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Three years ago, Elizabeth Strout was in New York sitting in on rehearsals for the stage version of her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton (a show that came to the Bridge theatre in London, directed by Richard Eyre) and was watching Laura Linney, an actor for whom she has the fondest regard, inch her way into the part. Linney stepped into the rehearsal space, pushed her spectacles on to the top of her head and started to murmur something about her character’s ex-husband – William. Strout, overhearing, exclaimed: “Oh William!” It was as if Linney had given her permission: she would write another Lucy Barton novel because William deserved a story of his own. Oh William! became the title of her new book and it has all the familiar pleasures of her writing: the clean prose, the slow reveals, the wisdom – what Hilary Mantel once described as “an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue” – the qualities that led to Strout winning the Pulitzer for fiction. But did she ever find out what was in Linney’s mind? “Laura has no memory of the moment at all, she was in her zone, doing whatever she was doing,” she laughs.
She is talking on Zoom – and as women of more or less the same age (she is 65), we find ourselves bonding instantly, commenting on our lame reflexes with technology, marvelling that we are able to talk at what seems an arm’s stretch and with the Atlantic between us. We confess to a dislike at having to look at ourselves on screen and reassure each other we look fine. Strout is sitting in what I guess to be her study, with pale yellow walls, books and paintings – a calm, civilised room. It feels absurdly easy to talk to her, as if we were catching up after a long gap.
Everything I wrote was slightly better than before but not good enough. Finally, I found my own way of story-telling
Until recently, she spent half her time in Manhattan but now lives in Maine full-time with her second husband, James Tierney, a former state attorney general (they met when he turned up at a reading of hers and they married in 2011). Strout has had a slow haul to success. Her early novels were rejected until Amy and Isabelle (1998), about a tricky mother/daughter relationship, turned out to be a hit and was made into a TV film in 2001. But it was in 2008 that Olive Kitteridge, a book of connected short stories about an intransigent woman with a loving heart, became a runaway bestseller, earned her the Pulitzer and was adapted into an outstanding Emmy award-winning mini-series, starring Frances McDormand as the redoubtable Olive. In 2016, My Name Is Lucy Barton attracted flocks of new admirers and stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for months. The writer Ann Patchett said of it: “I believed in the voice so completely I forgot I was reading a story.”
Why did Strout’s fortunes take so long to turn? She recalls a writing class in New York when young, with Gordon Lish, “a real legend”. He told his students that writers should be attentive to their inner time. “I wrote him a letter that said: ‘I know what you’re talking about and understand that my time will come later.’ I recognised this at 30. I’d been writing since I was a small child. I understood that everything I wrote was slightly better than what I’d written before but not yet good enough. Finally, I found my own way of story-telling.” Her writing life is, she says simply, about “continuing to learn the craft”.
The Lucy Barton books have been her “biggest risk – not least because I made Lucy a writer”. This involved the hazard of inviting readers to assume mistakenly that the novel was a self-portrait. And there was more to it. Lucy is the least attention-seeking of women – the challenge was to make her earn Strout’s attention on the page. She is one of that company in literature who suffer from poor self-esteem or hang about, initially, on the margins of their own lives. There is a sense in which she belongs with TS Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock or with Anne Elliot, the overlooked middle daughter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, or with Jane Eyre, although Jane is a bolder mouse than she. In Oh William! Lucy confides: “I’ve always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me.” The Barton novels are that pin.
In all her books, Strout’s keen interest in class and “the very bottom class in America” is evident. “Lucy has low esteem,” she argues, “because of what she came from.” William is from a more prosperous family but stumbles upon a secret that invites him to re-examine his roots. As the novel unfolds, Lucy’s friendship with her ex-husband revives and, after he discovers the existence of a sister he knew nothing about, William and Lucy set out on a road trip to find her.
Given the extent to which family history dominates the novel, it is natural to wonder about Strout’s ancestry. Does she know where “Strout” came from? “From England – my grandfather’s people were English and my mother part English. My mother’s first ancestor came over [to America] in 1603. This is something with which my mother is very impressed but I’ve never been impressed. I have to tell you, I’m not a person interested in my roots. I just do not care! This was my very first betrayal [of her parents] – that I didn’t care where my family came from or who they were. It’s terrible – but there you are.”
It is a revealing indifference that coincides with her only glancing interest in worldly detail. Her focus is more often interior: she travels light and runs deep. When explaining her family background, she keeps it simple: “We did not have much money but were not poor like Lucy.” Her father taught science at the University of New Hampshire. He was a parasitologist who created a method for diagnosing Chagas disease and briefly appears in the novel (“I thought I’d give my father a shout-out”). Her mother taught English at high school and also at the university. The family spent weekdays in New Hampshire and weekends in Maine. Elizabeth had an older brother but was a solitary child.
