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'Olive' Turned On Answering Casting's Call
Strout's Character Switch Propelled Pulitzer Book

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!

"You put Olive in there, and it's like: Boom, boom, boom!"

The Character of Olive

At 53, Strout is blond and trim, with a mobile face, an infectious laugh and the somewhat scattered air of a person whose mind clicks rapidly from one perception to the next. Her modest apartment near the East River features a view to the north of 72nd Street and an air conditioner that starts spitting smoke the moment it's turned on.

"If we see flames, we'll leave," she promises, jumping up to shut off the alarming appliance.

Three hours of flame-free conversation follow. Much of it is devoted to the character of Olive as it is revealed, story by story, in the book that bears her name.

We see her first through the eyes of her pharmacist husband, Henry, the protagonist of the story Strout leads with. But Henry is a gentle man, and when his wife enters the picture -- speaking in short, bullying bursts -- he and everyone else fade into the background.

"Not keen on it," she says when Henry suggests having Denise, a new pharmacy employee, to dinner.

"Oh, for God's sake," she says when Henry spills the ketchup at the meal that eventually ensues.

But there's a marital complexity underlying Olive's mood that the reader can't yet appreciate. And when Denise later calls with some terrible news, Strout repaints Olive's portrait with a single stroke:

" 'Oh, you poor child,' she said, in a voice Henry would always remember -- filled with such dismay that all her outer Olive-ness seemed stripped away."

"Bullies are just frightened people," Strout points out. As for marriage, it is "a vast country of so many different terrains."

In the stories to come, we see Olive join an effort to rescue an anorexic girl. (No, she doesn't hate her mother, the girl tells Olive at one point, and Olive says: "All right, then. That's a start.") We see the hostage incident end badly, with stress driving Olive and Henry's marriage into some especially rough terrain.

We learn that Olive's father killed himself, leaving no note, and we see her talking with a young man who's contemplating suicide, though he doesn't say so out loud. Researching the young man's state of mind -- she was afraid she didn't know enough to evoke it authentically -- Strout came across the story of a man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived.

"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.

So: No television.

No newspapers.

No parties, no dates, no hanging with friends and, as Strout wrote in a recent Washington Post Magazine essay, just two movies before she got to college: "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" and "The Miracle Worker."

Small wonder that within this enforced isolation, Strout's mother -- now 81, with whom Strout still has "an intense and complicated relationship" -- became her world.

"There wasn't a sense of having too much of a separate life from my mother's feelings," she says.

As soon as Strout learned to read and write, her mother bought her notebooks and told her: Put down what you see. Also important, for a future fiction writer, were the people-watching games they played.

"She had an interest in people, particularly if she didn't know them," Strout says, and together they imagined lives for strangers encountered around town. "It seemed to me, from a very early age, that nothing was ever as fun as that."

Strout knew from childhood that writing was her future. Wasn't that what her mother was encouraging? Didn't she teach writing in high school? Wasn't it clear that she herself wanted to write?

"It was just in the air," Strout says. "She was always talking about writing."

Yet she never wrote.

Strout doesn't know the reason. They didn't discuss it. Still, she ventures a guess: The act of writing "requires some element of revealing oneself," she says, and that was something her mother "probably didn't want to do."

And why was that?

The explanations get even more tentative here.

Strout doesn't make the link directly, but her mother's father, like Olive's, was a suicide, and Strout is "very much aware of the legacy of that" -- especially in the small-town New England of the time.

"You get that combination of such a trauma, and nobody talks about it," she says.

This included her own father, a man who "believed you should only say nice things." When Strout once raised the subject of her mother's pain, he denied it.

"I don't know, I think she's had a pretty good life," he said.

Whatever the reason, her mother wanted to write and didn't. This meant that, beyond the self-doubt all writers confront, Strout faced an additional obstacle -- a psychic taboo she needed to break if she wanted to move ahead.

She had to succeed where a parent had failed.

Stand-Up Revelation

Succeed she did. But it took awhile.

Strout is a bit reticent about the difficulties of her teen years. But she loathed high school and she dropped out, with her mother's blessing, after her junior year. Somehow she was admitted to Bates College -- she doesn't remember the details -- and in the fall of 1973, left home for Lewiston, Maine.

"My first year in college was one of the most thrilling years of my life," she says.

In the winter of that year, Hearst was kidnapped in California by the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army and ended up joining its bizarre revolutionary effort. Strout's fascination with the kidnapping and the Stockholm syndrome, her friend Chamberlain believes, had to do with growing up thinking "you're in a world where other people are in control."

But controlling her own life, after the cocoon of college, at first proved daunting to Strout.

She took a series of jobs -- secretary, barmaid, mattress salesperson -- that pointed at no career. Wasn't her vocation writing? Couldn't she write by day and work as a cocktail waitress by night?

That got old.

Studying law didn't pan out, either. "Talk about not fitting," Strout says. She struggled through Syracuse University's law school, took a legal services job that made her feel that she was constantly faking it, and got laid off -- "thank God" -- six months later.

New York City was next. It was a revelation. "All of a sudden, I was introduced to life," Strout says. "I was like: Oh, food's supposed to have flavor? This is called garlic?"

Best of all, the people-watching opportunities were infinite.

Strout was married by then to fellow law student Marty Feinman, from whom she is now separated. She stayed home with their daughter for a few years; started teaching at a community college; and through it all, kept writing. By 1994, she had published a number of stories, but she had also begun to have a distressing feeling that "something wasn't happening" in her work -- that she was "holding back on telling truths."

She wasn't sure exactly what these were. So she signed up for a stand-up comedy class to find out.

"I thought: That's a real pressure cooker. You've got your audience right there and you're responsible for them directly," she says, explaining this strange and, to her, terrifying impulse. "What would come out of my mouth?"

What came out, as Strout stood onstage at an East Side comedy club at the conclusion of the stand-up course, turned out to be a stream of jokes making fun of her New England roots. And she knew that, in her writing, she needed to go back home.

The first result was 1998's "Amy and Isabelle," which The Washington Post's reviewer called a "remarkable first novel about a mother and daughter who live together in a small town and have nothing, yet everything, in common." Strout watched in amazement as "Amy and Isabelle" became both a bestseller and an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV movie.

Not bad for someone who, until the book came out, had let few people know she was writing at all.

"It was too important to me," she says. She didn't want the condescension of the "Oh, what have you published?" question.

Next, in 2006, came "Abide With Me," about a troubled minister in an even more isolated Maine town. It got raves and made bestseller lists, too.

Then came "Olive."

Strout was blindsided by her Pulitzer win in April. She didn't even know the prize was scheduled to be announced. She was in Nevada at the time, talking with some high school students, one of whom "kept saying to me, 'Why is your stuff so depressing? Why do you feel you need to be depressed?' "

She doesn't see things that way, of course. She says she is "deeply impressed with how people get through life," continually moved by the way they "just keep going and, for the most part, try to live as best they can."

But never mind.

"Olive Kitteridge" is hardly a young person's book.

And the older person whose opinion Strout most cares about -- the strong-minded New England schoolteacher and mother who is most certainly not Olive, but who played such a powerful role in Olive's alchemic creation -- had already rendered judgment.

"She said, 'I think this is your best book,' " the daughter who became a writer recalls.

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