‘She was always inflaming my imagination‘: Elizabeth Strout on the woman who made her a writer

Speaking on the Penguin Podcast, Elizabeth Strout talks about her ability to imagine character and her mother's impact on her career.

Elizabeth Strout, seen against a light grey background, in the process of putting on her glasses.

Elizabeth Strout is one of those rare authors who has managed to achieve commercial success and critical acclaim in equal measure. Her novels, which include Olive KitteridgeMy Name is Lucy BartonOlive, Again and, most recently, Oh William! have shifted more than a million copies and won her a Pulitzer Prize.

Strout was in her forties when she published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, after years of lacklustre legal training. But, she explained on the Penguin Podcast, the notion of her being a writer was instilled early in her life – by her mother. “I think it was my mother who made me a writer,” she told host Isy Suttie on the podcast. “From a very young age [she] gave me notebooks and told me to write down what I had done that day... And so from a very, very young age, I just thought in terms of sentences,” Strout said. “I think she was a huge influence… it just made me understand from a very young age that I was a writer.”

‘It’s only occurred to me this late in life that [my mother] probably wanted to be a writer herself’

Strout also says that, more recently, she has realised how her mother probably nurtured ambitions to be a writer. She taught expository writing in high school and university. “It’s only occurred to me this late in life that she probably wanted to be a writer herself,” Strout told Suttie, explaining that her mother demonstrated a curiosity about the world. “When we went into town she’d say, ‘Oh look at that woman, her coat’s not hemmed, I wonder what’s going on with her’. She was always inflaming my imagination.”

Listen to Elizabeth Strout on the Penguin Podcast

Such imagination is something Strout has also always remembered having, she told Suttie. “I was about 12 or 13, but I was working part-time at a little country store in Maine, and this woman walked in and started telling me that her husband had had a stroke,” she said. “As I was listening to her, I sort of felt a sense that her molecules were shifting into me and mine were shifting into her. I sound so crazy but that was the first time I realised that if you really listen, you can almost become her. There was that moment of community.”

“I’ve often thought there’s something porous about me,” she says. “It’s just something I’ve always done, is try to be inside somebody else.”

You can listen to the whole conversation, in which Strout discusses her latest novel, Oh William!, her short-lived standup career and more, above – and don't forget to subscribe to the Penguin Podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts, to be notified of future episodes.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more