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'My Ears Are Open': Novelist Elizabeth Strout Finds Inspiration In Everyday Life

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'My Ears Are Open': Novelist Elizabeth Strout Finds Inspiration In Everyday Life

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'My Ears Are Open': Novelist Elizabeth Strout Finds Inspiration In Everyday Life

'My Ears Are Open': Novelist Elizabeth Strout Finds Inspiration In Everyday Life

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My Name Is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge says she was a "bad lawyer" before turning her energies to writing. Her latest novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, is about an aspiring writer.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Elizabeth Strout, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for her collection of short stories, "Olive Kitteridge." The book was adapted into an HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand as Olive. It won eight Emmy awards. Set in a small coastal town in Maine, the stories focus on an older woman who perceives herself as a no-nonsense truth teller, but constantly humiliates her husband and criticizes her son in ways that makes him feel worthless. Family histories of depression and suicide haunt the stories. Robert Redford is now adapting Strout's 2013 novel "The Burgess Boys" into an HBO miniseries. Strout has just published a new novel called "My Name Is Lucy Barton." When the novel opens, Lucy is an aspiring writer who is a wife and mother of two young children. She's in the hospital for several weeks recovering from an infection that set in after an appendectomy. Lucy is lonely and isolated in the hospital, and is shocked to wake one day and find her estranged mother sitting beside her. Lucy grew up poor and was not treated well by her parents, but her mother's presence in the hospital is profoundly comforting. In review of the novel, in the New York Times Sunday book review, Claire Messud describes Strout as articulating the Gordian knot of family, binding together fear and misery, solace and love. Like the characters of Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge, Strout grew up in a small town in Maine. Elizabeth Strout, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from "My Name is Lucy Barton." And at this point, Lucy is in the hospital, feeling very lonely.

ELIZABETH STROUT: (Reading) Had anyone known the extent of my loneliness, I would have been embarrassed. Whenever a nurse came to took my temperature, I tried to get her to stay for a few minutes. But the nurses were busy. They could not just hang around talking. About three weeks after I was admitted, I turned my eyes from the window late one afternoon and found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed. Mom, I said. Hi, Lucy, she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. Hi, Wizzle, she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her. I could not figure out why she looked so different. Mom, how did you get here, I asked. Oh, I got on an airplane. She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion for us, so I waved back and lay flat. I think you'll be all right, she added in the same shy-sounding but urgent voice. I haven't had any dreams. Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not. Usually, I woke at midnight and dozed fitfully or stared wide awake through the window at the lights of the city. But that night I slept without waking. And in the morning my mother was sitting where she had been the day before. Doesn't matter, she said when I asked. You know I don't sleep lots.

GROSS: That's Elizabeth Strout reading from her new novel, "My Name is Lucy Barton." Why did you want to set this novel in a hospital, where Lucy, the main character, is removed from family and from the outside world? I mean, her mother returns, but her husband rarely visits. Her children can't come very often.

STROUT: It wasn't a conscious decision, but I did find myself sketching, meaning writing little bits of scenes, and I had this Lucy in a hospital room with her mother. And I don't really even know why now, but those sketches kept going around and around my desk. And I wasn't especially interested at first, and then I realized from experience that they kept coming back to me, and so I had to pay attention. I think that having her mother in the hospital with Lucy, they are so - they are isolated there and it's a little bit of a crucible for their relationship.

GROSS: Were you thinking about your relationship with your mother while you were writing this book?

STROUT: I wasn't particularly thinking about my own mother, but I am very interested in mothers and daughters, and I've written about them before, although I've always written about different mothers and different daughters. So I was - you know, obviously I'm drawn to that, and I think it's because, you know, it's such a primal relationship. It's the way we first see the world - most of us. So I was very interested in this particular mother. She sort of arrived at the foot of that bed and was pretty accessible to me as a writer.

GROSS: Would you describe your home where you grew up?

STROUT: Yes, I grew up in Durham, N.H. My parents were both professors at the university. My father was in the sciences. He was a parasitologist. He had his own lab that he ran. And my mother taught writing in the English Department, and she also taught writing in the high school. And we also lived in Maine on a dirt road where many of my relatives lived along that same dirt road.

GROSS: Were you living on a dirt road because it was beautiful there or because of a lack of money or, you know, was it by choice or was it just by...

STROUT: It was by choice. I think that - it was very, very beautiful, actually, in Maine. And it still is, but now the road is paved. But it was quite, quite beautiful. And it's just where everybody settled.

