There is a moment in Olive, Again, the eagerly awaited follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s best-seller of 2008, in which the novelist’s virtuosity is on full display. Kitteridge, an elderly widow by now and still living in Maine, spots a former pupil in a diner – the girl has become famous, she is the poet laureate – and approaches her to revive the connection. In the exchange that follows, one becomes aware of Strout’s sympathetic range: she is Kitteridge, fawning over the celebrated writer while remaining convinced of her own superiority; she is Andrea, the poet, regarding her old teacher with a cold eye; and of course she is the novelist herself, exhibiting, in the dynamic between these women, the ruthless gaze of the writer on her prey. “That was the first story that I wrote for Olive, Again,” says Strout, cheerfully. “She just showed up and I saw her nosing her car into the marina; and I thought: Oh man, she’s back.” She laughs with pure joy.
Olive Kitteridge, one of the great, difficult women of American literature, became instantaneously beloved when the book was first published, somewhat to the surprise of her creator. Olive is blunt, erratic, bad-tempered. Her persona, when fully charged, doesn’t brook any compromise and tends towards the invulnerable, which is why, when she has her feelings hurt, it is almost too much for the reader to bear. In the first book, this took the form of Olive at her son’s wedding, overhearing her daughter-in-law mock her dress. In Olive, Again, it is the moment when Andrea the poet assassinates Olive in a poem, and a slew of small slights and denigrations. “God, she was a strange woman,” thinks Jack, the man who becomes her second husband, much to his surprise. Olive Kitteridge sold more than a million copies and won the 2009 Pulitzer prize, but to the book’s fans, its greater achievement was to take a certain ornery type, eccentric and ungainly, and make her seem noble.
Strout, who continues to be mildly baffled by the success of the book, is grateful that it came late in her career; she was 53 when Olive Kitteridge was published, “and thank God I wasn’t 23. Because at that point I’d had so many years of isolation and working and just slogging through, that although I was grateful, I was far, far too old to be changed”.
Ten years later, we are in her apartment in Manhattan, where she and her husband James, a retired lawyer, live half the time, spending the other half at their house in Maine. They married in 2011 after meeting at one of Strout’s book events (her first husband, Martin, was a public defender; they divorced after 20 years together). Most of Strout’s work, starting with Amy and Isabelle, published in 2001, and ending with Olive Kitteridge, was written in Brooklyn, where Strout raised her daughter, Zarina, now 35 and working as a playwright. “She was my only kid and I just pathologically loved her,” she says. But while the city nourished her life for decades, as a writer it was undoubtedly Maine that made her.
The gap between a character’s persona and their inner workings is everywhere on display in Strout’s books. For Olive, it is there in a moment of existential panic when, seeing her grandson’s abandoned red scarf on the floor, she realises with a sudden pang that she has failed as a mother. In her fifth novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, the story of a writer living in New York and her mother in Illinois, it is in the gap between the narrator’s polished life in the city and the memory of her spartan, violent childhood. For Strout herself, for a long time, it was the role occupied by Maine in her psyche.
As in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, the apparent smallness of the lives conjured by Strout – small town folk doing small town things – makes the movements within them seem larger. Strout always starts off with a scene. “I learned that years ago, when my daughter was small and I only had a couple of hours: OK, if I can get a scene down with a heartbeat to it, then it will connect with others eventually. So when I write a scene, I try to use whatever is most urgent in me at that moment and transpose it into a character, so that it will be a living thing that’s real.” The scenes are always sequential and she often gets stuck. “Oh, all the time. And I just keep writing different scenes, keep literally scratching them out and lots of them end up on the floor. And then I’ll realise oh, this works, and this works with it.”
Strout does regret very well, and disappointment – the aching sadness of Olive’s bad relationship with Christopher, her son. She’s also good at the drive-by observation that doesn’t compact into a teachable moment, and at upending expectation to sometimes shocking effect. In one scene in the new book, a teenage girl permits a man with dementia to observe her touching herself up and, rather than feeling molested by his voyeurism, feels oddly empowered. It’s a risky scene but, says Strout, “I think that a part of me is always trying to write against the grain; I don’t mean the political correctness grain, but you’re always trying to look for the areas that are not obvious. So for her to actually do this, and feel important as a result of it, is going against the grain. That’s not why I did it, but it’s an interesting aspect of a human experience.”
