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April 7, 2010

Guest Editor Interview: Elizabeth Strout, Ploughshares

STROUT-2[1] Miriam Berkley.jpg

Elizabeth Strout has made her name as a fiction writer. Her three novels "Amy and Isabelle," "Abide with Me" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Olive Kitteridge" have each struck a deep note among readers. Strout is working on her fourth book, but between projects, she accepted the position of guest editor for the spring 2010 issue of Ploughshares, a journal of new writing published three times a year at Emerson College in Boston. What was it like for writers to be edited by a writer? "Liz was great," said Katha Pollitt, a journalist and poet whose "Angels" is included in the collection. "She very energetically extracted that poem from my fog of dithering. I'd probably still be revising it if it weren't for her. And in her comments she saw things I hadn't even realized were there!" And what was it like for Strout to pick up her pen as an editor? Her answers are below, but if you're in the Boston area next week, you can listen to Strout read from her work and talk about her editorial debut at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 15, at the Paramount Theatre at Emerson College.

What interested you about being a guest editor for Ploughshares?

Poetry. Obviously, I love the whole thing. But the truth is I love poetry. It's not like I ever studied it, but I read a lot of it including work by lesser known poets. I'm a member of all the poetry associations so I always have poetry coming through the door. I'm so interested in it. It was exciting for me to think of making some choices myself about poets. And I love literary magazines. Literary magazines were my food for so long. I read all of them endlessly.

What were you looking for in the pieces you chose?

That's kind of an intangible. What am I looking for? Something that has the combination of a sound that seems true and not showy-offy, and the combination of sound and language that leaves me thinking: "Oh, oh, that's so nice."

It sounds like a combination of your own understanding of language and your own intuition and openness about that language.

I used to walk around a lot of art galleries -- and I really know nothing about art -- and I would always be interested in why I responded to something and not something else, even if the something else is more popular and fashionable. There's something in me that knows what it wants and wants to have answers.

Throughout my career as an analyzer and synthesizer of art, I've thought a lot about how we each have our own unique taste. What is your take on how unique taste is formed? Is there some essential quality of self that responds to "Guernica" and not "Mona Lisa"?

Exactly, but I don't know what it is. I guess it's essence. My theory is that most people need to be told what to like because they haven't been given the confidence from a young age to go ahead with their ideas. Everybody has instincts but they get muted at such a young age. So we get used to being told what to like, what to read, what to think. To be free and to give oneself permission about what to feel about paintings and what to feel about poems is interesting.

Is this part of your writing method, too -- something you know? Or are you like a carpenter crafting each word?

Both. There are so many kinds of days at work. I've done this for so long that I can look at a paragraph or sentence and understand it is weak or not holding its own. So I can look at it from the craft point of view. There are days when I do look at it more from the point of view of this sentence is weak or this sentence isn't logical. And then there are other times when I say: "What's wrong with this overall picture? There's something I'm missing, some element that would make this be true." That's more the thing I walk across the street thinking about.

What is the origin of that process?

I think it's just practice. I've been writing ever since I was a kid, and I always wanted to be a writer. I remember in college genuinely not understanding what Hemingway meant when he said, get up and write the truth as you know it. I kept thinking, what does that mean? I didn't understand what it meant. But I think over time you just keep writing sentences, and you keep writing sentences, and you begin to recognize -- it's almost a chemical response -- that you're writing something that is not true. After years you can tell when it's the real thing.

How have your editors influenced your life? You speak of Daniel Menaker, who was at The New Yorker. What did he give you since he didn't publish you in the magazine?

For years, he gave me wonderful rejections. That was a big deal because a lot of places didn't bother to do anything but reject stories. He would increasingly write longer and longer notes and then full letters, and he called me a few times. He basically gave me encouragement. He would say: "This almost works but it's not quite large enough but it's still better than most of the stuff coming across my desk so keep going." That's huge. It made me feel I wasn't writing into the large void. Then when he became my book editor -- he's a fabulous line editor -- he could show me the smallest change and I learned. For my books, we never disagreed about major things. You like an editor who gets what you're doing. And my experience of editors who ask me to rewrite part of a story is that it will never satisfy them. It's like in a classroom when a teacher says: "What else?" And you just want to say, "Stop saying that and tell us what you want." Mostly I've only worked with Dan, so I'm lucky.

What about when you became the editor? How did you manage writers?

There was one piece -- I won't say which -- that I thought had an essence that I responded to. And yet I thought there was clumsiness in getting there. So I called the writer up and we went over it line by line. It was a lovely conversation. It was fun. But I could tell that it was overwhelming to think about redoing all of it. So you do what you can.

Did you pick all of the pieces?

I solicited half the magazine. Then made choices. The other half Ploughshares had winnowed out, and I chose from their materials. That was really fun. It was anonymous. For the solicited material, well, I'm not really cut out to --


Exactly. Reject.

Did you ever have to pull back and say: Wait, that's my style, not the writer's?

I think about that. And I worry about that. But if the piece has a strong enough voice it's not going to be too much of a problem. I'm only going to like pieces that have a strong enough voice for the most part. In terms of the choices I made, I worried that it was like buying a gift that you like for somebody else. But you have your own sensibilities. You can't help it.

To switch topics for just a moment: Journalism is making the massive transition to the internet. How does technology affect you as a novelist?

I have honestly not thought a whole lot about it, and I'll tell you why. It's all completely outside of my control. Nothing is going to stop me from writing the best sentences I can. I've always been like that, and I don't see that that will change. We are in the midst of an enormous change. This is bigger than airplanes or telephones. We just don't know what this means. But I don't believe people will stop wanting stories. I understand fiction has been cut from magazines increasingly, and yet I don't believe that means fiction will disappear or become more of a cottage industry. My job as a storyteller is just to continue to write stories.

How would Olive Kitteridge be as an editor?

Probably scary as hell. I don't see this as a person who negotiates a lot. At the same time, she does seem to know what's real and not real. But an editor should be working with a writer. And that probably would not be her strong point.

Elizabeth Strout photo by Miriam Berkley

April 7, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (1)


Nice to hear that even a genius like Elizabeth Strout experienced rejection at one time. There's hope..

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