What It Feels Like to Win the Pulitzer Prize: A Q&A With Novelist Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout/Image: Miriam Berkley

The acclaimed author of Olive Kitteridge talks with wOw’s Joni Evans about what it’s like to win literature’s most prestigious award, who inspires her, what she’s working on next and more.

Editor’s Note: Last month, Elizabeth Strout was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, her collection of linked short stories set in small-town Maine. Strout is also the author of the novels Abide with Me, a national bestseller, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her short stories have been published in many magazines, including The New Yorker and O: The Oprah Magazine.

JONI EVANS: Congratulations on the Pulitzer! What wonderful news.

ELIZABETH STROUT: Oh, thank you, thank you. It’s so wild.

JONI: Are you still dancing?

ELIZABETH: Yes. Yes. I am – not every single second, but …

JONI: Well, we want to talk to you about your amazing book. But first I just wanted to talk about the experience of winning such a prestigious award. I mean, I know Jon Meacham won for American Lion in the nonfiction category. And W.S. Merwin won for poetry. And you, for fiction. How did you first hear?

ELIZABETH: Well, I was actually in California doing a lecture tour at a number of different literary societies. So I was on my way to the airport in Las Vegas. I had just given a talk and I was going to fly back to California and finish up a few more talks. l had my phone off so the fellow who was driving me to the airport, his phone rang and he looked sort of puzzled. And then he said, “Yes, she’s right here with me.” And he handed me the phone. My agent had tracked me down. Lucy Carson, the daughter of my agent who works at her office, was on the line. She said, “Liz, you’ve won the Pulitzer.” So I was sitting in this car, amazed. I didn’t even know it was coming up. It was totally a surprise. So I just started to scream and the poor guy practically drove off the road.

JONI: Oh, how incredible.

ELIZABETH: [I said to him] “Oh, it’s OK. Nobody’s dead. Nobody’s dead.” So it was really fun.

JONI: Did you know you were on the short list?

ELIZABETH: No. I have no idea how this process is done, and I didn’t know. I just didn’t know. And Lucy’s like, “Liz, everybody … every writer in the country is sitting there watching their Internet at three o’clock.” I said, “Really?” I didn’t know.

JONI: That’s fabulous. Does the Pulitzer come with money? I mean, is there an actual prize?

ELIZABETH: There is a prize. There’s a $10,000 prize.

JONI: Oh, that’s so great. Oh, my God.

ELIZABETH: Yes. And I think there’s a medal.

JONI: One of our wOw editors looked up some statistics and found that your book soared from No. 1200 or something on Amazon to No. 20 in about one second.

ELIZABETH: I know.

JONI: And then Random House announced it was going to publish an additional 100,000 copies, which really speaks to the power of this prize.

ELIZABETH: It really does. It really does.

JONI: I know you’ve won the Art Seidenbaum Award from the Los Angeles Times. You’ve been nominated for PEN/Faulkner awards. I know you’ve won many awards.

ELIZABETH: Yes, Amy and Isabelle did pretty well. But this is fabulous.

JONI: Who did you call first? What did you do?

ELIZABETH: I called my publicist, Jynne, because I was on California time and there were reporters in New York who wanted me to call them before their five o’clock deadline. I was at the airport, going through security. It was really crazy. I kept saying, “Really? Really?”

JONI: Oh, it’s so great.

ELIZABETH: And it’s so fun. Yes, yes.

JONI: I am so in love with your book and with the experience of reading it. I finally finished it at four in the morning, because I only started reading Olive Kitteridge a few days ago and I have been savoring it. It is so extraordinary. I love that somebody described it as a novel in stories. I mean, it’s hard to describe.

ELIZABETH: It is hard to describe. I think so. I think so, yes.

JONI: Remember Winesburg, Ohio? I was trying to think of great related stories that are books, and I can’t think of any others.

ELIZABETH: I know. I remember reading Winesburg, Ohio when I went off to college. It was in my freshman English class and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what’s so fun about college. I didn’t know this book existed.” I just adored it.

