Elizabeth Strout on how Olive Kitteridge returned unbidden, older and wiser but still with that “pop” that makes her so unique.
For years, Olive Kitteridge stayed quiet, tucked away in a folder her creator, writer Elizabeth Strout, had labeled “Olive Scraps.” After winning the Pulitzer Prize for her third book, 2008’s Olive Kitteridge, a novel built on interconnected stories, Strout was busy with other characters, ones outside of Olive’s immediate world in Crosby, Maine. There were other Mainers, like the Burgess siblings Jim, Bob and Susan, the main characters in 2013’s The Burgess Boys. There was Lucy Barton, a Midwesterner who had moved to New York and become a writer, and who narrated her own story in 2016’s My Name is Lucy Barton.
Then one day, when Strout was traveling solo in Norway, Olive appeared to her while she was checking her email in a cafe around the corner from her Oslo hotel. The often cranky retired schoolteacher from the fictional town of Crosby, Maine, who had uncanny insights and was capable of both deep kindness and petty judgments, was suddenly there.
“She honestly just showed up,” Strout says. “I could see her in her car, nosing it into the marina.” Olive had aged; she appeared to now be in her early 80s. “She was poking along with her cane. I just saw her so clearly that I thought, ‘OK, I guess I will have to write this down.’”
Strout had a weekend to kill. Some might have shopped or visited a museum. Not Strout. “I am just too squirrelly,” she says. “I don’t like to jaunt around.” She tells this story while sitting on the enclosed porch of her home in Brunswick, a few months out from the much anticipated October release of Olive, Again, the sequel to Olive Kitteridge. The publicity whirlwind had begun in the spring, with talks and trips, including one to New York for Book Expo, the biggest booksellers event annually.
Typically Strout writes her first draft long hand, but in that cafe, she started to type on her laptop, keeping up with Olive as she continually popped into her head.“I didn’t have to do anything,” she says. By the end of the weekend, she’d sketched out a story called “The Poet.”
She was in the middle of writing Anything is Possible, a 2017 sequel of sorts to My Name is Lucy Barton. Like Olive Kitteridge, Anything is Possible is a collection of stories, but featuring Lucy’s people. So after Strout reworked the draft of “The Poet” back at home, she put the story aside. “I thought, ‘Oh, well, OK, so I have an Olive story. And then…”
The door to the porch opens and Jim Tierney, Strout’s husband, pokes his head in. He’s tall and thin, like Strout, with a shock of silver hair and bright blue eyes. He’s heading out for a walk. The laundry is in the spin cycle. He’s checking in: “Are you guys safe down here?”
Having affirmed all is well, he departs. Tierney, 72, who teaches at Harvard Law School and is a former Maine Attorney General and state legislator, met Strout at a reading of Olive Kitteridge in New York not long after its publication. He stood up and identified himself as being from Lisbon Falls and asked a question. Both of them were divorced, with grown children (Strout has a daughter, Zarina). They had one date, or maybe two, they can’t recall, and then moved in together. They married in 2011 and divide their time between New York and Brunswick, where Tierney grew up and went to school. Strout, 63, grew up in Harpswell, on a road lined with Strout relatives, and in Durham, New Hampshire, where her father taught at the University of New Hampshire and her mother taught English.
Back from her European trip, Strout was working in her studio in Brunswick, looking through folders and found the leftover scraps from Olive Kitteridge. “I had all these handwritten scenes of Olive that I had not used,” she says. “It was like, oh, OK, let’s see what she’s up to.” She started the book as soon as Anything is Possible was done. “Even maybe before.”
Her only worry, she says, was, “Will Olive still have her pop? But for me she did.”
Her editor at Random House, Susan Kamil, had never asked about more Olive stories. They’ve worked together on four books, beginning with The Burgess Boys. “I totally trust that she knows where she is headed with every manuscript and respect her creative process,” Kamil said in an email. Her response to Olive’s return? “Pure joy,” Kamil says.
Four books in six years. Before that there were three in a decade. Stories sneaking in about past characters while she’s in the middle of another book. Olive, Again not even published yet and Strout says she is almost finished with another book. Is this just the natural result of a writer who didn’t publish until she was in her early 40s, unleashing stories bottled up for decades?
