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
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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.

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.