The Pulitzer Prize-winning author talks about her latest work, and how she almost ended up “a cocktail waitress, completely unpublished.”
When Elizabeth Strout was in second grade, there was a boy, very poor, with no friends and dirt behind his ears.
“Our teacher said to him, ‘You are not so hard up that you can’t afford a bar of soap,’ and he turned deep red,” the author told me. “That child has stayed with me.”
The title character of her slim new novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton,” is an homage to that boy, “to these very rural families who are outcasts because they are poor,” Strout said. “Every town has one, and probably a lot more, now.”
The author of “My Name is Lucy Barton” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free elliottbaybook.com.
The book will bring Strout to The Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Strout’s latest narrator grew up in a remote and stark Illinois town, where she lived in a cramped and cold garage beside her great uncle’s house with her parents, brother and sister.
Lucy stayed warm by staying in school long after classes ended, doing homework and reading until the janitor nudged her out.
“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there,” Lucy says, “hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
Her studies allowed her to avoid the dysfunction at home, and it would propel her out, and away, never to return: A full scholarship to a Chicago university; marriage to a well-to-do classmate; two daughters, a writing career and a life in New York City.
But when Lucy ends up in the hospital with an infection, her husband flies her mother out — her first airplane trip — to keep her company.
They connect the usual way: gossip about the town and the people Lucy escaped long ago, but can’t shake from her being.
In the pauses and allusions, the brief laughs and quiet smiles shared by mother and daughter, Strout captures the ragged and silken threads of love. The push and pull between mothers and daughters and the things we learn to live with, or around.
It’s familiar ground for Strout, who made her mark with another mother-daughter novel, “Amy and Isabelle,” in 2000; and whose 2008 book, “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was made into an HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand that won four Emmys.
Strout spoke by phone from her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she was stretched on her couch and mourning David Bowie (“I just turned 60 the other day and I am like, ‘Oh, God!’ But he went out his way. So yea for him.”)
There’s a lot of Lucy Barton in her, Strout said. She grew up in rural Maine, went to college, got a law degree, married and lives in the big city as a writer.
“Honestly and truly, every character I wrote, they are all me in some way,” she said. “They have to be, because I am the only person I know. That’s the truth of it.”
As a child, Strout realized that she would never see the world, except through her own eyes.
“I was so frustrated with that,” she said. “And so as I began to read, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I have had that thought.’ Books have always made me realize, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to be another person.’
“I write because I have always wanted to be another person, but I make it up from what I have observed closely about other people.”
Strout has made her mark with those close observations, and for putting to the page what people don’t usually say in public.
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She changes gears, somewhat, in “Lucy Barton,” in which the characters speak in veiled ways about clear dysfunction, like a quick slideshow: Lucy, locked inside a truck, screaming. Her adult brother, reading children’s books and sleeping in a neighbor’s barn.
Her character makes passing mention of “the Thing,” when her father — a World War II veteran scarred by an experience in Germany — becomes “very anxious and not in control of himself.”
Her mother, who doesn’t sleep much, says she can catnap, calling it something “you learn to do when you don’t feel safe.”
Readers can fill in the blanks, Strout said.
“I have always believed that everyone will bring their own story to whatever book they are reading,” she said. “But this book, particularly, I was aware that this was more porous than my others and that leaves more room for people to bring their own experience.
“I don’t want to press anybody’s face into things, either,” she said. “I just don’t want to be that kind of writer. People can do that and they do it beautifully. I am more interested in the essence of people.”
Strout had been writing for decades before her first novel was published. There was a time when she was working as a waitress and writing, “and I never got a nibble and I began to think to myself, ‘Oh my God, I am going to be 58 and I’m going to be a cocktail waitress, completely unpublished and that is going to be pathetic.’ ”
She went to law school and got a job as a legal-aid lawyer.
“I was doing what I wanted to do, but I was so bad at it,” she said. “I remember standing in the backyard, thinking, ‘I can be a bad lawyer or a 58-year-old waitress who tried writing and gave it everything, and that’s going to be fine.’
“If I am going to die, I will die knowing I tried with my whole heart.”
She succeeded, and as her fifth novel is launched — and “The Burgess Boys” is in development by none other than Robert Redford for HBO — her worries have subsided.
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s a little scary,” Strout said. “I’m sure I’m going to die tomorrow.”