“I don’t know that I was bottled up as much as I just couldn’t find my voice,” Strout says. She wrote from the time she was a small child, but from 20 to 40, she was seriously focused on developing her craft. “I spent years and years and years trying to find my storytelling voice and then I found it. And also, I got older, so there were more life experiences that arrived, that one can use in various ways in their work. But I was apprenticing that entire time. I was really working those first 20 years.” Back then, she sent story after story out, and got a steady stream of rejections, including from The New Yorker. She couldn’t find an agent and she assumed, based on the rejections, that the stories weren’t good enough. So she’d rework them. Then Daniel Menaker, the same editor who had kept rejecting her (kindly) at The New Yorker, moved on to an editing job at Random House. He read Amy and Isabelle and loved it so much he helped Strout find an agent. Random House published it in 1998. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. That was when Strout began to feel she’d found her voice. “That was the biggest leap for me to get over,” she says.
Now she’s in a powerfully creative phase. “It is kind of crazy,” she says. “So I think I will slow down,” she adds, not entirely convincingly.
On the porch, hanging pots of flowers, that Tierney got at the farmers market and has been assiduously watering, have dripped on the windowsill, leaving behind a little dirt. Strout wipes at with her finger and remarks on how easily things get dirty. At one point in her life, she says, she was a house cleaner, scrubbing houses “up and down the coast.” In Olive, Again Olive encounters a sensitive teenager named Kayley Callaghan, who cleans houses in Crosby, including for a widow who makes Kayley use a toothbrush on the kitchen tiles. “That’s why I can write about people like Kayley Callaghan,” Strout says. “I’ve scrubbed that tile before, with a toothbrush.”
INSPIRATION AND IMAGINATION
It’s a safe bet that whatever question Tierney asked at the reading where they met, it wasn’t the age-old one posed at every public author event ever: “Where do you get your inspiration/ideas?” That question often seems like a quest to prove that fiction isn’t so much an act of imagination as it is about rearranging lived experiences. The writers who get it really right, who paint humanity in the clearest strokes, tend to be grilled particularly intensely on these matters. In both a 2017 New Yorker profile and a 2016 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, there was an underlying sense of the interviewers going spelunking in Strout’s past, as if in turning over the right rock, they’d find out who Olive Kitteridge was before Strout put her on the page. That there is a traceable model for her, or for Lucy Barton, and they all lead back to Strout and her Maine roots.
That is a pointless exercise on many levels. Olive is everywhere. Shortly after our interview, I’m loading groceries into my car at Hannaford when a woman loading her own car says to me, “I like your pants.” I’ve barely had time to glance down at my pants, striped, in loud colors, and look up with a smile when she adds, “I wouldn’t wear them, but I like them.” Olive.
But how does Strout get it so right, it meaning the human condition generally? How does she tune herself into the frequency at which Olive and all the others can be found? The first time Olive showed up in Strout’s head, she was loading the dishwasher and had a perfect view out of Olive’s eyes as she stood by a picnic table at her son Christopher’s wedding.
It’s history she’s recording, Strout says. Not literally, but if a century from now, there are still books and someone finds those written by Elizabeth Strout, she hopes they understand that she was serving as a literary historian of American culture. Her characters are people of Puritan stock, the kind she knows best, but who are fading in relevance—or so Strout hopes—as culture expands and diversifies and shifts. “I am trying to record,” she says. “Whether people recognize that or not is not something I can control, but that is what I am up to.”
WHAT ABOUT JIM?
Maybe because of all that previous spelunking, some of the people close to Strout aren’t eager to be interviewed. They pass on word that their friendships with her are sacred, which makes sense. There is also the possibility that they don’t want to disrupt any part of her creative process. Then Strout suggests talking to Tierney.
Tierney is crazy about Strout. When he says “my wife” those two words have the heft of a love sonnet, one so sincere that even a skeptic like Olive might refrain from rolling her eyes. Setting up the interview, he sends an email summarizing his wife’s success as a writer:
She doesn’t do book reviews. She doesn’t do literary criticism. She very rarely blurbs. She isn’t on any Boards. She is off the speaking circuit. She doesn’t do literary parties. She doesn’t do festivals. She doesn’t hang out with movie stars or critics. She doesn’t go to openings. She doesn’t go to the theatre or the opera. She writes, and she writes for readers. Sometimes that may be hard for people to understand, but it really is that simple.
None of this is in dispute. Strout doesn’t have a work ethic so much as she has a work imperative. It was fun and pleasing to have Olive Kitteridge adapted into a miniseries for HBO, starring Frances McDormand, but Strout didn’t need that to happen. She helped with the adaptation of My Name is Lucy Barton for stage, which wowed audiences in London (Laura Linney will be reprising the one-woman play on Broadway in January). But these were extras. These are not the real thing, which is writing. A few days later, Tierney sits on their porch and elaborates.
