Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman
An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal
Elizabeth Strout Takes the Fifth
Photo by Daniel Libman
On a pleasant March afternoon in New York City, I got to sit down with writer Elizabeth Strout in the reception room of her apartment building overlooking the East River, just a stone’s throw from the iconic 92nd Street Y. We talked about the writing life and her three novels, Amy and Isabelle, Abide with Me, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. Strout is a slow, deliberate writer, who creates messes in rough draft form and cleans those messes up as she revises, turning chaos into breathing characters and memorable stories. Shy about reading reviews and an avowedly private person, Strout spoke to Fifth Wednesday Journal as a way of acknowledging her love and debt to the literary journals she devoured as a young writer, which she said helped shaped her both as a writer and as a reader.
FWJ: Did you conceive Olive Kitteridge as having such an intense, omni-inclusive structure when you started, or did that come organically during the writing?
Elizabeth Strout: Once in a while something happens and it just happens accidentally and I’m so grateful, but I understood that form immediately. I think it’s because I wrote one of the Olive stories quickly, which for me meant maybe a couple of months. To me that’s an amazingly fast story, and I might even be making it up, but I mean it didn’t take me years. Some of those Olive stories took me ten years. But that one, the first complete Olive story where I saw her, where she was the main character, didn’t take me that long, and I thought, ah, OK, I’m going to write a book called “The Olive Stories.” Right away I understood that Olive would have a book to herself. Every story would be about Olive. As I started going I understood that nobody, including myself, would want to see Olive on every page. She’s just a lot to take. Rhythmically you have to let her fall down and rest, and the reader can rest. I love point of view and I love towns, so I thought, OK, she can make an appearance in every story, but she won’t be the main character in each story. That happened pretty naturally, which was wonderful.
FWJ: Did that first Olive story you finished make the final cut into the book?
ES: Yes. It’s the one where she steals her daughter-in-law’s bra on her wedding day. And there were a number of stories — because I write all the time and I write bits and pieces, there were lots of small-town stories with an older woman protagonist, and they kind of weren’t working. When I found Olive I looked back at these three or four stories and I thought, wait a second, this is an Olive story.
FWJ: Which was the toughest one to write, the Olive story you really had to struggle with the most?
ES: The hardest one to write was the one where they’re taken hostage in the hospital bathroom. That was one I had been working on for years, and the woman in the story’s name was Evelyn because I hadn’t yet found Olive. I had this woman stopping in the hospital with her husband and I wasn’t sure how it would play out and I couldn’t get someplace with it. Then Olive showed up and it was like, sorry Evelyn, you’re not the girl. But the form of that story was very difficult. It took me years to write because I couldn’t find the form. It wasn’t until I realized that she’d been traumatized, so her memories of it are the memories of someone traumatized. And when I came up with that image it seemed to me like the inside of her head had been painted with a sponge, the way kids do in kindergarten or something, sponge painting. Then I could visualize it thinking that her memory took the shape of these splotches, and I could present them in some kind of forward-leaning narrative.
FWJ: She casts such a big shadow on everyone’s lives around her, and I thought more than once when reading Olive about Rabbit Angstrom.
ES: Yes! I love Rabbit at Rest — the final one. I just recently went back and read them all again to see how Updike does things. It’s great how awful Rabbit is.
FWJ: They both put their sons in therapy.
ES: Right. And especially in Rabbit at Rest he’s so awful — going to bed with his daughter-in-law. That was the point my father-in-law put the book down and said, “This is disgusting, I don’t want to read this anymore.” I talk about it sometimes when I give a lecture; I find it so amazing that he’s my favorite Updike character. He has this heart problem and he’s driving back down to Florida or something and eating all those electric orange Cheetos and trying to play basketball, and every time he shoves more junk food in his mouth I keep thinking, don’t do that, you’re going to die. I think isn’t that interesting that I have such a response to him while at the same time he isn’t even remotely what you would call a good person.
FWJ: Updike squirreled away that little coda to the Rabbit books, a little novella about Rabbit’s son in a collection of stories.
ES: I think it was called Lick of Love. Or Licks of Love?
