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Elizabeth Strout has ‘millions of stories to tell’

Her character Lucy Barton returns, this time riding out the pandemic’s early wave with her ex-husband in Maine

Elizabeth Strout in Topsham, Maine, in August. Her new novel, “Lucy by the Sea,” brings back several of her beloved characters. (Tristan Spinski for The Washington Post)

Harpswell, Maine — Here, in the Mid-Coast Maine village of her childhood, in a home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, is where Elizabeth Strout has chosen to install the characters in her new novel, “Lucy by the Sea.” You might well know these characters. Lucy Barton (of three previous novels) and her ex-husband William Gerhardt (of “Oh William!”) retreat to Maine to ride out the pandemic’s initial wallop, and end up staying more than a year.

Strout, 66, is a novelist who can’t quit her loved ones, and whose recent astonishing productivity delights her devoted readers. “Lucy by the Sea,” which was published Tuesday, is her sixth book in less than a decade. Characters tend to appear fully formed to Strout, a visitation, and keep returning to her, as if to say, Surely, you are not done with me yet.

“I have such a deep relationship with them. In order for me to write about them, I need to inhabit them as fully as possible,” says Strout at her nearby home, a duplex in a handsome 1851 building graced with hammered tin ceilings. She rarely kills a character, except a spare husband or two. “It’s hard to have them just go away,” Strout says.

Laura Linney, who starred in the one-woman production of “My Name Is Lucy Barton” on Broadway and twice in London, says Strout’s characters are “so alive, and keep tapping you on the shoulder.”

So, the gang is all here! In “Lucy by the Sea,” Strout summons Bob Burgess (of “The Burgess Boys”); Isabelle (from her debut, “Amy and Isabelle”); and, yes, the indomitable Olive Kitteridge of the eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, its encore, “Olive, Again,” and the Emmy-laden HBO adaptation starring Frances McDormand. (Strout adores McDormand’s performance but finds the actress altogether too pretty for the role.)

To Strout, writing is an act of revelation. And she is always writing, often in her studio above a nearby store. She’s amazed that Lucy returned for a fourth novel, but here she is.

“I never know what’s going to happen. Because I always feel like if I’m not surprised, then the reader won’t be surprised,” she says. To Strout, the act of writing is “purely intuitive.” She rarely foresees how her books will end. As Lucy notes, in one of Strout’s favorite observations in the new novel: “It is a gift in this life that we do not know what awaits us.”

There is an insistent generosity in Strout’s books, and a restraint that obscures the complexity of their construction. Her literary success seems akin to Hemingway’s observation of how someone might go broke: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Her first novel was published on her 42nd birthday in 1998, following years of relentless rejection that did nothing to crush her drive or discipline. Now, dedicated readers have come to expect a new book from Strout every year or so.

“She’s had to work for this,” says her editor, Random House publisher Andy Ward. “She dedicates her life to it. She’s really sort of devoid of ego. The focus for her is on her book and the characters. She’s never showing off.”

Possibly, that’s the Mainer in her. Her mother’s family has been here since 1603; her father’s family arrived more recently — the mid-1700s. She was raised in a home with no newspapers or television, but there was a subscription to the New Yorker. Strout writes about people who, at first glance, might be overlooked, often older characters — she grew up surrounded by tough, older Maine women — born to brutal poverty and shattering circumstances.

Strout loved describing the Maine coast through her character, seeing it anew. “A dark green water curled up over the rocks, and seaweed that was a brown-gold color, almost deep copper, lay wavy-like on the rocks as the dark green water splashed up,” Strout writes of Illinois-raised Lucy observing the ocean for the first time. “This is the sea! It was like a foreign country to me.” Few novelists bestow exclamation marks with such aplomb.

Tall and trim, Strout appears immune to bragging and refrains from criticizing others, even places. She stops herself from uttering an unkind comment about a nearby town that has long weathered hard times. During a lengthy afternoon interview, she is generous, observant and forthright. She cannot cook but wants to make sure her guest has acquired lunch — like Lucy, Strout is largely uninterested in food because of a childhood of dismal gastronomy — and she is cursed with an unerringly wretched sense of direction, even in places that she has known forever.

Since Strout’s comparatively late start, the books, popularity and awards have been near constant: nine novels; more than 5.2 million copies in print, according to her publisher; and a frequent berth on the bestseller list. Ward calls her “the ultimate less-is-more writer. She’s just in the zone right now. She’s writing all the time, doing some of the best work of her career.”

“Oh William!” is among six novels shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. (She was longlisted for “Lucy Barton” in 2016.) “No one writes interior life as Strout does,” the judges noted. “Barton is one of literature’s immortal characters — brittle, damaged, unraveling, vulnerable and most of all, ordinary, like us all.”

Strout was encouraged by her mother to write, to observe everything. She recalls completing her first story by age 9 or 10. She realized at an early age that her father was kinder than her mother, but her mother was more interesting.