JONI: Well, you may start a trend. I know from my years in book publishing, when somebody would say, “They’re a group of stories but they’re loosely related,” you’d roll your eyes thinking it wouldn’t sell.

ELIZABETH: Right.

JONI: But this could, in fact, bring that whole ilk, the linked short story thing, back into fashion.

ELIZABETH: Yes, it could.

JONI: I know you’re a great short-story writer, and I know you’ve been published in The New Yorker and in all kinds of quarterlies. But did you set out to do Olive Kitteridge as a novel first? Or was it always meant to be stories?

ELIZABETH: In my mind I saw this book, and it had a dark book cover that said The Olive Stories. So I understood right away, as soon as I created Olive, that she was going to have her own book. But I also understood that it wasn’t going to be a novel. I just didn’t see Olive in any sort of traditional novelistic way. She just seemed a lot more episodic to me, and I just sort of knew that.

JONI: She’s a lot to take.

ELIZABETH: Yes, she is a lot to take. Exactly.

JONI: I don’t know what reactions you’re getting but I hated her at first. At the very beginning, I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m going to slap that woman.” And then, of course, you end up just cherishing her, and you go through different emotions. What’s so wonderful here is how tangential she is to some of these stories.

ELIZABETH: Yes.

JONI: And then the essence of it. It’s just brilliant. Years ago, I took the Martha Foley short story course at Columbia University, decades ago, and I remember learning the form of the short story. I’ve always felt that when you read a short story versus a novel, the last sentence or paragraph surprises the hell out of you, and you’re still in it. Whereas in a novel, it gets wrapped up; you may still be in it, but it gets wrapped up for you. This book, Olive Kitteridge, does both. It’s a very unusual experience, you know.

ELIZABETH: Yes. Yes.

JONI: You are continually surprising us. Did you ever read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers?

ELIZABETH: Yes.

JONI: Do you see the resonance here? Do you see the disconnect, the loneliness, how one person thinking —

ELIZABETH: Yes, it’s interesting that you say that. I didn’t have any of that consciously in my mind, but I am so interested in exactly that disconnect. And also, when you were saying that, you know, how she appears tangential —

JONI: Yes.

ELIZABETH: I’m interested in that as well. You know, inside ourselves we’re this huge universe — and yet to somebody else, we’re just a person walking down the street. That person may know just a little bit about us, and it may not even be true. So that point of view is really interesting to me.

JONI: I don’t know how you do it. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

ELIZABETH: Yes, as far as I can remember back, I always wanted to be a writer. I had some other things that I thought I wanted to do as well — I was very interested in theater for a while when I was younger — but I always wanted to be a writer. It just stayed and stayed and grew and grew.

JONI: How old were you when you knew?

ELIZABETH: I was very young — I mean, like four or five years old. And that was my mother. She’d wanted to be a writer and she bought me notebooks and, you know, she would say, “Write down what you thought today,” and stuff like that. She was always in the writing process.

JONI: What a great influence. Is she alive?

ELIZABETH: Yes, she’s 81. She’s always wonderful. She always reads my books right away and calls me and goes, “That was great,” and then she’ll call me up 24 hours later and say, “I just read it again, so I would make sure I didn’t miss anything, and it was still great. It was even better.”

JONI: Oh, isn’t that great, having a coach/champion —

ELIZABETH: Yes.

JONI: Well, I loved Amy and Isabelle, along with the rest of the world. When was that?

ELIZABETH: Ten years ago.

JONI: I know it took you a while to write, I remember reading that. But was that your first major novel?

ELIZABETH: Yes, it’s the first book I published.

JONI: Was it hard to get published, or was this immediately taken on by a publisher?