When I ask which place from her childhood is dearest to her, she is momentarily nonplussed. And in answering, I notice how careful she is to avoid specifics (she protects the privacy of place in novels too – many of her books are set in the invented Shirley Falls in Maine): “I no longer like being alone in the woods,” she tells me, “but, as a child, I spent a great deal of time alone there and it was magical. There were creeks and toads and little minnows and there were turtles and wild flowers and rocks and the sunlight would come through. In Maine, the sunlight is very specific in the angle that it hits the earth.”
The puritanical stock I came from did not care for New York City. I think they expected me to die!
There was no television nor any newspapers at home although her parents subscribed to the New Yorker. Books were plentiful: “I don’t remember reading children’s books – there weren’t any in the house. John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers (an early collection of short stories) was the first book I read. It made me think: ‘Huh! I’m not sure it pays to be a kid: there’s a lot of stuff going on with adults I need to know about!’” She devoured the Russians, read all of Hemingway one summer and found it “wonderful” to discover the classics on her own.
After leaving school, she went to Bates liberal arts college in Maine and, in 1981, to law school, after which she worked for a demoralising six months as a lawyer. Escaping a legal career, she moved, aged 27, to New York, where she supported her writing by waitressing. “Going to New York City was an enormous risk and wonderful freedom.” But her family could not conceal their dismay: “The puritanical stock I came from did not care for New York City. I think they expected me to die!”
* * *
It is inevitable that in a novel that considers what it feels like to get older, thoughts of dying should feature. William is in his 70s and often sleepless. Strout writes: “This had to do with death. It had to do with a sense of leaving, he could feel himself almost leaving the world and he did not believe in any afterlife and so this filled him on certain nights with a kind of terror.” Has she experienced this small hours wakefulness herself when worries crash in uninvited and all-comers show up to the party? “I’ve been an insomniac all my life,” she says, “I’m all of a sudden awake as though my brain wants to think about something.” And what is it that frightens her? “I’m afraid of how fast time goes at this point. I try to take note of every day but – what does that mean?”
How often does she think about death? “Every single day. I’ve thought about death every day since I was 10. It’s not that I’m morbid. I’m curious. I wonder about it.” She concedes that as one gets older, mortality becomes harder to ignore. She describes a “conscious sense of trying to clean up after myself. I’m not just thinking about death, I’m thinking: let’s make sure we’re responsible. I like the idea that when I die, it will all be gone – leaving just a shiny spot.” I say that sounds like a cartoon. She laughs and adds: “I want to do my best about it all,” with her signature mix of vagueness and decisiveness. The slow reveals of her writing apply to her nature too.
Although Strout is a respecter of mysteries, particularly her own, her great “driving force” as a writer is to “try to find out what it feels like to be another person”. She refers to a key realisation early on: “It came to me that I was never going to see from anybody else’s point of view except my own for my whole life. Isn’t that amazing? I wouldn’t know whether the red they were seeing was the red I was seeing – let alone whether their happiness felt like my happiness. I still can’t get over that.” It is an amazing but also a lonely realisation. And she admits to being constantly surprised by other people. Once, after giving a talk involving unknowability, she was approached by a “very cheerful middle-aged woman”, who declared: “I’ve never once thought about what it would be like to be another person.” And she wondered incredulously: “What does it feel like to be you?”
One of the questions the novel raises is what constitutes home. How does she define home for herself? “Home is people at this stage of my life. Home is where my husband is… even if he’s not home…” and she laughs at the conundrum. She is a mixture of open and closed, but about her immediate family she is at her most effusively free. A question about her daughter, Zarina Shea, causes this charming outburst: “I’m sorry but I love her almost pathologically, she’s amazing…” and then, lest this prove too much, she stalls. I take a guess: has your daughter gone the writing route? “She has! She’s a playwright. When she was little, we’d go into New York stationery stores and I remember looking down at her – she was about four – and seeing she was sniffing a notebook. I thought: Oh dear God! You poor thing – you’re going to be a writer!”
Notebook sniffers are the ones to watch. But might it be an illusion to think anyone has a choice in what they become? The question of unfree will – of whether we actually choose anything in our lives– dominates Oh William!. Strout first started thinking about this after meeting an adviser to the Obama administration who told her how seldom it was necessary to advise because the right decision would already be self-evident. Strout explores the soothing idea that when in doubt, you should watch yourself to see what you are already doing and follow in the direction of travel. Does she know what she follows? “No… I don’t… all my life, I’ve followed my instinct. I don’t know where that comes from or if others have such strong instincts.” And there it is again: the interested bafflement about other people.
Nowadays, she has no lack of company yet, in her fiction, loneliness persists as a central preoccupation. She must have experienced it herself? “For many years, I understood that other people might think I was lonely. I’d been used to being alone as a child. But I never felt lonely because I had my head and my head was – my friend,” she laughs. “And I was a writer and had always been a writer. But I was lonely in my 40s, after my first marriage broke up. And after becoming a published writer, I had to travel and stand in front of people and I hated that at first. But even then, I was glad I was me.” And, she adds, sounding afterwards a little taken aback by what she has just heard herself say: “I’d always rather be me than anybody else.”
• Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply