Elizabeth Strout is both a maker and a master of messes, and seemingly, the bigger the better. On the phone from her Manhattan apartment, she discusses the close connections between her new book, Anything Is Possible, and her acclaimed 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton.
In the latter, during hospital visits in New York City, patient Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about people from their rural hometown of Amgash, Illinois. Anything Is Possible contains nine short stories about many of those characters (including Lucy herself and a family named Nicely). As is the case with Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, the thickly interwoven strands of these stories lend the collection the emotional weight of a novel.
Asked about a genre label for her work, Strout says, “I think—” and after a pause, continues, “they’re books of fiction.”
The author lets out a wonderful laugh, which she does often, adding, “You know, the truth is, I don’t really care what they are. That’s what’s so funny. They’re just—they’re books.
“I do think my brain works in this certain way,” she says, explaining that as she jumped back and forth from book to book and story to story, “I realized this was a big old messy tapestry.”
As in literature, as in life. In a story called “Mississippi Mary,” the title character observes: “But this was life! And it was messy!”
The complexity and disorder intrinsic to both life and art are precisely what drives Strout, who with the stroke of her pen paints sharp portraits of the intriguing divides between an individual’s public facade and his or her inner thoughts and private actions. (You might even call this the Olive Kitteridge Effect.)
“When you think about it,” Strout acknowledges, “we don’t ever know what it’s like to be another person. Oh, my God, that kills me so much.”
And you can tell it does, deeply. “Seriously,” she says. “We don’t know. We never know. We can only be in our own head and see things through our own set of eyes our entire life. I recognized that when I was young. I think I’ve spent my life trying to imagine what it would be like to be another person.”
Her quest has by no means been easy. “I listen and I watch and observe and I do everything I can. Everybody has that inner piece to them that’s their private view of the world, and I’m always trying to get in there.”
At one point in her youth, Strout toyed with the idea of being an actress, yet another form of inhabiting another persona. Her mother, a high school writing teacher, frequently gave her notebooks as she grew up in Maine and New Hampshire. An avid reader, Strout studied English at Bates College and got a law degree at Syracuse University. But practically on her first day of work as a lawyer, she knew she’d made a mistake.
“I was just so bad at it,” she remembers. “It was horrifying.”
Strout lasted six months, then began teaching English at a community college in Manhattan and writing in her spare time. A full-time writer now for a number of years, Strout wrote many of the stories in Anything Is Possible at the same time that she was writing Lucy Barton.
“I’m always making a mess on my table,” she explains, “just writing different scenes and pushing stuff around. I’m a very, very messy worker. There were times when I would think, ‘Oh, here’s the Pretty Nicely Girls; let’s see what they’re up to.’ And I would pull a piece of paper toward me and put some scenes down about them.”
Before committing words to computer, Strout begins by writing longhand, explaining, “It gives me the sense of earning the sentence, and what I mean by that is the physicality of it. Writing has always seemed to me to be a very physical job.”
Because Lucy is a writer, Strout contemplated having her be the author of these stories, perhaps having them appear in the same book as Lucy’s story. She abandoned the idea, however, realizing that Lucy’s distinctive first-person voice is too different from the third-person omniscient narration of the stories. Meanwhile, Strout simply continued to write.
“I don’t write anything in order,” she admits, “I don’t write a book in order; I don’t write the story in order. I never ever write anything from beginning to end.”
At some point, of course, there has to be order. How does that happen?
“You know,” she answers, “that’s a really good question. How does the book itself finally take shape? And oh boy, you know, the truth is I don’t really know. After I have so many scenes, I begin to see connections between the scenes, and I think, ‘Oh, OK. Here we go. This is this, and this is this. And now let’s start at the beginning, and figure out what the reader needs at the beginning.’
“What I do remember about every book is a sense of—not panic—but, close to panic at some point for a few weeks or even a couple of months—of trying to figure out how do I pull it together? Where’s the line going to be to connect the entire thing?”
To make the connections, Strout doesn’t use aids like timelines or family trees. While writing her second novel, Abide with Me, she tried putting packing paper on her wall and charting the book’s progress with a magic marker. “It just didn’t work,” she remembers. “I thought, this is foolish, so I took it down.”
What seems to help is walking around her apartment and talking out loud, saying things like “I get it, I get it,” or “No, no, no.”
Strout concludes, “I’m not a writer who goes, ‘Oh well, these voices come to me, and I just write them down.’ I’m perfectly aware at all times that I am writing a story and that I’m making these people up and that I have to figure things out.”
Unlike her first four books, mostly set in Maine, Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible focus on an imaginary Midwestern town. “It never occurred to me that they would be in Maine,” Strout notes. “As I was playing around with Lucy, I right away saw that she would be in the Midwest. I just saw that there was sky, sky, sky. There’s sky in Maine, but it’s a different kind of landscape altogether.”
In the story “Sister,” Lucy returns to Amgash for the first time in 17 years, reuniting with her sister Vicky and her brother Pete. As Strout and I discuss these characters, it feels as though we’re catching up on mutual friends. I note, for instance, how fastidiously Pete cleans his filthy house, waking with nightmares in anticipation of Lucy’s arrival.
“Poor boy,” Strout says, her voice filled with compassion. “Poor man. He’s a man, but I think of him as a boy.”
The story is mesmerizing, with siblings provoking each other as only siblings can. When Lucy announces that she hasn’t visited for so long because she’s been “very busy,” Vicky snaps back: “Hey, Lucy, is that what’s called a truthful sentence? Didn’t I just see you on the computer giving a talk about truthful sentences? ‘A writer should write only what is true.’ Some crap like that you were saying.”
As we delight in Vicky’s spot-on jab, I remark that all kidding aside, Strout is masterfully adept at creating believable characters.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” Strout responds. “That’s my aspiration, always—to try and convey a truthful emotion.”
Her secret? Whenever she sits down to write, she takes note of whatever she happens to be feeling and attempts to instill that emotion into her fiction. “I finally realized that if I take this and use it on any level, then my writing will hopefully have a heartbeat.”
Later she comments, “One of the really fun things for me when I write—it’s one of the best things in the world—is that I love my characters. I don’t care what they do; I really do love them. And I feel for them. I don’t have the judgment for them that other people would—and should—because I’m just making them up. So, I love them.”
She laughs, adding, “They’re just people.”