Photo Credits: Phyllis Graber Jensen/ Bates College
On Tuesday Oct. 22, Elizabeth Strout ’77 returned to Bates to talk about her latest book: Olive, Again. That evening, fans poured into Olin Concert Hall, buzzing with anticipation. Upon entering, each attendant received a free, signed copy of Strout’s new novel. The event was split into three parts with a reading from Olive, Again, followed by an interview between President Clayton Spencer and Strout. The event ended with an audience Q&A. Strout stayed behind for questions.
Strout was born and raised in small towns around Maine and New Hampshire, settings which have served as inspirations for many of her works. After graduating from Bates with a degree in English, Strout went on to publish national best sellers and critically acclaimed works. In 2009, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Olive Kitteridge, which was later adapted into an HBO TV series starring Francis McDormand as the curmudgeonly Olive. Other works by Strout include Amy and Isabelle, Abide with Me, The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton, and Anything is Possible. Next year, My Name is Lucy Barton will be on Broadway featuring Laura Linney as Lucy Barton.
After reading an excerpt from Olive Again, Strout sat down with Spencer for the interview portion of the event. Spencer began the interview by asking where the inspiration for a sequel to Olive Kitteridge came. According to Strout, Olive’s character appeared to her in full force a few years back when she was sitting in a cafe in Norway. Spencer interrupted, asking “Norway, Maine?” to much laughter from the audience. Strout laughed, clarifying that it was in Norway, the country. She continued, recalling her reaction to Olive’s presence, “Wow. Look at you!’ I mean really. I know enough about Olive to know that she must be dealt with immediately.”
Spencer then asked Strout what her writing process is. Strout’s answer came as a surprise to many of the audience members, including Spencer: “Well yeah. I just make a mess. Um…I actually do make a mess. I write my scenes, I’ve learned at this point—I don’t write from beginning to end, because I can’t. It just becomes too wooden…So I’ve learned to write by scenes and if I can make a scene that is real, then I leave it on the table. And if I don’t it gets tossed on the floor. That continues and continues and then eventually the scenes that have—what I consider—a heartbeat will start to connect. And that’s why I never worry about plot, because it will take care of itself.”
In addition to English, Strout studied theater during her time at Bates. “I had two favorite classes. And one of them was Criminology…I just adored that, adored that. And the other class was theater practice with Marty Andrucki. And those weren’t acting classes…” Strout then stopped short, after Spencer pointed out Andrucki himself in the audience, waving to his former student.
In Theater Practice, Strout remembers reading the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Clifford Odets—playwrights that have influenced Strout’s use of dialogue in her novels. “I think that reading dialogue was really very helpful…When you write dialogue in a story or a novel there has to be a translation from what people are actually saying to the page. Because you can’t write what people are actually saying because it’s too boring. There’s too many ‘uhhhh’ too many words. You’ve got to translate it to the page in a way that sounds like its authentic.”
Another familiar face in the audience that evening was Maine’s newly elected governor, Janet Mills. During the Q&A segment of the evening Mills asked Strout: “I suspect there are many admiring readers in this audience, and maybe also a few aspiring writers and young writers. And I’m wondering what advice you have for them.” As with many of her responses that evening, Strout response to the Governor was equally humorous.
“Well if you really want to be a writer, you just do it. And you just keep doing it. And you never ever stop. I would also keep your mouth shut about it, by the way. Because I think people aren’t too willing—I just don’t think you can be taken seriously if you start to say ‘I’m a writer, I’m going to be a writer.’” Here Strout leaned back in her chair and put on a disapproving face, before saying “Everybody will look at you like, ‘Ohhhh.’”
Another piece of advice Strout offered for young writers in the audience was to never stop writing. For Strout, failure is all part of the process of writing.
“Believe me, I know that because I’ve just failed for years, and years, and years,” she said. “I even couldn’t believe how long I kept failing. I was almost intrigued by it, but I kept going. And It’s funny because a woman came over one time when I first moved to New York and she saw the typewriter on the dining room table, and you know, the messy handwritten stuff. She saw that and she said ‘You know, I really admire your discipline.’ And I thought about it and I thought… it didn’t feel like I was disciplined, it just felt like I needed to do it. And I think there’s a difference. Because I think of discipline as somebody saying ‘Ok. I am going to exercise five days a week no matter what,’…for me I don’t have that discipline…That for me is discipline, whereas writing—I just had to do it, I had to do it.”