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

Gossip played such an interesting role in your book—not only the idea of gossip changing the way someone is perceived, but also the idea that it’s something that a minister and his wife can’t participate in at all.

That’s exactly right. And one of the things that I learned writing this book is how difficult it is to be a minister. It’s a very hard job to be that kind of leader and keep people happy, even now when things are much more open and not quite as much is expected of the minister’s wife. The minister who helped me the most with this book told me that even now it’s the women in the church you have to keep happy, because they're the ones who run things. This is true especially in Congregational churches, because there’s no hierarchy—the congregation itself runs the church.

The novel is very much grounded in the events of its time—the Cold War and the Krushchevs and Freudian psychoanalysis all pop up throughout the book. Why did you choose to set the book in the era of the late 1950s?

I chose 1959 because I knew that the sound of that year would reverberate with readers. I think we still sort of have a collective imaginative idea of the fifties as a certain time in history that the sixties changed quite dramatically—even though in reality these eras begin and end in a much shaggier way. Also, I was very interested in the fact that veterans of the Second World War would have had a tremendous post-traumatic reaction, but it wasn’t given a name at that time. In the book, there were men in town who had come back from the war and, particularly because they were New Englanders, would not necessarily talk about what they’d gone through. Yet those experiences would be informing their lives and their marriages and all of this would have a real trickling effect throughout the community. Even though fifteen years had gone by, people would still have been quite affected by what they had gone through.

I also thought it was interesting the way you talk about sex in that era. We tend to think of the fifties as so repressed, yet you peek behind the curtains and there’s the character who’s reading Playboy with his wife. And then there’s the minister, whose wife has obviously had a lot of experience and whose marriage is to an important extent based on sex. What was your thinking behind these choices?

In terms of this book, I'm always interested in place and time and characters and how they bump up against one another. In that place and time it was not particularly thought well of to be openly sexual or to be enjoying your sexuality—particularly when you’re the minister’s wife.

Also, I'm interested in what goes on behind what we present to the world. We all live on so many different levels and understandably present just a small portion of ourselves in most of our everyday relationships. So as a novelist I'm always intrigued by what’s the real story, what’s really going on behind the front door of someone’s house, or even what’s going on in the middle of the night when somebody lies awake. That can’t necessarily be revealed to real people in real life, but it can be revealed to a novelist. That’s one reason why we read books, so we can have these glimpses into what it means to be human. It seems to me that sexuality is a very important part of life. Whether one is living a fully sexual life or not, it’s still an element to be dealt with as a writer, for me anyway.

You mentioned before that you knew from the beginning that the minister’s name would be Tyler Caskey. My husband and I are having our second baby in May, so we're in the midst of name discussions, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how when you choose a name it sets a certain tone. And I was wondering what that process is when you’re thinking of the name of a fictional character.

I think about names a lot. It’s funny because when I was writing Amy and Isabelle, the name Isabelle was with me right away, but I had a hard time coming up with the name Amy. Once I found out that her name was Amy the book went much more quickly. There’s always a point or many points in the middle of a novel when it feels like it’s imploding. When I was trying to straighten out this story, I did actually change Tyler’s name a few times in different scenes to see if that was the problem, but the name just kept coming back. I was glad that he could stand up as Tyler Caskey. I think names are really important.

In terms of Amy and Isabelle, I’ve read that that book brewed in you for years and that you spent a lot of time rewriting it and refining it. Was writing this book a similar process?

Well, it was. I spent far more time than I thought I would have to. At first I thought, very naively, that because I had already completed a novel there would be some injection of confidence that would help me move along a little faster. But it didn’t seem to. It was a different process, but it was similar in the sense that I rewrote a lot of it. I rewrite so much. And I write so many scenes that end up not being in the book. Making those decisions about what the main storyline ultimately will be seems to take me some time.

And what about the success of Amy and Isabelle. Did that make writing this book in any way more difficult because there were expectations to meet?

I think that at first I told myself it didn’t matter, because I’m a writer and I’ve been writing all my life even though people didn’t necessarily know it before Amy and Isabelle. But I was kidding myself. There was a pressure that I was working against that I didn’t admit to myself for quite some time. There were some people who really seemed to like Amy and Isabelle and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I have what I think of as a relationship with my readers, though of course they're all different and they will all experience a different book as a result of who they are when they come to the story. But all of that goes away when I get really involved and absorbed in my work. It's only when I looked up from my desk that I started thinking, Oh goodness, I hope I'm not going to disappoint people.

Amy and Isabelle wasn’t specifically a women’s novel but it did focus tightly on a mother and daughter and their complicated dynamic. Was it a substantially different process for you to write a book that explores a male perspective from the inside?

I have thought about that, because so much of this happens unconsciously. I worried that I might be taking a risk by focusing on a male character since I’m not a man. But I knew very much that I wanted to write about this person, and this character seemed very real to me. And it felt true as I went through the process. It touched me deeply to think of the inherent loneliness that accompanied Tyler’s situation—the idea of being a man at that time and not allowing your emotions to show as much and not talk as freely as women.

He does seem like one of those characters who will really stick with you after you put down the book. Was it hard for you to finish writing the book and move on?

A little bit. Just today I got the final hardback version and I looked at it and thought, Oh my God, it’s over. And I thought, Tyler, I wish you well. Even though I am on to my next work and have been for some time, he’s close to my heart. He still seems real to me.

What that’s like to have worked on something in such an internal way and then go out on a book tour and present it to the public?

It was very strange for me with Amy and Isabelle because I was really secluded from any public arena as a writer at that time, so the book tour was in some ways quite frightening for me. It was almost like I work in this little mossy dark space and then all of a sudden someone shines a flashlight on it or on me, not just on the characters. But having been through that once I think that now I actually look forward to meeting readers.

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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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