KRWG

'We've Got More To Say About You': Olive Kitteridge Is Back, And Complex As Ever

Oct 12, 2019

Elizabeth Strout didn't really plan to return to the world of Olive Kitteridge, but her character had other ideas. Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2008 novel that spun together 13 connected stories of love, loss and loneliness in the small town of Crosby, Maine.

Years later, Strout was sitting in a café in Norway, and she suddenly saw Olive "very vividly, driving into the marina." Strout immediately started writing a story that would become the first in her new collection: Olive, Again.

Diving back into Olive's life "wasn't a difficult decision — it wasn't even a decision," Strout says. It was clear: "We've got more to say about you."


Interview Highlights

On her mother, now 92, who taught expository writing

She encouraged me to write from a very, very young age. I mean, honestly, as soon as I could write sentences she bought me those notebooks with the big lines in them and told me to write down what I had done that day. And so I did. So from a very, very young age I thought in terms of sentences and she would give me books to read. ... She was very, very, very encouraging about making me a writer.

On imagining other people's stories

I have observed people from my earliest memory. I have really, really watched and listened very, very carefully and I have always, always been propelled forward by the question of: What does it feel like to be another person? Because we don't know. When you think about it, we never know. We're only inside ourselves and so that ability to intuit what might be in somebody else's mind is really something that I have been amazingly interested in from a very young age. So other people's stories are what I write.

On meeting her husband at one of her book appearances

He was in the audience ... and he asked a question. I couldn't see him because of the lights. But I just heard a deep voice say, 'You know, I'm from Maine.' And so I thought, well, everybody in New York claims some connection to Maine — you know, he probably went to camp there or something. And so I [asked] 'Oh, what part of Maine are you from?' and he said: 'Lisbon Falls.' And I realized: 'Oh, he really is from Maine.' So afterwards he was the first in line and that was that.

On how much Olive's flinty personality is shaped by being from Maine

I don't know that we can separate the two that much. She's very, very much from Maine and I sort of think of her as a barnacle, you know, clinging to the rocks of Maine.

On her feelings about Olive

I love Olive. I mean, I made her, so I love her. But I understand that many people don't. That's fine. ...

I'm perfectly aware that she comes from my imagination — it's not like I am channeling her or anything like that — but she's from my imagination and yet she is very, very distinct. And therefore my job to write about her accurately is to make sure that I don't hold her back. I let her behave as badly as I think she would. But at the same time I love her. ...

One of the most pleasant things for me about writing is that I suspend judgment on all my characters and it's so freeing. It's just a wonderfully freeing thing to realize I'm not there to judge them. I'm just there to report on what they're doing.

On why Olive resonates with readers

I think it is because she's just so complicated. I think honestly that many of us are complicated — maybe not as complicated as Olive — but there are enough complications within Olive for people to respond to her in a variety of ways and to recognize some piece of truthfulness that can touch them as well.

On whether Olive is still with her

Every character that I write — honestly they kind of stay in my ribs somehow. So ... she's stuck along with the rest of them in my ribs. So, yes and no. She's still a part of my life. She'll always be a part of my life. ... She is very interesting company, actually. She really is.

On whether there's another Olive book coming

The truth is I have absolutely no idea. I mean, I would say no. But how do I know? She showed up again one time, so who knows?

Hanna Bolaños and Samantha Balaban produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been more than 10 years since "Olive Kitteridge" won the Pulitzer Prize. That novel by Elizabeth Strout spun together 13 connected stories in the small town of Crosby, Maine that managed to encompass a world of loss, love and being alone. Now Elizabeth Strout has returned to Crosby and Olive - her tart, blunt, flinty, cranky and compelling character. Her new book is "Olive, Again."

Elizabeth Strout joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH STROUT: Oh, well, thank you for having me. It's lovely. Thank you.

SIMON: I gather Olive appeared to you after many years apart in Norway. Yeah, it went well?

STROUT: She did. I never thought that she would, but she did. And being Olive, I had to pay attention to her because she shows up and, you know, she's Olive. She's got to be attended to.

SIMON: So you're in Norway, I don't know...

STROUT: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Sitting over a place with a plate of smoked fish or something. What happened?

