Ten Quick Questions with… Elizabeth Strout

liz strout blog OK.jpg

Elizabeth Strout’s had quite a year. Her third work of fiction, Olive Kitteridge, still sits on the paperback bestseller list. Last April, she earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This Thursday, she headlines the Ploughshares Reading Series, where she will read one of Olive’s stories (“I often make that decision when I arrive in town”), as well as answer questions and sign books.
In a recent interview for the National Arts Journalism Program, Strout expressed her real reason for agreeing to edit Ploughshares: “Poetry. Obviously, I love the whole thing. But the truth is I love poetry… And I love literary magazines. Literary magazines were my food for so long.”

1. Your desert-island read:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.
2. The writer you recommend to all your friends:
Oscar Hijuelos.
3. Your favorite poet:
Theodore Roethke.
4. Your preferred writing method:
By hand.
5. Where do you store your Pulitzer?
At the back of my desk, behind some photos.
6. Have you thought about dabbling in another genre?
I don’t have any desire to publish in a different genre. Writing nonfiction is painful for me, and only done when absolutely necessary. Of course I would love to write poetry, but I do not. I am a fiction writer, a storyteller.
7. Short stories are not always bestsellers. Was Random House committed right away to Olive Kitteridge?
I’m not aware if there was any hesitation on the part of Random House, but I am not a person who inquires into much regarding the publishing process. They accepted the book when it was about a third done, and that was the only thing I needed to know.
8. Frances McDormand has shown interest in an Olive Kitteridge movie. Any updates on the film?
I’ve not heard about any progress, but again, it is my nature not to ask.
9. You wrote much of Olive Kitteridge in a cottage in Provincetown. How has it been writing your newest one in New York City?
I like working in my New York apartment. It’s high up with a great view of the sky. It’s essential to like the space where I’m working. But I interrupt myself far more than I did in that cottage – there I had few opportunities to interrupt myself and it made a difference.
10. When did you first know you were a writer?
I regarded myself as a writer when I was a child. Later, as I was writing Amy and Isabelle and noticed that finally, finally, my ability to do things with the sentence was growing, then I had another moment of thinking: now I am writing like a writer.
It was not publication that ever made me feel like a writer. Publication only made other people think I was a writer. I always knew.

–conducted by Joshua Garstka

A Writer’s Envy, Part I: Lost in the Schoolhouse

Fresh from the AWP conference in Denver, we are back to the blog. This week, we welcome our new Get Behind the Plough bloggers, chosen from the pages of the Spring 2010 Ploughshares. Our Winter 2009-10 contributors were all poets, so we’re glad to add fiction voices to the mix this go-around. Starting this week, Scott Nadelson will blog Mondays, Bridget Lowe Wednesdays, and Carol Keeley Fridays.

We hope you enjoy our new bloggers. They value your feedback and discussion in the comments.

First at bat: Scott Nadelson, who has given us the story “Dolph Schayes’s Broken Arm” (you can currently read it on our website). When he’s not blogging for us, Scott is preparing a new fiction collection, Aftermath, which Hawthorne Books will publish next spring.

Scott blog.JPGA Writer’s Envy, Part I: Lost in the Schoolhouse”
Guest post by Scott Nadelson

Envy, I’ve always believed, has been undervalued as a motivating emotion, along with bitterness and spite. How in the world would I have managed to get a story into a prestigious literary journal–and now be writing for its blog–if I hadn’t envied, obsessively and desperately, all those brilliant writers who’d been published in it before?

The current object of my envy–bitter, spiteful person that I am–is the visual artist. This has largely to do with the fact that my wife and I recently returned home from a trip to New York City, where we took in as many exhibits of contemporary art as we could in three days. This is something we try to do every year or so, as a way to make up for living in the far-flung provinces, where art exhibits tend to feature bronzed salmon and paintings of elk.

Walking into a contemporary art museum in New York City, the writer is faced with no shortage of things to envy. What fun these artists seem to be having! What play! And with actual physical objects, no less! Take, for example, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens. The building itself is a fiction writer’s dream: a two-hundred-year-old brick schoolhouse, with Gothic windows and a many-peaked roof, and a prehistoric-looking boiler room in the basement.
Envy 1.JPGIt’s not hard to imagine the building as a setting for a story or novel, filled with repressed teachers and malnourished children and a sadistic principal, and one brave girl who overcomes the hardships of her hardscrabble life to win the citywide multiplication and division championship, whereby she lifts the spirits of her classmates and brings new dignity to her family and frees her teachers from their repression and melts the frozen heart of her sadistic principal.

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“We’re all shoving more and more Twinkies in our mouths.”

Ploughshares is off to the AWP conference in Denver this week! But to keep excitement high for guest editor Elizabeth Strout’s visit to Emerson next Thursday, here are two fun interviews pulled from YouTube.

