Elizabeth Strout on Returning to Olive Kitteridge
Your story in this week’s issue, “Motherless Child,” revolves around Olive Kitteridge, who was the protagonist of your 2008 story collection, “Olive Kitteridge,” and will be the protagonist of a sequel, “Olive, Again,” which comes out this fall. What made you want to go back to Olive (or move forward with her)?
I never intended to return to Olive Kitteridge. I really thought I was done with her, and she with me. But a few years ago I was in a European city, alone for a weekend, and I went to a café, and she just showed up. That’s all I can say. She showed up with a force, the way she did the very first time, and I could not ignore her. This time, she was nosing her car into the marina, and I saw it so clearly—felt her so clearly—that I thought, Well, I should go with this.
“Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer Prize, became a New York Times bestseller, and was adapted for a miniseries. Why do you think the book—and its idiosyncratic main character—hit such a chord with readers?
Here is the thing: I do not know why Olive Kitteridge has resonated so much with people. I have thought about it, and I do not know why. But one thought I’ve had is that she is very complicated—as most of us are—and her complications are so out there that perhaps people feel connected to her for that reason.
Olive isn’t always popular with the people she encounters or knows. Do you like her? Is understanding her the same as liking her?
I love Olive, but I made her. So I suppose I understand her as well as anyone can. But sometimes she makes me a little crazy. It’s an interesting question, and it brings to mind the saying that “to know all is to forgive all”—but I am not sure I agree with that completely.
“Motherless Child” involves a visit that Olive’s son, Christopher, and his family pay to Olive, after not having seen her for several years. Why is their relationship already so strained at the beginning of the story, and why is the visit so difficult for both of them?
Olive’s relationship with her son, Christopher, is strained because she is Olive. She was born Olive and became Olive. And Christopher was born Christopher and became Christopher. This has not been easy for either of them. Olive is anxious about the visit and, therefore, she is feeling defensive, which she often feels. And she thinks that Ann and her children do not greet her with any enthusiasm and she does not like this.
Why do you think Christopher reacts so badly to the news of Olive’s impending marriage?
Christopher loved his father, Henry. And Christopher—as Ann points out in the story—is not always fully an adult. This news brings out the child in him, as though his father were being replaced.
At the end, Olive questions how she has been as a mother and thinks of Christopher as a “motherless child.” Do you think she failed him in some crucial way?
Olive has failed Christopher in many ways, as parents often do unwittingly.
Olive lives her life in a fictional town in Maine, the state where you grew up and still live some of the time. Do you think that Olive would be Olive if she lived anywhere else? What makes that part of the country such fertile territory for you as a fiction writer?
Olive—my Olive—would not be Olive if she lived anywhere but Maine; she is like a barnacle clinging to the rock of the place. I write about people like Olive because I have known them intimately all my life. There is a certain kind of Maine-ness to Maine, and while the people in Maine may be universal in their longings and their disappointments and their joys, the particularities of Maine are things I know well.
“Olive, Again” picks up where “Olive Kitteridge” left off. Do you think Olive will come to you again and make you write a prequel—Olive in her youth?
I have no intention of writing a prequel with Olive as a younger woman. I really do think my days with her are done. But how do I know? She showed up before—twice—and theoretically she could, God forbid, show up again.