My all-time favorite book is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, so I was thrilled to learn that Strout wrote a new novel, Oh William! which came out this week. The book follows an older woman embarking on a road trip with her ex-husband. Although the premise sounds simple, the novel is a wise, funny, mind-blowing masterpiece, and I tore through it. Here, I talk to Strout about her late-blooming career, her flawed characters, and this gorgeous new book…
JG: I have to admit, I’m nervous to be talking to you on the phone. You’re my favorite author.
ES: I’m just me. I’m truly just me. I would hate to have you be nervous, but if you have to be, you have to be.
Okay, first off: Where, physically, do you write?
I now have a studio. But the truth is, I have always been able to write anywhere. I used to write at our dining room table or the kitchen table; I used to write in our bed. I can even write in a subway. The only thing is, I have to be alone in my head. No one can need me.
Are you always scribbling down things down from your life — phrases, anecdotes, etc. — to use later in your books?
Over the years, I’ve realized that I don’t need to write something down. A visual will very often return to me when I need it. Years and years ago, I saw a couple on the subway. She was sitting on her boyfriend’s lap, they were so adorable — and years went by, and all of a sudden I remembered them when I needed them. I ended up putting them in Olive Kitteridge.
You went through more than a decade of rejections before publishing a book. What were those years like?
There is absolutely nothing romantic about rejections. They’re horrible. They just are. I had them for years and years and years, and they weren’t fun. I sometimes look back and think, what kept me writing? But I knew in my heart that I was a writer, and I knew that every story I was writing was a tiny bit better than the one I had just written. I knew if I kept going, I would get there. But it was a long apprenticeship.
Was there a time when you realized that the tides were turning?
When I was writing Amy and Isabelle. It was originally a short story that hadn’t gotten accepted, so I settled myself down and decided, I’ll turn it into a novel. And writing that, I thought, ohhh, okay, these are the sentences I’ve been looking for.
Sometimes when you’re writing a sentence, do you get a little thrill and just know it’s great?
More often, I’ll go back to the work from a couple days ago, and think, oh! Look at that paragraph. Look at that.
Who do you picture when you’re writing?
I have an ideal reader, I’ve made them up. I don’t see them distinctly, but I sense what they need. My reader is patient but not super patient; they kind of want to come with me, but don’t know for sure. I think, what do I do to engage this reader and hold their hand and say, let’s go down this path and go down that path, and say I’ll keep you safe even if it’s uncomfortable.
What did it feel like, at age 58, to win the Pulitzer Prize?
You know, it was great. There’s nothing bad about winning the Pulitzer. It was just plain wonderful. I was super surprised. Boy, I was just amazed. I was out in Las Vegas for the weekend. I was on a speaking tour, and I had given a talk that morning for these high school kids and they were pretty recalcitrant, and I was like, ugh, what am I doing with my life? Afterward, I got into the car and I had all these voice messages and my agent was like, where have you been? You’ve won the Pulitzer!
Did you do a little dance in the car?
Actually, later I was in the airport security line, and I looked at the woman in front of me, and I said, you know, I just won the Pulitzer, and she said, Oh! that’s wonderful! She couldn’t have been nicer. She was very sweet, it was just lovely. I calmed myself down after that. I thought, no more of that.
The thing about your new novel Oh William! that I found so unusual and engaging and meaningful was how it captured how women talk. It reminded me so much of how my mom, sister, aunt and I talk — analyzing the people we love and telling each other lots of asides and anecdotes. And I realized, I’d never read anything like that before. It actually felt so profound.
Oh, I’m so glad to hear that, thank you. Oh, yay. That’s kind of astonishing, actually.
It’s also funny because the premise of Oh William! doesn’t sound that gripping — an older woman, Lucy, takes a road trip with her ex-husband. But the novel was a PAGE TURNER. I could not put it down. Why do you think that is?
I think it must be her voice. Lucy’s voice is what makes you keep turning the page. I think people think, I can listen to this, I want to hear this.
The book explores issues around marriage, family and class.
Class has always been interesting to me. Way before I fully knew what class was, I remember two different families in my hometown, who were like Lucy’s family. They were ostracized because they were so poor. In third grade, there was a boy who sat in front of me. The teacher said to him one day, ‘You have dirt behind your ears, no one is too poor for a bar of soap.’ I will never forget the way his neck turned red. What a horrible thing for her to say. And that’s when I realized, semi-consciously, He’s not even a person to her.
Thinking of this boy and people in your life, do you find that you love people, generally? For example, Lucy is so tender toward her ex-husband William in the book, even though, or maybe because, he is flawed. People are complicated in your books, but as a reader you still ‘get’ them and love them.
The answer is absolutely I do. There was isolation in my childhood because my parents were puritanical New England people. Part of the isolation of my background meant that I didn’t see people. I wasn’t lonely, I was happy playing back in the woods. But people were so interesting to me, I wanted to see them so much. When I got older, and went to college, I was able to be with them and watch them and listen to them. I have always, always, always wanted to know how it feels like to be another person. And I really love them. What is so freeing for me as a writer is that I have no judgement of the people on the page. That is so fun and wonderful to me. I don’t care what they do. I’m just there to write it down.
Is the writing process fun or hard?
It’s both. I do fundamentally enjoy it, but there are days when I think what a terrible job this is. But I think that’s true of any job.
Are you sad when you finish a book?
No. Because here’s still the whole process of getting it to the editor, copyediting, etc. It never feels done and then all of a sudden it’s done and there’s no loud noise or anything. It’s just sort of done. And you think, okay. I’ll write something else.
How do you feel when your book actually comes out?
It’s not unlike sending your kid to nursery school and you just hope so much that the other kids are nice to him or her. That’s the feeling. I always remember my daughter in her little pink raincoat, so excited, going off to nursery school, and I have such a clear image of thinking, oh, please be kind to her.
Lastly, let’s do a lightening round…
Do you have a phobia?
I am truly, literally, scared to death of snakes. I can almost not even say the word. I just lifted my feet up when I said it.
Do you have a go-to writing snack?
I don’t, and that’s an interesting thing because when I eat something it breaks the pattern of my work. I have to have breakfast before and I have to work until I’m about to drop dead with hunger. Once I have any sort of lunch, it just truncates that work part of the day.
What’s a book that you really like?
I love The Collected Stories of William Trevor. I have a copy upstairs as well as a copy downstairs so I don’t have to travel far for them. His stories are so quiet and comforting.
I play piano for about an hour every day. I used to play it in bars during college, like pop songs.
What job might you have if you weren’t a writer?
I’d love to be a medical doctor. I’d love to make diagnoses and help people with their physical problems.
Favorite place in the world?
New York City. Because there are so many people. And I really do love people.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth. Oh William! is incredible, and talking to you was a thrill.