ELIZABETH: It was hard. I had been writing short stories since I was about 16, sending them out and all that. And for many, many years, in my 20s and in my 30s, I sent them to Daniel Menaker at The New Yorker. And he was very nice about them. I mean, he rejected them all, but he would give me more and more advice and took me seriously, which was a tremendous gift. And then I stopped writing stories because I began to write Amy and Isabelle, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I sort of had to teach myself how to write a novel, and it took a long time – about six or seven years. And by that time, I was out of touch with him. So I finally finished the book and I wrote agents and I didn’t really have any contacts. Most people just didn’t even want to read it. It was very, very depressing and discouraging. And then finally a friend said, “You know, Dan Menaker is at Random House, you should just ask him; you know, send it to him. So I contacted him and he said, “Oh, absolutely. Send it to me.” And he loved it. He said, “I want to buy this.” And he said, “I’d better get you an agent because, you know, I could take advantage of you.” And I’m like, “You could tell me you’d take advantage of me!”

JONI: Did he introduce you to your agent, Molly Friedrich? Was it his recommendation?

ELIZABETH: No, she came later. But [after his recommendation] there were about five agents who just immediately said, “Well, come have lunch,” and stuff like that. And so I was at ICM with Amy and Isabelle, but then for my later work I went over to Molly. I can’t sing her praises enough.

JONI: Oh, God, neither can I.

ELIZABETH: She’s so, so wonderful.

JONI: But she’s as lucky as you are! So how many years later did you write Abide with Me?

ELIZABETH: It must have been about four years ago, five years ago.

JONI: So that leads me to why I’m asking these questions: That must mean you writing Olive Kitteridge simultaneously, or —

ELIZABETH: Kind of, yes.

JONI: Because I looked at some of the copyrights of when you did these stories.

ELIZABETH: The bulk of them, or the central core, got written during one summer. I rented a cottage in Provincetown; a friend found it for me, and I went there and there was no TV and no radio, there was nothing in that cottage except Olive and me. I mean, I had friends. I had my bicycle and I would go eat ice cream and stuff. But every time I stepped back into that cottage, I worked. And it was a really amazing experience because I’d never worked as intensely before. And I really watched these stories. I worked on them separately and sort of watched it all kind of gather around me. It was very intense, and I got myself a little too tired. But it was like this huge push and it was very exciting at the same time.

JONI: You should buy that cottage. Which leads me to a question about process. Fran Lebowitz always said to me — you know, she hasn’t written anything in 20 years — and I always would say to her, when I was her agent, “Fran, when are we going to get something?” And she says, “Oh, as soon as everybody leaves the building.” And she lives in one of those West Side buildings like the Ansonia or the Dakota, where 1,000 people had to leave the building. So where do you find yourself now? Have you written anything since Olive Kitteridge?

ELIZABETH: I’ve written a book since then, which I’m finishing up now. So, you know, there’s no doubt about the fact that forced isolation can have a good effect. I learned so much in that cottage about writing because I was just literally living inside it. Back in New York, it’s a bit more difficult to carve away time. So I try very hard to write as soon as I wake up in the morning, because the real world hasn’t entered in as harshly then.

JONI: What about your family? Do they resent you?

ELIZABETH: Well, my daughter’s grown, so at this point I’m pretty able to work.

JONI: Good. Well, your characters as so layered and complex and … not always likeable.

ELIZABETH: Exactly.

JONI: Where did Olive come from? Is she someone you know?

ELIZABETH: I grew up in Maine and New Hampshire and, though I lived in New York for 25 years, my background is very much like Olive’s in the sense that I come from long lines of Maine people. You know, they lived there for generations, like billions of generations. In 1603, I think, my first relatives came over here. So I grew up on dirt roads out in the woods with a lot of elderly relatives around. And I was just recalling to somebody recently that this was very natural – the way the world is natural to a child; whatever your world is as a child you sort of take it for granted, and then you realize not everybody was just sitting around with their great aunts listening to them talk. You know, their favorite discussion was, “Well, who’s going to die first?” Over and over in their Maine flat tones of voice. It wasn’t particularly maudlin. It was just how they entertained themselves, to talk about loss and death, but in a very sort of matter-of-fact way. Olive is a piece of a whole bunch of these different people, and yet pushed it to the edge, making her spikier and making her harsher, making her more of a force than probably I would have put in one person.

