Olive Kitteridge, Maine’s Saltiest Character, Is Back

Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In 2009, Elizabeth Strout’s book of linked stories, Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and readers around the world fell for the book’s deeply flawed female lead: a stubborn, slow-to-smile, straight-talking retired math teacher named Olive. The stories rove in and around the fictional town of Crosby, Maine, following Olive and an assortment of characters as they navigate long marriages, infidelities, mental illness, and family traumas large and small. Olive charmed and exasperated readers with her singular mess of contradictions: She’s a judgy crank with a tender heart; a lifelong Mainer who resents out-of-staters for their snobbery (while often out-snobbing them for things like their ignorance about flower species); a tempestuous mother just beginning to come to terms with the harm she’s inflicted on her now-grown son. The book went on to become an international best seller, and was eventually adapted into an HBO series.

Now, ten years later, Strout has written a sequel: Olive, Again. The terrain is familiar: We’re back in Crosby, and Olive, now a widow, is at the book’s center, embarking on a second marriage and, by the end, entering old age. But as Strout follows Olive toward the present day, her lens expands to accommodate a more contemporary set of conflicts, including quotidian flash points of mistrust stirred up by Trumpism; a liberal white mother’s special brand of self-righteousness; and a woman who’s come home to tell her parents she’s a dominatrix.

I called Strout as she was getting ready to take Olive, Again on tour. Preparing to talk with one of my literary idols had made me more than a little nervous, but Strout immediately put me at ease. She was warm, quick to laugh, and quick to get to the point. We talked about Olive’s complicated relationship to being a mother, the cultural divide between Maine and New York, and why Strout doesn’t judge her characters.

You wrote three books between Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again. When did you know that you were going to return to Olive?
I was in Norway for some book thing and I had a weekend by myself, so I went to a café around the corner from the hotel. I don’t even know what I was doing, but all of a sudden I just pictured Olive Kitteridge nosing her way into the marina for breakfast. And I thought, well, I better get that down, because it was so vivid. So I did. That weekend I started to sketch out the story, and then when I got home I finished it within a few months and put it aside. But I was sort of aware that I was probably going to return to Olive. Then I realized there was a folder in my studio called “Olive Scraps” — and there were different things I’d somehow written down at various moments without even remembering them. And I just thought, Okay! [Sighing.] Here we go, Olive … So, I wrote the book.

I was excited by the way you allow some characters from your earlier books, like Amy and Isabelle and the Burgess Boys, to collide with the characters here. What was that process like for you?
It was fun. Again, I was surprised by it. I remember walking down the street one day and all of a sudden realizing, Oh! Jim and Helen Burgess could actually be in Crosby, Maine. They could have dropped their grandson off at camp. That’s what New Yorkers do, they send their kids to camp in Maine. So I thought, how fabulous. It was so fun, particularly because it gave me the chance to explore the enormous cultural divide between New York City and Maine.

You do that straddle, between the worlds of New York and Maine.
Yeah. It is a straddle. And it’s an odd straddle. I’ve lived in New York for 36 years, which seems like a pretty long time to me. And yet my husband and I are back in Maine more and more frequently now because we have a place here. They are just such different lives. I honestly don’t know which place is my home at this particular point in my life. It’s an odd feeling. I guess they’re both my home?

A big part of the divide is about money and class, which is something you’re always writing about: The assumptions people make about each other, the postures, the judgments. There’s a line in the story, “Exiles,” where Margaret — this local Unitarian minister who prides herself, as Unitarians do, on being a very tolerant person — says of Helen, her sister-in-law who’s visiting from Park Slope, Brooklyn: “That woman is not shy. She’s rich.” Can you unspool that a bit?
I don’t want to speak too generally, but part of the cultural difference is that outside of Portland, people in Maine do not have the amount of money that people in New York City have. So somebody like Margaret feels the presence of money every moment she’s with Helen. She just looks at Helen’s well-done hair and the gold earrings. And even though we know from The Burgess Boys that Margaret has helped tremendously with the Somali community in Shirley Falls, [working to help settle immigrants and resolve tensions with long-time locals], that she’s been a very bighearted woman, [being kind to Helen] is something she can’t do. She thinks it’s about money because that’s the only way she can define it for herself. But the fundamental problem is that Helen is foreign to her. It’s not that Margaret’s not bighearted. She is. But she’s got a small heart in there, too. Most people do.

You write about this a lot. How people who are very open in some ways can be quite intolerant in others.
Yes. Exactly. Everybody has their little thing going on. There’s always some way that they’re trying to feel superior to someone else.

