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.

Coffee instead of tea, please!

 Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats, by Anna Brones, Johanna Kindvall (Ten Speed Press)

A sweet, inspiring guide not just to baking, but to the concept of the Swedish Coffee Break. This is tea-time for coffee lovers, a compendium of recipes combined with meditations on the art and essence of fika. The traditional recipes aren’t for the impatient, though. These require time, love, and care…which is what fika is all about.

Buy the book

Famous Writers Who Failed First (Why Curiosity Matters More Than Grades)

If you were the kind of kid who made less than stellar grades in some subjects because you became obsessed with exploring something off the syllabus, you may have been destined to be a writer. There is a noble tradition, in fact, of writers and academic failure.

The list of celebrated novelists is filled with people who did poorly in school. Roald Dahl was told by an English teacher that he would never amount to anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald never finished at Princeton. Paste Magazine’s list of famous writers who never went to college, includes Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouak, William Faulkner, and Augusten Burroughs. Many of them barely graduated from high school.

A passion for writing, a devotion to reading, and intense curiosity can transform dull students into great writers. I’m not saying that grades are completely irrelevant. However, when schools and parents become obsessed with assessment, kids lose out on valuable opportunities to learn and to develop their own unique talents. As a parent, I want my son to do his best. That said, I value curiosity far more than a letter on a report card, because children who are capable of developing passionate interests and following through on the things that inspire them are likely to be more successful and happier than those who simply follow orders and do well on tests.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do… Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ~Mark Twain

Take the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge, and let your curiosity guide you.

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.”

Readings for Writers

In this week’s Readings for Writers, we’re looking at All Stories Are the Same, by John Yorke, via The Atlantic.

In this essay about how stories are shaped and what drives narrative, Yorke argues that the architecture of story, from Beowulf to Jaws, is astonishingly similar. He says that even those writers and directors who claim to have no interest in classic three-part structure or the classic 5-part structure often end up subconsciously relying on the old narrative standbys.