GROSS: You said your family - members of the family lived up the road. I've heard you describe it as, like, a lot of your family who lived there was very elderly.

STROUT: Yes, they were.

GROSS: And that you'd go up to someone's house, and they'd invariably - somebody would be saying, I hope I die soon.

(LAUGHTER)

STROUT: Well, they very often talked about their past husbands and what it was that they had fed their husbands for their last meal, not knowing that it was going to be their last meal. But that was a favorite conversation that I seem to remember.

GROSS: How do you respond to that as a child? That's such emotionally, like, heavy territory.

STROUT: Well, you know, I was a kid. It was just the air I breathed. I was just sort of going it out like a squirrel, really. I mean, I don't think they paid much attention to me. But I do remember, you know, my great-aunt saying, oh, I'm so glad Frank had those potatoes the way he liked them. And, you know, then they'd say, well, yes, and Homer, you know, he had his mackerel that night, as well - you know, whatever.

GROSS: I'm wondering what it was like for you to grow up watching women in your family live past their husband and live alone after that and miss their husband a lot. I mean, I remember when I was growing up - I grew up in an apartment building, and there were women who had lost their husbands, and I always felt when I was a child, like, oh no, that means her life is over. Because in the '50s and early '60s, it seemed that way to me as a child.

STROUT: Right, right. I don't remember thinking that their lives were over. They just were who they were, and I - you know, I had not known their husbands, actually. At that point they had died so long ago in my small, short, little life. But many years later, when I went to law school, I got a gerontology certificate as well as my law degree. And it didn't occur to me until much later that it probably had to do with the fact that I had grown up with these elderly women, and I felt probably a sense of responsibility for them that I hadn't been aware of as a young kid.

GROSS: Do you think that has to do with writing the character of Olive Kitteridge, who spends a good deal of time in the stories in her 70s?

STROUT: Yes, I do. I do think that has a lot to do with it because they were - as I said, they were just the air I breathed. And I think that, you know, there was a certain grumpiness to them, a certain Maine-ness to them. They - you know, they were all from there.

GROSS: Did you say Maine-ness, as in the state?

STROUT: Maine. Maine, yes.

GROSS: Or meanness as in the attitude?

STROUT: No, no, no. No, Maine, as they - they were from Maine. And they were - there was a quality of that in them. They were sort of, you know, depressed and stuff. I don't think of Olive as depressed, but there was a great deal of that kind of stuff that I think was finally compiled into an Olive-type character.

GROSS: Well, you know, in your new book and "Olive Kitteridge," you know, isolation, depression, suicide figures into these. And I'm going to paraphrase something from your new novel, "My Name Is Lucy Barton." When the character was a child, she was terrified of what she called the thing, which was when after an incident, her father would become very anxious and not in control of himself.

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: You don't really explain what happens in those times when he's no longer in control of himself. You kind of leave that to our imagination.

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: But what do you imagine he did when he was not in control of himself?

STROUT: Well, there is a clue when she is in Sarah Payne's classroom, and a student comes in...

GROSS: This is her writing teacher.

STROUT: Right, that writing teacher, Sarah Payne - she's in her classroom later on in the book, and a student comes in and says to Sarah Payne, oh, you know, I love your writing about New Hampshire, and I knew somebody from New Hampshire. And then she says, you know, Janie's father used to walk around masturbating, and Lucy just gets complete chills and says to the reader, this is the only time that I had heard of anything like that happening outside my home. So that's the one clue that I give the reader of what happened when the thing was occurring.

GROSS: Yeah, there's maybe another clue, too, and that is after Lucy's brother is found wearing his mother's clothes, his father takes him to punish him. The children are sent away so that they don't witness the punishment, which one imagines is incredibly harsh, but when Lucy returns, her father and her brother are basically huddling together, like, moaning and weeping.

STROUT: Right, right, right.

GROSS: And you wonder, like, what exactly happened here?

STROUT: Right. I think the father felt very bad. That's how I perceived this man who had been in World War II. He was very traumatized by the war. This is how I perceived her father as having been very, very traumatized in the war and not talking about it and - as many men did not at that time. And yet, this was kind of what made him who he was, I thought. And so he felt very bad that he had done this to the son - to punish him that way. So it was important for me to show that - to show the reader that this man is - you know, he's not a bad man, and he's not a good man. You know, he's a person, and he's very, very wounded.