FWJ: You also did that with the characters from Abide with Me making a surprise appearance in an Olive story.
ES: Yes. I couldn’t help myself.
FWJ: It was fun to find them back again. Do you have any plans to bring Amy or Isabelle back?
ES: I was playing around with that the other day, with a story about Amy and her mother. But I wasn’t comfortable with it. It’s funny.
FWJ: There’s so much potential now there at the end with the new family. Have you ever gotten pressure from an agent to write a sequel or do something more Amy and Isabelle like?
ES: No. Other than everyone hoping that Abide with Me would be much more like Amy and Isabelle. People were disappointed.
FWJ: But it is similar in many ways. You gave us another town full of people with lives and back stories . . .
ES: I thought so too. But New York is not a place where . . . Let’s just say my sense was the New York publishing world was not a place where people would be inherently interested in the struggles of a minister.
FWJ: What do you write on?
ES: I write by hand. I still do. I used to write on almost anything. But mostly notebook paper is what I like. Loose-leaf. I use a pen to write and then a pencil to go over a typed page when it finally gets messy enough to the point where I can’t read it anymore, then I’ll type it out.
FWJ: Revisions by hand too?
ES: Oh yeah. It’s all by hand until I can no longer see what I’ve done. I really, really don’t like to print things out. It seems so serious. It becomes more difficult then to get it back into a state of fluidity. I think of it as very malleable. I very literally like turning the page, you know, writing around the edge of the page, and then I make notes, “go here, and here, here, turn it sideways and then go here.” I like mess. I’m also, maybe unfortunately, a messy person, and it’s how I work. But then it reaches a point where I don’t understand what that arrow meant, go where to what paragraph? I lose things all the time; I lose pieces of writing all the time.
FWJ: Which part is most pleasurable? The first draft or those revisions?
ES: I’m pretty much a scene maker, so my favorite part is the revision where I’m feeling like I’m finally getting there, figuring out what the scene should be and it feels right. It feels energetic. That doesn’t happen on a first draft.
FWJ: How do you store it all? In a box or just piled on your desk?
ES: It’s everywhere. It’s terrible. It’s terribly chaotic, I’m afraid. And there will come a point where I think, now wait a second, I’m getting a scene here and I’ll need to be able to see it. Then I’ll type it up, and then of course I’ll immediately mess it up as fast as I can with a pencil.
FWJ: So is revising for you expanding as opposed to contracting?
ES: Oh no. I cut and cut and cut. I write tons of stuff that just never makes it. I’ve written hundreds of pages sometimes just to get one page.
FWJ: Do you have a set amount of time for writing during the day?
ES: I wish. I used to be more disciplined about that when I had a family, a daughter, and a dog, you know, going around in different circles trying to keep everyone organized. And I was teaching part-time so I had to be more disciplined about when I was going to do everything. I’m not that good about it anymore. But I also used to write first thing when I got up. I lived alone for a few years and I worked late at night. I think I’m just made differently. I get a real second wind around eleven o’clock and I’m able to go back over all the stuff that I’ve done. I’ve been reading the biography Capote, and he liked to write at night. I’m always glad to read something like that because then I can go, oh yeah, me too.
FWJ: You find inspiration reading about other writers?
ES: I do. In fact I was thinking, why am I giving this interview if I say — which I think is honest — that I’m not comfortable being in the public? But I love literary magazines. They’ve meant the world to me, and my sense of doing this is that there might be other writers out there who are on their own, and if there’s anything I can say that brings somebody a sense of hope or comfort . . . I can remember being young and reading things that writers said about writing, and I was so happy. When you’re a writer you live with such a private sense of alienation. And then I would just go to the library where they had them all lined up, and it was sort of like going to a bakery. You find out there are other people living like that. Ploughshares is one which never took a piece but just asked me to guest edit an issue.
FWJ: Do you get a lot of moments like that, having been through the slush piles?
