Little things loom large in the novels of Elizabeth Strout. Descriptions of daily rituals are richly, yet subtly detailed. The minutiae of everyday life — boiling water for a cup of tea, the creaky steps on the porch of an old house — become windows into the characters that make up this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author’s haunting stories.
“Ordinary life is what I live, and what I love,” says Ms. Strout, who will appear at The Nassau Club April 11 at a benefit for People & Stories/ Gente y Cuentos. The author of Abide With Me, Amy and Isabelle, Olive Kitteridge (for which she won the Pulitzer), and The Burgess Boys, Ms. Strout grew up in a small New England town somewhat similar to those she writes about. “Frankly,” she continues, “ordinary life is what most of us live. So just the act of acting out our lives against these ordinary routines — the food we eat, the tables we sit at, the work we go to — is mostly what we do, and that interests me.”
Ms. Strout lives in Manhattan with her husband. She always loved writing, but was wary of focusing on it full-time after graduating from Bates College. So she went to law school. “I didn’t want to keep on being a cocktail waitress forever,” she recalls. “I was young, I had a social conscience. It was the seventies. So I naively thought I’d become a lawyer and write stories at night.”
After Syracuse University law school, Ms. Strout worked in legal services for six months. Almost immediately, she knew she was in the wrong field. “I was the worst lawyer in the world! I was terrible. I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I was intimidated. I had these images of myself taking on everyone, but in reality, at that time, I was so non-adversarial. And I didn’t know that about myself.”
Having gotten married and had a son, Ms. Strout continued to write, selling a few stories to magazines like Redbook and Seventeen. She also taught at Manhattan Community College. While happy to end her legal career, she has no regrets. “I’m not sorry about the training,” she says. “Because I think it did help me to think better.”
The setting for some of Ms. Strout’s novels is Shirley Falls, a New England mill town that has seen better times. “It’s a town I made up with Amy and Isabelle, sort of a compilation of different towns I knew. We lived in very rural areas in Maine and New Hampshire. There’s some of Lewiston, Maine, where I would stay with my grandmother, and also Dover, New Hampshire. There were a number of mill towns that were quite accessible to me as a young person,” she says.
Descriptions of nature figure prominently in Ms. Strout’s novels. An example from Abide With Me: “He drove with the window down, his elbow resting on the window edge, ducking his head to peer at the hills in the distance, or at a cloud, white as a huge dollop of frosting, and at the side of a barn, fresh with red paint; lit by the autumn sun; and he thought: I would have noticed this once.”
“I did grow up in the woods,” the author says, “far away from neighbors. The truth is, I spent the first 10 years of my life playing alone in the woods. The trees, the wildflowers — they were my friends. I knew them very well and I loved them.”
The main character in Abide With Me is a young minister whose wife has died and left him with two young daughters. His ruminations about his faith are an important part of the book. While she didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home, Ms. Strout admits to a fascination with it in her youth.
“We dutifully went to the Congregational Church, fairly regularly,” she recalls. “I liked the minister we had until I was in sixth grade. I had a fixation with ministers for quite a while, and I really don’t know why. But I think, as a child, I was interested in what this minister’s life was like. He was home in the middle of the day, unlike other men. And the fact that people seemed to have this need for expression, to ministers like him, also interested me. I spent a lot of time trying to learn as much as I could about it. But I haven’t been as interested since.”
Ms. Strout doesn’t like to talk about current and upcoming projects. What she will talk about, though, is how much she enjoys writing. “One of the things I love about it is the ability to withhold judgment,” she says. “It’s a different relationship to people than one has in real life. When I go to the page, I can have a different kind of relationship with the characters. So whatever their behavior is, particularly in Olive Kitteridge, I’m making them up, and I get to turn them around and see the underbelly of their vulnerabilities. And that automatically makes them more interesting characters. Because really, most of us are more interesting than we appear.”
“An Evening with Elizabeth Strout” will be held at The Nassau Club on Friday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $100 for the talk and dessert reception, or $250 for dinner beforehand with the author. For reservations and information, call (609) 393-3230 or (609) 688-8494, or visit the website at www.peopleandstories.net.