Elizabeth Strout: Oh William! is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton

For Elizabeth Strout, the inner lives of other people are endlessly fascinating. picture: Getty
For Elizabeth Strout, the inner lives of other people are endlessly fascinating. picture: Getty

Elizabeth Strout used to give a talk about how we can never know what it's like to be another person.

But her fiction - her beloved, award-winning stories about ordinary people living in small-town Maine - is defined by the inner lives of these people. The complicated contradictions, the intractable longings and regrets and hurts and joys of just moving through life.

And it's these stories that have defined her as a distinct kind of writer, one whose concerns are not broad-ranging, or political, or given to sweeping historical narratives or long-running family sagas. Instead, they hone in on the minutiae of the many lives taking place around us, and how they might intertwine, glancing against each other, or sliding right by with barely a whisper.

But they're all lives, and they're all fascinating.

Imagine Strout's surprise, then, when after one of these talks, years ago, a woman came up to her and dropped a figurative bombshell right in her lap.

"She was probably middle-aged and she was very lovely, and she was very friendly, and she said, 'That was really interesting - I've never once thought what it was like to be another person'," she says.

"I nearly died. And I thought, that's so interesting! What's it like to be you? What's going on in your head?"

It's a real-life scene that could have been ready-made for one of Strout's own novels, and even today, she can barely conceal her delight and wonder at humanity, and all its glorious imperviousness.

From the fine-tuned domestic drama of her first novel, 1998's Amy and Isabelle, to 2008's Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, a series of interconnected short stories featuring the inscrutable, ornery and strangely loveable titular character, her books and stories are populated with ordinary people in all their multitudes of thoughts, hopes and dreams.

But it took Strout some time to realise the power of these multitudes; she came to writing relatively late, publishing her first novel in her 40s.

She's speaking via Zoom from her home in Maine, the furthest northeastern state of America. It's the state in which she grew up, and left as a young woman for the bright and heady intrigue of New York City, much to her family's dismay. It was there, in one of the most bustling, multi-faceted, multicultural cities in the world, that she first began to understand her place in the world, where she had come from and what she represented.

It also helped her see her home state differently. Even with the teeming city around her, it was Maine that became more interesting.

"If I had not left the state of Maine for so long, and lived in New York City for 38 years - oh, I loved it! But if I had not made that transition, I would not have known who I was," she says.

"I had to get away and see all these different cultures. And my first husband was Jewish, which was an entirely different culture.

"It was just so freeing in so many ways to realise, whoa, people live so differently... But it also made me realise, okay, well, I am actually a white woman from New England."

She had always considered herself a writer, and spent many years struggling to get published. But it was some time before she understood that she should write about what she knew best.

"After many, many years of writing about a young woman in New York City, I realised, oh, well, I think I need to go back and write about a white woman from New England. And so I wrote Amy and Isabelle."

It, like all of her subsequent books, was a bestseller. But Strout herself, now living permanently in Maine with her second husband, having divided her time for many years between there and New York, remains delighted and fascinated by the smaller details of the human worlds around her.

Her new novel, Oh William!, is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton. Its protagonist, a writer with a difficult past, who has fled an impoverished family life in Maine for the bright lights of New York, is drawn back there by a family secret uncovered by her ex-husband. He has a half-sister he knew nothing about. The pair - late in years, both with second marriages behind them - take a road trip together to find her.

"I've always been interested in couples who can maintain a sort of relationship, and there are many different people that I know with different kinds of spousal or former spousal relationships," she says.

"You did spend, let's say 20 years, as Lucy and William did, with each other, and so there has to be some sort of connection. And if they're both willing and able, then then they can proceed after the first rupture.

"So I'm sort of hoping that people can see that, but I guess everybody brings their own story to it, and therefore, it will be a different book for every person.

"It would help that people realise, oh, man, we're all here. We're all just living our lives. We're just trying to do the best we can, and everybody is complicated. This has always been my stance as a writer, is to try and get under, or flip over those complications and see a little bit more than what we ordinarily see during our living time."

I tell her that this is precisely what I take from her books, every one of which I have devoured with relief and glee and pleasure. I tell her, too, of my own father and his book group, made up of educated Australian blokes in their 70s, all of whom took something particular when they agreed to read Olive Kitteridge.

She is visibly delighted. And so am I, by how similar her way of speaking is to her characters.

"Isn't that lovely! But that's just lovely for me to hear!" she says.

I wonder how she accounts for the popularity of characters like Lucy, Olive, William and Amy; why do they reach so many people?

She recalls first realising the unusual reach of her prose when hearing about the success of the Italian translation of Olive Kitteridge.

"It makes me hope that there's a universality to us," she says.

"I used to like to think that we're all more alike than we are different. And I've always sort of held on to that, like a child holding on to a view of Christmas or something.

"But actually, I think it must be sort of true, or I don't think my work would be reaching people in so many different places, because they're recognising something in themselves, even though my characters come very definitely from a place and a time in history."

Still, she was repeatedly, wondrously baffled when men, of varying ages, would approach her, in the years she was promoting Olive Kitteridge, and tell her, "My wife is Olive".

"I really wouldn't know what to say. But they always said it cheerfully, as though they had figured something out," she says.

And each time she finds herself missing the bustle of New York, she reminds herself of the man who lives nearby, who smokes a cigarette on his porch every morning and chats to her when she passes.

"It's so interesting. The multitude of human experience is unbelievable. It's unbelievable!"

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This story The longings and regrets and hurts and joys of just moving through life first appeared on The Canberra Times.