ES: When Amy and Isabelle was published and did well it was like a dream come true. I happened to be in the basement of where we lived in Brooklyn and I had kept all this stuff. It was pre-e-mail, and I had submitted everything by mail then and I had all these rejection letters, a big box of rejection letters which I had perversely kept, maybe to keep track of who I was sending stuff to. But they weren’t organized, of course, because it’s me. But I thought, oh well, you know, now I can look at them and feel triumphant. But I couldn’t. They made me sick. I started to look at them and they still hurt my feelings so much. I just threw them away. I did eventually get very nice rejections from Dan Menaker at the New Yorker. He wrote me bigger and bigger personal rejection letters.
FWJ: Ah! The highly coveted, rarely sighted personal rejection from the New Yorker! That must have been thrilling.
ES: Are you kidding? It was amazing. Twice he called me up. One time was when I just turned thirty and he called me and the first thing he said was, “This is Dan Menaker from the New Yorker, now don’t get excited because we haven’t —” And I was like, that’s quite all right. I really was just as excited as if he had taken it. But he was basically calling me up to say keep going. That my stuff was good; he said better than eighty percent of the things that come across his desk so keep doing it. I couldn’t even sleep that night I was so happy.
FWJ: Did they ever offer concrete suggestions?
ES: He would. Not for me to revise and send back, but he would tell me what he thought wasn’t happening. And deep down I knew what wasn’t happening. Once I got rejections like that — they still hurt — but at least someone was in dialogue with me. Someone believed in me. He was deeply, deeply important. Then he left the New Yorker when Tina Brown came in and I had started to work on the novel so we were out of touch for about five years — plus I wrote so slowly that I only sent him a story every year, every two years, anyway. Then I couldn’t get an agent for Amy and Isabelle so I sent it to him at Random House, and he liked it. And that’s how that got published.
FWJ: Do you think of yourself as a funny writer?
ES: You know, I do actually.
FWJ: So do I.
ES: Well good. I think I’m hysterical. I don’t mean to be. I don’t sit down trying to be funny. My mother thinks I’m a riot. She says, “Oh Lizzie, I laughed my head off; I just howled.”
FWJ: You did stand-up comedy.
ES: Oh my God. I did. I can tell you what I did that for, and it was really, really scary because I do have stage fright. It was back when I was not able to finish a story. I had been writing for years and years and all of a sudden I was unable to finish even a single story — I was getting ready to become a novelist, really. This was right when Cuomo lost the election and Pataki became governor so many years ago.
FWJ: Were you doing political jokes?
ES: No. But it was just that night, election night.
FWJ: So it was just one performance?
ES: Well, I’ll tell you: I took a class. I was having trouble writing, which is scary, and I thought to myself because I’d done it long enough, OK I can tell I’m lying about something. There’s something I must be holding back. That’s usually true. When you get writer’s block it’s because you’re doing something false. There’s a billion ways to be false. You can be writing a story one way when it really wants to be a different way. You can be trying to protect yourself — which is even worse. Or you can be showing off or whatever. So many different ways to be false. And I was really concerned because I couldn’t finish a story. I thought, what is it? What am I doing wrong? What am I holding back? And I was interested in comedy because it seemed to me as I went to various clubs in the city — which of course we didn’t have in Maine or New Hampshire or at least not the Maine or New Hampshire I came from, nor would I have been allowed to go if there were — but here I was in New York comedy clubs and people are laughing when they hear something true. And so I thought to myself, what would come out of my mouth? Because you know as a writer we get to stay in the house, be real squirrelly. I wondered what would come out of my mouth if I was responsible — directly responsible — for making someone laugh. Strangers, not friends when you know what their funny bones are, but it seemed to me to be like putting myself in a pressure cooker. So I signed up for a class at the New School in stand-up comedy. Oh my God, it was so frightening. You’d see people outside of class in break times just eating cigarettes, and every week attendance would be smaller. But I made myself stick to it. And those of us who made it through that class — probably half of us dropped out if not more — those of us who made it through performed on the Upper East Side here. I wouldn’t let anyone come who knew me. I’ve never been so frightened in all my life. It was horrible how frightened I was. But I did it, and I got laughs.
FWJ: Do you remember any of the jokes?
