Fiction Pulitzer Prize Winner Elizabeth Strout Talks Writing, 'Olive Kitteridge'

(By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

NEW YORK -- On the way to writing "Olive Kitteridge," the collection of linked stories that would win her a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Elizabeth Strout made one of those intuitive leaps that show why the creation of fiction is such a mysterious enterprise.

Ever since she was a teenager in the early 1970s, she had been fascinated by the Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which a kidnapping victim such as Patty Hearst appears to identify with the people who have abducted her. Decades later, Strout was trying to write a story about this.

It centered on a character named Evelyn who, while driving with her husband, stops at a hospital to use the bathroom. Before they know it, they're being held at gunpoint by young men who've invaded the place in search of drugs.

"I had been working on that story for a long, long time," Strout says. Somehow, she could never get it right.

In the meantime, she had written and published a story about a woman she called Olive Kitteridge.

Olive is a forceful personality, to put it mildly, with a powerful, not always positive effect on those around her. At her son's wedding, she overhears her new daughter-in-law, a physician named Suzanne, say how hard it was for the son to grow up in Olive's scary shadow.

Wounded, she sits in the couple's bedroom, head in hands.

"She would like to say this to Suzanne," Strout writes. "She would like to say, Listen, Dr. Sue, deep down there is a thing inside me, and sometimes it swells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me. I haven't wanted to be this way, but so help me, I have loved my son."

Instead, she steals a bra and one of Suzanne's shoes, which end up in the trash at Dunkin' Donuts.

Strout says she knew right away that she would write a book of stories about Olive. All would be set in the small, fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Olive would be central in some and peripheral in others: She was too overwhelming to have onstage all the time.

Then came a revelation about the problematic hostage story.

"Wait! Wait! This is Olive!" Strout thought. "Omigod, it's just been waiting for Olive. It's not Evelyn -- go away!

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