Elizabeth Strout's novels are suffused with the salty tang of Maine

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2014 - 3:27 PM

Elizabeth Strout

Photo: Leonardo Cendarmo,

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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.

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    Today: 4 p.m. African Development Center, 1931 S. 5th St., Mpls.

    Sunday: In conversation with Sarah Stonich, 4 p.m. Sun., Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.

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