Interview With Elizabeth Strout
What inspired you to write ?Olive Kitteridge??
I wrote the first ?Olive? story many years ago -- 15 or 16 years ago, I believe. It was the story where she steals her daughter-in-law?s shoe, and the only reason I remember that is because it was in the New Yorker around the time my first novel, ?Amy and Isabelle? came out. I remember when I wrote that, I thought, ?Oh wow, here?s this character Olive, and I?m going to write a bunch of stories about her called Olive stories.? I immediately knew the form, and then as I was writing the rest of them many years later, I realized Olive was such a strong character and the reader was going to need a break from her every so often, so I began to write the stories that filled in the rest of the town. There were also a number of stories that I had started but had trouble finishing, but when I realized I had this Olive character I thought, ?Oh my God, they?ve been waiting for her!? [Laughs.]
Was Olive was the easiest character to write?
She was fully present for me right away. Not all of my characters are, and she just was. I rented a cottage in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the summer to finish the book, and I remember thinking about Olive -- just let her rip, don?t hold back on her. I had to remind myself not to be careful with her, because I wanted to protect her, or protect the reader. I had to just let her be Olive.
Have you always known you were a writer?
Yes. I don?t know if I have a memory of not thinking I was a writer -- it goes that far back. I went to law school because I didn?t know how to earn a living otherwise. I tried to ignore the pull, but it wouldn?t let me.
What is your writing process like?
It changes all the time according to my responsibilities and where I am in my life. When I was raising my daughter, it was much more structured because I only had a couple hours a day. I would tell myself, ?Three pages or three hours.? Now, I don?t have to be as strict with myself because my time is a little more flexible. The one thing that stays the same is that I work every day with the scene that feels the most urgent -- I never write from beginning to end. The last page of ?Olive? I wrote way, way before the book was done. Thank goodness it didn?t get lost -- I?m not very organized. [Laughs.]
Were you involved in the making of the miniseries?
Not really. I met with Frances [McDormand, executive producer and star] a couple of times and we spoke a little about ?Olive,? but I know nothing about making movies. I also spoke with Jane [Anderson, the screenwriter] and Lisa [Cholodenko, director and executive producer]. My husband and I went to a shoot once, and that was an astonishing experience. I?d never seen anything like it. It was incredible to see how hard everyone was working, the tremendous care that was being taken with every element. It was an incredibly surreal experience.
What?s it like to see your book come alive on the screen? As a reader you often envision a character in a certain way, so I can?t imagine what it?s like to be the author.
It was pretty strange. I kept thinking that it wouldn?t get made, and then all of a sudden, it was made! We had a private viewing -- my husband, my daughter, my editor, my agent. We went and saw it here in New York. Prior to the screening, the vice president of HBO handed out these little boxes of tissues and I thought, ?Haha, yeah right.? But oh my god! I was bawling my head off towards the end. It was embarrassing; I wondered if it was rude of me to be crying over something that I had -- sort of -- created. I thought they did a wonderful job. I was just so delighted with the final product.
What made you want to focus on the latter half of Olive?s life?
I got a gerontology certificate a million years ago along with my law degree, so I?ve been interested in older people for many years. Some people grow up with a lot of kids around, but I just grew up with a lot of old people. [Laughs.] I grew up on a dirt road in Maine and pretty much everybody on that dirt road was related to me and they were old. And so grumpy. My Aunt Polly -- she taught third grade all her life and never had any kids -- she used to sit and watch ?Perry Mason.? I?d walk in and she?d stick her tongue out at me -- her tongue! I?d go to the house up the road and invariably somebody would be there saying, ?Well, I hope I die soon.? [Laughs.] I think my interest [in the elderly] came from a sense of responsibility that I had to make people feel better. It?s the only reason I can come up with. People often wonder if Olive is my mother, but she?s just a compilation of a whole bunch of people. And she?s partly me, of course.
Do you ever catch yourself wondering what Olive might think about a situation?
I haven?t had too many Olive ?eruptions? in a while, just because I?ve been busy with other work. But it?s been very interesting to be on the road with her. So many different people have come up to me and said, ?Oh, I?m Olive,? or, ?My wife is Olive,? and I never know if that?s a good thing or a bad thing because she can be so badly behaved. I even met a group of young women in Greenwich, Connecticut, clad in pearls and everything, who told me that they had formed an ?Olive? group that met every Monday at the Starbucks. So many people see some version of Olive in themselves that they don?t mind sharing with me.
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