stays. Why does she stay?

STROUT

11:24:17
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:24:47
He 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.

REHM

11:25:01
It's fascinating that one brother, Jim, has great wealth.

STROUT

11:25:07
Mm-hmm.

REHM

11:25:07
And 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?

STROUT

11:25:27
There'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.

STROUT

11:25:54
And 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.

STROUT

11:26:19
So 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.

REHM

11:26:43
How long did it take you to write "Olive Kitteridge"?

STROUT

11:26:48
That'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.

REHM

11:27:06
Really?

STROUT

11:27:07
Yeah, 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.

REHM

11:27:15
That was a shocking story.

STROUT

11:27:18
Right. 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.

REHM

11:27:27
And it took you seven years.

STROUT

11:27:30
Well, 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.

REHM

11:27:56
And when you lived in Maine, as you still do.

STROUT

11:28:02
Part-time.

REHM

11:28:03
Part-time. Was there an immigrant community that came into Maine?

STROUT

11:28:09
Yes. 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.

REHM

11:28:39
Most of the time.

STROUT

11:28:40
Exactly.

REHM

11:28:41
But there has been an acceptance...

STROUT

11:28:44
And support in all this.

REHM

11:28:47
But...

STROUT

11:28:47
But, exactly, you know, there's always, you know, it's quite a shock to a lot of people to have to...

REHM

11:28:54
And that's happening all over the country.

STROUT

11:28:55
It is. It's happening all over the country.

REHM

11:28:57
I think of Minneapolis and...

STROUT

11:28:58
Yeah, 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.

REHM

11:29:13
And 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...

STROUT

11:29:32
Yes, yes.

REHM

11:29:32
...so that some successful, some not so successful. And I'm sure the same is true in Maine.

STROUT

11:29:40
Yes, I'm sure.

REHM

11:29:42
How did they find work?

STROUT

11:29:45
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:30:11
And 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.

REHM

11:30:33
And work.

STROUT

11:30:33
And work, yeah, exactly.

REHM

11:30:35
All 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.

SHANNON

11:30:46
Hi, 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.

STROUT

11:31:15
Exactly. 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.

STROUT

11:31:41
So 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.

STROUT

11:32:12
But -- 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.

STROUT

11:32:42
That'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.

REHM

11:32:58
And 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 drshow@wamu.org. It was interesting to me that you set the novel and stuck to it in 2006. Why was that so important?

STROUT

11:33:29
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:34:00
So 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.

REHM

11:34:30
And before 2006, how much before then had the Somalis arrived?

STROUT

11:34:40
I 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.

REHM

11:35:00
Indeed.

STROUT

11:35:00
Yeah. 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.

REHM

11:35:18
All right, here's a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Terry.

TERRI

11:35:25
Hi, Diane. Thanks so much for taking my call. Diane, you're the best.

REHM

11:35:28
Oh, thanks.

TERRI

11:35:29
You'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.

REHM

11:35:58
She is with her son and daughter-in-law at that time.

STROUT

11:36:01
Son and his, right, his new wife. Yes.

REHM

11:36:05
And what happens?

STROUT

11:36:05
Right. I think what you're referring to is the time when she drizzled ice cream down the front of her.

TERRI

11:36:10
Right, yes. Yes, yes, yes.

REHM

11:36:11
That's it. That's it.

STROUT

11:36:12
That'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.

REHM

11:36:34
She's not been told and she was so angry because she was ashamed.

STROUT

11:36:41
Yes.

REHM

11:36:41
Then she leaves.

STROUT

11:36:43
She leaves. That's right. That's right. She just felt it was too much betrayal.

REHM

11:36:49
There was another act of shame in that story about her daughter-in-law and son getting married. And now...

STROUT

11:36:59
Oh, right, the dress.

REHM

11:37:00
...that she had made a dress. That she was so proud of.

STROUT

11:37:05
She'd worked on it.

REHM

11:37:06
And 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.

STROUT

11:37:17
I know, I know.

REHM

11:37:18
She felt terrible.

STROUT

11:37:20
I know.

REHM

11:37:21
All right. We'll take a short break. When we come back, more of your calls, your comments. Stay with us.

REHM

11:40:04
And 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?

STROUT

11:40:52
I 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.

STROUT

11:41:20
So 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.

REHM

11:41:57
And there's a lot about Olive Kitteridge not to like.

STROUT

11:42:02
Absolutely. That's why I was always so struck when people said I'm Olive Kitteridge.

REHM

11:42:07
How 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?

STROUT

11:42:29
Well, 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.

REHM

11:43:08
So you know many Olive Kitteridge's or pieces of people...

STROUT

11:43:15
Pieces of Olive Kitteridges, yep.

REHM

11:43:16
...who create an Olive Kitteridge.

STROUT

11:43:18
That's right. That's right. It was certainly -- again, it's that sense of pushing to the envelope -- pushing...

REHM

11:43:22
But not one person.

STROUT

11:43:24
No. No, no, no, no, no, no.

REHM

11:43:27
Was she difficult to create?

STROUT

11:43:30
She 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.

REHM

11:43:47
All right.

STROUT

11:43:47
She's always difficult.

REHM

11:43:47
To Portsmouth, N.H. Hi there, Sherry.

SHERRY

11:43:52
Hi. Hi, Diane. Thank you. First-time caller here. I love your show.

REHM

11:43:55
Oh, I'm so glad. Thank you.

SHERRY

11:43:58
And Elizabeth, I love "Olive Kitteridge" and I'm excited to read your new book.

STROUT

11:44:03
Thank you.

SHERRY

11:44:04
I'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...

STROUT

11:44:16
I know.

