An author from Maine, now living and working in New York City, Elizabeth Strout published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, in 1998. The basic storyline echoed some unfortunate headlines, examining, “the close relationship between Isabelle and her teenage daughter Amy, how their relationship comes to be strained after Amy is groomed by her much older math teacher.”
A reviewer in the New York Times summarized the new writer’s talent: “…the story’s true drama lies in the palpable, intricate way it examines the ‘scrape of longing’ that drives these characters toward human contact, leaving them raw and bleeding yet also more fully alive.”
I read her debut, then her second novel, Abide with Me, (2006) summarized as: a religious leader, struggling with the death of his wife, in a small New England town, in the 1950s. Still New England, but Strout flexing her writing muscle, wowing some of the reviewers while finding her way. She would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature on March 25, 2008, for creating the amazing character who appears in a collection of short fiction: OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Now with no place to go but up, Strout published THE BURGESS BOYS in 2013, a novel with Maine roots that takes place in New York City.
I GET TO MEET HER
In the summer of 2006, I did what had become a delightful summer habit, I would attend a writing workshop at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. The catalogue listed Elizabeth Strout, offering a weekend course on writing THE NOVEL. I signed up.
What kind of a teacher was this future Pulitzer Prize winner that auspicious weekend? Well, nervous, apologizing that this was a new experience for her—but talking about her passion, which of course is writing.
She spent the first day explaining how she’d come to be a fiction writer. I don’t think attendees, myself included, found this very helpful or exciting—but looking back, Elizabeth was truly sharing the nuts and bolts of her writing process, encouraging those of us who might also be experiencing an unusual start, a bumpy start.
Married to her first husband at the time, Strout mentioned that her in-laws didn’t understand why her dining room and a room in her basement were littered with scarps of paper, quick ideas that she jotted down, pages and pages, most-often written in long-hand and not always placed in organized piles. (Strout later taught herself how to compose at the computer) but I understood that moments of creation often come through the fingers, and at the time, longhand was her process. Though I don’t want to bore you with these details, as a struggling writer, I found it all fascinating.
MY LITTLE GIFT & HER ANALYSIS
Before that weekend, I’d found a furniture advertisement in a women’s magazine, the usual, except that the table had a neat pile of books and Strout’s AMY & ISABEL was prominently displayed. I brought the page with me, clipped it to my homework assignment.
Elizabeth had asked us to provide one chapter from our work-in-progress. I was working on my second novel, THE MOON DOCTOR, (still unpublished) about a burn victim who finds his traumatic experience has given him the power to heal others–without the need for medical school.
Strout read ten pages from a chapter in the middle of the book. Her final comment:
There’s a lot going on here, and it’s very intriguing. It seems you have quite an interesting plot at work here, and some very good details. I think you might work on making sure every sentence is direct and ‘true.’ We will talk more about this in workshop and conference. (Thanks for enclosing the cover of the brochure displaying my book. That was very thoughtful of you.) Elizabeth Strout.
For interested fellow writers, she underlined phrases, stating that they WEAKENED my presentation. Her message: these sentences were not true to my voice.
Example: All of these thoughts skittered around the encumbrance of his physical body. YES, I agree, a truly horrible sentence.
He slowly removed the IV catheter from Jolene’s arm. He’d forgotten a 4by4 and instead watched a snake of dark blood pool down onto the bed linen. Strout wrote: good use of detail.
Was Strout a great teacher? No. I know she’d be so much better now, as I have listened to her interviews, she being more assured, eager to share her writing process, because she has succeeded, truly succeeded. And her life has radically changed, her fourth novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, performed on Broadway, the dialogue spoken by Laura Linney.
A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ELIZABETH STROUT…so next week, I will review Strout’s recent novel, OH, WILLIAM! when Strout is once again in the world of Lucy Barton, the main character of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and her collection of short stories, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
Thanks for reading.