Elizabeth Strout

Interview

Elizabeth Strout interview: 'I could feel myself getting better with each story'

With Oh William! shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, we spoke to Elizabeth Strout about her intimate characterisation, the importance of listening and what’s next for Lucy Barton

Read an extract from Oh William! here.

Read interviews with more of our longlisted authors here.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, especially having been longlisted in 2016? Does it feel different this time around?

It was very moving for me to be longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. It feels doubly lovely now; it feels slightly different because this is the second time, and it thrills me.

What would winning the Booker mean to you?

To actually win the Booker? Well, I know I am supposed to be able to use words, but there are almost no words for what that would mean to me. Beyond the beyond. But I would be humbled, too, to be in the presence of all the great writers who have won it before.

What does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing?

I often start a scene by hand and then will print it out on the computer. Yes, sometimes it comes in bursts but other times not. I seldom write anything from beginning to end; I will write in little scenes and then eventually they pull together. (Or they don’t.) The research I do depends on the book I am writing. For Oh William! my husband and I took the exact trip that William and Lucy end up taking to northern Maine so that I could see it all through Lucy’s eyes. And I had researched about the German POW’s beforehand.

Where do you write? What does your working space look like?

I can write almost anywhere, I have always been able to do that. But I write mostly in my studio over the bookstore here in Maine. It is a large room with windows that look out at the fire station and I have a couch and a table and a big lumpy chair. It’s lovely, because no one ever goes in there except for me.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

The Booker judges said that ‘Lucy Barton is one of literature’s immortal characters - brittle, damaged, unravelling, vulnerable and, most of all, ordinary, like us all.’ What do you think it is about Lucy that has struck a chord with so many readers?

I think - I hope - that many readers have taken Lucy into their hearts because she is honest in what she presents, and also her voice (which is really her) is an intimate one, and yet leaves the reader enough space to enter the book on their own terms.

How much of you is in the character of Lucy, and, since you’ve returned to her world often, what does she allow you to explore?

Well, I am not Lucy, but I feel I know her really well. As long as I can hang on to her voice I can go with her. She allows me to look at the really quiet parts of living, her interiority allows me to say certain things - and also I think and hope her observations of the world are astute.

Success as a writer did not come immediately to you - has that made you appreciate it more? Are you conscious of how much you’ve improved as a writer and do you think age matters when it comes to writing fiction (considering the Booker longlist features the youngest- and oldest-ever nominated authors)?

Success did come to me later, but that was okay, I could feel myself getting better with each story or book. Age does matter to me - but that doesn’t mean it has to matter to all writers. It matters to me because as I age my work gets better, but more importantly, I live through more things and see more things, and therefore have more things to say.

William is Lucy’s former husband, and the book explores how they reconnect in middle age. What made you want to explore the relationship at this particular stage of the characters’ lives?

It was not a conscious decision to explore the relationship of Lucy and William at that point in time, but as the book developed I realised: Look at this! These people - especially as I wrote their dialogue (and their silences) - really know each other in a way that goes beyond having just met in their youth. They have a special thing, is what I felt as I wrote the book, and that is what was so fascinating for me, to try and open that up - and then to give it to the reader.

Elizabeth Strout

I have listened all my life, listened and listened and listened. So that commitment has been there as long as I can remember being alive.

Booker winner Hilary Mantel has praised your ‘commitment to listening’ and says you have a ‘perfect attunement to the human condition’. Would you agree with those statements, and are these qualities that come naturally to you, or are they skills that you have had to learn?

Isn’t that lovely that Hilary Mantel said those things about my work? I would love to agree with them, and so I will! I have listened all my life, listened and listened and listened. So that commitment has been there as long as I can remember being alive. And perhaps from that very commitment I have learned over the years to be in ‘perfect attunement to the human condition.’ I would love to think that is the case.

What can we expect from Lucy in your next book about her?

My next book is Lucy by the Sea and it is a continuation from Oh William!. He takes her back up to Maine to keep her safe as the world unfolds its horrors. But they endure - and even find really happy moments in the midst of the crisis.

Which book or books are you reading at the moment?

I am currently re-reading Middlemarch, which I last read 25 years ago.

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel?

My favourite Booker winners are (of course! but truly) Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Julian Barnes‘ The Sense of an Ending, and I have many short list favourites, including Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, and William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth.

What’s the one book you wish you’d written?

One book I wish I’d written is Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. But I couldn’t have written it because I’m not him - I’m not Cuban-American, I don’t have all that stuff inside me that spills out from the book.

Discover more about the author