Elizabeth Strout: LibraryThing Author Interview
One of the key plot points in The Burgess Boys is loosely based on a real incident, is that right? Can you tell us about that and how it came to inspire you to tell this story?
Yes, one of the plot points in The Burgess Boys is based loosely on a real incident that happened in Lewiston, Maine, when a local white man threw a frozen pig's head into a local mosque. He committed suicide a week before it was to go to trial. I was well into The Burgess Boys—it takes me a long time to start to find the characters—when I heard of this incident, and it went straight to my heart. Lewiston is a city that means a great deal to me, and they have tried valiantly to open their hearts and community to the Somali immigrant population that has settled there. The act was reprehensible to me. Very painful. So as a novelist—I am always telling my students to "write against the grain" because the most interesting things will happen on the page that way—as a novelist I thought, I’d better look at this differently. Which meant that novelistically I thought: let me make up a character who does not understand what he did, let's see if we can make this complicated, because life is complicated. So I created Zach, who developed as the novel developed.
Do you recall which part of the story, or which character, came to you first?
It is always hard to remember exactly what came to me first when I started a book. But I know that the three Burgess siblings had been with me a long time, and the tragic loss of their father. This aspect was actually attached to another book I was working on many years ago, and then splintered off, but I believe that the character of Bob Burgess was with me for a long time before I was able to find him the right home in the right book.
What's your favorite line or scene from the book?
I think perhaps my favorite scene in the book is when Susan and Bob help Jim get onto the bus to return to New York. There is something about that moment when things have come full circle, and they are the caregivers now, and they have risen to that occasion. They are a real unit, the three siblings.
Like your previous novel, Olive Kitteridge, The Burgess Boys is set in small-town Maine and New York City, both places you've lived. How have your experiences in those environments shaped the way you write about them?
I have lived in New York City now for almost thirty years, which is more than half my life. Before that I primarily lived in Maine. But more than just living in Maine, my roots were in Maine, meaning that I came from many generations on both sides of real Mainers. So to live in New York was naturally quite different. I think I wrote about Maine first primarily because it remained the most familiar to me. But after living in New York for so long it has taken on the ingrained sense of place and home that I apparently need in order to write.
When and where do you get most of your writing done?
I get most of my writing done at home. Sometimes I will use a library. Only recently have I rented a studio—it's amazing. But I am quite comfortable working at home as long as I am alone. The concentration needed requires solitude, at least for me.
What's your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite?
My favorite part of writing is re-writing and seeing how much it improves. That is line work that I'm talking about. Cutting excessive lines and paragraphs and watching it become clean. But that can only happen after lots and lots of rewriting of a more general and messy sort. My least favorite part of writing is when it goes badly, when I feel blind as to what I'm doing. This is often.
Who were some of your authors as a child? Which do you consider your favorites today?
As a child I remember mostly reading poetry, especially Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry for young people. Then I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when it first came out; I was a child, but it was considered a grown up book, and reading it was very exciting for me. A few years later I remember picking up John Updike's Pigeon Feathers that was on a table, and I read that and it was also exciting, even though I knew I didn't understand it exactly. But it held the promise—that books would go where ordinary daily conversations (at least where I come from) did not go. So I always loved Updike. Then I was old enough to wander through the adult section of the library and I would pull down all sorts of books; what a thing that was! And then I read Hemingway and Chekhov and Fitzgerald and of course J.D. Salinger, and these are still some of my favorites. But that sense of discovery when I was young! It was wonderful.
What's your library like? What types of books would we find on your shelves?
You will find a lot of poetry on my shelves. I love poetry and read it a great deal, so there are shelves of it from all sorts of places. And I also like biographies of painters—I don't really know why, but I find it very comforting to read about painters. I also like biographies of scientists because I like science. I like medical essays a great deal. I find medicine just fascinating.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently?
Recently I read a couple of books by Penelope Lively that I liked a lot: How it All Began and The Photograph. And I read Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz and Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores. I'm also reading C.K. Williams' In Time.
Have you begun work on a new project yet? Can you tell us a bit about what's next?
I am working, but I can't tell you anything about it. I'm sorry!
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
Books by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge (5528 copies)
Amy and Isabelle (1424 copies)
The Burgess Boys (1009 copies)
Abide with Me (769 copies)
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