“I have never had writer’s block. My writer’s block takes the form of writing badly, which is much more preferable,” she says, perched on a cream sofa draped with a lemon-print fabric. Books are stacked everywhere on the hardwood floor. “That happens to me all the time. ‘Oh, okay, today was just terrible. I just wrote bad stuff, and tomorrow I’ll write better stuff.’” On a good day of writing, says James Tierney, her second husband of 10 years, “she’s as excited as a teenager. Her eyes are flashing.” Tierney, a former Maine attorney general, is a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

On the way to becoming a published author, Strout tried acting, stand-up comedy, working in a shoe mill, cocktail waitressing, playing piano in a cocktail bar, teaching writing, law school and practicing law for all of six months.

“I was a terrible lawyer, just terrible,” she says. “It turns out I did not have one adversarial bone in my body. I was just too young and too stupid.”

All of it, she believes, was in the service of becoming the author she is today: “I think that I just have been in training for a really, really, really, really long time.” The summer she spent in the shoe factory informed “Amy and Isabelle,” which is set in a mill office, the characters inspired by the stories of former co-workers. Law school taught her to write tightly and discard excess emotion. Stand-up offered lessons in deploying candor and engaging directly with readers. Acting allowed her to inhabit other characters. “I loved the idea of becoming a different person,” she says. “That is what has motivated me in my writing. I want to know what it feels like to be another person.”

Linney says of Strout’s writing: “It is skill that is beyond skill. It doesn’t feel technical at all. She is able to distill truth down to such a stealth level. It hits your body and your mind and your heart, particularly when you hear the language out loud, but also when you’re quietly alone reading the book.”

Strout is an indie-bookstore favorite and a staple of book groups. For the “Olive Kitteridge” reader’s guide, she engaged in “conversation” with her character, Olive not forfeiting a point. “I think about my readers all the time. I love my readers,” Strout says. “So I have an ideal reader. If I can make up a character, I can make up a reader.” Her reader “has no gender but is right in front of me when I write. The presence of the reader is very visible to me,” she says. “I’m never, ever, ever writing for myself.”

Strout lived in Manhattan for many years, where she raised her only child, playwright Zarina Shea, and still keeps a studio apartment. She loved living elsewhere and didn’t think she would ever return to Maine. New York is where she met Tierney, a divorced father of five, at one of her author events. Having scored the last ticket, he rushed to be first in the long line to meet her afterward. “When he went out the door,” Strout recalls, “he turned left and he looked right, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s what my life should have been.’”

But Tierney had slipped her his email address on a tiny piece of newsprint. “We met twice. And then he moved in,” she says. “We waited a year to get married because we didn’t want to scare the kids. It was very, very innocent and very romantic.”

Strout finds herself back in Maine, so near to the town she had seemingly left for good, because Tierney wanted to be here. When the coronavirus pandemic first struck, they hunkered down in their native state. How could she not write about the pandemic? “I couldn’t think of writing anything else. I couldn’t pretend it hasn’t happened,” she says. “It was a more difficult piece for me because there was tremendous uncertainty as I was writing.”

Tierney says: “She has to get it right. Her commitment to accuracy is astounding.” Lucy Barton is originally from the fictional rural town of Amgash, Ill. “Her voice sort of arrived to me, and I thought, ‘Okay, I see sky.’ I literally saw this gigantic sky and this little tiny house,” Strout says. But her gift for conjuring characters from thin air does not extend to their physical surroundings. So she and Tierney went to Illinois, and also Iowa, to discover their own Amgash, visiting three times to capture the different seasons. It seemed important that her characters were not only specific to her home state. “It was just so freeing to get them out of Maine,” she says.

Politics quietly and occasionally sneaks into Strout’s work. Olive is an ardent Democrat who thinks poorly of George W. Bush. “I got so much hate mail, and I didn’t think too much of it, but that was years ago and things are changing,” Strout says. In her latest book, Jan. 6, 2021, is noted, as are supporters of the former president, though he is never named. Strout is well aware that, given her substantial audience, she has admirers with diverging political beliefs. “I don’t want to put off readers,” she says, “though I think I probably will.”

Strout sees literary acclaim and an ever-enlarging readership at a later age as gifts. “I’m actually really glad that it didn’t happen to me early. I think it worked exactly how it should have worked,” she says. “Those boxes and boxes and boxes of rejections were earned, and therefore, the sentences were earned. And, until they got fully earned, then they shouldn’t have been out there.”

She realized when she was young, even as a terrible lawyer, that “this is what I am here for,” she says of writing. “I always knew that. I always understood that about myself.” Unlike Lucy, who pens a memoir, Strout has no intention of writing her life’s story: “No, never, not in my wildest dreams!”

She’s deep into the next novel, likely to be published in 2024. Her characters, it appears, have no intention of leaving. “Yes, they’re all coming back. I feel like I’ve got millions of stories to tell,” she says with delight. “They just keep burbling up.”

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