Speaking of hang-ups, Olive lives with an abiding sense of having failed in some crucial ways as a mother. And her son Christopher does little to dispel this, in the first book and in this one — we see his anger at Olive as he struggles in his first and second marriages. I wonder … if Olive were to ever come across Winicott’s concept of the “good enough mother,” what would she make of it?
[Laughing] Oh, wow. I don’t think she’d concern herself with it a bit. I think she’d think that was other people thinking about their mothers or their mothering, and she’s outside that circle.

So it’s not like it would provide any comfort to her.
Nope, nope. She would just dismiss it.

There’s a passage in the story “Labor” where Olive is reflecting on a “stupid” baby shower. She thinks: “Why only women at the baby shower? Did men have nothing to do with this business of babies?” And it almost seems like the next line is going to be a critique of men, but instead it’s, “Olive thought she didn’t like women, she liked men.”
Well, you know, she’s Olive. She’s not comfortable taking part in traditional female-role type of things. It’s just not who she is — she’s never been capable of it. I think when a person isn’t good at something, they don’t like it. I think her insecurities have created a lot of her persona, and the persona is just one that has never been able to do that kind of thing with women, so therefore she doesn’t like them particularly. Does that make sense?

Yeah. I also felt like in the final story, “Friend,” she’s starting to recognize that her not liking other women is tied to her not liking herself.
That’s right. Exactly. And then she backs away from realizing that. But in that story, she is connecting to a woman. A very good friend, really.

In that story, like so many, we see that along with all her judgments Olive is also a radically empathetic person, to use a term she would hate. Early in the book, she has this thought: “Given the extensive and widespread array of human emotions, why was anything a personality disorder?” Again and again, perhaps despite herself, she is actually very loving.
Yes. And that’s what I think makes her interesting. She just has so many facets to her personality. That’s what I find so fascinating.

In Olive, Again we see Olive’s empathy extend in more overtly political directions. We see her challenging the bigotry of the people around her — her husband’s difficulty accepting that his daughter is gay, for example. And there’s one story, “Heart,” where you create a kind of perfect storm of contemporary conflict: Olive has one home health aid, Big Betty, who’s got a Trump sticker on her truck, and who is cruel to the nurse who comes to relieve her, a Somali woman named Helema. Olive seems on the verge of firing Big Betty, until the very end. How did that story evolve for you?
It started with Olive in the hospital. I let the doctor tell her that she’s been dead, and she said, “Isn’t that interesting?” because it seemed to me so Olive that she would say that. That was the beginning of it. And then, I thought, she’s going to have to have some health-care workers. I was thinking okay, here comes Big Betty, and let’s have Helema come in. And then I realized, Oh! Of course. Big Betty will have problems with Helema. But at the end of that story, when Olive is sitting there watching Big Betty cry, just as you think she would be yelling at her to get out of here, she actually says, “Tell me what your life is like.” Because of her own recent experiences — you know, Olive has fallen down, she’s scared. She’s so lonely. And Betty’s tears remind her of her own. It’s just enough for her to welcome Betty into her heart, in a way.

Do you think in some ways there’s more opportunity for people in a place like Maine than for people in a place like New York to actually deal with people who do not share their views about the world?
Absolutely. I say this with great love because I love New York, but I think that New York is provincial in many ways. Everybody thinks that they’re right, which is the definition of provincial. Everybody thinks they’re living the way you’re supposed to be living. But in fact in New York, people tend to be more simple-minded. In Maine you are going to come into contact with people who have vast political differences, and you work around them. 

I was thinking as I read this book about how complicated it is to write about our characters’ biases — and sometimes their outright bigotry — in an honest way. For some writers, it’s so complicated that it seems like they stay away from the awful things that people think. But you don’t stay away from the awful things people think — in fact you go toward them. Why?
I’m very character driven. I guess that sounds conventional, but it’s always the people I’m writing about that I love, so I need to be working with the person and accepting the person for whoever he or she is. One of the things that I really love about writing is that when I go to the page, I don’t judge my characters. And it’s so freeing, you know, because in real life we’re all very judgmental. Even if we don’t want to be, it seems to be how we have to maneuver our way through the world, and there are probably some reasons for that. But when I write, I free myself from all of that. For me, that’s one of the best parts about writing. My job is to make sure that I’m presenting the character as truthfully as I can, and that’s what I really focus on.

What was it like returning to these characters after seeing Olive Kitteridge as an HBO series, with Frances McDormand as Olive?
It didn’t affect me that much. Frances McDormand, in my mind, did not look like the Olive that was my Olive. I think she’s just kind of too pretty for my Olive, to start with. I really thought she did a wonderful job, but my Olive was still quite prominent in my mind as I was working on this book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna Solomon’s third novel, The Book of V., will be published in May 2020.

Olive Kitteridge, Maine’s Saltiest Character, Is Back