Before her bestseller, Elizabeth Strout wrote in secret. She didn’t attend writing seminars until later in life. Instead, she pursued law—and a bouquet of ill-fitting jobs—while sending stories to magazines and enduring endless rejections. Her world upended in 1998 with the publication of Amy and Isabelle, a rollicking success that was followed eight years later by the bestseller Abide with Me, which further cemented her reputation. Olive Kitteridge, the 52-year-old author’s unusual new novel, is actually a series of unflinching, interconnected stories linked by the centrifugal force of its title character. Victoria Lautman interviewed Strout, who spoke by phone from her home in New York.
Q: Olive Kitteridge is a fantastically brash, nosy, and resentful nuisance. How did she materialize?
A: The first Olive story came to me years ago, very directly, when I was writing Abide with Me. I wrote bits of her story and realized I’d be writing more about her for some time. Most of these stories were written in a Provincetown cottage without TV or radio during an intense summer of 2006, and I was aware that Olive was such a powerful person on the page that a whole novel of her would just be too much. She demanded a different kind of form. She needs to come in episodes, not head-on every time, because I think she’s just too much to take!
Q: She certainly isn’t lovable…
A: Well, she’s tremendously selfish, but also very perceptive. And she has a true capacity for empathy, yet her own fears and lack of self-awareness make her at times almost cruel. But I was interested in not being careful, not protecting her or consciously trying to make her more likable. If I’d done that I would have missed the mark. I kept thinking, Don’t back away from this… go with it.
Q: I’d say you went to the edge quite a lot in the book: suicide, alcoholism, anorexia, adultery… a real laundry list of human frailties and failings.
A: I don’t mean to be dark, I really don’t, and I do think there’s always a redemptive moment. I’m going there intuitively. For the suicide thing—my grandfather did commit suicide, and I’ve noticed during my adult life that the impact of that kind of death goes right down through the generations. I understood that it would have to show up in some way.
Q: Another standout is that many of the characters are elderly, with fears of loneliness, illness, and abandonment. Are these your worries, too?
A: I did notice a few years ago that most people now seem younger than me, and I thought, Wow, those 20 years sure went fast! So there is some sense of looking down the road. But some years ago, a woman thanked me for writing about an older character in a story, someone she could relate to, and I’ve had that remark in my mind.
Q: Besides the shortest career ever as a lawyer—six months—you also did a stint in a standup comedy class. For someone with extreme stage fright, that must have been a jolt.
A: I swear, it took years off my life, but it was so helpful to me. I’d worked and worked at the craft of writing but couldn’t break through to my honest story. I’m interested in comedy because I believe we laugh at things we find true, and I wondered what would come out of my mouth under pressure. At graduation, we each performed during one night at a club.
Q: So how’d you do?
A: I literally nearly died from fear. But someone in the front row laughed, and I felt almost an erotic love for that person.
Photograph: Jerry Bauer