Elizabeth Strout on why readers mean more than winning the Booker Prize

The author of Lucy By the Sea, Oh William! and Olive Kitteridge has charmed readers and critics alike by focusing on what other authors overlook: ordinary people.

It’s a crisp, cloudless October morning in London, and Elizabeth Strout is tucked into a well-stuffed armchair in a smart hotel lobby. For an author of her stature – nine novels, all bestsellers; a Pulitzer Prize; stage and screen adaptations; a potential Booker Prize win next week for her shortlisted recent novel, Oh, William!; and a new one, Lucy By the Sea, out in a matter of days – such a fancy setting makes sense. But for an author whose novels inhabit the well-worn and the overlooked, the homely comforts of faded tablecloths and sun-warmed wood – it feels overly formal.

Strout, who is 66, has been publishing literary fiction inspired by the emotional nooks of everyday life since 1998, when her debut novel Amy and Isabelle was released to critical acclaim and a spot on the bestsellers list. Since then, she’s maintained that rare balance: of being equally appealing to mainstream readers and literary critics alike, winning admiration from Zadie Smith and the late Hilary Mantel while being devoured and discussed at book clubs across the world.

It’s a skill that comes from a place of deep observation: Strout’s work is about the stuff other authors don’t choose to see. “I think,” she tells me, “that everything about everybody is extraordinary.”

It's why she’s managed to create characters so vivid, so unfailingly human, that even their portrayal by actors such as Laura Linney (who played the title character of Lucy Barton on Broadway and in London) and Frances McDormand (the loveably cantankerous Olive Kitteridge in an Emmy-winning TV series) can’t quite eclipse the Lucies and Olives readers picture in their heads.

Strout had not, she says, planned on bringing back Lucy Barton – in her mid-sixties now, in Lucy By the Sea – for another book. “I never intended to write another one about that character. But then, you know, it's like, Olive showed up again. And I just said, ‘Okay, I have to deal with you?’ And then Oh William! showed up, because of the Laura Linney thing [while in the midst of rehearsing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Linney clapped her hand to her head and said, ‘Oh William!’ unscripted, referring to her first husband William, which inspired an onlooking Strout]. And so I thought, ‘Okay, he gets his story.’”

Strout had “just finished” Oh, William!, she says, when the pandemic started. “They were so vividly still in my head that I thought I need to do something with them during this time. I thought, well, ‘Let's get them to a different part of Maine. Stick them in a house and see what happens.’”

What unfolds in Lucy By the Sea is the well-patched quilt of memory, story and thought that Strout’s readers will recognise from her other novels, Olive Kitteridge, Olive, Again and My Name Is Lucy Barton. Things happen: Lucy and William leave New York just ahead of the pandemic; a Trumpian culture war and an opioid crisis play out, quietly, in the background. But Strout largely plays in the realm of people’s emotions: what happens in the messy little misunderstandings between friends and the heart-breaking, unspoken distance that creeps into families. Affairs, divorces, love stories and the long tail of trauma from childhood abuse drift into drives to L.L. Bean and cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Strout wears thick, black-framed glasses, a slick of dark red lipstick and a silk scarf around her neck. I ask her what she says when people unfamiliar with her work ask what she writes about, and she is definite: “Oh, just the most ordinary people in the world. I'm just so interested in the most ordinary people in the world because I actually don't think anybody's ordinary. I think we're just filled with different multitudes of experience and thought and feeling, every single person.”

'It was very restorative for me to be able to have this darling child and be able to love her in a way that I hadn't been'

She writes, she says, to “show people that they're not alone in the world, that they can get to know somebody else through my work and then realise, ‘Oh, that's what that person on the sidewalk might be feeling’. Or they can recognise themselves.” It might sound a little earnest, but Strout’s books gently unpick feeling and resonance until you’re left with something tender and true. I tell her that I’ve felt the need to call my parents a lot more while re-reading her work, something Strout says she finds interesting. 