GROSS: So, did you grow up surrounded by depression and isolation? Because it is such a theme - I mean, in "Olive Kitteridge," you know, Olive's father had committed suicide. Her husband's mother suffered from depression. Her neighbor kills herself. Olive prevents that neighbor's son from killing himself. Olive's son suffers with depression. You seem to know what depression is.

STROUT: Well, I think these aunts probably had a great deal to say...

GROSS: Your aunts.

STROUT: My aunts, my great aunts. They were actually my great aunts who lived on this dirt road. I think they probably had - you know, had a lot of that to play into. But I don't think that I was surrounded by a sense of depression at all growing up. It was a solitary childhood in the sense that we did live in the woods, and my first friend, I think, really was the physical world because I would go off and play in the woods. And I was very happy. I loved the way the sun would hit the pine needles. I loved my toads. I had a plastic bucket that I would put my toads in and carry them around. And there was a creek with the turtles. So that was my first real friend, I think, was the physical world.

GROSS: Lucy, the character in your new book, grew up in a home with no TV, no radio, no movies. And you wrote about yourself in a personal essay in The Washington Post, (reading) my parents had a skeptical view of pleasure. They did not drink. They did not smoke. There was no TV in our house and no newspaper. There were my father's science magazines and also the New Yorker.

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: Why was there no TV or newspaper in the house?

STROUT: Well, they didn't believe in TV. It just wasn't something that they wanted in the house. And there were no newspapers because they got their news from, I guess, The New Yorker. And, you know, there was a radio. They heard the radio playing. There was news on the radio. But there was no TV because they just didn't believe in it. They didn't want it.

GROSS: We were talking a little bit about depression. I want to ask you a little bit about if there was ever a suicide in your family. And I ask that because getting back to Olive Kittredge, the idea of suicide in it - it's like suicide is a character in that novel. There are several characters who, you know, have killed themselves. There's one where it's kind of ambiguous if the act was intended to be a suicide or it was an accident. Have you known people who killed themselves, or is there a history of suicide in your family or in the family of someone you're close to? I hope you don't mind my asking, but it's just so at the center of some of your writing.

STROUT: There is a history of suicide in my family, and I think that it's always been very compelling to me as a result of that.

GROSS: Would you be willing to say more about...

STROUT: I don't think so, thanks.

GROSS: OK, OK. And there's also the theme of parents who become estranged from children - a family who, on some level, you're sure must love each other, but they can't express it. Not only can't they express it, but they do things that are demeaning, whether they intend it to be that way or not. And I'm also interested in that theme of estrangement and why that's so compelling to you. And it makes me wonder if you've been able to remain close to your parents over the years. I don't even know if they're still alive.

STROUT: Yes, I have been close to my parents. My father died 17 years ago, and he was a lovely, lovely man - very warm. I miss him, you know, every day, frankly. And my mother, I still am close to her. So the estrangement comes, I think, from being a novelist and imagining the variations of families - all the different ways that families can go, observing many, many families throughout my lifetime. And, you know, a novelist - my ears are always open. They're always open. And people will tell you things. Boy, they really will. And you keep your eyes open, you keep your ears open. And there's a lot of stuff out there about families, and estrangement is one. And it's - you know, it's interesting to me among many other parts of my work.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Elizabeth Strout. Her new novel is called "My Name Is Lucy Barton." She is also probably best known for "Olive Kitteridge" which won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into an HBO miniseries. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us my guest is Elizabeth Strout. Her new novel is called "My Name is Lucy Barton." She is best known for her collection of short stories called "Olive Kittredge," which was adapted into the HBO miniseries of the same name starring Frances McDormand. So before you became a writer, you went to law school. What did you envision your future as being like then?

STROUT: Well, the truth is that I always thought of myself as a writer from the very young age. I never - I don't have a memory of thinking of myself as anything but a writer. And this was because my mother gave me no books when I was very young, and she'd say, write down what you did today and write down what you saw. And so I would. And so I always thought in terms of sentences, and I always knew I'd be a writer. And so after college, you know, I waitressed and sent out stories and did that for a few years, and then I had no luck at all, not even a nibble with any of my stories. And I began to get worried, and I thought, well, you know, what if I end up 58 years old - that was the number in my head - I thought, what if I end up 58 years old, and I'm a cocktail waitress, and I haven't published anything? So I thought, well, you know, I'll go to law school, and I will be a lawyer but I'll write at night. And that was misguided of me because, you know, I couldn't. But I did go to law school. I dropped out. I went back. I finished. I did get the gerontology certificate with it. And I continued to write. The whole time I was in law school I continued to write. And the truth is I was a very bad lawyer. I practiced for six months. I was a terrible lawyer. So I realized - and I can remember this moment - I realized I came home from work one day, and I thought, OK, I can probably be a bad lawyer for the rest of my life or I can go back to writing and be a cocktail waitress who's never published anything, and that will be my life. And it just seemed an honest living at that point. It was sort of - it took law school for me to realize I - just go for it as a writer. So the law school was more of an operation, I think.

