Interviews April 2006

Tight-Knit, Loose-Lipped

Elizabeth Strout on her new novel, Abide With Me—a story of small-town gossip and a minister's unraveling
book cover

Abide With Me
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Elizabeth Strout
Random House
304 pages

Tyler Caskey, the hero of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Abide With Me, is the loneliest man in town. His young wife has died, leaving him to take care of their five-year-old daughter, who is too scarred by grief to talk to him. In his role as the minister of the Congregational Church in West Annett, Maine, he takes on the problems of many in the community, yet feels he must hold himself apart and keep his own sorrows private. The parishioners who used to reach out to him have reacted to his increasing awkwardness by pulling back. And even his connection with God seems for the time being to have disappeared.

Caskey’s profound sense of isolation is felt, though to a lesser extent, by others in West Annett as well. The novel is set in the late 1950s, when many of the men in town are still recovering from their experiences in World War II and the Korean War, yet aren’t really able to talk about those experiences with their wives. Meanwhile, some of the women, who feel desperately bored by their lives, aren’t able to express this frustration to their husbands. But no one has any trouble communicating about Tyler Caskey. As the minister, once a source of strength for the town, falters under his burdens, gossip starts to swirl about him, taking on an insidious life of its own.

[The rumor] provided the townspeople with the chance to complain without guilt about their minister, who had increasingly disappointed them. Tyler’s behavior was gone over with such enthusiasm that the fact he had told Alison Chase her apple crisp was delicious when he did, in fact, hate apples, took on the sheen of questionable character. Doris Austin told people that he had promised her a new organ—or that he almost had—and then backed away from it. Fred Chase said he had never heard a Congregational minister quote the Catholic saints the way Tyler did. Auggie and Sylvia Dean wondered about that young woman who showed up in the back pew these days—was it true she sold cosmetics in Hollywell? And hadn’t he been skating with her? Well, then.

The ways that gossip in a community spreads and grows are at the center of Strout’s previous novel as well. Amy and Isabelle, which explores both the private and the public unraveling of the relationship between a mother and a daughter, is, like Abide With Me, a quiet novel whose power comes not so much from dramatic events as from Strout’s skillful way of laying emotions bare.

We spoke by telephone on February 23.

—Katie Bacon

Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout

I read that you were raised in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. How does that upbringing inform this book and the picture it paints of the tensions and peculiarities of small-town life?

It probably informs it even more than I'm conscious of. I’ve lived in New York for many years, yet my heart seems to always be going back to these small towns. West Annett is certainly not a town that I grew up in, but in describing it I took bits and pieces of my own experience of small-town life, particularly small-town church life.

So did you grow up going to church regularly?

I grew up in the Congregational Church until I was about twelve. At that time the minister left and my parents didn’t really care for the new one and we all just sort of stopped going. Congregationalism is very bare bones, so I wasn’t aware of it being a large part of my life at all. It was interesting as an adult to find myself drawn back to it.

The book feels very informed by a knowledge of religion and of what a church means to a community, but also by a knowledge of theology.

I had to read a tremendous amount of theology in order to write the book. Even though it’s not about religion, the main character is a minister, and he’s going to be seeing things through eyes that at that time I didn’t have. I needed to gain a sense of what a minister at that time would have been reading.

You mentioned that you’ve lived in New York for a long time. But you’ve never set a novel there. Is that something that you think about doing, or are you just drawn to other places?

I’ve thought about that a lot, especially recently, and I see myself as very gradually heading down the coast. I'm drawn to New England because that’s where my roots are and I miss it. I come from many generations of New Englanders, and so in my writing I’ve been drawn back there to the landscape and the light and the type of personality that’s revealed. But I'm also interested in the fact that in the last number of years there has been much more migration up and down New England and New York. It used to be that New Yorkers in Maine were looked upon as intruding, and of course that has very much changed, and so I’m interested in that for my future work. Lauren [the minister’s wife] was sort of a smaller version of that because back in the 1950s people from Maine, particularly Maine's northern reaches, considered the Boston area to be quite a different culture. So in a way, Tyler has already started the process of marrying outside of his circle.

In both your books it seems like the community itself is as important as any individual in the story.  In conceptualizing this book did you start with a specific character? Or were you focusing more on the idea of how a community can shape the people who live there?

I started with the idea of a character. I knew I wanted to write about a minister, and I knew his name was Tyler Caskey. I didn’t want the story to be a statement about religion. I didn’t want to do anything that was a cliché, and I thought, I’m not going to have him lose his faith, I’m going to have him lose himself and his sense of self. I wanted to show how it was sort of lonely to be a minister, with the responsibility of people looking up to you. So by the very nature of the story that I wanted to tell, the town had to become a crucial part of it.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic Online, is now a freelance editor and writer living outside of Boston.

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