Elizabeth Strout—whose novel Olive Kitteridge won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize—met recently with BMCC’s English department faculty to discuss her work. Hosted by Professor Robert Lapides, she shared thoughts on craft and inspiration that writers in any stage of their careers can take to heart.
About ten years ago, Elizabeth Strout’s 12-year stint as a BMCC adjunct professor came to a close, but the experience still resonates for her.
“I was young when I started teaching at BMCC, and I learned a lot. I learned about being in charge of a class—I don’t mean in a disciplinarian way; I mean, in being somebody they can follow, leading them through an experience,” says Strout.
“And I do believe without a doubt, that that helped me understand that a reader needs to be led through a story, as well. There needs to that authority figure in the narrative voice, taking the reader where they should be going.”
To create a character, observe people around you
Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge—which not only won a Pulitzer Prize but has been on the The New York Times bestseller list for more than six months—is titled after the book’s central character, who does things like go through her daughter-in-law’s closet, and steal one of her bras.
Part of the book’s compelling suspense—though it isn’t a “suspense novel”—comes from wondering what Olive will do next. “There’s a scene in Olive Kitteridge where she spills something on herself—and ever since I’ve written that scene, I’ve done nothing but spill things on myself,” says Strout.
Is there a lesson for aspiring writers, in that kind of connection to a character?
“To write something that matters requires a tremendous amount of watching and listening and thinking about what people do,” says Strout. “It’s a lifelong study of people and human nature and the sounds of the human world, and also how the world fits into the location in which that character is living. So I would say that to be a writer is really to be a lifelong studier of the human condition.”
Who matters, but so does where
The link between character and setting is vital, says Strout. “I think any setting is a good setting as long as one is very knowledgeable of it. I think that I couldn’t write about a small town in the South, because it’s very foreign to me. I simply don’t know very much about a small town in the South.”
Olive Kitteridge takes place in Maine, where Strout grew up. “It feels familiar to me in a deep way,” she says. “I think that one could write about these characters’ vulnerabilities in New York City as well, but it would be an entirely different kind of story, if you listen to the language and different ways of communicating with each other.”
Writers must also be readers
When Strout was teaching at BMCC, she gave herself a “three pages or three hours a day” rule, and while she worked on her own writing during those years, her students worked on theirs—becoming not just better writers, but residents in the world of readers, as well.
“Many had not yet known just the pleasure of reading, without having to worry about whether they were reading it ‘right’ or something like that,” says Strout.
“It was really a great thing to be able to help students find out that reading could be fun; to find out that poetry wasn’t necessarily intimidating. And there was just no baloney with them.”
Risk taking–a skill that can’t be taught
Strout has taught writing to students at all levels in their academic careers. “At BMCC I was teaching basic composition classes and literature classes, which was fabulous,” she says. She now teaches writing students in a low-residency, master of fine arts (MFA) program in Charleston, North Carolina.
“They certainly have quite a bit of structure skills,” says Strout. “But that doesn’t mean they have the emotional capacity it takes, or the capacity with craft.”
Proficiency, then, is only part of the writing skill set.
“Students can be taught craft, to a certain extent,” she says. “You can point out to them what a sentence can do and how to control their sentences to a certain extent—that can be taught, but what can’t be taught is whether or not they can take the risk, put themselves out on the line or even have something to say. You can’t teach them that.”