GROSS: Do you think it's lucky in a way that you were a bad lawyer because it gave you less of a choice about what to do?

STROUT: Yes, yes, absolutely. It was fabulous that I was...

GROSS: Like if you were good, you maybe would have felt compelled to keep doing it even if you didn't like it.

STROUT: That's right. That's right. Because, you know, we like to do things that we're good at. I mean, it makes us feel better, and I was just absolutely terrible. But I do think that the law school training - took me many years to realize that the law school training, I think, was actually quite good for my writing because it stripped away the excessive emotion. You know, I had so much emotion dripping down me all the time when I was young, and the law is not interested in that. It's very analytical. And I really didn't mind the law school itself, the classes. And then I realized years later that was probably very good for my work.

GROSS: Tell us something about the fiction you were writing back then that was dripping with emotion.

STROUT: Oh, my goodness, let's see. When I dropped out, I wrote a novel. What was it about? It was about a girl who had gone to England and lived in England for a year after college, which I did, in fact. It was, you know, a terrible novel, but I wrote it and put it under the bed, and it stayed there for quite some time.

GROSS: You actually wrote a personal essay for The Washington Post Magazine that had to do with your year in England.

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: And when you first got there, there was a man that you knew, and you went to his apartment or his room. I forget which it was. And it became clear he assumed you were there because you wanted to sleep with him, which you were not prepared to do. And you had to find it within yourself to say no...

STROUT: Right, right, right.

GROSS: ...Which you did, and it ended up being an incredibly empowering experience.

STROUT: Right, exactly.

GROSS: Because you realized, like, I can say no. I can do that.

STROUT: That's exactly right. It wasn't his room. It was a friend of his' room that I was supposed to be staying in, and he showed up, and obviously his intentions were very different from mine. So I left.

GROSS: So was saying no difficult in general or just difficult in that kind of, you know, Relationship?

STROUT: Well, I certainly had no intention of being with him in that way, so I don't remember that it was very difficult. It was just difficult to get out of the room and to get away, but, you know, it was not going to happen.

GROSS: So 58 was your magic age of, like...

STROUT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You couldn't imagine yourself, like, if you were 58 and still a cocktail waitress writing...

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: ...On the side that would be failure. Can I ask how old you are now?

STROUT: I just turned 60.

GROSS: Oh, so - OK, so mission accomplished.

STROUT: Yeah.

GROSS: By 58 you had won the Pulitzer.

STROUT: Right. Exactly. You're exactly right. But I was ready to not win it. I was ready to go for it. That's the important thing.

GROSS: My guest is Elizabeth Strout, author of the new novel "My Name Is Lucy Barton." We'll talk more after a short break. Also, Sarah Hepola will tell us how online dating taught her to tell men the truth. And linguist was Geoff Nunberg will talk about the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Challenge memory and once going to build a personalized training program will more than John and supporting and building a more just world more information this is fresh air. I'm Terry Gross. Back with Elizabeth Strout. Her collection of short stories, all of Kittredge, was adapted into an HBO miniseries that one eight Emmy awards. Now Robert Redford is adapting or twenty thirteen novel, the Borges boys, into an HBO miniseries. Her new knob, my name is Lucy Barton. Is a woman who likes Stroud and her character, Olive Kittredge, is from a small town in Maine. At the beginning of the novel, lose you the young wife and mother and an inspiring rather. She's in the hospital for a couple of weeks, lonely and isolated recovering from a postoperative infection. When you were a young mother, how did you find time to write?

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: What was your approach to carving out the time?

STROUT: Right. I had to become very disciplined in terms of - like I would have maybe two or three hours every day between - I would try and teach my classes at the community college very early so that I would have a few hours before my daughter got home from school, and I was very very strict about that with myself. So that's really what I did for years. I would wait for those few hours every day.

GROSS: And did you always know what you're going to write? I mean, did you find yourself thinking and the off hours about stories and -

STROUT: Oh, I was often thinking about my work, yes. But I would sit down - I remember for many years I had a rule. Three hours for three pages. And I write by hand. So I really just meant three pages of notebooks - notebook pages filled. And I was always able to do the three pages. So that I was sick for the three hours and fiddle around, but I would write - I would write what was most urgent to me at that time, and that proved to be helpful because then I could transpose whatever was feeling most urgent to myself - into a character, and that it would be truthful. There would be something truthful there and it wouldn't be just wooden writing.

