Maine native Elizabeth Strout’s first two books were national best-sellers, but when her third book, “Olive Kitteridge,” won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, it was like a bomb went off in her head, Strout said.
In the wake of her success, she will visit the University of Maine in Orono Tuesday-Thursday, March 22-24, to speak to writing classes and will give a public reading of “Olive Kitteridge” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Wells Conference Center on campus.
“I know when I was a student, it was just so important for me to come in contact with poets and writers who had spent their life devoted to that,” said Strout. “I really hope to give [University of Maine students] access to me in whatever ways are most beneficial.”
Strout was born in Portland and grew up in South Harpswell and Durham, N.H. She studied theater and English at Bates College before graduating in 1977 and continuing her education at Syracuse University College of Law. Her life always has been about writing.
By the age 16, she was sending out stories to magazines, and 10 years later, she finally published her first story. Since then, Strout’s stories have been published in national magazines, including The New Yorker.
“I never quit; That’s really how I became successful,” said Strout. “If you want to do something, you just don’t quit. It’s really easy to quit, particularly in the face of so much rejection, which writers have constantly.”
Strout has lived in New York City for the past 27 years and works as a faculty member in the creative writing master’s degree program at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. She’s taking a break from teaching and, last summer, she purchased a home in Brunswick, where she and her husband, James Tierney, plan to spend much of their time.
Tierney, former Maine attorney general and currently director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, will visit the University of Maine with Strout as a visiting lecturer.
Though Strout briefly worked for Legal Services, she quickly returned to writing. Since her first stories, she has aimed to write honest fiction.
“I see it as my job to make sure that the characters are having honest emotions,” said Strout. “Whatever I’m writing is real. People are terribly complex and we have many emotions and many different ones at war with each other within ourselves, so I am interested in going below the surface and sort of reporting on that kind of human experience.”
Strout said in order to build honest characters, she observes and listens to people around her, in public and private. She also studies herself and uses her own emotional reactions to imagine what it might feel like to be placed in her character’s situation.
“Olive Kitteridge” is a collection of 13 short stories that take place in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. The network of characters is tied together by one unforgettable character, Olive Kitteridge.
In book reviews, Olive is almost always the aspect of the book that is the most intriguing, even if her character is decidedly unpleasant. Strout describes Olive as larger than life, perhaps over the top, but honest in her emotions, even if she is blind to the feelings of others.
“Many people don’t enjoy her at all, but many people do,” said Strout. “I think those who do enjoy her do because she’s sort of everybody pushed to the Nth degree. She feels things that other people maybe don’t dare to feel — and she certainly says what other people don’t dare to say.”
Olive couldn’t exist anywhere else but Maine, Strout said. Location and time are extremely important in shaping a character. Nevertheless, Olive is a universal character in that people living outside Maine can relate to her.
“It’s been very interesting to me,” said Strout. “The Italians are just crazy about her, and I think of them as having quite a different culture than Maine culture.”
All three of Strout’s books take place in fictional New England towns based on places in Maine.
“Amy and Isabelle,” Strout’s first book, takes place in a fictional town called Shirley Falls. The mother-daughter coming-of-age story made the Top 10 of The New York Times best-seller list and won several national awards.
Her second book, “Abide With Me,” is set in the fictional Brockmorton Theological Seminary in a town she named West Annett. The seminary is a play on the real last name of the late Rev. Burton Throckmorton, a longtime theologian at Bangor Theological Seminary, where Strout spent time observing for her book.
If Strout has lived the past 27 years in New York City, why do her stories exist in Maine?
“I think childhood memories are the sharpest, deep down inside us, whether we want that to be true or not,” she said. “There is something about having lived in New York that gave me this faith and freedom to view my New England heritage with a sharper eye. And I’m missed New England. I think there’s been a level of nostalgia in my work.”
Both of Strout’s parents and her husband attended the University of Maine, and Strout was planning to attend the university before she was accepted at Bates College. She has never spoken at UMaine, but looks forward to being on campus.
There’s nothing magical about writing, Strout said. It’s a job like any other. Just like working out at the gym, the more you do it, the better you become.
Though she doesn’t normally talk about what she’s working on, she did say that part of her next story will take place in New York.
“I’m working on this big ol’ thing,” she said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
For information, visit elizabethstrout.com.