Friday, April 16, 2010

Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout speaks to Emerson College Students at Paramount Theater--Boston.

(Boston – April 15, 2010)

Article by Steve Glines

– Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winning author and Ploughshares guest editor answered questions today for Emerson students. Mrs. Strout won the Pulitzer for her novel “Olive Kittredge” which takes place in a small fictional town in Maine. For those wanting the Cliff Notes version, “Olive” is a series of not necessarily connected short stories that either feature Olive Kittredge or where she makes a cameo appearance. We learned that the author wrote each story independently and that while all of the stories took place in that small fictional town, Olive was written into some of the stories at a later date.

The author told her audience that the ordering of the stories was by gut instinct and not by any conscious plan. That was a disappointment to this writer because in analyzing the story he had come to the conclusion that Henry, Olive’s long suffering husband, was the initial star and only after their ordeal at the hands of a bank robber does Olive come into her own as Henry fades away. That was not the author’s intent; Olive was the intended star from the beginning. The author said she had “found” Olive in unfinished stories and only after rewriting did Olive emerge as a unifying character to this collection of short stories.

In the question and answer session with Emerson students Elizabeth Strout said she could not imagine a life without writing and that she wrote throughout law school which she attended to please her father who had just wanted her to be normal. She said that literary success came as a surprise and that she didn’t really understand the business aspects of the publishing industry. When it came to marketing she only did as she was told.

When asked about her writing style Elizabeth Strout said she wrote everything by hand, often at her kitchen table, sometimes at the library and even on the subways of New York. She spoke of the importance of having a trustworthy reader providing guidance and feedback while writing. Early in her career she only had one reader, then many, but preferred the input of just one trusted person. The synopsis for Olive Kittredge was sold to the publisher with just 1/3 of the book complete. When asked if the editors or her agent had any input to the book the audience was treated to an emphatic “NO!” She then admitted that the publisher had given the book its current title which in the manuscript had been “Olive’s Story.” When asked what was special about small towns her reply was, “I have nothing profound to say about small towns. Having grown up in a small town I guess I needed 30 years perspective to write about it so I suppose I’ll eventually write about New York.”

At the reading that followed Elizabeth Strout read an abbreviated chapter from Olive Kittredge. Authors often complain that reviewers “don’t get it.” When listening to Elizabeth Strout read, the story carried an emphasis that was just as compelling but different from the story as read. The story read as a dialogue between Olive and her son, as heard by this listener, the story was a dialogue between Olive and her daughter in law. There are a million ways to read a good book. As one author commented recently on his own work, “I didn’t know I was that brilliant, I don’t remember writing all that but what do I know I’m just the author.”

Elizabeth Strout was the first reader in a new literary series by the guest editors of Ploughshares, Emerson’s literary magazine. The next event in the series will be in October 2010 with Ploughshares' next guest editor Jim Shepard.

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