Elizabeth Strout is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction for her book Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008,) a PEN/Faulkner Award winner, and writer of numerous short stories and novels.
This interview was designed to give our readers a "look under the hood" into the mechanics of writing from the perspective of well-known writer, Elizabeth Strout. Enjoy.
SoR: Please describe for us how your works of fiction come to be. Do you set aside time? Do you wait for inspiration? And what is the editing process?
Strout: I am never sure how my work comes to me. It remains somewhat mysterious. It may start with a memory of light coming from beneath the crack of a door, or the sight of someone on the subway who reminds me of something...It gradually appears. I do set time aside. I don't believe in waiting for inspiration. This is a craft that needs honing, and that is done by working on a regular basis. I re-write as I go along, many times. And then there is the very ruthless eye that must finally cut every single thing that is soggy or is not needed. One has to be at once deeply inside the work, and then have the ability to be outside it and the willingness to let go of much of it in the re-writing. It is a funny process, and much of it, for me, is something I do feel--I have learned, though I am still learning, to recognize the feeling of when something is false or not.
SoR: What is your philosophy on what makes a "good" story?
Strout: What makes a "good" story is one that a person can enter entirely. The reader must believe in it, and also care. And if there is a universe that the reader wants to be in, then the story takes care of itself. Most of this I think is conveyed through the narrative voice.
SoR: Understandably, every writer has their own methods. But is there something you would suggest to a budding author that might help them fight through writer's block or assist them in their search for the ever-elusive muse?
Strout: I think writer's block for me (and I can't speak for anyone else) usually arrives when I am trying to do something false. And by that I mean when I am not writing what I deeply want to be writing. One must be wary of going to the page and thinking: Well, today I must get them out of the grocery store and down to the beach. Such thinking can cause the prose to be wooden. If one goes to the page and puts down in some form the deepest feeling they are having, finding a way to give it to their character, the prose will be alive. This is why I never writer anything from beginning to end.
SoR: What are the challenges that face a writer before and after they are published?
Strout: The biggest challenge that faces me as a writer is the challenge to do good work. To have the patience and the energy to stay with it. Before I was published this was true, and after I was published it remains true. Students often ask me: Should I keep writing? And the answer is that you will keep writing if you can't stand not to. If you can stand life without writing, you will probably stop. But for those of us who have to write, the challenge remains the same--making it something a reader can receive.
SoR: How do you deal with rejection when you submit your work?
Strout: Rejection is never easy to deal with, never, ever. And I had years of rejected stories. This was back in the day when everything was done with snail mail. So when I received a rejection in the mail, I made myself send the story that very day to another magazine. After a story was rejected by ten different magazines, I would look at it very hard and rework it.
SoR: You write novels as well as short stories; what determines the length?
Strout: Whether it is a novel or a story depends on the subject matter, since style is substance. The decision for me is never at first entirely conscious. As I start to see the story emerge, the style becomes almost immediately, quite naturally, a part of it. A story is not the facts that go into it. It is the form that the reader is given. This is why I don't like to hear people say, "I want to write a story about..." Because talking about it is, for me, senseless. It is only in the doing that the form will show itself.
SoR: Lastly, what advice would you have for those starting out in writing?
Strout: Advice for those starting out: Read and read and read. Read good sentences. And write. Keep reading and writing and you will see things. And if you can't stop, you won't, no matter how many rejections. If you are a person who can't stop writing, protect your desire to write. Don't tell people who are not supportive. Just keep doing it. Knowing what I know now, I would not have done anything differently. Amazing to write that!