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