Elizabeth Strout on writing Olive Kitteridge
Image: The Portland Head Light At Sunrise, Maine (c) Doug Lemke
The character of Olive Kitteridge first came to me as I was loading the dishwasher. I suddenly saw this large older woman standing on a lawn near a picnic table, her son recently married, thinking, “It’s really high time everyone left.” So I stopped loading the dishwasher and wrote this down, and out came the first piece of Olive; in this story she ends up stealing her new daughter-in-law’s bra and one shoe. What a surprise that was for me! After that, I understood Olive was with me to stay, and so I wrote a number of pieces with her as the main character. Then, as I continued the book, I realized that Olive lived in a community, and naturally those in the community would know her – or they would think they knew her. I am always interested in the fact that in small communities people believe they know each other, and yet they know only a sliver of that person. It fascinates me to think of the point of view of every person being different.
So I wrote a number of pieces with Olive having a small role, with a different character telling his or her own story. In this way, I watched as the town of Crosby, Maine, grew up around me. There is the piano player who was once lovely and has spent her life being the mistress of the town selectman, there is the young man who drives from New York City to be where his mother killed herself so many years earlier in Crosby, there is the man whose four sons have all grown and who finds himself at a surprising turning point in his life, there is the couple who bump into Olive and Henry Kitteridge at a concert and then go home to devastating news, there is Henry Kitteridge himself, husband of Olive, who has his own secrets and doubts -- as most people do.
But mostly there is Olive. And what interested me in writing about Olive, who behaves so badly at times, and so courageously at other times, is that she could never really see who she was. She could see, or understand, people if they were removed from her, if she was not fully invested in them. But the closer someone became to her – her husband, her son – the less clearly she could see them or the affect that she had on them, and it struck me that she was a larger extension of many of us in life. In many ways it is harder for us to see, the closer someone is to us. And it is often very hard to see oneself. And this is the case with Olive, only Olive is Olive, a huge – physically and psychically – presence. Yet by the end of the book, Olive has taken her hits, and she does in fact start to grow; she is honest with herself in a new way, and she has earned this.
I never write anything from beginning to end, and when I was writing Olive Kitteridge I was about a third of the way through making the book, when suddenly the last page came to me. So I wrote it down – I write by hand – and in the upper margin I wrote END? Then as I came to finally closing the book, there was the end, waiting for me, that final page was there. This sort of thing happens rarely, and it seemed a good thing.
My hope is always that readers receive a book when they need it; that after reading it they realize – even fleetingly – what it feels like to be another person. Or they realize – even more fleetingly – what it means to be them, in some way they knew but had forgotten.