Elizabeth Strout, American novelist and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, spoke at the Arthur Miller Institute’s International Literary Festival 2019 to present her new book, Olive, Again. The new novel traces the much-loved Olive into her seventies and eighties and takes the form of thirteen interconnected but discontinuous short stories. Peggy Hughes, from the International Centre for Creative Writing, asks Strout about the relationships between the separate stories, and their individual divulgence of Olive’s multi-faceted character. “I thought I could write a book called the Olive Stories,” said Strout. “But the reader doesn’t want to see Olive on every page. We think we know somebody, but we really only know a piece of them, so why not have everybody sharing a little piece of Olive?”
Hughes asked whether Strout had ever worried that Olive wasn’t likeable enough when writing the novel. “I didn’t,” she said. “She’s just not likeable, but she’s loveable. She’s so badly behaved, but I have always let her just be Olive. No, I didn’t worry. No. No. I’m starting to sound defensive, aren’t I?” Strout laughed with the audience. It was at this moment that it became clear that the charm and sincerity with which Olive is imbued has come very naturally from Strout’s own personality through her writing.
Strikingly apparent was Olive’s sentience in the mind of her creator. Strout speaks of Olive as though she is an old friend. “I thought I was done with her and she was done with me, when I was in a café in Norway checking emails, and she just showed up. This time she had a cane. She was right there, and I realised “I have to do this.” Olive seems to have changed, in Strout’s eyes, since the first novel. “She’s learning. In the first book she doesn’t think, she just blunders forth. In the second book she is learning. She is continuing to grow, learn, to do new things. There is this misconception that when people grow old, they just do nothing, which Olive proves isn’t true.”
Strout spoke of her childhood in Maine, where she started her ‘career’ as a writer, aged three or four. “As a kid I lived on a dirt road in Maine, surrounded by Great Aunts, one of whom was named Olive. She was the sweetest, so unlike Olive. They were all very droll and depressed; very Maine. And their favourite thing to talk about was their husbands’ last meals. That was the music of my youth.” Thus began her fascination with the elderly.
In her second Olive novel, Strout explores this fascination. Olive, Again, according to Strout, exists in the convergence of the private and public lives of Olive’s friends, family and acquaintances. Throughout the stories, Olive learns about love and faith and experiences much sorrow. “It’s just life,” Strout reassured us. “To write about life is to write about things that happen. I am hoping, by writing about them, readers will know that things they have felt have been felt before.”