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Thursday, December 1, 2022

At 66, Elizabeth Strout Has Reached Maximum Productivity

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Elizabeth Strout didn’t bat an eyelash when I admitted, moments after meeting her, that I’d snapped the handle off the toilet in her agent’s bathroom. I almost didn’t mention it — my plumbing skills are silent and efficient — but, knowing the cast of honest-to-a-fault characters who cycle through Strout’s novels, I had a hunch she’d appreciate my candor.

What I did not expect was Strout’s disarming warble of a laugh, which filled the Friedrich Agency’s book-lined mews house on the Upper West Side and triggered a dimple on her right cheek. Over the next 90 minutes, I witnessed this chain reaction dozens of times: Trill, dimple, repeat. Let’s just say an interviewer would be hard-pressed to find another subject with Strout’s blend of mirth and gravitas.

We met to discuss “Lucy by the Sea,” Strout’s ninth book, which follows Lucy Barton — a writer who has appeared in previous novels — through the first year of the pandemic, when she flees New York City to quarantine with her ex-husband, William, in a rented house in Maine. It has a bittersweet immediacy, as if Strout got to work the day Tom Hanks announced he’d been infected, but somehow manages to keep Covid in the back seat. Lucy Barton is at the wheel, with William riding shotgun and Strout’s voice navigating their getaway car.

If you’re keeping track of Strout’s output, you might have noticed that she’s on a roll. Slowly at first, steadily, then at breakneck pace, Strout has constructed a universe of flawed, crabby, vulnerable people — mostly Mainers and New Yorkers, plus a few Midwesterners — who pop up in each others’ stories without fanfare.

“Lucy by the Sea” is coming out from Random House on Sept. 20, less than a year after its semi-prequel, “Oh William!,” which has been nominated for the Booker Prize. In 2019, Oprah gave the nod to “Olive, Again,” Strout’s follow-up to “Olive Kitteridge,” which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and was made into an HBO series starring Frances McDormand. “Anything Is Possible” came out in 2017; “My Name Is Lucy Barton” came out in 2016.

“I’m getting older, and I’ve taught myself how to get these sentences down, how to know when they’re worth getting down,” said Strout, 66. “It’s like I’ve been training for a marathon my entire life and now there’s an acceleration happening.”

It took time — decades, actually — to gather this momentum. She published her first book, “Amy and Isabelle,” when she was 42, then had an eight year gap between novels.

“Even as a young person, I could almost slip into the person next to me,” she said. “I could feel, or I thought that I could feel, what it might be like to be them. In order to get those feelings down, I had to teach myself to write.”

Strout, who would almost certainly be played by Diane Keaton circa “Something’s Gotta Give” in her biopic, grew up in New Hampshire and Maine. After graduating from Bates College in 1977, she waited tables in Lewiston, Maine, for a few years until, as she puts it, “One night I was thrown up on and I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m out of here.’”

She tried law school, dropped out, went back, and graduated with honors, only to realize six months into her legal career that she was not cut out to be an attorney.

All the while, Strout worked on stories, and on a novel that was never published.

The school where she got her degree, Syracuse University College of Law, had a writing program and she spent more time with the writers than she did with the law students.

“What struck me about these writer friends is that they talked about writing a lot, but they weren’t actually writing that much. They weren’t writing as much as I was,” Strout said.

In 1983, Strout moved to New York City with her first husband and infant daughter. Not long after, she met Kathy Chamberlain at the New School, in one of the two writing courses she took; the other was Gordon Lish’s course at Columbia University. Nearly 40 years later, Chamberlain is still her first reader.

“When Liz read her first story — we had to go up to a table in the front of the room — I thought, ‘This is magical, this is a real writer,” said Chamberlain, also an author. “She can create something that’s more than the words on the page.”

“Amy and Isabelle” came out in 1998, and the experience was overwhelming for Strout, who had been teaching part-time at Borough of Manhattan Community College, “publishing stories here and there” and “working in obscurity for many, many years.”

“I knew that I was a writer, but I had no idea at all what it was like to be an author,” Strout wrote in an email. “I had been working (pretty happily) in a little toad hole in the pine needles and all of a sudden a huge spotlight was aimed at it. And it scared me.”

Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Suzanne Berne described “Amy and Isabelle” as “one of those rare, invigorating books that take an apparently familiar world and peer into it with ruthless intimacy, revealing a strange and startling place.”

The same could be said for Strout’s oeuvre — a word she probably wouldn’t use in relation to herself. Ditto for “storytelling” and “process.” She doesn’t write book reviews and — according to her husband, James Tierney, whom she married in 2011 — “doesn’t pontificate about literary theory.”