ES: Well, what I remember is that it worked. I made a lot of jokes about hair, about my hair. I hadn’t yet written Amy and Isabelle, so obviously I have a lot of issues about my hair. I made a lot of jokes about my in-laws, who at that time were New Yorkers. And I made a lot of jokes about being from New England. And the truth is, honestly, until I took the class, this is how much of a WASP I am, I didn’t know I was a WASP. I didn’t even know that’s what the jokes were about, really. I was just making fun of the difference between myself and my in-laws, things that they would say and do that my family would never say and do. Really, what I was doing was talking about huge cultural differences. And that’s when I realized, oh, I really am from New England; I’d been so busy trying to run away from it. My instinct to do it was right, but I know it took years off my life. Afterwards the guy asked me if I’d come back and do a regular Tuesday night thing, and I said, “No. I won’t.” Because I’d be dead. Wasn’t for me. It’s on tape somewhere. Anyway, it worked for getting over writer’s block, and I’ll never do it again.
FWJ: Do you carry a notebook around with you?
ES: I do. I used to be better about it. When I lived in Brooklyn I spent so much more time on the subway. It was fabulous actually when I look back now on it. I would spend hours on the subway and things would come to me with an urgency and I would write it out. I’m not the kind of person who needs a magazine or music or anything. I can just sit and stare because I have so much going on in my head.
FWJ: In the subway were you working out your ideas in your head or listening to people talking?
ES: Both, actually. There’s this story in Olive called “Starve” about a young couple. I was on the subway one day and that couple was there. The girl had on that denim jacket I used in the story — she didn’t appear to be sick at all, that was something for the story, but I saw them and she was sitting on his lap and it was so cute. She said, “Stop smelling me, I know you’re smelling me.” And then she said, “We could take a nap and that way we could stay up all night.” They were just so cute. I didn’t write it down but I remembered it.
FWJ: At what age did you start writing?
ES: At least since I was about four. I don’t seem to have a memory of thinking seriously about ever being anything else. My mother wanted to be a writer and she’s a hugely important presence in my life. Always has been. She encouraged me from a very young age, and when I tell some people I was writing in notebooks at three and four, they say it’s impossible because three- and four-year-olds don’t write. But I really do think I did. I certainly knew how to write when I got to kindergarten. I loved letters. Now that I think about it, I can remember learning to read — we were driving someplace and my father said, “Now everyone read the signs.” I remember I couldn’t read them because I was so little, and so when we got home he taught me to read. What my mother would do is she would buy me notebooks and she would say, “Write down what happened today.” One time we were buying sneakers, and I remember the person who sold them to us was a man, and he was very nice, and she said, “Write about that in your notebook.” So all that started at a very young age.
FWJ: Did she get to read your books?
ES: She’s eighty-three years old and has read my books and has always been enormously supportive. There was a long period of time where she didn’t read anything I wrote. When I was in my early twenties and starting to get things published in literary magazines, she and my father when I sent them something would both be sort of quiet about it, so I stopped talking about it. And then eventually when Amy and Isabelle came out I sent it to her and she loved it. She’s loved all of them.
FWJ: Were you worried about her reaction at all, especially since it has such a troubled mother-daughter relationship in it?
ES: No. Nothing I do is all that autobiographical. I’m the least autobiographical writer I know. I certainly use every single thing I’ve ever lived through. But I don’t write — it would make me too nervous. I would be too self-conscious to write about myself in any way that seemed like myself, so I write about somebody like Isabelle Goodrow. I did work as a secretary in a shoe mill one summer back when I was in my twenties, and it came back to me when I was writing. I thought, wait a minute, here we are, back to that setting, which seemed very vivid to me, and here we had this uptight woman. She wasn’t anybody I knew in my life. She just wasn’t. She seemed very real to me and there was something very freeing about writing about her because I thought, well she’s not me. I’m not this squirrelly little uptight secretary. But then of course as the years go by you think, oh, of course that was me. I mean they were all me.
FWJ: You have a daughter, so you’ve also been on the other end of that relationship.