It took Strout a long time to realise that Maine was her subject. She had spent so many years trying to leave the place that it seemed to her, in the first instance, perverse to return to it in her fiction. She grew up in a remote house outside Portland, where her father was a scientist – he studied parasites and tropical diseases – and her mother was an English teacher. She was an oddball in the family and in that part of the world. The New England character is, according to stereotype, shuttered, repressed, disinclined to outburst and Strout was none of these things. “I used to joke that there had to be some kind of mutation of genes,” she says. “There had to be! I have an older brother and he’s very Maine, very reticent, very much a Yankee. And he’ll tell you that himself, if he chose to speak to you. And I was always talking. My father would say to me at Thanksgiving – these joyless Thanksgivings, with a chicken with no spices and water not alcohol – and I can remember my father telling me: ‘When I put my hand to my tie, it means you’re talking too much.’”
Was she crushed by that? “Oh no! Not remotely. Every so often I’d see: Oh! His hand’s on his tie! And then I would just start to talk again.” After attending college, first Bates, in Maine, and later law school at Syracuse University, Strout said to her mother that she’d decided to be a writer. “And her response was: ‘Well you’ve never had a shortage of words.’” In fact, Strout would be 45 before her first novel was published. The strange thing, she says, is that she never doubted that it would happen one day. After graduating, she went to live in the UK, in Oxford for a year where a boyfriend was living and worked at a pub in the city. “And I tried to write stories but I had no success. I survived – I had a little bedsit, a room in a woman’s house outside of town and it was very grim. She didn’t like me.” Her stories were rejected and she carried on, less out of confidence than compulsion; “I can’t not do it.”
She was helped, she thinks, by her upbringing. “There was a tremendous isolation from the real world,” she says. “Because we had lived in the woods far away from anybody and when I wasn’t talking to my old aunts who lived down the road and paid no attention to me, I spent a lot of time alone. I developed inner resources, out there in the woods. I knew how to be alone. And I just kept thinking if I keep doing this I’ll get better. And then I finally did.”
When, in 2001, Amy and Isabelle, a novel about a mother and daughter living in Maine, was finally published and became a bestseller, Strout pulled out a big box of rejection letters from where she’d stored them in her basement in Brooklyn. “And I thought: ‘Well, now I can look at them and not care.’ But they hurt me all over again!” Strout hoots with laughter.
The turning point in her writing had come, surprisingly, when she enrolled in a standup comedy course in her late 30s. Something in her released, and for the first time, she realised that in order to write honestly, she had to look with a much clearer eye at where she had come from. “I was so white, as everybody up there – especially then – was, that I didn’t even know it. And then having moved to New York, I started to recognise there are many different cultures, but I still didn’t get who I was in the midst of all these cultures until I took that class; the routine was about making fun of myself for being from New England and so white, and then I realised oh my God, that’s who I am. It sounds stupid, but I was so insulated for so long, that I just didn’t know.”
She had been writing for about 15 years by then, without much success. “I was trying to write like a Writer, instead of finding my own voice; and the other mistake was I was trying to use a relatively new environment to write about – New York – that had not yet absorbed into me completely. At some point I remember being aware of a little bit of nostalgia for New England; a little tiny rumble of oh, right, the way the light would fall through the trees, and then I began to realise OK, that’s where I need to be writing about.”
There were encouragements along the way. “I would send Dan Menaker, at the New Yorker, probably two stories a year – I was so slow with my writing – and he would write back increasingly generous personal letters. And the last letter said please keep writing, because you’re writing better than 99.9% of what comes across my desk. So that was unbelievably helpful to me.”
She never starts a novel or a story with a big picture in mind. Even her 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, her most political work that took years to research and told the story of a hate crime in a Somali community, grew out of her interest in family dynamics. In Olive, Again, there are touches of politics; a Trump bumper sticker here, a caustic remark from Olive about the president there. But they don’t intrude and there is never a sense that Strout is trying to write a state of the nation novel. Her interest has always been more one of verisimilitude.
“Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to know what it felt like to be another person. That’s the engine that has propelled me. What does it feel like to be that person, sitting on the subway – I can see her trousers are a little snug so I know what that would feel like. I would spend so much time trying to figure out what it feels like to be another person.”
One of Strout’s concerns about Olive, Again, was that, as her character had aged and become more reflective, “she might not have the same pop that she had had”. That she had moved her into a mellower period? “Exactly. And yet she remains Olive.” She does. Olive is still Olive, her power is undiminished.
Many years ago, when the first Kitteridge book came out, Strout was approached by a young woman at a book event who told her that she was part of a group of young women from Greenwich, Connecticut, who met every Monday morning at Starbucks to discuss their “Olive moments” of the previous week. “It was so interesting. I don’t quite understand the reverberation, although I’m grateful for it,” she says. It is something to do with authenticity, the ineffable Olive-ness of Olive, a woman who, however disagreeable, “is who she is”. What would Olive make of that assessment? Strout grins. “She wouldn’t care.”
• Olive, Again will be published by Viking (£14.99) on 31 October.