“What is it like to live with Liz Strout?” he says. “She notices everything and she never forgets.” He repeats it for emphasis. “You’ll see this reflected in her writing in ways that, even for me, who has lived here my whole life, I don’t see. She sees things.”
At restaurants, for example. “We’re not foodies, but we like to go out to eat.” (Translation, they are more likely to be found at Fairground Cafe at the Topsham Fair Mall than The Drifter’s Wife.) Strout notices that when waitresses offer to wrap up food for customers, Mainers will ask to take home their french fries, the soggiest of leftovers. Or that Maine people don’t use umbrellas or like to shake hands. “She notices all these kinds of things,” Tierney says. “I mention those three examples, but there are many, many more.” And these are the kind of details that tend to show up, in natural ways in characters on the page.
He credits Strout’s mother, Beverly, who taught writing to high school students, for some of those observational powers. Strout herself describes her mother as “probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. In terms of emotionally laser-like, she just…boy, she knows it.” Strout’s mother is 92, but her fascination with people has not dwindled. Tierney tells a story about Strout driving her mother to Walmart last summer. It was a hot day and her mother was staying in the car, but she asked her daughter to park close to the entrance—rather than in the shade—so she could watch people come and go.
“That is something that Liz got from her mother,” Tierney says. “This unstoppable, insatiable curiosity about the human condition. And to know details. Liz notices trees and weather and she knows all about flowers and all that stuff. That came from her childhood.” Her childhood in Harpswell, where the woods were often her primary companions. But he believes there is credit due her father, Richard (Dick) Strout, as well, who died in 1998. Dick and Beverly first met at Edward Little High School in Auburn, where he was president of his class and the captain of the football team. Not necessarily a great student, but from what Tierney has heard, “dogged.” Dick Strout served a year in the Navy after Edward Little and went on to the University of Maine, where he and Beverly reconnected. He became a parasitologist, specializing in tropical diseases. He developed a diagnosis for one of them, Chagas.
“How does this translate to Liz?” Tierney says. “Her mother is a hard worker too, but Liz is the hardest worker I know. I work very hard, and she works much harder.” He thinks her attention to detail and language is not dissimilar to the attention Dick Strout must have paid to his study of tropical diseases. “This woman will write a sentence over and over. It’s not just about getting the sentence right. It’s about getting the phrase right. It’s about getting the word right. The internal syllables within the word. If they do not sound right, they will not go in the book.”
As the publisher and editor-in-chief at Random House, Susan Kamil edits only a few authors, including Strout. “To be honest, one doesn’t really ‘edit’ Liz Strout,” Kamil says. “When the material comes to me it is in such fine shape—by that I mean she has thought through absolutely everything on the page before she shares it—that mostly I’m in her hands, she is not in mine.”
Strout always wanted to be a writer, although she has said she also wanted to be an actress. You see that in her gestures sometimes. Strout’s fingers move through the air in ways that recall the way Olive waves or Lucy Barton’s mother flutters her fingers through the air. She also played piano seriously during her youth. The summer before she started college at Bates, Strout apprenticed at what is now the Maine Summer Music Theater, building and painting sets on the Bowdoin College campus. She worked “like a dog,” Tierney says, but in free moments, she’d slip into a nearby college building where there was a piano to practice. She did the same when she got to Bates and again at Syracuse University, where she studied law, seeking out pianos. She was good enough to play at bars to earn money, which was more lucrative than waitressing or house cleaning. Then Strout gave up the piano. Early on in their relationship, she told Tierney she had worked hard on her skills, but would still miss some notes, half notes inside the phrasing, notes so quick she couldn’t hear them. It was frustrating and disappointing.
He encouraged her to start playing again. She said no. It had been 25 years, she said. Tierney kept pushing. “Like anybody else, I read Olive Kitteridge and I see that Angie O’Meara practices in a church,” he says. He asked Jane Connors at Brunswick’s First Parish church if she’d mind letting Strout in to practice. And so that business of tuning in to play music began again. Tierney bought her an upright piano for their New York apartment and another for their Brunswick home. “Now she will play two or three hours a day, and I’ll say, ‘Are you back where you were?’ and she’ll say, ‘Yes I am.’” Now, she says, she can hear the notes within Mozart that she was always reaching for. “I do feel that everything my piano teacher said to me all those years ago comes back to me now with a fresh meaning,” Strout says.
