Elizabeth Strout Talks About Olive Kitteridge (Pulitzer Prizewinner)

Update 7/09: The pre-Pulitzer podcast discussed below is no longer on iTunes. To listen to Elizabeth Strout's interview at "Pen On Fire" from your computer, click on this archived audio (wait through short static preamble) from the "Pen on Fire" archive (search box top left). Also, Tom Ashbrook's post-Pulitzer interview with Elizabeth Strout for NPR's "On Point" can be listened to online (click on "Listen" button above headline).

The "Pen On Fire" Elizabeth Strout interview was recorded before Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which is perhaps a blessing, for it allows the conversation to focus on the book, and the process of writing it, rather than the fol-de-rol that accompanies prizes. (Though Strout deserves a hearty down-Maine slap on the shoulders for winning the Pulitzer, especially since her book, a collection of 13 linked stories, bobs in the choppy wake of bigger novels.)

The Empathetic Author
There are scant audio interviews with Elizabeth Strout available for download, and in this recently recorded chat with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for her "Writers on Writing/Pen on Fire" podcast series, the author sounds nothing like her heroine. Strout sounds affable, open, and unprickly--it's hard to imagine her stealing anyone's lingerie just to teach them lesson. Strout also comes across as extraordinarily curious about what it's like to be other people, which might explain how she could get so deep inside a character so apparently unlike herself.

Olive Gets Her Book
The 27-minute interview covers Strout's accumulative writing process for Olive Kitteridge, beginning with sketched scenes, which firmed up when she wrote the story which contained the delicious bra-stealing incident. Strout says that Olive seemed like "a very powerful force on the page," and she quickly understood that "this Olive character was eventually going to have her own book," which Strout describes as a collection of "tales." (Minutes 1-2). The podcast episode lives up to its "Writers on Writing" title, with plenty of discussion of craft issues, including short stories vs. novels, whether strong characters are easier to write, the use of 1st person vs. 3rd person point-of-view, the author's distance from subject matter, and the practice of taking things from life. I think it would also be of interest to a book clubber.

From Cocktail Waitress to J.D. to Writer
Strout gamely talks about her lean years after college, when she decided to be a cocktail waitress who wrote stories (Minute 21:30). When literary success remained elusive, she turned to law school, and then six months into her new career discovered she was a "terrible, terrible lawyer" (Minute 22). Strout considered nursing school, but somehow failed to register, and eventually she managed to combine teaching with raising a family and writing. Her earlier successes include the novels Amy and Isabelle (1998), and Abide With Me (2006).

Crotchedy Excerpts
Near the beginning of the podcast Strout reads a portion of the section of Olive Kitteridge called "Security," when Olive is thinking about a trip to help her son with his expanding family in New York (Minute 6:45). Try as she might, Strout doesn't sound quite as crotchety as Olive. For a stronger flavor of Olive in her own, print-based voice, you can read an excerpt here (Olive's dialogue begins about halfway through).

Audio Downloads
The interview is available on DeMarco-Barrett's "Writers on Writing" online archive (short static preamble).


John Cheever's Cocktail of Compression Inspires Richard Ford

Literary influence is most interesting when it's least conscious.  When Richard Ford was asked to choose a story from The New Yorker's archive for their first New Yorker: Fiction podcast episode, he chose "Reunion," a John Cheever story from 1962. In the short preamble discussion with fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Ford cites the story's economy and says that the setting, Grand Central's concourse, where any two people might meet, provided the inspiration for his "Reunion" story in The New Yorker (c. 2000). Ford's story swaps the father & son meeting for an accidental encounter between a husband & former cuckolder of same. You can read Ford's story to yourself here, and preview Cheever's text here. I think the Cheever story unconsciously influenced a completely different Ford work (see below).

A Finger of the Good Stuff
I highly, highly recommend downloading Ford's reading of Cheever's "Reunion" in this 11-minute gem of a podcast from iTunes (if the listing expires, the audio may still be available at The New Yorker's archive). Of all the fiction podcasts I've listened to, this is one of the most re-listenable. Its brevity is bracing, not thirst-making, and you can sip it quickly anytime you need a literary pick-me-up. At just under 8 audio minutes (if you start at the 45-second mark and skip the post-game), this single-malt has been distilled of the annoying congeners that might give you a hangover. (Okay, I'll stop with the liquaphor now--besides, this summertime story features gin, not scotch.)

Dialogue Makes the Daddy
Cheever provides an affecting, minimalist set-up for the protagonist's state-of-mind (I won't spoil it, except to mourn the loss of rail service from Manhattan to Cape Cod), and then he lets the story rip through dialogue and movement. Not all writers are great readers, but Ford is one of the best, and he does justice to the father's arch dialogue and to the waiters' professional responses. He wisely underplays the son's few spoken lines. I actually think the story is better listened to than read on the page--the passage of the human voice through the first-person narration amplifies the emotion, and enhances the impression that Charlie is confiding in you.