“I don’t want to be involved with the various egos around the work,” Strout explained. “It’s not interesting to me and also I intuitively feel like it’s not good for me.”

Describing how she approaches a new idea, she said, “I’ve always had this image of a scrunched up piece of wax paper. Is there even wax paper anymore? My job is to smooth it down as flat as I can.”

Strout went on, “If I’m using some kernel of something I’ve experienced myself, I think of it as — this is so silly — but I think of it as a wad of bubble gum. I have to press the gum, just stretch it out as far as it can go.”

As for the tools of her trade, when she’s jotting scenes on the go, she uses “just the notebook paper that has the three holes that goes into a binder which I don’t have.” If she has a favorite pen, she didn’t mention it. Later, she’ll transfer her writing to a computer.

In the early days of the pandemic, Strout and Tierney broke up the monotony with drives near their house in Brunswick, Maine. One of their favorite destinations was Bailey Island, about 25 minutes away — past Bowdoin College, down wooded roads with water glinting on both sides, over a crib-stone bridge and onto a craggy hand of land that looks like it’s pointing its middle finger into Casco Bay.

There, on a bluff near a tiny beach where Strout used to skip rocks as a kid, she spotted a cottage.

“I said to Jim, that’s the house Lucy and William would move to,” she said. This is how an idea comes to her. Then she writes it down.

In “Lucy by the Sea,” the house is in Crosby, Maine, Strout’s Lake Wobegon, which pops up in several of her novels, as do a handful of its residents. We reunite with Olive Kitteridge (“‘She’s very liberal, she talks about the president all the time, she just hates him,’” a friend tells Lucy) and Bob Burgess, who made his debut in “The Burgess Boys” and is the ex-husband of one of the women William had an affair with when he was married to Lucy.

If you’re a completist, the repeat characters are like old friends. But if you’re picking up one of Strout’s novels for the first time, you don’t need to know the back stories.

“Liz has been doing this kind of literary world building since ‘Amy and Isabelle,’” said Molly Friedrich, Strout’s agent. “You don’t need to start with ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ because Lucy and William spring from the first page of ‘Lucy by the Sea.’”

She compared Strout’s writing process to Picasso’s Blue Period painting, Woman Ironing: “It’s this lapidary folding and flattening out. These sentences seem simple; they’re just so pared down.”

Benjamin Dreyer, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House and Strout’s longtime copy editor, said, “I asked her when we were on the phone recently, ‘Do you keep a Liz Strout Bible to keep track of characters? She was like, ‘No, I just know this stuff.’ You can’t catch her in an inconsistency or a chronological problem.”

But don’t come to these books looking for a lobster roll/Subaru with designer roof rack/summer camp view of Maine. Strout is more likely to write about people who work at the Freeport branch of L.L. Bean than she is to focus on tourists posing by the enormous duck boot outside. She writes about New York City with the fondness, frustration and — in the case of the pandemic — concern of someone who has lived there.

Strout’s portrait of a divorced couple united by worry for their two grown daughters illuminates a refreshingly unexplored angle of Covid. Lucy and William aren’t young and they aren’t old. They aren’t in a state of crisis; they’re capable of fending for themselves and they have the means to do so, but their uncertainty and fear are real. They leap off the page along with their creator’s salty wit and a phantom scent of hand sanitizer.

Tierney described their daily routine while Strout was working on “Lucy by the Sea.” The two of them watched the news and strictly quarantined. He cooked and taught his Harvard Law School classes via Zoom. Strout wrote — on the couch, in her studio, whenever and wherever a scene struck her.

“Liz is happiest when she’s writing,” Tierney said. “She also plays the piano. These are two important parts of her life, and they’re not unconnected. She hears notes the rest of us don’t hear and that is translated into her writing. She pays attention to the sound of every sentence, every paragraph, every word.”

Recalling their drives together, he described the sky as “totally, achingly clear in those first months of the pandemic.”

“One of the biggest conundrums was to get the sense of time,” Strout said of the grocery-washing era of 2020, when calendars went blank and sinister. “It’s like time just imploded. The sense of a day was strange and the sense of a week was even stranger, because what was a week? I wanted to get that down on the page somehow.”

She nails it when Lucy Barton makes a mad-dash day trip to see her daughters in Connecticut (no hugging allowed). Strout writes, “There had been a last time — when they were little — that I had picked up the girls. This had often broken my heart, to realize that you never knew the last time you pick up a child. Maybe you say, ‘Oh honey, you’re getting too big to be picked up’ or something like that. But then you never pick them up again.

Living with this pandemic was like that. You did not know.”

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