In the language of music, according to Merriam-Webster.com, “The first and harmonically fundamental tone of a scale” is considered a keynote, and on that cool winter evening in St. Petersburg, Florida, the fundamental note belonged to Elizabeth Strout. Her latest novel in her nine-book repertoire of resonating characters is Lucy by the Sea (Random House, 2022), an intimate tale about isolating with an ex-husband in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. She read from the book’s first 12 pages before conversing on-stage with writing conference faculty member and bestselling author Andre Dubus III.
“‘Like many others, I did not see it coming,’” Strout’s eponymous character Lucy Barton speaks from Page 1 of her latest novel. “It’s odd how the mind will not take anything in—until it can,” Strout said about settling into the realities and social intricacies of living through our first modern pandemic.
During her Q&A with Dubus, Strout said she writes stories about people’s lives because she loves people.
Elizabeth Strout speaks to an audience in Miller Auditorium. Photo by Nicholas Garnett
“I am so desperately curious about people,” she said, and she believes every person is extraordinary in one way or another.
The character of Lucy Barton came to her as a “gold thread” whose breathy voice she heard. “I’m not Lucy,” Strout said, “even though we’re both writers. I’m not Lucy, but it doesn’t matter.” Olive Kitteridge, the main character of her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by that name, “was never a gold thread” but appeared to Strout while she was unloading the dishwasher, saying to her: “‘It’s high time everybody left.’ There’s a tiny part of me in every one of my characters,” she admitted.
On the subject of failure, Strout said she failed over and over between the ages of 4, when she began to write stories, and 43, when she finally published. But the thought of quitting depressed her, so she kept writing and improving. “You have to be desperately interested in what it feels like to be another person to be a writer,” she said, and she thinks about the reader all the time. “I am trying to get my experience into your head. Readers need to feel like they are in safe hands.”
Her advice to fellow writers, of whom there were perhaps hundreds on this first night of the weeklong writers’ conference and nightly reading series, is to “just keep reading good stuff and writing—don’t stop.”
“You are what you eat as a reader-writer,” Dubus agreed.
And so did Bill Boden ’00, an Eckerd creative writing graduate from Largo, Florida, who was refining his memoir in Madeleine Blais’s writing workshop and has read almost all of Strout’s books. “She sounds as wise and all-knowing as the voice in her books,” he said as the lights came up in the auditorium. “The literary world is in good hands with authors like Elizabeth Strout.”