Following the publication of Olive Kittredge, I sat down with Elizabeth Strout at the JCC in San Francisco to interview her. I found Strout to be kind and very funny, generous with her stories, and a bit shy. She spoke of growing up in the end of a dirt road, and of her mother’s desire to be a writer. Her mother, a high school writing teacher, bought her notebooks and encouraged her to write everything down. “She’s the whole reason I’m here,” Strout said. The notebooks have not survived, as “we were not a sentimental family.” She also discusses the stage fright she felt when Amy and Isabelle was published, a stage fright she has since gotten over, and the difference between being a writer and an author.
When My Name Is Lucy Barton was published, I was surprised to find the voice of the narrator so different from the voice of Olive Kittredge and so similar to the voice of Strout, the author. I read the book in a single day, carried along by the unflinching way the narrator addresses her childhood, her marriage, and her life as a writer.
If you loved Olive Kittredge, read this. If you hated Olive Kittredge, read this. What this slim novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, shares with Strout’s blockbuster bestseller is an intense examination of the life of one woman. What differs is the tenderness of the voice. If Olive Kittredge is all (or most) hard edges, Lucy Barton is fragile, a woman capable of great love and even greater forgiveness. This is a story of mothers and daughters. It takes place almost entirely in the Manhattan hospital where Lucy is convalescing. Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in many years, comes at the behest of Lucy’s absent husband to sit at her bedside. Over the course of their guarded conversations, made up of unanswered questions and rapidly told stories, we learn about Lucy’s childhood–made difficult both by poverty and by her parents’ great shortcomings. The mother who has never said “I love you,” and still can’t, who once locked the young Lucy in a truck for infractions real or imagined, who failed to keep her daughter safe or warm or clean or even properly fed, is seen here in her deep vulnerability and in her guarded love for the child she can’t understand.
In the second half of the novel, Barton tells of her accidental encounter in a Manhattan clothing store with a writer named Sarah Payne. Years later, Lucy takes a writing class with Sarah, who tells her that she must be fearless, that she must be honest and write her one story without the fear of hurting anyone. This novel feels like that story.
How the novel Golden State came to be. Read the Q&A.
Random House Reader’s Circle: Why did you decide to set the novel against the backdrop of a vote for secession?
Michelle Richmond: I am fascinated by the fact that so often things that seem impossible are actually very much within the realm of possibility. Every day in the news, there’s something else that completely explodes our expectations. Tom’s radio show, Anything Is Possible, is a tribute to that notion, and I hope this novel is a tribute to that notion as well. Personally, to be clear, I don’t think that California should or will go anywhere, but there’s been so much secession talk on the fringes for years, from states as diverse as New York, Texas, Colorado, and California, that it seemed worth exploring what would happen if the concept of secession moved from the outermost fringes to the mainstream. I also am interested in the way characters live out their lives against the backdrop of the larger world, which is what every one of us does, every day. Only days after moving to California, I experienced my first tremor. I’d been in hurricanes and tornadoes, but this was the first time I’d felt the ground move beneath my feet. It sent a powerful message: that stability is an illusion, and that we have no way of knowing when everything is going to change. Fifteen years have passed since I felt that first tremor, and I’ve felt hundreds of them since then. I am accustomed to them, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever be immune: every time the house moves—-whether it’s a quick jolt or a slow roll—-I’m reminded that we live on a fault line. To me, this seems like an apt metaphor for marriage in particular and for life in general.
RHRC: In Golden State, as in The Year of Fog, the couple is suffering from the loss of a child. Can you talk a bit about this theme and why you are drawn to it?
MR: The worst thing I could imagine as a child was being separated from my parents. Now that I am an adult, I see this fear of separation from the other side. As a child, you fear the loss of protection, but as an adult, you fear the inability to protect a child who is in your care. In my mind, Julie is deeply in love with Tom, and always will be. But there is something about the love for a child that is very different and more fierce than romantic love—-I believe it must have something to do with the need to care for those who are incapable of caring for themselves.
RHRC: You have said in the past that you never outline, and that you don’t know where a book is going when you begin. How much did you know about this story when you began writing it?
