Almost twenty years ago exactly, I published my first novel, Amy and Isabelle, and one of the first interviews I had was on American national television with a famous journalist. As he smiled at me, and leaned in toward me, as though to ask me the most confidential question, he said, “Now tell me, Elizabeth. Why is it that you write about (pause) ordinary people?” I was surprised, and confused, and I said immediately, “Because I am ordinary.”
Years later, this question has stayed in my mind as one of the most confounding questions asked me during my career. I have since understood that the book had a blurb on the back by Alice Munro, which stated, “A novel of shining integrity and humor about the bravery and hard choices of what is called ordinary life.” And this – most likely -- is why he asked me what he did. I assume he did not read the book, and that his producers had. (Maybe they had not.) I also realize—I realized it even then -- that the journalist was not an ordinary person, he had many years of standing as a television personality. But still – the question lingers in my mind. Aren’t most of us ordinary people? The vast majority of people, it seems to me, are what could be called quite easily, ordinary.
In any event, my answer was honest: I am an ordinary person. And the people I know, and have known all my life, are ordinary people. And by this, I mean: they are just living their lives: losing their keys, having lunch, worrying about their kids, worrying about money, or planning a vacation. All of us inhabit our lives, lives that were given to us through a combination of genes and circumstances. Circumstances matter. Those born in poverty will have a different time living their lives than those born wealthy. And genes matter. Those born with a congenital problem will have this to contend with while the rest of us just sail around in our bodies, until they break down on their own.
But here is the thing: Ordinary lives are always extraordinary.
The outer world is the one we move through – but our inner world is the one we live inside of
This is what I have come to believe over the years; every life, if one could see into it enough, will prove to be extraordinary. Years ago, when I was in college, I spent hours – the way one does in college – idly arguing with a friend of mine over whether or not a person could be boring.
He contended that a person could be, and gave an example of a woman we both knew. His example gave me pause, Eleanor did seem – if anyone was – to be extremely dull – she was brilliant, and won a fancy post graduate Fellowship to Oxford – and yet she seemed to offer nothing personally when one was with her. (I have changed her name and circumstances for the purpose of this piece.) But I held my view that no, even Eleanor was not boring.
And it turned out she was not. Recently I saw her after almost forty years, and she astonished me. She was the same in many ways, but as I kept talking to her I found out that she had used none of her education, though she still loved to read, and that she was living on a farm in the rural Midwest – she adored the goats she tended to, especially - and had married a bus driver, whom she spoke of with great kindness.
Now, that’s a life. And those are only a few facts; who knows what she thinks about when she wakes in the middle of the night, as many of us do at times in our lives; who knows what conversations she and her husband have? Who knows?
But she has a life. And my job as a writer is to make up – were I to write about her in fiction, and I won’t – the things that we don’t know. The intricacies of a mind at work constantly, while the outer world is the one we move through – but our inner world is the one we live inside of.
A woman I know recently wrote me that reading about the people in my latest book, made her “feel better about her own life, because the people in the book are so screwed up.” This broke my heart a little bit; whose life is not screwed up at times? I am writing about people who live courageously, through circumstances that are not always their making. They are ordinary people, quietly living extraordinary lives.
Which, I think, would mean most of us.
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ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2017
Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2018
An unforgettable cast of small-town characters copes with love and loss from the No. 1 New York Times bestselling and Man Booker long-listed author of My Name is Lucy Barton
Recalling Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity, Anything Is Possible explores the whole range of human emotion through the intimate dramas of people struggling to understand themselves and others. Anything is Possible tells the story of the inhabitants of rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind.
Reverberating with the deep bonds of family, and the hope that comes with reconciliation, Anything Is Possible again underscores Elizabeth Strout's place as one of America's most respected and cherished authors.