Harper; Penguin Random House

Master Class: EW puts Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout in conversation

October 15, 2019 at 12:30 PM EDT

They’re two of the most decorated women in modern American letters: Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning maestro of Maine (her small-town epic Olive Kitteridge was adapted into an Emmy-sweeping 2014 miniseries, and Barack Obama named Anything Is Possible one of his favorite books of 2017), and Ann Patchett, whose lauded catalog includes the best-sellers Bel Canto and Commonwealth.

But on a bright fall morning in New York, they were just two old friends catching up to talk about their latest works — Olive, Again and The Dutch House, respectively — what they’re reading, and why you won’t find them on Instagram.

Victoria Will for EW

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is your history together? How did you two first meet?

ANN PATCHETT: Okay, so the reason that we have an affection, other than the fact that she is one of my top three favorite living authors, is that her editor was a really good friend of mine, so that to me was the basis of our very immediate personal connection.

ELIZABETH STROUT: Yes. And so when we met it was almost like I knew you without having met you.

Because it does seem like novelists are generally more solitary, unless maybe they’re at a writers’ colony…

STROUT: [Wryly] Oh yes, “sex camp” is what it’s called.

But you did both have stories printed in Seventeen magazine early on, right?

STROUT: I read Ann Patchett’s story in Seventeen.

PATCHETT: No you did not. That I don’t believe.

STROUT: Yes, yes I did. That’s when I first saw your name, and I followed you ever since. Sorry I didn’t tell you that I was, like, stalking you! But the reason I remember is because I was struck with it.

PATCHETT: I wrote for Seventeen when I was in my middle 20s, and I was the slush reader for years and years for their junior fiction competition. So I would be the person who would get 3,000 stories and take it down to 10, and I got paid a dollar [per] story. I was just sort of [mimes paper tossing] throwing them over my shoulder.

Ann, your last novel, Commonwealth, was something much more personal after all the exotic locales of State of Wonder or Bel Canto. Elizabeth, your books have always been very much rooted in Maine — though Olive, Again also feels like culmination because you bring in characters from other works of yours, like The Burgess Boys and Amy and Isabelle. Did you do that purposefully, or do they just pop up?

STROUT: They just pop up for me. Like with Helen and Jim Burgess, all the sudden I realized, “Oh wow, the Burgess grandson would be old enough to go to camp, this is perfect!” It just came to me because they’re all right there and I just realized, “Oh bingo, fabulous.”

You’ve said in that past that Olive as a character came to you all at once.

STROUT: Oh yes, she showed up with a bang. Very fully formed.

Though, Ann, you said with Dutch House that you struggled initially with the first drafts?

PATCHETT: I threw the whole book out. I made a huge mistake early on, I turned left on like, page 12 when I should have turned right, and I wrote the whole book from that place. And I didn’t realize it until I was finished, and then I sat down to read it.

Do you permanently delete those left turns, or do you save them somewhere?

PATCHETT: I permanently delete them. I have no papers. [Turns to Strout] Do you have papers?

STROUT: I do have papers, and I rip them up as soon as I’m done with them.

PATCHETT: Well then that’s the definition of not having papers. [Laughs] It’s not like they’re going to the archives in Texas.

STROUT: Oh my God, no, no, no. I rip them in four squares and then put them in the wastebasket, it’s lovely! I enjoy it.

PATCHETT: I love you so much.

STROUT: I’m not going to leave a drop. Not a clean sheet, just my work.

PATCHETT: I’m going to die next to the fireplace, chucking. [Laughs] The greatest joy to me about throwing out this book is that not One. Person. Read it. And people are like, “Oh my God, what if you’re wrong?” I’m not wrong.

STROUT: I do understand that, I do.

Elizabeth, did you struggle at all in the writing of Again?

STROUT: Oh, this one just came out. I had one story written when Olive showed up again, and I thought, “Okay, okay,” and then all of the sudden, I was looking through my papers, which are now gone —

PATCHETT: In quarters.

STROUT: — and I realized I had pieces, scenes from Olive that I never used. And then I just started to realize, “Wait a minute, I guess I’m not done with her.” So I just wrote it. And it was arduous because it always is, but it was not arduous as some.

PATCHETT: And do you feel bad now that she’s really gone, now that everybody’s sort of really wrapped up?

STROUT: Yes I do actually, it’s funny. Because it’s like, “There we go, that’s her.”

PATCHETT: Well you could have the prequel…

STROUT: Yeah, but you know, she doesn’t interest me at that [younger] age, so I can’t do somebody that I can’t feel interested in.

Ann, reading The Dutch House made me think a lot about other books where houses loom so large…

PATCHETT: Manderley, Howards End, yeah, yeah.

Is there a real Dutch House for you?

PATCHETT: No, there isn’t, and there’s actually not many details, which was important to me. I had about a dozen and I would bear down on them hard and repeat them over and over again. If you took every sentence of a description of that house and put them together, it would be about a page and a half — the kitchen, the front hall. But it’s really important that the reader can bring in their own experience, and whatever they love.

STROUT: That’s so interesting, I understand that. And it worked!

PATCHETT: And that’s why there couldn’t be a house on the cover, because it has to be a house that the reader sees.

It’s such a striking painting, though.