MR: Well, I knew from the start that it would be the story of a marriage. I am always intrigued by what holds a couple together, and by what it takes to sever the bonds that, at some point, were strong enough to justify a vow of lifelong commitment. For Julie and Tom, there is this deep love and passion and mutual respect that have kept them together for so long, but things happen, things largely beyond their control, to threaten that love. Will the center hold? That was the question I began with, and I had no idea when I started writing what the answer would be. But it was important to me that Julie and Tom both be characters as decent as they were flawed. I also knew, when I began writing the novel, that three relationships would be central to the novel: the marriage, Julie’s relationship with her sister, and the couple’s relationship to the lost child. It was only much later—-years into the writing of the book—-that Dennis became a strong force. He sort of took me by surprise and added a new element to the novel. This is where the author–editor relationship comes into play; in this case, my editor noticed a character that had been lurking fairly quietly on the sidelines and basically said, “What’s the deal with this guy?” It was a good question, one that forced me to look at the story from an entirely different angle. When I began exploring Dennis’s role in Julie’s life, I thought about all of the relationships we enter into sort of blindly over the course of our adult lives. And I thought about how much of ourselves we make known to people, and how easily we sometimes trust others with our deepest secrets and fears. What interested me about Dennis were the long–term repercussions of that trust.
RHRC: There’s a lot of music in your book. Do you listen to music when you write?
MR: I’ll sometimes listen to instrumentals, but I never listen to music with lyrics while I’m writing. It gets in my head. When I’m not sitting down writing, though, there’s always music in our house. My husband used to DJ at UCLA when he was in college, and he’s always on the lookout for new acts, or new albums by people you haven’t heard of in twenty years. In our house, I buy the books and he buys the albums, and then we share.
RHRC: How did you research this book?
MR: Well, I spent a lot of time driving, walking, and taking the bus up and down California Street! Most people in San Francisco never use the cable cars, and when I started writing this novel, I’d been living in San Francisco for years but hadn’t ridden a cable car since I was there on a family vacation when I was thirteen. Sometimes, some of the research happens before the idea of the book ever takes hold, and that was the case with this novel. At the time I began writing it, my little boy attended the preschool on the campus of the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. It’s this amazingly beautiful place, and I felt so fortunate to drop him off there every day. But I was also aware that the hospital served a population of veterans who had seen the very worst of war. This was also at a time when the patient population was beginning to change, and when many veterans were coming home with terrible wounds that would not have been survivable in previous wars. A general internist at the hospital generously allowed me to shadow him and his residents. I took copious notes, but it goes without saying that much of what I witnessed on rounds and in the lectures went over my layperson’s head. When it comes to the actual medical terminology of the book, I should emphasize that any failures in logic or procedure are, of course, entirely my own! I also read a lot of first–person accounts by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and talked with friends in the military. We expect so much from our service members, and when they come home, I think we civilians sometimes feel awkward around them. There is this sense of not knowing quite what to say, of being curious but afraid to ask questions that would be intrusive or would force them to recount what they’ve been through. I tried to capture that in the relationship between Julie and her sister: Julie knows that Heather has been through a great deal, but she also knows that it’s something she will never entirely be able to understand.
RHRC: If you hadn’t become an author, what career would you have pursued?
MR: Well, I am endlessly fascinated by outer space. I spend a lot of time reading about newly discovered planets and the Martian atmosphere. I do weird things like attend the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) conference and stay in the hotel with all the Artificial Intelligence people just to soak up the conversation. I ask my son at least once a month, “Honey, do you think you might like to be an astronaut?” I’ve made my husband sit through the planetarium show at the California Academy of Sciences more times than I care to admit, and it has never once failed to move me to tears. So, I would love to say that I would have become a physicist had I not become a writer, but that simply would not have been possible. We are not always given the brains that we would choose. I am very, very happy to be a writer, and I am keenly aware that my gray matter supports the writing life quite well but would not be particularly well suited for a life observing the unknown universe. I must stick, then, with the known universe, and spend a lot of time staring at the stars.
Stephen King recently sat down with Jessica Lahey of The Atlantic Monthly to talk about teaching writing. King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of my favorite books on writing ever written. I love it for its accessibility, its wisdom, its lucidity, and its utter lack of pretension.
Lahey gained a new respect for the book when she used it to unlock her students’ resistance while teaching writing in a residential drug and rehab program for teens.
At one point, Lahey asks King about the relevance of teaching grammar in classrooms. “Why bother to name the parts?” she asks, if someone “either absorbs the principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” Here is King’s response:
When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.
I like the idea of demystifying writing, of naming the parts in order to make them less lofty and unattainable. The key here, though, is that we learn what we hear, and if we hear the wrong thing from an early age, we will have to retrain ourselves.