JONI: I can see that. Do people ever say to you, “Am I that person in your life?”

ELIZABETH: I don’t think that’s happened for awhile. And I don’t think it’s happened with Olive. I think it always makes people very nervous when they know the writer. But writers really write for strangers.

JONI: I think Molly told me that Frances McDormand optioned Olive Kitteridge for the movies.

ELIZABETH: Yes.

JONI: I think that’s so perfect, I can’t believe it.

ELIZABETH: I know. I know. I know.

JONI: I hope that happens.

ELIZABETH: I do, too!

JONI: Who do you read? Who inspires you?

ELIZABETH: I am such a Cheever fan that it’s kind of reached a point where I have to try and find a support group or something. I just keep rereading his stories and Falconer, and this new biography about him and his journals. I learned a lot reading his journals as a writer. There’s an honesty in there, there’s a felicity of language about the physical world. And I love Oscar Hijuelos. And Alice Munro I think is very, very good.

JONI: That makes a lot of sense.

ELIZABETH: Her sense of authority is just terrific. And William Trevor — I love his stuff as well. And the Russians – Tolstoy and Chekhov.

JONI: God, that’s quite a list!

ELIZABETH: And Anita Brookner — she had these wonderful long sentences.

JONI: Do you read all the time, or when you’re writing do you have to put down a novel? Or could you do both?

ELIZABETH: I have to be careful when I’m writing. I mean, I’m always sort of writing and I’m always sort of reading, but when I’m really focused on what I’m writing, then I have to be a little careful that the tone of what I’m reading doesn’t intrude, or else is so different that it’s going to add an extra spark or something. When I was writing Olive, for example, and I was in that cabin, the only thing I had to read other than Olive was that huge, three-volume biography of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry.

JONI: Well, there’s a contrast!

ELIZABETH: Exactly.

JONI: I only have a few more questions. I’m just curious, because you mentioned it: What is the book that you’ve been working on?

ELIZABETH: A lot of it takes place in New York, which is new for me, and that makes it kind of exciting and fun. It’s about two brothers who are both trained as criminal lawyers, and one’s successful and one’s not. They come from Maine and have lived their lives in New York, but they’ve left a sister back in Maine, and her son gets into trouble with the Somali population that has relocated to different parts of Maine. This is an interesting situation because, you know, these very white towns have found themselves with the situation of these Somali immigrants, who have come over to escape their war. So there’s that aspect, and then the New York aspect. I’s a novel, though. It’s not in stories.

JONI: How the hell did you come up with that?

ELIZABETH: I don’t know. It’s been stewing for awhile.

JONI: That sounds great.

ELIZABETH: I think it probably took me about 25 years to finally be able to write about New York.

JONI: My last question – although I think I could ask you 100 more questions — is, are the pressures now finally over? Is it easier now, because you know that you’ve “won”? Or does it mean you have to keep trying to achieve the same level of extraordinary excellence?

ELIZABETH: That’s an interesting question. I was thinking a lot about it last night, and even today, because on one hand there is a tremendous sense of relief. I won a Pulitzer Prize. I’m thrilled. On the other hand, I’m a writer and I am continuing to write — and my standards are just as high for myself as they’ve always been. And I’m really, really a perfectionist. So I hope, and I would expect of myself, that I’d continue to work that way.

JONI: Well, it’s just a pleasure. I can’t tell you what a wonderful, sleepless week I’ve had over this book.

ELIZABETH: Oh, you’re so sweet.

JONI: I just love it. And I congratulate you, not just for this, but for all your work, which is so exceptional.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

JONI: And I wish you much luck. Thank you for talking to wOw.

ELIZABETH: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

JONI: Our readers are going to love this.

ELIZABETH: Thank you so much.

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