|Sunrise from by backyard, Brunswick, Maine|
If you haven’t read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, go buy a copy now. You’ll want to read it more than once and to share it with others. I first blogged about Olive in 2009 after this novel of interlocking stories won the Pulitzer Prize. The author spoke last Sunday to a group of library volunteers in my town of Brunswick, the place which inspired her work of fiction. She said that libraries are the “fireplace of a town.” Children’s book editor and author, Kate Egan moderated the discussion. Elizabeth gave me permission to share my synopsis with you.
Although Elizabeth resides most of the year in New York City, she is a genuine Mainer: eight generations on one side and ten on the other. She was born in Portland and was raised in Maine and in New Hampshire. Elizabeth captures the quality of small town life better than any other author I’ve ever read. Kate agreed, “This isn’t just Maine but my Maine.”
Despite her phenomenal talent, Elizabeth’s road to publication was long. She suffered through years of rejection before her stories were printed in literary journals and in magazines. Even after those publications, it took her a couple of years to find an agent and a publisher for her first book. She was forty-one years old when Amy and Isabelle (1998) was published.
Amy and Isabelle is a disturbing tale of a teenaged girl having an affair with her teacher while her relationship with her mother deteriorates. The narrative has a linear and predictable plot, but it is still impressive for a first book. The novel is set in a former mill town like Brunswick, except with greater economic hardships.
The original cover image (at left) features the Bowdoin Mill in Topsham, across the river from Brunswick. The art designer found the old photo in a drawer at Random House. Locals might notice that the image was reversed. By coincidence, Elizabeth’s husband had also worked in that mill a long time ago. I have a personal connection too: that old mill building houses my doctor and the Sea Dog Brewery, a favorite spot for a pint or lunch by the river.
The first Olive story came to Elizabeth while working on her second novel, Abide With Me (2006). She got a vision of a woman standing by a picnic bench at her son’s wedding, waiting impatiently for the guests to go home. Looking back at other unfinished stories, Elizabeth realized they were all waiting for Olive. From there, she wrote even more Olive stories.
The book structure came subconsciously while Elizabeth moved the stacked stories from her desk to a suitcase to share with her editor. Although the book went through editorial changes, the original order of the stories remained fixed. Elizabeth has a few Olive stories left over but doesn’t plan to share them. The next time we see Olive will be on TV. The book has been optioned by Francis McDormand for HBO.
I asked Elizabeth about her manuscript editing process. For the past 28 years, she has only had one writing critique partner. When asked about grammar and style, Elizabeth replied, “I love a semicolon and a nicely placed adverb.” She has only worked with one editor, who has recently retired. Someone new will be editing her work in progress. Her advice on writing was to keep reading; I can’t wait to read her next novel.
Elizabeth was a wonderful speaker. She was articulate, sincere and often hilarious with an almost British sense of self-deprecating humor. I found her personal story inspiring since I’m also trying to get published in my 40s. I've set my novels in mid-coast Maine too.
Storm Watch: my college roommate, Deb Sabin, wrote an amusing letter in The Boston Globe about the up side of the October blizzard. Book lovers will enjoy this.