ES: My daughter is an only child, and she does have the sensibilities of a writer, and we’re just very close. It happened to be that way, that we’re very similar in some ways. She grew up with me writing. She ate breakfast off manuscript stacks. And I used to think, I wonder what she’ll think of me when she realizes I haven’t done anything? That I’ve failed, only published a few small stories. But of course it never occurred to her. I was her mother. She just coincidentally turned sixteen when Amy and Isabelle came out. And I said to her, this is about a sixteen-year-old girl and people are going to . . . you know. And she said, “That’s fine I don’t care.” But she’s never read any of my work, which I think is great. It’s a great choice. She wants to be a writer herself, a playwright, so it seems to me to be a very good choice since we’re so close. She doesn’t need to read my work. And she certainly wasn’t Amy. Not at all. She grew up in a city — though she does have the wild curly hair like Amy.
FWJ: Amy also has those big feet, which I noticed Olive has too.
ES: I remember when I wrote that about Amy I wanted to write against the grain. I wanted her attractive in a certain way. That seemed necessary but I didn’t want to write a stereotype, so I thought, let’s have her have large feet and large hands. Conventional beauty is not interesting. At least it’s not interesting to me. I gave her the great hair and that’s enough.
FWJ: Can I ask you about the movie? Did you know it’s on YouTube?
ES: Amy and Isabelle is?
FWJ: Yes. I guess someone posted it on YouTube in little ten-minute segments. Looks like they just held up a video camera to the TV while it was airing. It even has the commercial breaks.
ES: Strange. No, I didn’t know that. I know you can’t rent it — didn’t go anywhere after being on TV.
FWJ: Was it fun to have your characters interpreted for the screen?
ES: I had to think a lot about making that decision. Most writers are pretty excited to get a movie from their work, but I had to think a lot about it because I had worked so hard on that book. I’m not a fast writer and I thought a lot about it. And it was my mother, she said to me, “Do it.” Because it was Oprah’s name behind it and more people would end up reading the book. She said, “People need that book. You will reach more people with the movie who will then find the book.”
FWJ: What was your involvement with the project?
ES: They were very nice. The production company is terribly book friendly and that was one of the reasons — I mean everyone thinks, “Oh well, Oprah.” You’ll just jump at the chance to let her do anything, but it wasn’t true.
FWJ: Did she feature the book too?
ES: No. She wouldn’t feature the book. That was one of the things I negotiated, to have her feature the book on the show, and she could buy the rights. But she was like, no, I don’t do both. She doesn’t make the movie and also feature the book. But they really wanted it, and they were careful readers. The woman who produced it, Kate Forte, was really quite wonderful. They were very wonderful to me. They included me every step of the way. I honestly didn’t want to be included because I don’t know anything about movies and I don’t want to know anything about movies. They sent me the drafts and I’d say, sounds good. What do I know? She’d call me up and say, guess what we put in her refrigerator? Or she’d call me up and say, what do you think if they’re eating macaroni and cheese, do you think they’d have carrots with it? And I’d say, sounds good to me. So they were wonderful. But ultimately the film didn’t feel connected to me. And it’s OK.
FWJ: Can you talk at all about your reaction to the film itself?
ES: Well, television is interrupted every fifteen minutes, and then there was a snowstorm that night in New York so they kept cutting in. I think Elizabeth Shue is much lovelier than Isabelle Goodrow. The girl who played Amy wasn’t the actress I would have chosen; I thought there was something too hard about her, which is central to me. And you know a funny thing about that is that I don’t read reviews. I don’t read anything about myself. And I was out in St. Louis doing something, and I was in a hotel room by myself. My father had just died. I was there for one night for some reason and I was upset and there was nothing in the room but TV Guide. And I looked and the movie Amy and Isabelle was coming out and TV Guide had this article about it and they interviewed the girl who played Amy. I remember looking at it and thinking: don’t touch it. Don’t touch it. But I didn’t have anything else with me or whatever so I picked that damn thing up and I read it. And that girl said, “Oh, the clothes I had to wear were so ugly and it was so depressing, and I just couldn’t wait to get back into my trailer and put my regular clothes back on.” I was so mad at her. It really hurt my feelings. And I thought, if you don’t get Amy you don’t deserve to play Amy. Welcome to the world of a lot of girls out there, honey. And I should never read anything like that.
