With the kind of reception that Elizabeth Strout's debut novel Amy and Isabelle received, one might have expected her to rush right back to her writing desk to author a follow-up while the proverbial iron was still hot. However, that is not the way that Strout works. "I wish tremendously that I was faster about all this," she recently told Bookpage.com. "But, you know, it didn't turn out to be that way." It ultimately took her about seven years to write Abide with Me, her sophomore effort, and the amount of time she put into crafting the novel is apparent on every page.
The multitudinous hours that went into writing Abide with Me are not anything new to Elizabeth Strout. She took any equally measured number of years to writer her debut, which she developed out of a short story. "It took me around three years to ‘clear my throat' for this book," she told Bookreporter.com at the time of the release of Amy and Isabelle. "During much of that time Amy and Isabelle remained a story. Once I got down to actually writing it as a novel it took another six or seven years." However, the pay off for the time she spent writing this humorous, expertly rendered tale of the troubled relationship between a mother and her daughter was substantial. Amy and Isabelle received nearly unanimous praise, lauded by Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time Magazine, People Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. The novel also nabbed nominations for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and was the subject of a 2001 made-for-television movie starring Elizabeth Shue.
So, what kept Strout from completing her second novel sooner? Perhaps it was her unorthodox writing methods. "I try to get in three or four hours (of writing per day)," she explains, "and I put off having lunch for as long as I can because having lunch seems to change the energy flow. If I'm lucky, I'll get through till one o'clock. And then I throw everything out. And that's a morning's work."
While Strout may be indulging in a little good-natured, comical leg-pulling, she did not write Abide with Me to elicit giggles from her readers. This somber piece introduces Tyler Caskey, a minister in a small New England community whose mounting personal doubts following a tragedy cause the community that he serves to develop their own doubts about his ability to guide them spiritually.
While Abide with Me stands in contrast to the comparatively humorous Amy and Isabelle, it was not Strout's intention to render a serious exploration of theology or religion. She views the book as more of a character study. "It is the story of a minister," she explains. "I was interested in writing about a religious man who is genuine in his religiosity and who gets confronted with such sadness so abruptly that he loses himself. Not his faith, but his faith in himself."
With the admiration already pouring in for Abide with Me, Strout may very well have another bestseller on her hands. Publishers Weekly has called this striking novel "a harrowing meditation of exile on Main Street," while Booklist suggested that "Readers who enjoyed...Amy and Isabelle... will find much to move them in this tale of a man trying to get past his grief amid a town full of colorful people with their own secrets and heartaches."
Such praise may be of little interest to Strout, who once told Bookreporter.com, "When I finish a piece, I put it behind me and look to my future work." But considering her leisurely work methods, it may be several years before her readers get their hands on her any of her future work -- not that Strout needs to worry about whether or not her fans will forget her. As long as she continues producing work as rich and compelling as Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, she can take all the time she needs.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Strout:
"My first job was when I was about 12, cleaning houses in the afternoons for different elderly women in town. I hated it. I would be so bored scrubbing at some kitchen tile, that my mind would finally float all over the place, to the beach, to a friend's house...all this happened in my mind as I scrubbed those tiles, so it was certainly good for my imagination. But I did hate it."
"Without a doubt my mother was an inspiration for my writing. This is true in many ways, but mostly because she is a wonderful storyteller, without even knowing it. I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people's families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer."
"Later, in college, one of my favorite things was to go into town and sit at the counter at Woolworth's (so tragic to have them gone!) and listen to people talking; the waitresses and the customers -- I loved it. I still love to eavesdrop, but mostly I like the idea of being around people who are right in the middle of their lives, revealing certain details to each other -- leaving the rest for me to make up."
"I love theater. I love sitting in an audience and having the actors right there, playing out what it means to be a human being. There is something about the actual relationship that is going on between the audience and the actors that I just love. I love seeing the sets and costumes, the decisions that have been made about the staging...it's a place for the eye and the ear to be fully involved. I have always loved theater."
"I also like cell phones. What I mean by that is I hear many people complain about cell phones; they can't go anywhere without hearing someone on a cell phone, etc. But I love that chance to hear half a conversation, even if the person is just saying, ‘Hi honey, I'll be home in ten minutes, do you want me to bring some milk?' And I'm also grateful to have a cell phone, just to know it's there if I need it when I'm out and about. So I'm a cell phone fan."
"I don't especially like to travel, not the way many people do. I know many people that love to go to far-off and different places, and I've never been like that. I seem to get homesick as quickly as a child. I may like being in some new place for a few days, but then I want to go home and return to my routine and my familiar corner stores. I am a real creature of habit, without a doubt."
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In the winter of 2006, Elizabeth Strout took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Perhaps the book that had the greatest influence on my career as a writer was The Journals of John Cheever. Of course many, many books had influenced me before I read that, but there was something about the honesty found in Cheever's journals that gave me courage as a writer. And his ability to turn a phrase, to describe in a breath the beauty of a rainstorm or the fog rising off the river... all this arrived in my life as a writer at a time when I seemed ready to absorb his examples of what a sentence can do when written with the integrity of emotion and felicity of language.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- Because her ability to display the multiplicity of character, the complexities of every person's emotional and psychological make-up at any given moment, was immediately breath taking to me the first time I read it, and I have read it many times since, always finding something new.
