When Elizabeth Strout, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her book “Olive Kitteridge”, sits down to write, she does not think of her “responsibility to her readers”. Strout says, “As long as I was writing I am okay…when I look up I think if my readers come to me for an honest understanding of human emotions, I should not let them down, then I get into a kind of panic! Writing is a solitary endeavour…you are not really alone, you are with your characters but then you are alone…I prefer to write as soon as I can in the morning…before I have had a lot of conversations…”
Strout has the same thing for lunch everyday because, “I’ve noticed for years that eating cuts the day and the afternoon work is different…after lunch you start thinking about other things…So most of my work is done early in the morning…sometimes I work a second block. I am not super regimented…and yet. I don’t know the story when I sit down. Ever. I have a vague general idea. Sometimes I will even start because of the way the light comes through the door or some abiding image that does not go away…I don’t know what I do, how I write…it does not work for a long time. There is always a time when there is a sense of panic…it can be a long time…particularly after all the research I had done to equip myself with the Somalia situation…it was all a mess and I seemed to be walking through the mess…but it helps…then there is a sense of panic. I have gone too far to stop. I have to tell the story…and then I decide I have to get down to it and make sense…”
Strout’s book, “The Burgess Boys” is about Somalia refugees in the all white city of the U.S., Maine. She has called it the Burgess Boys, but there is also a sister Susan, in the story, “The story is of the Burgess boys, two brothers. They were the ones who changed themselves, they go off and be somebody else…the sister is obviously very important, she is more a kind of catalyst…”
Strout says the real incident that took place in Maine when a boy threw a pig’s head into a mosque did not spark off her book but only added more conviction to her book. It was difficult for her to write about Somalia and so she did a lot of homework, “First thing I did was to read about the history of Somalia…then I moved on to the camps and read a great deal about them. I went to any event where Somali refugees were talking…I had to work for a while…but gradually I made friends and they introduced me to some people and I spoke to some families…”
The one feature of Strout’s characters is that even the not-so-likeable characters are presented with much empathy, why? “Zackery threw the pig’s head. A reprehensible act in real life for sure but it was very important to me to make it clear that Zackery was not aware of the import of what he had done…We are all interesting and complex…I like my characters. For me writing, one of the many things I like about writing is that I get to be judgement free. In real life we are so full of judgement because we have to be I guess, on what is safe, how to live etc. In my stories, I make these people up. I don’t have to condemn them. I can watch them behave badly and love them. I understand why they behave badly…if I don’t understand the Somalis they will remain the other…and it seemed to be that they needed to have a voice… so I had this character to speak to me. By the time I was getting him on the page, I learnt a lot…”
Strout’s latest novel is “My Name is Lucy Barton” where she talks of a mother-daughter relationship and the tensions between the past and the present, proximity and distance and between generations.