GROSS: So what you're writing was sometimes a journal, it was sometimes a story, it would depend.

STROUT: It was always a store. It was always a story.

GROSS: I see. And by doing three pages a day, did you intentionally give yourself a manageable amounts he could feel like you succeed at the end of each day?

STROUT: Yes, exactly. Yeah. And I always did succeed. I mean, with the three pages. Of her the more the next day, but -

GROSS: Did you have to go back to being a waitress after law school?

STROUT: No. I was married, and I moved to New York, and I had a child. I had a baby. And so was able to stay home with the baby, and I began to publish in of stories that I could teach at Manhattan community college because they accepted the JD as a graduate degree. And so for the three years I taught and Manhattan community collage college, and I love the. Absolute love the student.

GROSS: How long did it take till something you wrote was accepted?

STROUT: Of, years. I was forty one when my nonmeat to my novel was accepted, and I was forty three when it was published. I did have story, you know, that came out very slowly until then, but it was quite, quite slow. Quite a long haul. And I just kept writing, and writing and writing.

GROSS: How did you maintain confidence in writing when everybody was telling you it wasn't good enough?

STROUT: You know, again, it was just compulsion. It was just pure compulsion. Every so often I think of, while, maybe I should give this up. In a currently sitting on the subway and thinking let me tried this with. Let me just try it this way. So we just always come back up. I just kept trying - just kept trying a different way, a different way, and eventually I began to find my voice.

GROSS: So you said the early fiction was just dripping with a motion - that you were tripping with the motion. And yet there are so many of your characters who can't express emotion. Did you grow up being like the real emotional kid in an atmosphere where like being very emotional wasn't how you express yourself?

STROUT: Well, I was probably an emotional kid. I can remember my father saying - and as I said, he was a lovely man. He was just a wonderful man. But I do remember him saying if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. And, you know, that step to a writer.

GROSS: Oh, yes.

STROUT: But I did say thing, and my mother said they. And there's one incident I always think of when we were at - when I was little we went to church. We went to the Congregational church in New England. It's very plain - the Congregational church in New England. And for some reason, I was allowed to go to the big people's church that day. And there was a woman there that we knew, and she had a hat on. And nobody wore hats unless it was Easter, and it was not Easter. And this woman had a hat, that had peculiar things on. It had dried fruit and ribbons. It was just a strange hat. And so is her driving home I was in the backseat and my mother said to my father, know why and how would that woman were that have. And my father said, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. And I've always thought of that moment a sort of crystallizing it the dilemma for me as a writer because I understood that my father in many ways was the more decent person. But my mother was much more interest, you know. Because she said thing. She would say things and witness things, and so I've often thought that my writing life has been a desire - well, many, many desires. But there's one aspect to it of trying to go for the decency of my father with the vividness of my mother and her observations and getting it down and getting it truthfully down.

GROSS: So getting back to you when you are such an emotional young person, was that considered out of place?

STROUT: Well, I remember my father would tell me to stop talking quite so much and stuff like that. You know, I was a very chatty person. Know but, I don't know. I don't remember particularly being told to stop being so emotional, but I was.

GROSS: Your character of Lucy and your new novel, my name is Lucy Barden, is a writer. And she is an aspiring writer. And her writing teacher who is kind of like her mentor, Sarah. Tells Lucy if you find yourself protecting anyone as you're writing this piece, remember there is. You're not doing it right. Was that something that somebody actually told you? Is utterly fall yourself?

STROUT: It's not anything that anybody ever told me, but I do remember when I was writing all of Kittredge, remember thinking one night when I put the work away I thought, oh I don't know maybe she's going too far with stealing her daughter in-laws brought and all that kind of stuff. And then I thought no no no no, you just let all of the olive. Let her rip. And so that's what came back to me when I was writing the Sarah pain advice to Lucy.

GROSS: Lucy gets advice from her neighbor and friend Jeremy who tells her that you have to be ruthless to be an artist. Do you think that's true?

STROUT: I think you probably have to be ruthless to be good at anything. so I don't know that ruthless is the word that I would use myself. Jeremy used it. I don't know that it would be my word, but I think that one has to make decisions about going forward and what they're going to do and what they're going to sacrifice in order to do it.