Summer by Edith Wharton -- This is not one of her better known books, but the tale of a young woman in the Berkshire hills is beautifully written and captures the anxiety of love and the claustrophobia that a young person may experience in small towns. Also, Wharton's understanding and general compassion for human nature has always pulled me right into her work.
Latecomers by Anita Brookner -- This is my favorite of all her books because it is the story of two couples, and she switches point of view periodically, so that I felt I inhabited all their inner lives; and they were human and fault-filled and lovely.
Rabbit At Rest by John Updike -- This book touched me very deeply because of the inner honesty the character of Rabbit displayed. He knew who he was, and while his behavior was not always likable, to say the least, his story went right to my heart because of his desires and quiet fears, and because Updike can write sentences that render an image so accurately, it is like being right there.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- This book amazed me in its intelligence and humor and deep feelings of the power of desire; I first read it years ago, and when I reached the part where Humbert Humbert finds Lolita, pregnant and not so lovely, I was terribly affected. I think it's a remarkable book.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner -- I learned the beauty of timing and patience and the awe that was the reward as I read this book. Stegner captured a period of history with characters so real I feel I met them, and a love story so tragic and moving I still think of it at times.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- This was the first "grown-up" book I read as a child, and so it will always have a special place in my heart. It showed me the inside of a world that I never knew anything about, and made me feel as though Scout were my friend -- all this is what good literature should do, and to have it happen to me when I was still very young was thrilling and very influential. I had overheard my mother talking about the book to my father, and so I asked for it, and in a way it changed my life -- it showed me what books do.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- Reading this book was a joy that lasted a long time, as I read it slowly and savored every scene. The characters, especially Pierre, went deeply into my heart, and the understanding of the complexities of human nature were very lovely to me.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- I am always interested in character, and in the multiplicity of character, how many sides we have to our nature, how much confusion is caused by this. And this book seemed able to put its large and generous arms around all of this; full of surprises, large and small, and always so beautifully earned.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I have always loved the movie Cabaret, because of the different stories that are intertwined, and the depiction of history, the desperation of human beings, the sadness we absorb, the cruelties of prejudice. It stayed with me a long time for these reasons.
I did not grown up seeing many films, so I came rather late to this form, but when I discovered Hitchcock's films I loved them for their marvelous sense of timing.
I was very impressed with Capote recently, the acting, the story line, the camera work -- all of it seemed to be hitting the right notes.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to any music when I'm writing, but I like a whole array of music; classical and some opera, and also Leonard Cohen and the Rolling Stones; I also like the music of Stephen Sondheim.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
If I had a book club it would be reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, because I find that many people have not read some of these marvelous classics, and I think this book is so good at portraying the multiplicity of character that I'm interested in, that a person can read it more than once and find a trove of diamonds in it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give and get biographies -- mostly biographies of writers, but also biographies of political leaders as well. I like the biographies of Philip Larkin and John Keats that the poet Andrew Motion wrote, and I like to read about history, especially American history, which I find that I know less about than I should, being American. I read a great deal of history of World War II for my new book, Abide with Me. Very little of what I read did I end up using, but I loved reading it.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My main writing ritual is to try and write as early in the day as I can, before my mind gets cluttered with "errands" -- I write at an old kitchen table and it is always, always cluttered with papers from many drafts and different stories. Sometimes I try and straighten it up, but it seems hopeless, and there is often something lying there that I find I need. But it really is messy.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on a collection of connected short stories. They all take place in one small town, and there is a main character, Olive Kitteridge, who many of the stories will dwell on primarily. Even when the story is about some other member of the town, Olive will make a cameo appearance.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I wanted to be a writer from my earliest memory, and started sending out stories in high school to different magazines. The reason (one reason) I went to law school was because I was afraid to fail as a writer, but I was such a terrible lawyer (my brief six-month career) and I missed writing so much I decided it was far better to fail than to avoid truly trying. Even then it was years before I was able to write the novel Amy and Isabelle, which was rejected by many agents before it found its home. There is nothing romantic about the vast amount of rejection one goes through as a writer. It wears one down continually, and one simply keeps going in spite of it. But it is very hard -- that business of rejection that goes on far longer than one ever thought it could or would or should.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
The Student Conductor by Robert Ford was written in 2003, and I liked it very much. He managed to write about the sounds that music makes in a fresh and original way, and to tell a compelling story at the same time.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I think one must just keep writing and making the work something that is as good as possible. Often there is a rush to publish, and the rejections are so tiring that I see people start to write more quickly to get more out there, and then it just gets rejected. It is far more worthwhile to concentrate on the work itself, and then have faith that it will make its way. If you spend too much time worrying about the publishing part, the actual work will suffer. And you need to protect yourself from anything that makes the quality of your work suffer. At the same time you have to keep working in the face of rejection, and it's hard. But if you are lucky, not writing will be more painful than rejection, and so you will keep writing. And that is what matters.
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