STROUT: Well, I was in Norway. And I was there for some events, but I had the weekend free. So I went to a cafe nearby. And all of a sudden - I was just sitting there, and she just appeared very, very vividly driving into the marina. And then I saw her, you know, get out of the marina with her cane. And I realized, oh, wow, I have to get this down. So I did. I started to type it on my computer at that very moment, which is interesting as well because I usually write by hand. But she was there, so I took her down. And that was the first story that I wrote from this new collection.

SIMON: Is the difference between writers and normal people the fact that you saw Olive and didn't say, I've got to seek professional help, but instead, you said, I've got to write?

STROUT: Exactly. I would say that is probably the definition of the difference between writers and other people.

SIMON: We, those of us who've followed Olive - she's been widowed. Her husband Henry, the pharmacist, died. She meets someone at the end...

STROUT: Yeah.

SIMON: ...of "Olive Kitteridge." It's more or less were things pick up, isn't it?

STROUT: That's right. I don't write in order. And so the first story, as I said, I wrote, though, was called "The Poet" - or the chapter or whatever. And in that story, I realized she had had a second marriage. So I thought, OK, let's go back and marry you up to Jack Kennison. So I did.

SIMON: Yeah. In the story called "Heart," she dies, kind of.

STROUT: Kind of, yeah.

SIMON: Set that scene for us, if you can.

STROUT: Yes. She wakes up in the hospital, and she's been somewhere that's very sunny and pleasant. And then she hears these voices talking to her. And she finally realizes that she's in the hospital. And the doctor says - you know, she said, I'd like to go back. And he said, you're not going to be going home for a while. You know, and he says, you had a heart attack. You had no pulse. You were dead. And her response is, really? Isn't that interesting? I think that's awfully interesting, which is very Olive, I thought.

SIMON: Yeah. The two nurses when all of goes home, Betty and Halima.

STROUT: Yeah.

SIMON: She doesn't like the way one treats the other, let me put it that way.

STROUT: Right.

SIMON: She doesn't like Betty - it's wonderful the way you don't mention what it is - just because she's got a bumper sticker on her car. And we're left to figure out what that is.

STROUT: That's right.

SIMON: Yeah. Halima is from overseas, without giving too much away. Betty, of course, is local.

STROUT: Yes.

SIMON: But Olive opens a crack in her heart for her, ultimately, doesn't she?

STROUT: Yes, she does. And that came to me as sort of a surprise. But I realized, no, this is actually who Olive is. She's continuing to grow. And I think that, you know, there's a myth that people reach a certain age and they don't continue to grow. But I think that people either - they do continue to grow, or they continue to diminish, but they've been on a pathway for a while. And so I realized Olive is actually continuing to grow and that the ending of that story would be truthful for who she is at that time.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you like her?

STROUT: I love Olive. I mean, I made her, so I love her. But I understand that many people don't. That's fine, but I do.

SIMON: Yeah. Can you separate the liking her - to what degree do you make her, to what degree does she - because she reappeared on her own. What degree...

STROUT: Yeah. She's...

SIMON: ...Does she drive herself? Yeah.

STROUT: She's pretty on her own. I mean, I'm perfectly aware that she comes from my imagination. It's not like - I don't feel like I'm being, you know, channeled or am channeling her or anything like that. But she's from my imagination, yet she is very, very distinct. And therefore, my job to write about her accurately is to make sure that I don't hold her back, you know? I let her behave as badly as I think she would.

But at the same time - one of the most pleasant things for me about writing is that I suspend judgment on all my characters. And it's so freeing. It's just a wonderfully freeing thing to realize I'm not there to judge them; I'm just there to report on what they're doing. And that's great because in real life, you know, we do tend to be judgmental. And - so it's very freeing, that part.

SIMON: People often want certitude from literature, you know, something that says something. Olive gives us complexities.

STROUT: Yes, I hope so.

SIMON: Is that why people love her, respond to her?

STROUT: You know, I'm not exactly sure why people respond to her, but many people do. And I think it is because she's just so complicated. And I think, honestly, that many of us are complicated - maybe not as complicated as Olive, but there are enough complications within Olive for people to respond to her in a variety of ways and to recognize some piece of truthfulness that can touch them as well.

SIMON: Elizabeth Strout, her new novel, "Olive, Again," thank you so much for being with us.

STROUT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.