FWJ: It seemed to me, and again I didn’t get to watch the whole movie, that the tone was off. In the book, even though I had a sense that Mr. Robertson was probably grooming Amy, I wasn’t entirely sure because it’s all filtered through her adolescent perspective. But from what I saw in the movie he seemed obviously predatory.
ES: Exactly. Exactly. Which is one reason I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. That’s a perfect example: Mr. Robertson. I must have written three hundred pages if not more just trying to understand him more and how much of his story was going to be in the book. Was he going to have a point of view? I eventually decided to just mostly have his actions, but I don’t want to write a melodrama ever, and however the reader responds is fine because they’re bringing their own stuff to the character. I just didn’t want him automatically this bad person. I wanted him a person who finds himself in this situation. You know sort of like, I shouldn’t have gotten myself into that situation. And it was very, very important to me that she kisses him first. Totally important.
FWJ: But he creates that moment.
ES: He totally creates that moment. And I don’t mean to suggest that he’s without responsibility, but I just wanted it messy because life is.
FWJ: Do you believe fiction should be uplifting?
ES: That’s a good question, and I’ve thought a lot about that recently. I think literature should make you feel less alone. And I’m not sure that would be called “uplifting.” I’ve received great comfort from some really dreary stories because they’re truthful and they’re engrossing and they give me a slice of a moment or a color that makes me feel included somehow. And I hate to dis other writers, but there’s one I’ve read for years whom I love. She has sentences that are amazing, that go for a whole page, and she can sometimes change point of view inside a sentence, and she’s very good. I’ve learned so much from her. But her books became very similar, very arid. What was being presented on the page became more stuffy and the characters were so lonely that the reader wasn’t feeling better because you’ve just met another lonely person. I remember finishing the last book of hers on a subway and I thought, I don’t know what to do with this book. I don’t want to recommend it to a friend or loan it to anyone. I just wanted to jump in front of a subway train. It was the first time I ever consciously thought, I don’t ever want to write a book that makes somebody want to die. I don’t want my books to do that. I think life is amazing. It’s a lot of other things too, but primarily amazing, and I just would like to not write about despair without a little something that also suggests we’re capable of something else as well.
FWJ: Olive at the end finds a little grace note with a man she meets while walking, someone she might not necessarily have imagined for herself.
ES: The conclusion that I came to was that someone doesn’t tear through life like Olive without learning something. That’s not the end of the story just because she’s learned a lot. She gets a chance to acknowledge, “I was awful to my son and you were awful to your daughter.” Life is lonely and hard and at first I hated you and we can have a drink — well, she doesn’t drink, but you know. The writer Fredrick Bush was a friend of mine, and he said, you know Liz, you’re a writer who has a really dark vision but you can’t stop believing that people are fundamentally good. I think it’s probably true. People will say to me, your work is so depressing, and I’ll think, OK, my writing is just not for you. Because I don’t think it is depressing. With Amy and Isabelle I wasn’t planning for that ending.
FWJ: It’s amazing the way that family completely opens up at the end.
ES: Yes, that claustrophobic situation they had been in. And now she’s got family and her mother’s letting her go and they’re driving off . . . But that came naturally. And with Tyler Caskey [in Abide with Me] I thought this man is just going to fade away, this is going to be a tale. An old-fashioned T.A.L.E. This guy is going to disappear and fade off and no one is ever going to know what happened to him. But then as I got going into the book I thought, no, oh no, he’s a real member of this community. He’s a real guy and he’s going to turn back and come back. And the community is going to feel bad about what they’ve done. I want to make people feel a little better, without being a Hallmark greeting card.
FWJ: I love the names of your characters.
ES: I love names. Names are very important.
FWJ: I caught myself saying out loud Rosie Tanguay whenever she was mentioned. Quite often you refer to characters by first name and a last name.
