Public Media Arts Hub

How fiction draws Pulitzer-winner Elizabeth Strout home to Maine


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, a new addition to our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

The fictional character Olive Kitteridge is the creation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout.

Olive is abrasive and difficult, known to everyone in her small Maine town and loved by many readers around the country. In a sequel that's out today, Strout has brought Olive back.

Jeffrey Brown headed north to talk with the author for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Elizabeth Strout: Very often, I absorb people that I just pass on the street.

Jeffrey Brown: When Elizabeth Strout was a young girl, she would sit in the car with her mother, parked on a street like this one in Bath, Maine, watching the people walk by.

Elizabeth Strout: She'd say, oh, look at that woman. She doesn't seem too eager to get home. And I'd think, why? Why? And I'd lean over the back seat and I would say, what is it about her?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Elizabeth Strout: And my mother might say, oh, well, her coat hem hasn't been mended for a while, or some little detail.

I mean, I was immediately interested in what the woman's story was, and wanting to go home to see what her home looked like and what her other clothes would look like.

Jeffrey Brown: Years later, Strout would become known as a writer with an uncanny ability to conjure up the inner lives of her characters, many of them in small-town coastal Maine, most famously in the novel "Olive Kitteridge," which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and was later made into an award-winning HBO series starring Frances McDormand.

Actor: What's depression?

Frances McDormand: It's bad wiring, makes your nose rot. Runs in our family.

Actor: Your mother is not depressed.

Frances McDormand: Yes, I am. Happy to have it. Goes with being smart.

Jeffrey Brown: Olive, a seventh grade math teacher and wife of the local pharmacist in the fictional village of Crosby, is overbearing, hard to love, but complicated and compelling.

Frances McDormand: I'm waiting for the dog to die, so I can shoot myself.

Jeffrey Brown: And now she is back, older, if not wiser, in the new novel "Olive, Again," long after author Strout thought she was through with her often ornery character.

Elizabeth Strout: She just showed up. She just absolutely showed up again.

Jeffrey Brown: And what does that mean, she just showed up?

Elizabeth Strout: She just -- like, I could feel her right behind me, and I could hear her thoughts.

And I thought, well, I better get this down. Many of my characters come to me gradually, or they will sidle up to me or something. But Olive, just, boom, she's just there.

Jeffrey Brown: For some, coastal Maine is a vacation spot, picturesque harbors and towns, a place to visit and then go home.

For Strout, it was home. And her family, dating back generations to Puritan days, was part of a different Maine, hardscrabble, isolated, old ways hard to hold onto amid economic and cultural change.

She grew up in tiny Harpswell. Her father's funeral was held in this congregational church. She worked as a teenager in a nearby country store, now a small museum.

We spoke in the old Harpswell Meeting House, dating to 1757, across the street.

Elizabeth Strout: When I was a young child here in Harpswell, there was a tremendous amount of isolation for me. We didn't have a television.

And I was by myself. A great deal of time, I spent outside alone, climbing on the rocks, making friends with the periwinkles or the tree toads or whatever. And so...

Jeffrey Brown: Not people?

Elizabeth Strout: Not people.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Elizabeth Strout: And I was fascinated by people. I mean, I was happy in the woods, but I was -- or on the rocks, but I was fascinated by people, and always, always wanted to know what I could about people.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you grew up imagining the lives of people?

Elizabeth Strout: Yes, I did. I just -- in one of my books, Jim Burgess says, people are always telling you who they are, if you only listen.

And I think that -- obviously, I wrote that, but I think it's true. I can only speak for myself as a writer, but the compulsion to find out what it feels like to be another person, because we will never know.

In the original "Olive Kitteridge," there was a story that was sort of set right there, where the waitress falls off the cliff, which is not yet really a cliff, but I made it more of a cliff.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, which you're allowed to do.

Elizabeth Strout: Yes, because I'm a fiction writer.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

But it's fiction grounded in reality. Maine has one of the nation's oldest populations, and in the new novel, we watch Olive age after the death of her husband, Henry.

It's also, again, a novel of linked stories. In most, Olive is the central character, but sometimes she's at the periphery of her neighbors' lives.

Elizabeth Strout: So, I thought, well, I can make the community a part of this, and this will be about the community as well and everybody's particular relationship to Olive, and yet they, of course, all have their stories, because they're people.

And I realized that Olive is such a force that, if we see her on every page, if she's in every story full force, it's just too much to take. It would be too much for me to take as the reader.

And I'm always thinking about the reader, and always -- it's like I'm in a dance with the reader. What does the reader need now?

Jeffrey Brown: You really are? Because a lot of writers I talk to don't. They say, well, I'm not thinking about the reader at that point.

Elizabeth Strout: Right.

I'm always thinking about the reader. I have an ideal reader. I mean, many years ago, I realized that, if I make up characters, I can make up a reader. So, I made up an ideal reader, and the reader...

Jeffrey Brown: And who is that?

Elizabeth Strout: Well, it's somebody who's patient, but they're not super patient.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Elizabeth Strout: And it's somebody who needs the book, if I can deliver it to them. So I have a sense of responsibility for them.

Jeffrey Brown: Strout still keeps a home here in Brunswick, but unlike many of her characters, she left Maine long ago for a very different life in New York, living in the big city, but realizing her true subject was life in a small town.

Elizabeth Strout: In a small town, you will find it all. You will find the impoverished people, and you will find the people at the top.

There's always a social hierarchy, no matter where you are. And it's fascinating to me to take a look at that close up in a small environment.

Jeffrey Brown: The novel "Olive, Again" is just out.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Harpswell, Maine.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.