“You have on the one hand this capacity to notice everything and remember everything,” Tierney says. “And you have this discipline, with a very keen ear that can extract, in a very artistic way. If she was a painter, I’d come home and she’d be covered in paint.” But she is a writer and so he comes home and she is sitting in her chair, with her thoughts, or she is at the piano, working out some scene in her head while her fingers make music.
Around this time Tierney breaks off the conversation to ask about Olive, Again. “What did you think?” (Pure joy.) The book isn’t out yet so he’s eager to talk with someone who has read it. He wants to talk about the past characters who make guest appearances. And about a character named Fergie, who dresses up in Civil War garb for re-enactment exercises on a grassy mall area in Crosby (that sounds a lot like one in Brunswick) and then struggles with a twist in his family life. Tierney loves this story. “You can’t get any funnier than Fergie,” Tierney says, clutching himself as he recalls various details, like the fact that Fergie’s grandson is named after his dog. “Where does she come up with that?”
“You have on the one hand this capacity to notice everything and remember everything,” Jim Tierney says. “And you have this discipline, with a very keen ear that can extract, in a very artistic way.”
There’s affection in that portrait of Fergie. And a sense of community. “It’s not sugar-coated,” Tierney says. “It’s not lobster traps. It’s the real deal here.”
Without giving away any spoilers (but know this: the last story in Olive, Again will make a longtime Strout fan swoon), there’s more that’s recognizably Maine in this new book. Both Olive books are set in Crosby, an invented place named after Strout’s college roommate. But whereas in Olive Kitteridge the only real place name is Cook’s Corner, in Olive, Again there are more references to place, the kind that will make a Mainer who exits 295 at Exit 28 sit up and take notice. Like Cottle’s, the name of the supermarket that preceded Hannaford; Strout and Tierney refer to that Hannaford as Cottle’s (in Brunswick, many Baby Boomers do the same).
Crosby has things Brunswick doesn’t have, like a waterfront and a marina. “In my head Brunswick is not Crosby,” Strout says. But maybe she’s let more Brunswick into Crosby. “One might say she’s spent slightly more time here in the last 10 years,” Tierney says.
“I guess I also feel more relaxed,” Strout says. “Like these are real Maine names, real Maine references. I am writing a piece of fiction. I don’t have to have it completely accurate. I can just use the names that are so good. They are. Just. So good.”
When she was working on Anything is Possible, she and Tierney drove around the Midwest together, stopping in graveyards, where Strout would take note of names. “I do help with names,” says Tierney. There’s someone in Olive, Again who shares a name with a former classmate of Tierney. Actually two of his former classmates.
Strout and Tierney are two people who have a great deal in common. Strout also has a law degree, although she practiced for less than a year before deciding she’d rather be a waitress if it got her more writing time. “Liz is a very good lawyer,” Tierney says. “She reads all her own contracts. I have watched her negotiate.” They both believe in supporting local institutions and organizations, which is how Strout came to give the graduation speech at the University of Maine Farmington this May. They both read, a lot. Tierney has spent a lifetime buried in legal reading, but he’s always made a point—long before he met Strout—to devote a third of his reading time to fiction. She recently finished a two-volume biography of Elvis Presley and another of Aretha Franklin. They like to travel. Italy is a favorite destination, and for Tierney, Bosnia.
Finally, there is room in their household for all the characters who come calling, even prickly Olive. “These people all live with us,” Tierney says. “All these characters live here, with us. Our conversations will be impossible for anyone to follow…She will talk about Helen or Jim or Bob or Susan or Tyler or Fergie. Once they are formed, they are very much part of our lives.”
He smiles. “It is a great way to live. I feel very fortunate. We laugh a lot.”
Susan Kamil agrees that Strout is in a “sweet spot” in her creative life. Asked what she thinks that productivity is owed to, she writes only that “Liz seems to be very happy.” Put the same question to Tierney, and ask if it has anything to do with him, the piano-buying extrovert who guards her privacy and makes her laugh, and he considers.
“How can I answer this honestly?” he says. “She is being very productive. She is happy writing. We are very happy, so maybe that helps.
“She loves to write,” he goes on. “She can’t stop the images coming in. It is impossible.”
Back to his point about the piano. “Liz’s ear is so good,” Tierney says. “She hears a note that the rest of us don’t hear.” But one we recognize when we see it on the page.
Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine.