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

(By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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"He said that he'd been walking back and forth crying for an hour," she recalls, "and if anybody had stopped, he wouldn't have done it."

Later we see Olive, in jagged relief, as she appears to her estranged son. And we see her through the eyes of her high school math students, to whom she seems a frightening woman given to spewing mysterious advice.

"Don't be scared of your hunger," she tells them. "If you're scared of your hunger, you'll just be one more ninny like everyone else."

Boom, boom, boom.

Who is this extraordinary creature? And what caused her to spring, full-grown, from the brow of the wholly un-Olive-like Elizabeth Strout?

Some biographical information may help. But first, a brief warning from Strout's close friend Kathy Chamberlain, who has been reading early drafts of Strout's work for 26 years:

Much of the material used by writers comes from "powerful family feelings," Chamberlain says, and it should be no surprise that this is true of Strout as well.

But writing "is like an alchemical process. That data passes through the writer's mind and what comes out is fiction."

'It Was Just in the Air'

When Strout talks about her childhood, the word "isolated" comes up a lot. And it's not just because she grew up in small towns in New Hampshire and Maine.

"We were so isolated -- by my parents' choice," she says. "My parents were very, very, very strict."

Her father was a science professor, and her mother taught high school. Both had New England roots that went back centuries, but it wasn't just WASP reserve that shaped their attitude toward the outside world.

It was the sense -- which Strout absorbed, as children do, but never really understood -- that beyond their door lay a hostile environment from which she and her brother should be protected.

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