Motherhood – both what it is to mother, and be mothered – echoes through Strout’s books, as do grief and joy. Lucy Barton’s mother appears soon after we meet the character, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, and remains a lodestar of revelation and longing until Lucy By the Sea. Even in her sixties, Lucy cries out to her imaginary “nice mother” in times of anguish. She also reflects on the growing distance between her and her daughters, now married with lives of their own. Strout writes about it, she explains, “because most of us have a mother, right? And many of us have children. It's just the way the world is.”

Strout has one child, a daughter, who is 39. The mere mention of her brings the author to effervescence. “I have loved her so much,” she says, beaming. “She brought me into a whole area of mothering that I didn't necessarily have. And it was very restorative for me to be able to have this darling child and be able to love her in a way that I hadn't been. It was enormously helpful to me.” She admits, though, to the need for more realistic depictions of motherhood: “I still think that it gets thrown into little baskets of nobody really directly talking about their feelings. Because it should all be just happy and little is ever said about concerns or worrying.”

When Strout’s debut was released, her daughter was 16, having been raised by a woman who had written since girlhood. “She would literally be eating her cereal in the morning off manuscripts that were piled all over the place. She didn't seem to care,” Strout remembers, “and she would always come home from school and say, ‘Did you get an agent yet, mummy?’ and I’d reply, ‘Not yet’. And she said, ‘Oh, you will.’”

'I’ve just watched people and listened to people. And when you really do that, you learn a lot.'

Strout did, although she admits “it did seem to take a lot longer than I thought, because I always knew that I was a writer.” Until it did, she took on all manner of jobs: waiting tables, playing the piano in cocktail bars, working in a shoe mill (“Which was helpful for Amy and Isabelle because I understood the whole office”) and, after studying there, in the secretarial pool of her college. “That was fascinating, because it was an entirely different view. Professors that I’d had were just so snobbish toward me because I was just the secretary now.” She honed observational habits that she says have been there her “entire life”: “I’ve just watched people and listened to people. And when you really do that, you learn a lot.”

It is in Lucy By the Sea that we hear most from the character on what it is to be a writer; she lets us in on a story she writes about a Trump-supporting police officer with caring responsibilities and encounters people who know her name from the spines on their bookshelves. Lucy isn’t, Strout says, a fictional version of her, although she’s aware people might think that. “I've stopped worrying about that,” she says. “I'm not Lucy, but I feel like I understand her very, very well.” During lockdown, while writing the book, Strout returned to Maine, where she grew up. “The coastline where I was brought up is so familiar to me that I almost don't see it anymore,” she explains, “and so then when I realised that Lucy had never seen it, I began to see everything I did through Lucy's eyes. And it was fascinating. Because I realised, ‘Oh my god, this is actually beautiful.’”

The prizes Strout has won remain less important to her, she says, than her readers; she still writes with an imaginary one in mind. “I feel like I’m in a relationship with the reader as I’m writing a book,” she says. “You need to be given truthful stuff to read. So that's my first responsibility. My second responsibility is to never show off. Never try and be writerly.” It is not easy, she agrees, to write with the straightforward efficacy of her sentences, but it’s something that happens after six decades of writing. “I've come to recognise a truthful sentence. I can't tell you right now what a truthful sentence is, but I can recognise it when I write one. That's what I'm trying to do.”

When she was writing her debut, Strout imagined “one reader: a young woman, who I bizarrely thought of as being in Illinois, going through the library stacks and finding my book and reading it and being made to feel better. And that was what kept me going, this one reader.”

I bring up the Booker Prize ceremony taking place the following week, and she shrugs it off a little – part professional self-deprecation, part pure apathy. Strout seems reluctant to acknowledge the accolades her books have earned her: “Every so often, I think, ‘Oh, look what I've done,’” she admits, a little reluctantly. But she’s achieved something higher: “I’ve reached people through my books, which is all I ever wanted to do.”

Lucy By the Sea is out now.

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