ES: I noticed that too. I don’t know. I was just thinking about it. It might be a little New Englandy. A lot of times in New England, in certain towns, half the town will have the same name. The same last name. So you’ll say, Dick Moody. You know, if you see someone? It was Dick Moody from so and so. It conveys more information. I’m kind of making this up as I think about it because I was wondering, why am I always referring to him as Avery Clark? It’s a little more formal than Avery. The narrative voice gets to stand back a little more. Amy then is a little more intimate. It also has to do with sound, what’s the sound of the narrative. I play around with it a lot and some of them come pretty easily and some of them just don’t. I ask my mother, she’s a New Englander from a billion generations back and she just has the best names. She loves all that history. Everything I ran away from she just adores. I have a list of names, but of course I lose them because I lose everything. My husband will say, do you need this? I’ll be like, oh God, there’s that list of old family names and relatives that go back to the seventeenth century, with names like Reliance and Experience. It’s wild. Just amazing. The ear is important. I read a lot of poetry, Auden and Wallace Stevens. Czesław Miłosz. I just like sounds.
FWJ: Do reviews affect you?
ES: I can’t say I’m completely ignorant of them, because you can’t be. I get a sense of what’s happening. Back when Dan [Menaker] was the general editor for all my books, I told him I’m a very excitable woman so you must not tell me. If something really great happens tell me, if something horrible happens don’t tell me. So he calls me up one day — he was furious, and he said, “Did you ever read Peyton Place?” And I said, “I don’t think so. It was passed around when I was a kid I guess, but I never read it.” And he said, “Some woman’s written an article that Amy and Isabelle just rips off Peyton Placeand this and that.” And I said, “Dan, now I’m upset. Why did you tell me this?” And he said, “Because I feel like killing her. I feel like driving out to Long Island and finding her.” I said, “Now I want kill her, so don’t do this.” Once in a while something will come my way. I was in Iowa and about to go on the radio and some woman said, “Oh, I thought you might like to see this.” And it was a review of Abide with Me, and it was terrible. It broke my heart. Obviously I know those things are out there, but I just don’t want to know about them. The book is done, I did my best, and that’s it. I don’t want to know.
FWJ: Tell me about winning the Pulitzer Prize. Is that the kind of thing you know is coming ahead of time?
ES: No. No, I didn’t know at all. Maybe some people do, I don’t know. My agent and my publisher know me well enough to just “leave Liz alone. Don’t get her involved in anything.” Which is correct for me given my nature. When I won I was on the West Coast giving a lecture series, and when my agent finally got a hold of me she was mad. I had turned off my phone because I was giving a talk. And when I turned it on she was mad. She goes, “Where have you been? You just won the Pulitzer. Liz, you were the only writer in the country not glued to your computer at three o’clock.” I had no idea it was Pulitzer day. I was amazed. I mean I was thrilled, I was absolutely thrilled to get it. And I had been nominated for a National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and I didn’t have any idea about that either. I was up in Maine and Dan e-mailed me and said congratulations, and I said for what? And he said, “Don’t you know you just got nominated?” I was really happy about that too.
FWJ: Are there dinners for these things?
ES: There’s a reception for the NBCC, and then for the Pulitzer there’s a luncheon up at Columbia. But you don’t have to talk or anything, which is fabulous. I took my daughter with me. It was great. All these little tables with little flowers on them, and you just go up there and get it. I said to my daughter, “Isn’t this wonderful? I get to walk in this room and I don’t have to speak.” I get so nervous.
FWJ: How do you do those lecture tours then?
ES: They finally, finally figured out to give me a beta-blocker. I don’t have high blood pressure or anything, so I didn’t know anything about them, but then a doctor, a cardiologist, finally told me, you know, we all take them. He said, “When we go to medical conventions to speak the first thing it asks on the questionnaire is what beta-blocker are you on?” It just slows the heartbeat. It helps tremendously because the psychological dread remains the same. You just think: I would rather die than do this. But the body responds — it stops the adrenaline from going full force. It’s a life saver.
FWJ: Can I ask you about teaching?