300 Times
In the post-reading chat Ford mentions to Treisman that he's read Cheever's "Reunion" about 300 times (Minute 7:30), and that he sometimes reads it in public alongside his own Grand Central story, calling it a "direct inspiration." However, after I listened to this episode, I was reminded of a completely different Ford story, set in 1961 in a very un-Grand Central Louisiana locale, titled "Calling." I found it in my copy of A Multitude of Sins, Ford's 2001 collection of mostly adultery stories (including his "Reunion," which must have inspired the cover art), and I was struck by how similar the son-father dynamic in "Calling" is to that of the pair in Cheever's "Reunion," even down to the sons' both being hyper-aware of their father's smell, self-presentation, and the similar endings. Perhaps even more significant is the similarity in the fathers' speech rhythms and verbal grandiosities. (Unfortunately the full text of "Calling" is not available online unless you're a New Yorker subscriber.)

Grand Central vs. Bayou Duck Blind
What's not the same: Set about 1,300 miles apart, the stories' lengths are also dissimilar--Ford's "Calling" is long, over 30 book pages. It contains more psychological explication and philosophizing than Cheever's "Reunion," and also a lot more local color and description, plus some extra characters. Still, their hearts beat in the same place, and if you want to compare inspiration to influence, I would listen to Ford reading Cheever and then go to Ford's "Calling" story, not Ford's "Reunion."

Ford also selected Cheever's "Reunion" for his revamped The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, published in 2007. His introduction is available on the Guardian's site (contains spoilers, as well as lots of interesting observations on the short story form).


Wells Tower Reads "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned"

There's been a boatload of buzz, but not a lot of audio available from Wells Tower, whose d├ębut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, has been hailed as the savior of the entire short story movement in America. Thanks to The Guardian Books Podcast, you can now listen to or download Tower reading the title story in its entirety.  The unadorned 25-minute reading is available at The Guardian site here, and on iTunes here. It's graded "Explicit," and there is a little "language," as well as a harrowing scene. Don't listen to it close to bedtime, or before you go for a lonely walk along the coast of Norway.

Unforgettable Details
Sam Tanenhaus interviewed the author for the New York Times' Book Review podcast's 3/27/09 episode (first 6 Minutes). Tower talks about how he came across the unforgettable foot detail (Minute 1:50) that he uses in one of the modern-day stories. He also reads the ending of the "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" story (Minute 4), so save this interview until after you've listened to the Guardian podcast, unless you like your stories spoiled.

Pillage and Publish
The New Yorker online has a print interview (no audio) with Tower, in which he discusses his research into the Vikings' "most ugly bits," the drastic editing changes he made to his stories after he sold the collection (talk about guts), and his literary influences. On a separate web page he talks about his Updike-like separation of fiction & nonfiction workspaces (photos here). The complete text of his story "Leopard," which is quite tame compared to the Vikings, is also available at the New Yorker's site.

Along with American writer Lionel Shriver (who lives in the UK), Tower was scheduled to discuss the future of the short story in Britain (!) at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on 4/5/2009, so I expect some more audio may turn up soon on the Times Online Books Podcast listing.

Robert Pinsky on Poetry's Aural Pleasures

Another anthology?! Published in Poetry Month? Yes.

As the owner of too many poem-bricks, I tried to resist Robert Pinsky's Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud (with 21-poem CD), but I was o'eruled.  First I was intrigued by a lively 3/30/09 interview on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show (video excerpt at WNYC site, plus full audio at perishable iTunes link), in which Pinsky makes a convincing case for the fundamental need for verse that sounds good. The former U.S. Poet Laureate is quite funny when he demonstrates how not to read poetry--zombie style (my perennial peeve) or hambone.  As he says, "You have to go to school to get it messed up" (Minute 5:30).

Beguiling Batches
I took some lucky dips into a copy of Essential Pleasures at Brookline Booksmith and found not a single dud. I was beguiled by the way Pinsky mixed up the centuries and organized the poems by type--i.e. "Short Lines, Frequent Rhymes," and "Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations." This book would make a good reference for any young person starting a library--it's unstuffy, expansive without being exhaustive, and it rewards randomness.

April is the Most Poetical Month
If you want to listen to some samples, W.W. Norton has posted audio links of Pinsky and others reading from Essential Pleasures here. They are also honoring Poetry Month with a hipster selection of their contemporary poets' audio here.

Not All Poems Are Impenetrable
Pinsky's selections are rich with wit and clarity, regardless of era. This poem, from the "Parodies, Ripostes, Jokes, and Insults" section, was written in the 17th century, but it's easy to understand in the 21st, particularly if you take into account the author's life experience: at the age of 16, English poet Katherine Philips left behind her contented virgin state to marry a 54-year-old Puritan parliamentarian. (Pinsky reads it on the CD included with the book, and at Minute 14:30 on the Lopate podcast):

A Married State
by Katherine Phillips (1631-1664)

A married state affords but little ease
The best of husbands are so hard to please.
This in wives' careful faces you may spell
Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.
A virgin state is crowned with much content;
It's always happy as it's innocent.
No blustering husbands to create your fears;
No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears;
No children's cries for to offend your ears;
Few worldly crosses to distract your prayers:
Thus are you freed from all the cares that do
Attend on matrimony and a husband too.
Therefore Madam, be advised by me
Turn, turn apostate to love's levity,
Suppress wild nature if she dare rebel.
There's no such thing as leading apes in hell.

Poor Mr. Philips! Though Mrs. Philips claimed she never meant to publish...