Elizabeth Strout, author of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winning Olive Kitteridge, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |August 15, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Elizabeth Strout

author  of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winning Olive Kitteridge

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Portland, Maine. I left high school in New Hampshire after three years and went to Bates College in Maine, and then two years later went to law school in Syracuse, New York.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

I wanted to be a writer since my earliest memory. At times I also thought about becoming a concernt pianist or an actress, but suffered too much from stage fright to pursue either one past a certain point. And mostly, as well, I knew writing was always what I really wanted to do. I think this is because I loved books so much.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

The strongly held belief that I had at eighteen that I no longer have was the idea that I could control a great deal of my future and that certain bad things would never happen to me simply because I would not let them — that my life would be free of divorce, for example. At eighteen I thought these things happened to people who allowed them to happen by living sloppily. This is simply youthful thinking; thank goodness as we get older we are allowed to be humbled and therefore far less judgemental.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

The music of Mozart and the sculptures of Henry Moore and many many books, too countless to name, helped shape my work. But the American writers especially, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, all of them….

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I chose to write a novel because there was no choice. It was what I was compelled to do.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

I can’t talk about my latest novel (I assume the one in progress is what is meant here) — because I never talk about what I am working on.

(BBGuru: Worth a shot. Would’ve been quite a scoop… If you haven’t read Elizabeth’s work yet you might like to try Olive Kitteridge – it didn’t win the  Pulitzer nothing…

Publisher synopsis – Olive Kitteridge might be described by some as a battle axe or as brilliantly pushy, by others as the kindest person they had ever met. Olive herself has always been certain that she is 100% correct about everything – although, lately, her certitude has been shaken. This indomitable character appears at the centre of these narratives that comprise Olive Kitteridge.

In each of them, we watch Olive, a retired schoolteacher, as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her life and the lives of those around her – always with brutal honesty, if sometimes painfully. Olive will make you laugh, nod in recognition, as well as wince in pain or shed a tear or two. We meet her stoic husband, bound to her in a marriage both broken and strong, and her own son, tyrannised by Olive’s overbearing sensitivities.

The reader comes away, amazed by this author’s ability to conjure this formidable heroine and her deep humanity that infiltrates every page.)

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope people, after reading me, go away with a larger sense of the complexities of what it means to be human — that they are less severe on themselves and on others — that they have a sense of communal experience even if their own specifics differ greatly from the work — that they feel a little bit less alone.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

I suppose I would say Alice Munro because she seems fearless in both style and substance (style IS substance). She is not the least bit sentimental, never shies away from the harsher truths, and writes in a style of great authority. I admire this.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

My own ambitious goal is to simply keep writing the truest book I can. It always seems an impossibly huge and ambitious thing to do.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

My advice to aspiring writers would be to read good sentences, and write and write and write. Eventually one can learn to hear the sound of their own sentence. Also, if the need to write stops, then that’s that. As long as you need to keep writing, you will.

Elizabeth, thank you for playing.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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