ES: Sure. When I taught in Manhattan Community College I taught composition, and sometimes I taught a literature class. It was fun to get kids interested in reading — I shouldn’t say kids. They were adults. Young adults mostly. I got to introduce them to Raymond Carver and John Cheever, whoever I was excited about at the time. If they like you, they get excited about what you’re excited about. And I always changed it because you don’t want to get sick of whatever you’re doing at the time. It’s a danger. But then after my books came out I started to teach writing at Queens University of Charlotte, the low-residency MFA program. I’ve spent the last ten years reading student writing, which is a mixed thing. On my best day I would almost feel like a radiologist. I felt like I could pick up a manuscript and pretty quickly understand what’s going on. Like, “You sure can do landscape, you’ve got that down, but what is it with people? You have a problem with people.” I wouldn’t say it that directly. Maybe. And that was sort of helpful with my own writing, knowing what I’d say to my students.
FWJ: Who are your readers?
ES: I have these little made-up readers. We writers sit around all day and make things up and so you might as well make up a reader as well. I have kind of an ideal reader and I write for her. Somebody who is patient but not too patient. Open. Thoughtful. And who somehow needs the book. Especially Amy and Isabelle because I spent so many years of my young life walking through libraries pulling books off shelves, and some of them would be fabulous and some of them wouldn’t be, and I just thought, what if there is some young girl in the middle of Kansas and she feels like a knucklehead all the time? She pulls this book down and feels less like a knucklehead.
FWJ: Do you get a lot of reader response?
ES: I do get reader response. It used to be letters and now it’s e-mail. Especially about Amy and Isabelle.
FWJ: Is it the mothers or the daughters writing you?
ES: Both. About equal.
FWJ: Do men write you?
ES: Not as much. A couple of men wrote and said, you’re just a man hater. And that was very painful for me because I don’t think I am at all. I like men, it’s just this book happened to be about women. And I actually like Avery Clark. It wasn’t his fault Isabelle was hung up on him, it was just time and place. More men have written about Tyler and Olive. Mostly they write nice things. There are certain people who write and say, “I really liked the book, until I got to the last story and Olive called the president a cross-eyed cocaine addict. That made me think that you’re a horrible person and I will never recommend your books.” Obviously these are hardcore Republicans and they hate me and that’s fine. Canadians got very upset with me because Olive says the terrorists on 9/11 came from Canada and down through Portland. Actually they had spent a night in Portland but not through Canada, but when 9/11 happened an awful lot of people in Maine thought that. There were all these false reports and Olive would have thought that. I can’t answer those letters because I don’t think it’s my place to give a class in narrative voice. You know, why did Raymond Carver call the African American housekeeper colored? It’s what the character feels; it’s not what Carver feels.
FWJ: Do you have a set of books that you tell young writers they need to read? Books that taught you how to write or inspired you in some way? This is that question.
ES: God, I love Hemingway. It’s something I don’t even talk about that much anymore because a lot of women don’t like Hemingway. He’s out of fashion and what’s the point of having the conversation except that I love him? Love Fitzgerald. I feel like I’ve learned so much from them and D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and all the Russians because they’re not afraid of anything. And Updike, of course. John Cheever’s journals. The stories and Falconer, but especially the journals are so gorgeous. They’re so honest. And I have friends who say, “Oh, they’re just the ramblings of an alcoholic depressive,” or something. But they’re beautifully written. You can learn a lot about weather. He’s so observant he just knows the wind is coming off the east and this is what it’s doing to the Hudson, and you read it and think, that’s right! That’s what it’s doing. Alice Munro is huge — a huge, huge influence, and so is William Trevor.
FWJ: You’ve set all three of your books in small New England towns. You live in New York, but so far you haven’t set a book here.
ES: No. Not yet.
FWJ: Do you have a New York novel you’re secretly working on?
ES: I don’t know what I’m writing at the moment.
Daniel Libman served as past fiction editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. He is currently the book reviews editor for FWJ. His story collection Married But Looking is forthcoming from Livingston Press. Read Dan’s article about his writing life on the Writer’s Rainbow blog.
This interview appeared in the Fall 2011 Issue 9 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Order page.