SHERRY

11:44:16
...that reward.

STROUT

11:44:17
I know.

SHERRY

11:44:18
So, 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?

STROUT

11:44:26
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:45:13
So 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.

SHERRY

11:45:25
That's great. So it doesn't bother you. I mean, it's good you have it, yeah.

STROUT

11:45:27
Well, it does but...

SHERRY

11:45:29
Fantastic. Thank you. Thank you very much.

STROUT

11:45:31
Thank you very much for calling.

REHM

11:45:32
All right. Bye-bye. Let's go to Wenatchee, Wash. Betsy, hello.

BETSY

11:45:39
Good morning. I love your show and I love Elizabeth Strout.

REHM

11:45:43
Oh, good.

STROUT

11:45:43
Thank you.

BETSY

11:45:45
I 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.

REHM

11:46:15
It's a good thing the garbage collectors haven't picked it up.

STROUT

11:46:16
I've never heard a story like that. That's a wonderful story.

BETSY

11:46:20
But 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.

STROUT

11:46:32
Yes.

BETSY

11:46:33
It'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.

STROUT

11:46:46
Get out. That's wonderful.

BETSY

11:46:48
...in grammar school on Lookout Mountain.

STROUT

11:46:50
Oh, that's wonderful.

BETSY

11:46:50
And 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...

STROUT

11:47:02
I am so excited to hear this.

BETSY

11:47:04
...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.

STROUT

11:47:31
Yep.

BETSY

11:47:32
And they're so vivid that -- and you do that in "Olive Kitteridge." It is the small detail that is so telling.

REHM

11:47:38
Absolutely.

STROUT

11:47:39
Well, 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.

REHM

11:47:50
Betsy I'm glad you called. And to Kathy in Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning.

KATHY

11:47:58
Good morning. I'm so happy to be talking. I'm an avid listener of your show and I love Elizabeth Strout.

REHM

11:48:03
Thank you.

STROUT

11:48:04
Thank you.

KATHY

11:48:04
I grew up in Maine. I grew up in Lewiston, Maine.

STROUT

11:48:07
Oh.

KATHY

11:48:07
And 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.

BETSY

11:48:40
And 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.

STROUT

11:48:53
Oh, poor -- I'm so sorry.

REHM

11:48:56
Tell me, how old were you, Kathy, when your mother died?

KATHY

11:49:02
I 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.

STROUT

11:49:16
Yep, right.

KATHY

11:49:19
The culture was not to have everybody, you know, ruminate and talk about it. It's not.

STROUT

11:49:24
Yeah, and that makes it so weird. That makes it an extra layer of just such strangeness to a horrible event.

KATHY

11:49:32
And I talk to friends now who don't believe me. They think, well how could that possibly be true?

STROUT

11:49:36
Right, exactly. That's right.

KATHY

11:49:38
But it was the way we grew up. It was the culture that we lived in.

STROUT

11:49:39
That'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.

REHM

11:49:45
Kathy, I'm so sorry for your loss. You know, I am beginning to wonder, Elizabeth, whether you escaped Maine to go live in Manhattan.

STROUT

11:50:02
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:50:43
And 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.

REHM

11:50:50
Do you think you offended anyone by your need to talk?

STROUT

11:50:57
Well, 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.

REHM

11:51:28
How did that affect your mother?

STROUT

11:51:32
Well, 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...

REHM

11:51:51
Did 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...

STROUT

11:52:13
I 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...

REHM

11:52:25
You felt different.

STROUT

11:52:26
Yeah, I did, I did. I did, yep.

REHM

11:52:28
What did that mean in terms of having friends?

STROUT

11:52:33
Well, 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.

REHM

11:53:08
Not only then were you a talker. You were having internal dialogue.

STROUT

11:53:14
Yeah, yeah. I knew how to keep myself company.

REHM

11:53:17
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Sterling Heights, Mich. Good morning, IJ. You're on the air.

IJ

11:53:27
Good morning, Diane. Thank you very much for taking my call. You're a national treasure.

REHM

11:53:31
Thank you.

IJ

11:53:32
I 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.

STROUT

11:53:45
Oh, thank you.

IJ

11:53:46
I 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.

STROUT

11:53:57
Thank you so much.

REHM

11:53:58
IJ, tell me what factors you loved so much about "Olive Kitteridge."

IJ

11:54:06
I 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.

STROUT

11:54:21
Yeah.

IJ

11:54:22
And 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.

REHM

11:54:39
All right. I'm so glad you called.

STROUT

11:54:40
It's a wonderful response. Thank you.

REHM

11:54:42
Thank you. And finally to Reston, Va. Good morning, Erin.

ERIN

11:54:48
Good 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.

STROUT

11:54:55
Yep.

ERIN

11:54:57
Decided 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.

STROUT

11:55:21
It's true. That's true. That's also true.

ERIN

11:55:23
You 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.

STROUT

11:55:35
Oh, 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.

ERIN

11:55:47
But...

REHM

11:55:47
Do you think -- go ahead -- do you think Olive really warms up?

ERIN

11:55:55
In a Main way, yes.

STROUT

11:55:58
In a Maine way.

REHM

11:55:58
In a Maine way. What do you think, Elizabeth?

STROUT

11:56:02
Well, 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.

REHM

11:56:41
And watching a young woman jump...

STROUT

11:56:44
Yeah, yeah.

REHM

11:56:45
...off a bridge.

STROUT

11:56:47
Yeah, well, falling off -- yeah, the ledge, yeah.

REHM

11:56:51
Well, 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.

STROUT

11:57:10
Thank you very much. It was wonderful to be here. Thank you so much.

REHM

11:57:13
Thank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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