Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Author Event: Elizabeth Strout

The Gene Barnett Literary Society of Fairleigh Dickinson University (NJ) featured Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout on April 25, where she spoke about The Burgess Boys.

Strout's morally complex novel focuses on an American community in turmoil, in particular one Maine family, three adult siblings, embroiled in tensions that escalate cultural and familial divides.

During the lively, engaging talk entitled, "Concept to Completion," Strout discussed in depth the seven-year process of crafting her latest novel and the importance of fiction.

Strout had been thinking about The Burgess Boys since writing Abide with Me (published in 2006). The childhood incident surrounding the Burgess children was actually mentioned in an early draft of that novel, but never made it into the finished product.

Strout deems herself a "slow writer," often riddled with "panic and anxiety" about her work.  She does not write her books linearly from beginning to end. Rather her curiosity is "innocent and earnest . . . I do not want to present anything straightforward.  Life is a mess," she said.  "If you want to become an accurate writer (of old fashioned realism) you need to acknowledge that mess."

Character or "an abiding image" is what propels Strout into her work. Themes and storylines gradually evolve through writing, and she "follows her characters" often allowing them to "behave badly." 

"I am not there to judge," said Strout.

She discussed how the prologue of The Burgess Boys emerged five years into the writing of the novel and how she took great pains and had to make "huge decisions" over individual sentences to make those few short pages "truthful in tone and content."  They offer the reader an intimate introduction to the world of the book and provide a map outlining the journey taken over the course of the story.

"I am constantly battling between what I feel the reader needs and what I feel is truthful," she said. "Fiction is truer than most of the nonfiction we read because in fiction one can stay closer to the facts."

Cultural differences play a big part in the fabric of The Burgess Boys - whether a diversity of cultural lifestyles of those in the same family and/or cultural differences between Americans and Somali (Muslim) refugees.  Strout did extensive research into the Somali way of life and also did field work in prison systems in Maine and New York City in order to bring authenticity to the narrative. At times, learning about these cultural disparities became a rude awakening.

Strout believes that, "Novels are there as a social tool to bring the news and make readers understand that people are more alike than they are different. And while those differences can be significant, the only way we can really touch each other's shoulders is through fiction. We only have each other."

When asked during the Q&A about specific books on craft that have influenced her writing, Strout cited War and Peace and The Journals of John Cheever.  "These books are not specifically about craft, but they've greatly instructed me in my work."

Note:  A condensed version of this same article was featured in Shelf Awareness (4/30/13) "Image of the Day: Fiction is Truer than Most Nonfiction." Link HERE to read.

Photographs by Kathleen Gerard.  Please reprint with permission.