GROSS: So you did so do you believe an artist has to be ruthless in terms of the art were also require some ruthlessness in terms of life?

STROUT: Well, both. I think they have to - you know, an artist has to understand that their art is their life and that it's their vocation. It's what they're going to be doing, and so they have to do whatever keeps them going in their art.

GROSS: I suspect that there's a ruthlessness that you feel when you're writing your character that you have to be honest to the character.

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: And you have to draw on is that what you've witnessed in light.

STROUT: Right.

GROSS: And what you seen people do in life.

STROUT: Exactly.

GROSS: But that ruthlessness of not necessarily apply to how to behave in an interview.

(LAUGHTER)

STROUT: Exactly, that's very well put. Not surprising, that's very well put.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Okay. If you're just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Strout. Her new novel is called my name is Lucy Barton. She's also the author of all of Kittredge which was adapted into an HBO miniseries. Was take a short break here, and we'll talk some more. This is fresh air.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Strout. Her new novel is called "My Name Is Lucy Barton." Her collection of short stories, "Olive Kitteridge," which won a Pulitzer Prize, was adapted into an HBO series. Robert Redford bought the rights to your novel "The Burgess Boys" which was published a couple of years ago. And he intends to adapt it for HBO. I haven't read that novel yet, but I know it's partially inspired by a real incident that happened in Maine.

STROUT: That's right.

GROSS: Do you want to describe that real incident?

STROUT: The real incident was a fellow who was, at that time, 31 years old. He threw a frozen pig's head through a mosque in Lewiston, Maine. And Lewiston, Maine, had - it still does have a population of Somali refugees who have moved there, and it's a very unusual situation because Maine is a very, very white state. And in came, you know, a few thousand Somalis, and this young man through a frozen pig's head through their storefront mosque, and it was going to go to trial a year later, and a week before it went to trial, he killed himself. So there's a suicide for you. It was very sad. But that was so compelling to me. It seemed to me a novelist's dream. Everything was right there. And talk about going to the page without judgment. It was wonderful because I could write everybody's point of view and just unfold it all.

GROSS: What was it like to try to get into the mind of somebody who did something so hateful?

STROUT: Well, in my case I used a much younger man. I used a 19-year-old kid who was much more confused than the man who actually did the act. And so it was important for me to have somebody who was much younger and much more confused and really, really didn't quite understand the full ramifications of what he had done. But the hardest part about writing that book was to get inside the head of the Somali man - a couple of the Somali people. And I worked many, many years studying in that culture and studying their proverbs - everything I could find, I studied about the Somali community because I needed to go inside the head of a couple of those characters, otherwise they would have remained the other, and that wouldn't have been acceptable to me. I wanted them to have their own point of view in that book.

GROSS: It's your mother who, when you were young, inspired you to write. She was a writing teacher. She kind of taught you some of the basics about writing. And now that you're a well-read novelist and you are ruthless in your writing, and I'm assuming that's how some of your characters have drawn something from your own parents and your own extended family, how does your mother feel about that because I'm guessing since everybody has some negative as well as positive attributes that no matter who your mother is and how much of any of your characters are drawn from her that something - at least one thing was drawn from her that she wishes wasn't in print.

STROUT: You know, that's a very interesting question, and I'll tell you the truth. It's always amazed me and made me very happy. Every single book I've written, my mother will read - she'll read it within a few hours, and she'll call me up, and she'll say, this one's better than the one that was before. And she loves them, and she's just so supportive about that. And it's made me very, very happy - every book.

GROSS: So she's never felt that she brought you up to be a writer, and then you started - and then you became a novelist and betrayed the family (laughter) by revealing fictionalized versions of things.

STROUT: No, no, no - no, never. She's always been very, very supportive. And I remember when I was really young, there was a book of Updike short stories on the coffee table, and I read them. And I was probably 7 or 8. And I remember thinking - in my mind I confused the fictional mother with Updike's mother, and I said to my mother, his mother must feel bad about what he wrote, or something. And she said, no, I'm sure she doesn't. She knows that he's a fiction writer. She knows he has to do his job. And, you know, that's a huge gift to give to a young person who wants to be a writer.

GROSS: Yeah, that is. And you took that to heart.

STROUT: It is a huge gift, yeah.

GROSS: That's great. OK, well, Elizabeth Strout, thank you so much for talking with us.

STROUT: Oh, thank you. It's really been wonderful. Thanks so much.

GROSS: Elizabeth Strout's new novel is called "My Name Is Lucy Barton."

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