A writer can find her voice in all kinds of ways: Elizabeth Strout found hers through stand-up comedy.
She was still a young writer, had published some short fiction but not yet a novel, and was feeling “really, really stuck with my writing,” she said. “I could feel that something was not happening.”
What she needed, she decided, was some sort of intense pressure that would force her to dig deeper, be more honest. So she signed up for a comedy class.
Strout had always been curious about what succeeds and what fails in the intimate, judgmental environment of a comedy club.
“To me, it seemed to come down to whether or not what the comic said was true,” she said. “I wondered what would happen if I put myself in that kind of pressure-cooker situation. What would come out of my mouth?”
For the class’s final exam, she performed at a club in New York. “I ended up making jokes about myself for being such an uptight Puritan-like person from New England. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I am. How funny. I didn’t know it!’ ”
Her comedy gig was a hit — “They asked if I wanted to audition and come back for a regular spot on Tuesday nights.” (She declined.)
More important, the comedy did the trick. Strout settled down and wrote her first novel, the bestselling “Amy and Isabelle,” about an uptight Puritan-like person from New England.
A transplanted Mainer
Strout grew up with one brother in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. Her parents were Mainers from generations back — plain-spoken, independent and proud, perhaps instantly recognizable to anyone who has read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge.”
“My parents so deeply identified with Maine that it was just the air we breathed,” said Strout, who will speak in the Twin Cities this weekend. “There is a deep suspicion of outsiders there, a tremendous remoteness, a pride that goes with the territory. It’s a very taciturn culture, at least when I was growing up; a culture that’s not particularly pleasure-oriented, to say the least.
“You weren’t supposed to just sit around and talk, which I love to do. I was the family embarrassment.”
Strout left Maine after graduating from Bates College in Lewiston, spent a year at Oxford, graduated with a law degree from Syracuse University and then settled down in New York City. “I was always drawn to cities, ever since I found out about them,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Oh, wow, look at all these people!’ ”
For 30 years, she has lived in New York, and at first she thought she had mostly left Maine behind. So it came as something of a surprise when she realized that Maine was what she needed to write about. She and her husband — whom she met in New York, but who is also from Maine — keep a little apartment in Brunswick, Maine, where Strout sometimes goes to write. The apartment is tiny, so she rents a writing room above the town bookstore.
“It took me a while as a writer to realize I’m actually a very white woman from Maine. It’s my culture, what I’m familiar with and have the most complicated feelings about.”
Strout’s first two novels were bestsellers and critically acclaimed — “Amy and Isabelle” was shortlisted for the Orange Prize — but it was still something of a surprise when “Olive Kitteridge” won a Pulitzer in 2009.
Olive is, of course, an uptight Puritan-like person from New England. (“Blunt, flawed and fascinating,” the Pulitzer committee said.) She marches through the book, the main character of some chapters, a peripheral presence in others. But she steals every scene she’s in.
The form of the book — linked short stories — was deliberate, and unusual for a Pulitzer winner. “I learned very early on that the story is the form,” Strout said. “How you tell the story is the story. Fighting to find the form is one of the largest jobs there is, for me.
“With Olive, I understood that this had to be sort of episodic. Her nature is loud and large. It had to be told in blasts.”
Change in a remote place
Her new novel, “The Burgess Boys,” which is just out in paperback, is more of a traditional narrative. “It’s denser,” Strout said. “It’s not episodic. It holds many years in it — it’s holding half a century of three lives, and a few other lives as well.”
“The Burgess Boys” examines the relationships of three siblings who grew up in a small town in Maine — two brothers who have fled for New York and a sister who has stayed behind. Their lives have been haunted by a childhood accident, when their father left the idling car to fetch the mail and the car rolled over him and killed him.
The book is about guilt and family relationships, but it is also about change and ignorance. The small Maine town where the Burgess family lived has seen an influx of Somali immigrants, and the plot is set in motion when the Burgess sister’s son throws a pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan. (This anecdote was based on a real event in Lewiston, Maine.)
Strout spent years reading about Somali history and culture before beginning the book. “I read and read and read — probably about seven years. I read about its history and its civil war and then read a tremendous amount about the camps in Kenya. As time went by, I knew of someone in Maine who worked very closely with the Somali culture here, and he allowed me access to some of their lives.”
Strout will meet with members of the Somali community at 4 p.m. April 12 at the African Development Center in Minneapolis, and will be in conversation with author Sarah Stonich at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 4 p.m. April 13. The poster from the Somali event describes the book as “a treasure — a book in which Somalis are treated with and depicted with dignity.”
“The Burgess Boys,” first published in 2013, was widely praised. The New York Times said Strout handles storytelling “with grace, intelligence and low-key humor.” The Star Tribune mentioned the “nuanced tension in the novel,” as well as its “beautiful and detailed writing.”
Strout had already begun work on the book when she won the Pulitzer. “You know, funny thing, that old Pulitzer,” Strout said. “I’m really glad I won it, because it gave me a larger readership. Otherwise, I don’t feel like it’s changed my life at all. People asked me, ‘Aren’t you scared to write another book?’ but I’m scared to write a book every time I do it.”