Fiction Writers Get Personal

Several acclaimed fiction writers penned accounts of personal non-fiction stories for The Washington Post Magazine's Summer Reading series. What was that experience like for them? Host Michel Martin finds out when she speaks with Elizabeth Strout, whose book of short stories Olive Kitteridge won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And Ursula Hegi, author of several books, including the best selling Oprah Book Club novel "Stones from the River."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll head to the annual Barbie convention. The ladies, and a few men, were celebrating 50 years of Barbie, who by the way, still does not look a day over 29. But first, we turn to the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's where we look just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now.

This week, the Post offered up its summer reading issue, featuring short, personal stories from four acclaimed fiction writers. We're joined now by two of those writers. With us is Elizabeth Strout. Her book of short stories, "Olive Kitteridge," won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She's on the line with us now from Taos, New Mexico. Also with us is Ursula Hegi. She is the author of 11 books, including the bestselling Oprah Book Club novel "Stones from the River." She's on the line with us now from her home on Long Island. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. ELIZABETH STROUT (Author, "Olive Kitteridge"): Thank you.

Ms. URSULA HEGI (Author, "Stones from the River"): Lovely to be here, thank you.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, both of you are acclaimed for your fiction. And I wanted to ask: was it more or less challenging to write a personal story for this issue, Elizabeth?

Ms. STROUT: It was more challenging for me to write the non-fiction than fiction, definitely. I was somewhat hesitant to even give it a try, but I'm glad I did.

MARTIN: And I want to hear more about that. Ursula, I want to ask you the same question. What about for you, more or less challenging?

Ms. HEGI: Elizabeth, I totally identify with what you're saying because in fiction, for me at least, personal experience may be a catalyst, but by the time I'm finished, by the time I've done, like, 50 to 100 revisions, it has very much moved away from my personal experience. And in a memoir piece, there is this question, too: How much am I revealing about myself?

Ms. STROUT: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: Ursula, I must say, your story is very poignant, and you write reflections about your mother, who passed away when you were young. And I love how you write about how you stumble upon the knowledge of how her absence has influenced you.

You wrote: I'd written several novels before one of my readers pointed out that every one of my books had a dead or absent mother. It stunned me, but it was true. And then you write another book where, in the span of a few pages, two women die in childbirth, and you wrote: Damn, I thought. More dead mothers. I must stop this.

Ms. HEGI: Yes.

MARTIN: And it was funny but so, so sad. Was it hard to live with those words as you were writing them?

Ms. HEGI: Not at this point. I'm 63 now, and I lost my mother when I was 13. I never thought of it in terms of half a century until now, but it's both. You know, it's the sadness and also, in a moment like this, where you think damn it, you know, I've been writing about dead mothers all my life. There is this - it's on this edge where drama and humor meet, and much of my writing is on that edge.

MARTIN: Elizabeth, your story, "English Lesson," is about an experience you had when you were learning about men and dating. And I am guessing that many, many people will relate to the experience that you recount, not happily I have to say, and would you tell us just a little bit - tell us a little bit about it. I'm not sure I could do it justice. I don't think I can, so…

Ms. STROUT: Oh, I just had to - I think one of the problems that I had in thinking about the piece was having to revisit exactly how deeply, deeply naïve I was about the world and to not make that trite because we all, of course, have our moments where we sort of burst through and understand the world is more complicated than we realize. And I certainly didn't want to be writing a kind of trite story or non-fiction piece about that.

So I had to just go back and remember my summer in England, when I had not learned very much about the world at all and certainly knew very little about the world of dating and came across, you know, the age-old story of not understanding what was going on. And yet, really what surprised me is I remembered was how I wasn't frightened. It was just a situation to deal with.

MARTIN: Ursula, did you read Elizabeth's story?

Ms. HEGI: I did, and Elizabeth, I loved it. You let yourself become so vulnerable in the telling of it. And then there is this empowering moment where you realize, I can get out of this. You knew that.

MARTIN: I'm sure there was a collective cheer, went off across the Washington area, as we all read through our magazines on Sunday morning. I don't want to give it all away because there is - part of the pleasure of it is realizing how you got to where you got, how you figured out what to do. So I'm not going to give all of it away, but I wanted to ask each of you - you know, all life is narrative in some way. For those of us who have the luxury of thinking about things in that way, who have any space at all to kind of think about our lives in terms of narrative. And I did want to ask, Ursula, if part of the challenge of memoir - of writing nonfiction is that one has to stick to the facts. And I just wondered if there's any temptation to kind of want the outcome to be different, to shape it in a way? And how do you grapple with that?

Ms. HEGI: In writing this memoir piece, it was all about what actually happened. But what opened it up to me beyond that was that I'm much more interested in the impact of experience than the experience itself. And I know when I'm writing fiction and I understand what a book, for example, is about, then a lot of the material falls away. I do a lot of cutting because it just doesn't belong there anymore. When I set out to write, I never know the ending. I don't want to know it, because if I already knew it, I wouldn't need to write it. And I approached the memoir piece the same way. I didn't know where it would take me.

It started off with a summer in my life set on Nantucket. And within that piece was one paragraph about my mother swimming out into the sea and taking off her swimsuit and losing it, of course. And I became much more interested in that memory than the Nantucket piece, so the Nantucket piece went. And then this became the paragraph from where everything else originated.

MARTIN: Mm. Elizabeth, what about you? Is it - do you find yourself, in writing this piece, wanting to burnish, tweak the story in any way?

Ms. STROUT: No, I didn't. But I will say that I was struck with the similarity that one does need to be telling a story that the reader cares about. But fiction for me has always felt very freeing. I'm so deeply interested in what it feels like to be other people, that I get to operate under the illusion when I'm writing fiction that I'm not really revealing that much about myself. But, of course, I am and I know that I am. And yet there's this sort of membrane that I get to work behind as I write my fiction, and I love it.

And I love going all over the place to different people. And so to be confined to myself and to be writing from a voice that is authentically mine in a nonfiction way felt worrisome to me. Probably it's not by chance that it was a memory from long ago, even though I remember quite distinctly.

MARTIN: So now I'm going to let you go because I know each of you wants to get back to your work. But I wanted to ask, what are you reading this summer? Elizabeth?

Ms. STROUT: Oh, ask Ursula and come back to me while I look for this.

MARTIN: Okay. Ursula, what are you reading this summer? Let me put you on a spot.

Ms. HEGI: I just started a book of three novellas by Josh Weil, and he writes about loneliness in an amazing way, the way I haven't seen that before. And I also just started Eva Hoffman's "Appassionata."

MARTIN: Hmm. Elizabeth?

Ms. STROUT: I'm reading "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. It's about India and revolution. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.

MARTIN: Well, we thank you both.

Elizabeth Strout is a recipient of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her book "Olive Kitteridge." She joined us from Taos, New Mexico. Ursula Hegi is the author of 11 books, including the novel "Stones from the River" and "The Worst Thing I've Done." And she joined us from Long Island, New York.

If you want to read the two stories we've just talked about, along with two others in the Post summer reading issue, we'll have a link on our Web site. That's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

Ladies, thank you so much.

Ms. HEGI: Thank you.

Ms. STROUT: Thank you.

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