Meeting Elizabeth Strout

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend Elizabeth Strout’s lecture last night at the Civic Center. The lecture was part of the Gifford Lecture Series, a true treasure in our community.  It was my first time attending a Gifford lecture and I had no idea what to expect.  I have read Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and thoroughly enjoyed it, but beyond that I had no knowledge about the author.  I was in for quite a treat!

Elizabeth Strout immediately comes across as a person with whom you want to be friends. Quick-witted and poised, she delivered a lecture that had the audience laughing while contemplating the true value of fiction.  Strout began her lecture by reminiscing about her time in Syracuse as a law student at SU, including her brief stint as a mattress sales person at a local department store downtown.  Check out her bio for more information.

The topic of her lecture was why fiction matters. Strout believes that in good fiction we find the truest things and that we all inherently suffer from a limitation of view.  Fiction, according to Strout, is the closest we can get to knowing what it might feel like to be someone else.  She believes that fiction is there to let us know we are not alone and that what we feel (whatever it may be) has been felt before.  Fiction helps to keep us open and prevents us from being dogmatic.  Strout said that at it’s best, fiction can give us a break from being judgmental and make us bigger, recognizing that everyone is one thousand times more complicated than they appear. 

Strout stated that she writes for a reader and her work is an act of communication, noting “I feel responsible to the reader because I am responsible to the reader.”  She emphasized that she always wants the reader to feel safe in the hands of a writer and she tries very hard not to lie, show off, or use fancy subtext to prove how smart she is.  She is interested in truth and compassion and in conveying a sense of true humanness in all of her characters. She believes that reading is a celebration of the mystery of humanity.

I found Elizabeth Strout to be a wonderful speaker and her lecture was absolutely phenomenal.  There was a brief question and answer section at the end of the lecture and I have included a few of the responses for your reading pleasure:

Audience member: What was the inspiration for Olive and did you know right away that you would write the book as a collection of stories as opposed to a typical novel?

Elizabeth Strout: Olive came to me fully formed really. I believe Olive is a compilation of my aunts (LS note: her aunts were previously described in the lecture as being 100% New England and quite puritanical).  I wanted to tell Olive’s story but I knew she couldn’t be the central character in every story because I couldn’t stand it—and if I couldn’t stand it the reader couldn’t either!

Audience member: How did you feel when you won the Pulitzer Prize?

Elizabeth Strout: I was happy.  A simple sentence—I was happy.

Audience member: Were you involved in the making of the movie for your first novel and would you consider allowing another novel to be made into a movie?

Elizabeth Strout: I was involved, Harpo would always call and ask me things, although I would tell them I had no idea—I don’t know anything about screen writing and movies.  There are things in the works for Olive but it is a hard decision.  Would it share the experience with others? It’s a hard decision.

Audience member: Who do you read?

Elizabeth Strout: More like re-read.  I re-read a great deal.  I love the Russians, Philip Roth, William Trevor.  I do read contemporary work, I just finished Freedom.  I usually find myself going back to old favorites.