In the first, Strout talks about how freeing she found writing at a young age. “I observe,” she says. “Always have. There’s nothing more interesting to me than people. And the physical world as well, but people are so endlessly interesting. So I am an observer, and there’s always plenty to observe.”

The first moment of Olive Kitteridge she envisioned was of Olive herself, “standing by the picnic table at her son’s wedding, thinking it was high time everybody went home. When I wrote that story, she was so vivid to me.” Strout remembers thinking, “I’m going with you, Olive. I’ll see what else you have up your sleeve.”

In the second interview, Strout relates how she writes for the reader. “There are so many things that go into a piece of writing. There’s the emotional truth, there’s the story itself. Is it going to leave somebody feeling that they’ve been through an experience that’s worthwhile? But then there’s also the way it sounds to the ear.”
Rest assured, the sentence is alive and well in Elizabeth Strout’s world. Watch the video for more on her passion for musical, muscular writing–as well as the “Twinkies” we readers consume.

Three Excerpts from Spring ’10 Fiction

We have shifted gears361 Front Cover.JPG to the Spring 2010 Ploughshares–look at the new color scheme on our home page! As a bonus to our loyal blog readers, here are three brief excerpts from pieces Elizabeth Strout handpicked for the issue. If you subscribe now, you’ll receive this issue as soon as we can ship it.

1. Joyce Carol Oates, “Distance”

An eerie, overheated hotel room. A lover out of touch. A woman out of her mind. Here’s how Oates opens her erotic noir of windows and wrong numbers:

“Ma’am? You can’t open the windows, sorry.”

Coolly she turned to the boy. Prissy Mexican kid, wearing white-boy wire-rim glasses, who’d brought up her single lightweight suitcase she’d have preferred to have brought herself, to save a tip. But at the hotel check-in downstairs the suave, brisk young woman behind the counter had finessed Kathryn, handing the card key to the bellboy, with no chance for Kathryn to intervene.

“‘Can’t open the windows’–why not?”

Evasively the boy mumbled what sounded like sealed.

“The windows are ‘sealed’? But why?”

Kathryn’s voice betrayed surprise, dismay. A room in which other occupants had slept recently–their odors left behind, faintly disguised by disinfectant, room “freshener”–was not the ideal setting, for what she anticipated.

Asking again, “Why?”–but the bellboy ignored her. Adjusting a wall thermostat, a rush of air conditioning from overhead. In his pose of concentration there was a mild rebuke, Kathryn thought. A warning, Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t ask questions if you don’t know the answers. Sealed windows in high-rise hotels in Vegas, you can figure.

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Sneak Preview of our Spring 2010 Issue

Rliz strout.jpgeaders and writers need to know what’s happening–Where are the new poets, how are the established poets, what is fiction really up to these days? It is the chance at variety that remains essential.

Elizabeth Strout on guest editing Ploughshares

True to her word, Strout assembled a “variety” of poems and stories–familiar and newer voices sitting down to dinner, traveling across continents and years, through relationships living and dead.

Many stories and poems in Strout’s issue center around family. In Richard Bausch‘s “We Belong Together,” Mary and Frank are late for lunch. Reuniting with their old friend, Frank can’t help but confess everything: Mary’s ultimatum that morning, and his feelings from years back. Meanwhile, Amy Hempel introduces us to the vivacious libertine Mrs. Greed, her affection for her husband only surpassed by her dalliance with other men. In Marjorie Kemper‘s “A Memo from Your Temp,” a cubicle worker sinks into NPR and repetitive tasks to forget the daughter who won’t call, the family she once had–and the new identity she’s fabricated. Mark Kraushaar watches the cow jump over the moon with a mother restless for change.

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The Scoop on New Stories from the South: 2010

South pic rev.jpgPloughshares has just learned that Amy Hempel, guest editor for New
Stories from the South: 2010
, has selected Marjorie Kemper for
posthumous publication in the anthology. Kemper’s story “Discovered
America,” in the
current issue of Southwest Review
, joins the year’s best
fiction from Southern writers or about Southern American themes.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill will release this year’s eagerly awaited New
Stories from the South
in August.

We’re thrilled, of
course, to have stories from both Hempel (“Greed”) and Kemper (“A Memo
from Your Temp”) in our upcoming Spring 2010 issue, handpicked by guest
editor Elizabeth Strout. We’ll be releasing details on our
website
as April draws nearer…

Kemper received strong
reviews for her novel, Until That Good Day, published in 2003. Booklist
warmed to Kemper’s “hint of bayou magic,” while The Washington Post
praised her “observations… as vinegary as Carolina barbecue” and
“prose… as simple and plain as good homemade biscuits.” We suggest you
read her two stories on Southern religion available
online at The Atlantic
.

Hempel’s recent The
Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
, which pulled together four short
story volumes from 1985 to 2005, received a
simple recommendation from The New York Times
: “Read this
book.” Booklist said her writing “has made short story history.”
We can’t wait to see what other gems Hempel singled out from the South.