Elizabeth Strout is the author of several works of fiction, including Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge, which won the Putlizer Prize in 2009 and was recently adapted into a miniseries by HBO. Her latest novel is My Name is Lucy Barton, about a woman's reconciliation with her mother, which was published this month.
Why did you write your new book?
Because the voice of Lucy Barton came to me and wouldn't go away. I have learned from experience that when something keeps circling back on my desk, I have to take a real hard look at it, and Lucy, and her background, became very real to me. It was risky for me to write in the first person; I have not done that before with a novel, but I felt the story had to be told that way, and her voice was so strong to me that I took the plunge.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I ever received was from my mother, who told me repeatedly when I was young: 'Just do the best you can, and then forget it.' I wouldn't want anyone to think she meant this in a cavalier way. She meant that to do the best that I could was a serious thing, a serious undertaking. But after that – knowing that I had done the best I could – forget it. She said this about school tests, or when I was in a play, about many things. And it has always stayed with me. The first part: Do the best that I can, I take very seriously. The second part is something I am always appreciative of; it is freeing.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
The question I wish people would ask about my work is about class. I wonder why they never mention class when speaking of, or asking me about, my work. In all my books, class plays a part, as it does in real life. In America, there is the saying that 'class is the never-talked-about secret,' and I think there is some truth to this. Who we are, and what we come from, plays a role in everything we do. And to cross class lines, as Lucy does, seems particularly American – the hope of reinventing the self.
Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel, and why?
The idea of being invisible is breathtaking to me. Oh, I would love that! To be able to see what people are really doing in their homes, in their private moments – I would just adore being able to do that. There is so much we do not know about the lives of others, in the most fundamental ways, and also the tiniest of ways. To be able to see the variety of arguments, love, quiet, ferociousness – oh, it would be thrilling. At the same time, it feels a bit like cheating, because as a fiction writer I make this stuff up and it feels necessary to do that, because in real life, we have only our imaginations to know what the lives of others may be like.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. For years, I kept rereading that book and then finally, a few years ago, I thought: Okay, this is it – I was about the age of Mrs. Dalloway herself at that point. But maybe it isn't, maybe I will read it again, now that I am thinking about it.