An Exclusive Waterstones Q & A with Elizabeth Strout

Posted on 3rd March 2017 by Sally Campbell & Martha Greengrass
Described as ‘a glorious novel, deft, tender and true’ Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is a masterclass in masterful brevity, a novella that packs more of a punch than many that weigh-in at twice its size. Unfolding entirely over a few days in a single hospital room it is a novel that nevertheless ranges widely, across time and distance, both real and emotional, returning to many of the same themes that will be familiar to readers of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge. We caught up with Elizabeth Strout to ask her about memory, complicated families and how she finds humour in the darkest moments.

Photo: Elizabeth Strout (c) Leonard Cendamo

In My Name is Lucy Barton, the difficult relationship between parents and children is a theme that runs throughout the book. What is it about this relationship that draws you back again and again? To what extent do you think portraying parental emotion, particularly maternal emotion, ambiguously is one of the last taboos in fiction?

I really don’t know what draws me to write about parental relationships, but they are so complicated that they seem to be to be a writer’s dream, because life is messy, and to capture that messiness on the page has always appealed to me.  Whether or not this remains one of the last taboos in fiction, I couldn’t say.

Lucy Barton begins with the character remembering a nine week stay in hospital; it is a time that changes her sense of herself, her past and her memories. Your books often consider what happens to people in moments of physical frailty; hampered by old age or mental and physical illness. What is it that draws you to these moments in a character’s life?

I suppose I am drawn to physical frailty because I am drawn to the vulnerabilities of people.  People are more themselves at these points it seems to me, and that makes for good fiction.

In Lucy Barton the protagonist has left behind an impoverished childhood in a small community for a life as a writer in New York but seems unable to escape the lasting impact of her own history. How important do you think capturing the experience of remembering is to you as a writer?

To capture the essence of memory is very important to me as a writer because memory is so unstable.  We think we remember things, but do we really?  And yet even if the memory is not true, it came from somewhere in the character and that is interesting to me.

Your novels are brilliant at evoking the balance between how we, as individuals, feel drawn into communities and yet how these communal relationships constrain and frustrate us. How much of your fiction is drawn from observing the tension that exists between how we communicate with others at a surface level and the interior, hidden motivations bubbling underneath?

I would say most of my fiction is drawn from that very tension of the inner life versus the outer life.  We all live with some kind of inner life, and it is often not known to others, and so their perceptions of us are just partly real. My job as a fiction writer is to show that strange relationship between peoples’ perceptions of others and the inner reality a person lives with daily.

You’ve been described as a writer who is ‘bracingly unafraid of silences’ and you write often about (or around) the things your characters can’t find the words to say. What draws you to the ways in which people communicate when they can’t put what they feel into words? What are the challenges of bringing those moments to the page as an author?

Well, this goes to the answer above.  There are so many things we don’t say – or can’t say.  As a fiction writer I think it is my job to get across those things we can’t – or choose not to – say.  This is not easy, but it is the fun part of my job, to do what I can.

You’ve spoken about being an admirer of Edith Wharton. Wharton’s novels often set individual desire and ambition against the constraints of social and familial expectation. How much do you see your own fiction as following in the same tradition?

Wharton’s novels are very explicit about the individual against society.  I think I do a similar thing, but my society that I write about is, for the most part, very different from Wharton’s.  She wrote at a different period in history.  And time and place – with the injection of character – make a story what it is.

Your writing often blurs the distinction between form, particularly short stories and novels, most notably in Olive Kitteridge which appears to combine the two forms seamlessly. Are you always clear before you start writing what sort of story you’re creating or is the process more organic? To what extent do you think publishers are keen to pigeon-hole storytelling in one ‘box’ or another?

In my experience publishers are keen to pigeon-hole things as either stories or a novel, and in my case I write them both at once.  I do this organically, it arrives from the way I think or see; in Olive Kitteridge I understood her story needed to be told episodically and so I arrived at that form.

Your novels have serious themes but there’s a strong vein of dark humour running through them too, often stemming from perfectly described vignettes or snippets of conversation. Are these scenes often drawn directly from your own observations?

I’m so glad you think there is humor in my work – I think there are hilarious things in my work.  Often, I suppose, I use things I have observed personally, but I always put them in the mouths of my made-up characters and so they become immediately fiction.  Also, I make up things as I work, so I may very well use things that come straight from my head as I watch my characters perform.

In Lucy Barton your main character is a writer. As a child she realises that reading, and later writing, is a way of being less alone. Is that something you are aware of trying to create for your readers, of bringing them inside a world where they recognise themselves?

This is in fact one way that I am like Lucy Barton: I do write so that people will feel less alone.  But I would go further than Lucy:  I write so that people can also see others, can understand hopefully – even briefly – what it means to be another person, and this can make them more empathic.  This is my hope.


Often as readers we are observers of deeply private, intimate moments for your characters –observing them at their most vulnerable. How much do you see the novel as a form of confessional with the reader as a privileged confessor?

I don’t think of my work in terms of being confessional, but I can see what you mean by that.  I think of my work as going into the dark crevices of the mind and showing others that what they have thought and felt – so privately – have most likely been thought and felt by others before.

I’ve read that your next novel is something of a ‘companion piece’ to My Name is Lucy Barton, what drew you to return to these characters again? Did you always know that there were other stories here you couldn’t leave untold?

When I was writing about Lucy Barton and her mother, watching them speak of people from their hometown, I immediately became interested in those people and understood right away that they would have their turn, their own stories told.





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