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Books of My Life: Elizabeth Strout on 'Madame Bovary,' 'The Journals of John Cheever,' and other favorites

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Leonardo Cendamo

To celebrate the publication of her luminous new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout talks to us about her literary loves and inspirations.

My favorite book as a child

Pigeon Feathers by John Updike. I was probably around 8 when I found a copy of it on our coffee table. I am sure much of it I didn’t understand, but I had a real sense that this was how grown-ups were, and I was thrilled by it.

The novel I read in secret

The Man Who Had Everything by Donald Murray. My mother said she would rather I wait until I was older before I read it, so of course I read it. There must have been a sex scene, although I only remember a man walking naked into a bedroom. It was not so titillating, really.

The book I loved in school

Madame Bovary. We read that my junior year in high school, and I thought it was amazing: the pharmacist, the bees buzzing, her death…

What cemented me as a writer

The works of Alice Munro and William Trevor. I read their stories — and novels — again and again, and really studied them, how they were put together, how they managed to say so much with so little.

The book that changed my life

The Journals of John Cheever. I read it carefully and started writing seriously in notebooks myself, noting the weather, the clouds, everything I saw or felt.

A classic I’ve never read

The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve read Steinbeck’s other stuff (she said defensively), but I have never read Grapes of Wrath.

The best literary adaptation

The movie version of Misery—the book was by Stephen King—has always been a favorite of mine. When Kathy Bates oinks like a pig, it is terrifying and funny.

My literary hero

Pierre in War and Peace. I just love that man. When he is in prison and makes friends with the lice, it kills me.

The book I turn to time and again

For many years I read Mrs. Dalloway at least once a year. I don’t know why, except that I loved it. And then about 10 years ago I realized the character of the daughter was not fully fleshed out. I thought, “I don’t need to read this again,” and I have not.

The last book that made me cry

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus. The first novella in that book made me weep—I started with my eyes stinging, and then the tears just popped out; it was a wonderful thing.

On buying my own novel

I had to run into our local bookstore for one of my books, and a woman standing nearby said, “Oh, that book — I wouldn’t say it was the greatest book ever written.” I was quietly mortified and furious.

Something I wish I’d written

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann. Pure poetry, just a gorgeous book. It changed the way I see the streets of New York.

The genre I’d read if I were restricted to just one

Literary fiction. It comforts me the most: seeing who we are, and what we do.