February 12, 2016

In Conversation With Elizabeth Strout, Author Of “Olive Kitteridge”

By Tayla Burney

Author Elizabeth Strout

Author Elizabeth Strout

This January we launched a WAMU In Your Bookstore series with Politics and Prose, in addition to our book events with Kramerbooks. And we kicked off the partnership with a bang! I had the great good fortune to talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout for our first foray into the store. We talked for about an hour with an engaged, standing-room-only crowd of readers from around the region.

Strout is perhaps best known for the book that earned her the prize, “Olive Kitteridge.” And in the HBO adaptation the role of the title character also earned Frances McDormand a Golden Globe.

Her latest novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton” tells the story of a mother and daughter who’ve drifted apart due to time and circumstance. They’re brought back together – on neutral ground – when the daughter falls ill. It’s a restrained, powerful story that stays with a reader long after reading it.

One of the reasons I found it so memorable is that it depicts the abject poverty of Lucy’s childhood in a very frank, unflinching way. What’s even more striking is that Lucy’s ability to rise above the circumstances of her birth comes not from some overwhelming and remarkable talent or skill – as we so often hear in stories of that nature – but about almost by accident.

Here’s what Strout had to say about Lucy’s transition from living in poverty to a comfortable life and how she overcame socioeconomic barriers to become a writer:

The challenges around achieving true diversity in literature are a familiar part of conversations we’ve hosted on the Kojo Nnamdi Show with authors and reviewers from this region and beyond. For anyone interested, Lit Hub carried an essay on literature and class I referenced in this interview on the topic.

SuperiorAnother major theme of the novel reminded me of our inaugural “What’s With Washington” question. Why are we, in this region, so prone to asking people “What do you do?” Is it just a shorthand, easy way to pass judgement?

Throughout Strout’s novel, Lucy and her mom spend a lot of time in seemingly idle – though often revealing – gossip about acquaintances. This got us talking about judgement and how we pass it so easily when it comes to others and, often, reserve turning that tendency inward. Which lead to an exploration of the idea of the “other” in literature and our society writ large:

We also talked about the virtues of writing short and a rather meta scene from the novel in which an author of Lucy’s acquaintance gives a talk at a library:

There was a lot more – including super smart questions from the audience, which featured more than a few of my fellow New Englanders and fun facts about Olive Kitteridge’s global appeal.

You can hear the conversation in it’s entirety – complete with an intro from Susan Coll of Politics and Prose, here:

Or you can WATCH it here:

And be sure to join us for our upcoming events! We’ve got three slated for the week of February 22 at Kramerbooks, including one with Kojo himself on Tuesday, February 23 at 6:30 p.m. He’ll be talking with Randy Roberts about the book he co-authored, “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

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