This is how atypical Elizabeth Strout is among New Yorkers: When you enter her cozy one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, all you see are sunshine and pastels. True, this is days after she won the Pulitzer Price for fiction, and much of the unexpected colour comes from the fresh-cut flowers that were sent along in congratulations by friends and associates and old college acquaintances. But the cheery palette is everywhere in the narrow main room, on a pair of light-coloured couches and on the pillows that adorn them, and on the side tables; Strout herself is dressed in a pale, peachy-pink shirt and three-quarter-length khakis that, with her bare feet, make it seem like she's ready to go clam digging on a beach back in Maine, where she grew up.
"A friend of mine from Park Slope came over. She goes, 'Oh my God, you've made a New England cottage!'" laughs Strout.
But if her physical environment seems torn from a Martha Stewart magazine, Strout's internal landscape is several shades darker. Olive Kitteridge, the book which won her the Pulitzer, consists of 13 interlocking stories that add up to a devastating portrait of stout, quiet suffering. Even as Strout shifts her point of view from one tale to the next, building up a fractured panorama of the fictional small town of Crosby, Me., and its people, she focuses on the title character, a retired seventh-grade teacher left marooned in loneliness by her stubborn refusal to change with the rest of the world. In its citation, the Pulitzer committee noted the stories pack "a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating." The book can leave you feeling disoriented but wiser, like listening to an accurate palm reading.
With Olive Kitteridge, which came out in paperback last fall, Strout has now written three novels set in New England's past. Her debut, Amy and Isabelle (1998), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, tells the story of a single mother and her daughter, who develops a relationship with a high-school math teacher.
Abide With Me (2006) focuses on a small-town minister who loses his wife, and the effect of her death on his family.
While each of her books is written with evident love, Strout has a fierce and ambivalent relationship with her roots. One ancestor landed in New England even before the Mayflower crew touched Plymouth Rock, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say she has spent most of her 53 years trying to escape the gravitational pull of that long line and its Puritanism and hostility toward outsiders. That is partly why it took Strout until her early 40s to finish her first book: Writing so close to the bone, she was afraid of offending someone.
"I think that it's been a long struggle for me to just go ahead and say things that I want to say," she nods. "One would hope to be past that. And I'm certainly getting past it. You know, part of this New England, old-fashioned, Puritanical background concerned itself very much with the sense of high morality, which was a construct - I don't know if that's the right word, but it's obviously a man-made application of what is right and what is wrong. My brother and I both suffered very deeply from: 'Have we done, morally, the wrong thing?'"
Strout's feet are tucked under her on the couch, but she is otherwise extremely animated, her long hands painting the air to emphasize her points, and her face twisting frequently into sour grimaces, or smiles that seem more ambivalent than happy.
Decades ago, she practised briefly as a lawyer. "I thought, 'Well, I have a social conscience, I'll go to law school, I'll write my stories at night,' you know? That was just ludicrous," she laughs. "I mean, I was just not cut out to be a lawyer, not even remotely, and sort of didn't know that about myself. It's like - 'Oh! I'm not that adversarial!' you know? I didn't know. I just didn't have a clue."
She worked, she explains, for legal aid. "I was supposed to call different people and say that my client's rights were not being respected, and threaten them with various things and court, and I was just so bad, I was so frightened of them all." After six months, she was laid off. Shortly afterward, she became pregnant, and put aside her professional aspirations to raise her daughter.
By the time she committed to the writing table, she had been living in New York for more than a decade - and yet she couldn't escape Maine. "I was so busy getting away from it," she says with an embarrassed giggle, "it took me quite a while to realize, 'Oh, New England is my story.'"
Olive Kitteridge charts the change taking over that remote part of the country. "By the end there's more of a sense that the world is coming up the coast," notes Strout. "And I think in any rural area there's a tremendous sense of territorial identity. I'm not sure there's a lot of good about that. There's potentially a lot of negative stuff that comes out of that kind of thinking." And yet she shows a generosity of spirit, and of understanding, in her books.
Strout's awareness of the chasm between cultures is rooted in her childhood. "I was raised, as we all were at that time, in that place, to recognize the orange - at that time it was orange - licence plate of a New York car. At that time I worked at a little country store," she says. "Once in a while, a New Yorker would get lost and come in, and they would want to cash a cheque for $100, and of course there was probably $22 in the till, and they would be irritated. There was this plain-out prejudice, is what it was, and it's been very interesting for me now to be that New Yorker. And you know, it's so funny! Because there are so many times when I'm not in New York, and I think, 'Would you please hurry up!?' I don't say it, but I just think, 'Come on! I don't want to sit here all day, why aren't you doing your job? Do your job, do your job!'"
It is fascinating to listen to Strout speak, for she does so in a roundabout manner, not at all like her surgically precise prose on the page. The book has been optioned for film, and though Amy and Isabelle was adapted into a very successful TV movie (presented by Oprah Winfrey), Strout is ambivalent about seeing this one rendered in another form. Readers, too, might feel proprietary about the way it unfolds, with tiny, literary land mines bursting along the course of the book in a delicate manner that would be crushed by all but the gentlest of filmmakers.
"In certain parts of the literary world, having your book made into a movie is a huge deal, so I'm incredibly grateful to the people who have been interested," she says. "And yet, I work so hard for my sentences. I spent my whole life learning how to craft a sentence that will get to that area of life that I believe needs to be recorded with some degree of resonance and dignity, and it's the sentence that will do that. I've worked so hard at my sentences that I'm not as quick to be anxious for a different form to take it over."
And though she hasn't lived in New England for more than two decades, the Maine lilt and its rural rhythms underpin all her words, marking her instantly as an immigrant, albeit one from only about 500 kilometres away.
When she goes back to Maine, where her mother still lives, she finds she has "a deep fondness for it, because my whole fight with it seems pretty much laid to rest. It doesn't matter any more. I'm here, I'm not there: it's okay. I certainly have a fondness for the physicality of it, the beauty of it, and there's always a sense when I'm up there - it's fainter now, but there's this sense of the people being very familiar."
"They're my people," she adds. And yet, she says, if she sat down to talk with them, "they wouldn't feel that they had much to say to anybody who'd been living in New York for 25 years."
Where does she feel at home? Does she feel like a New Englander or a New Yorker? "It's a very good question," Strout says, and her face sparks up a smile lined with sadness. "I guess I feel neither," she says finally. "But I feel very grateful to New York. New York is a wonderful, wonderful place to live if you don't know where your home is."