My Interview with Elizabeth Strout, & her new book My Name Is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout Interview

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.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

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.

Buy the book.

Listen to my 2010 interview with Elizabeth Strout, following the publication of Olive Kittredge.

Ten Days of Beautiful Failure

Why You Should Embrace Failure as Part of the Creative Process

If you don’t try at anything, you can’t fail… it takes back bone to lead the life you want” – Richard Yates

I’ve been reading The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. One of the key principles that spoke to me in this book was the idea of the action bias. The action bias basically means that those who act instead of putting off action until “the time is right” tend to achieve more, even if there are many failures along the way.

It is better to start to do something and fail, than to do nothing…You do, you fail, and you learn…Don’t be afraid of failure. It is part of the price you pay for action.

For writers, failure is practically guaranteed. The very nature of writing requires one to take paths that may not pan out, to write sentences that will be cut, to write stories that won’t find a publisher or novels that may not find as many readers as we would like.

Any wise writer begins with the knowledge that revision will be part of the process. To revise is to accept that your first draft (or your second or your third) was, at least in part, a failure. From that failure, however, you learn something that will help you proceed with your revision.
Have you been putting off writing your novel, story, or memoir until “the time is right”? If so,I encourage you to take the leap, with the understanding that it’s perfectly okay to fail.

Sign up now for the free 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge.

Each morning for ten days, you’ll receive an email with a writing prompt and inspiration to help you take action in your writing now, instead of when “the time is right.”

5-Secrets-of-Highly-Effective-Writers

5 Writing Habits You Need to Cultivate Now

Develop these 5 Writing Habits for a More Productive Writing Life

Writing advice columns will often tell you to write every day, write a certain number of words a day, keep a journal, or find a writing group. While all of those practices are good, they may not work for you. During my 15 years as a professional writer (I count my years as a “professional” from the date of my first book publication), I’ve noticed a few writing habits that help me be productive and keep my writing practice fresh and lively. After all, when writing is your job, it can begin to feel like a job. That said, it feels like a job I’m very fortunate to have. Just like with any other job, though, I have good days and bad days, days when I can’t wait to get to work and days when I’d rather be hiking or sunning or running off to the movies.

On those days, good writing habits are key. (For an interesting look at habit formation on an individual, corporate, and cultural level, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. For a more personal take on the importance of habits from a writer’s perspective, read Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives).

Click the play button below to listen to my five minute podcast on 5 Habits of Highly Productive Writers

For more podcasts like this and help for writers, visit Bay Area Book Doctor.

First Lines in Fiction – Black Glass

Black Glass, by Karen Joy Fowler

Great First Lines in Fiction

First published in 1998, this book of short stories by the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is just as rich and complex and strange as it was seventeen years ago. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting, and if you haven’t, it’s time to discover the short fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.

The best fiction sucks us in by presenting opening lines we simply can’t walk away from, because they raise so many intriguing questions, and we can’t leave until we have the answers. For this reason, I often begin fiction writing workshops with a study of the opening paragraphs of novels and stories.

What a first line shouldn’t be: boring or overwrought. Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when the writer uses the first line to show off, rather than to start a story. Anyone can show off, but it takes something more to let the reader know, in the very first line, that a)you can tell a story and b)you’re about to do just that.

What a first line must be: clear and suggestive. Clear because the reader should not be trying to untangle words in your very first sentence.  Suggestive because the line must suggest a character, or a place, or a situation, or a problem, or some combination thereof.

Here are a few of the first (or almost-first) lines from Black Glass:

From The “Elizabeth Complex”:

There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother.

From “Shimbara”:

At the top of the cliffs was a castle and, inside the castle, a 15-year-old boy. Here is where it gets tricky. What is different and what is the same?

Here is the opening of “Letters From Home:”

I wish you could see me now. You would laugh. I have a husband. I have children.

To whom is the narrator speaking? And why would this person laugh at the notion of her having a husband and children?

We have to know. And so we read on. That’s exactly what great fiction urges us to do.