PATCHETT: A friend of mine did it for me. I knew that’s what I wanted on the cover and I thought I could find it archivally, but all of the girls had bonnets and pinafores, so I asked my friend Noah Saturstrom if he could paint it, and I just said “She’s 10, she’s in a red coat.” And he still hasn’t read the book! He has three tiny kids, he doesn’t have time. [Laughs] He did it in four days. And it’s in my house, it’s so gorgeous.

To pivot a little bit, you both seem to excel at drawing deeply imperfect women. In books when women are “unlikeable,” a lot of the times that just seems to mean they’re headstrong, or they speak out of turn. But Olive can really be kind of an a—hole.

STROUT: [Laughs] Exactly.

PATCHETT: And I love that she gets love twice! She is this really flawed person and she is deeply cherished twice, that’s amazing. And I just heard that Lucy Barton’s a play?

With Laura Linney, right?

STROUT: Jan. 6 it opens [in previews], yes. I’m not that involved with it, but I went to a few rehearsals, and it was fascinating. She did it last summer in London, it’s a one-woman show.

You’ve both had the experience of seeing your novels on screen — Ann, you last year with Bel Canto, and Elizabeth, you with Olive Kitteridge on HBO. Is that weird to watch, because obviously it has to be so condensed and so many other people’s visions — the adaptor, the director, the actors — are in the mix. Do you still feel connected to your work in the same way once it’s adapted?

STROUT: It is [such] a different medium, so I feel connected to it, but not really, if you see what I mean. I admired very much what they did, but it felt like it was separate from me.

PATCHETT: I had nothing to do with the Bel Canto movie, and it literally opened in 20 American theaters — not cities, theaters. It played for one week and vanished. Like, it’s not even on Netflix, it’s so gone.

But you must get approached for pretty much everything you’ve written at this point. Does that tempt you, or are you wary?

STROUT: Oh, I’m very wary. The only reason that Laura Linney is playing Lucy Barton is because I envisioned Laura Linney playing Lucy Barton [laughs] — I think I told some journalist that, and after a little while she and I had lunch together. Because I saw her as Laura Linney, but I never thought it would happen, and the same with Olive Kitteridge and Frances McDormand. And they did a marvelous job, but yes I am wary. I’m not going to give my stuff to just anybody.

Do you both read a lot when you’re writing, or do you pull back from reading other people?

PATCHETT: I read constantly.

STROUT: Me too. If I had to stop reading while I was writing I would never read, and I need to read.

PATCHETT: To me it’s like walking, one leg is reading and one leg is walking, they’re so completely joined.

Politics seems to bleed into most things now, and the current situation does come in a little at the edges of Olive. Ann, were you happy to be clear of that with a historical novel?

PATCHETT: The Dutch House actually came very much out of the Trump election in the original idea, because it seemed like a moment that was such a celebration of wealth — that the very best thing would be that the richest person wins, and there’s such joy in a giant amount of money, and that’s what we want and that’s what we respect.

So my original idea was to write a book about a person who said, “I don’t want to be rich. I don’t find that the goal, I don’t find that attractive. In fact I find that repulsive.” And it was really a book about [the absent mother character] Ellna walking away.

It was so upsetting to her to be that rich that she would actually leave her family, and that was very directly from the election. So it’s funny when people say, “Oh your work isn’t political,” because one, everything is political, and two, you know where it comes from, but another person might not understand.

STROUT: Well I think everything’s political as well, because it just is. The personal is political, right?

PATCHETT: Yes! Every choice you make, where you shop, what you buy, how you conduct your life.

STROUT: I don’t have any president’s names in [Olive, Again], but just an allusion to who they might be at that time — just because she’s a woman who watches the news, she’s a member of the world, she has opinions. And so I just put that in in a small way because it’s her life, it would be real. She would not want to be riding in that car with that [Trump] bumper sticker.

I don’t want to draw too many parallels between your books but…

PATCHETT: I would not be disappointed if you did.

STROUT: Mmm hmm. [Both laugh]

Well, one thing is the mother-and-child aspect to both books, this sense of constant tension and then also some form of forgiveness. Olive loves her son so much, but she can’t seem to stop alienating him.

STROUT: No, she can’t do it! She’s Olive, she cannot get it together.

PATCHETT: You know, that relationship reminds me of Rabbit Angstrom and his son [from John Updike’s Rabbit novels].

STROUT: It’s so interesting that you say that, because I was just thinking about Rabbit at Rest and how the last line of that book is “Enough, enough.”

PATCHETT: I love that book so much. I read them all again about five years ago and it is just the ultimate master class, but that tension that he has with his son —

STROUT: I love it, love it.

What’s your relationship to technology? Ann, you sort of famously just have a flip phone, which you hardly use. Do you own e-readers, or spend much time on social media? Elizabeth, you talked about ripping up paper — do you actually write on paper?

STROUT: I do, I love it.

PATCHETT: Long ago, someone said that his grandmother wouldn’t use a microwave. She had gone through all these changes in technology, and then the microwave came along and she was like, “Enough.” And I feel like I drew my line about 20 years ago, so I have a flip phone but no one has the number. I use it when I travel and it’s in a drawer otherwise. I’ve never done any social media, I don’t text. I just don’t do any of those things. Not because I’m trying to take some stance on them, but because somehow I drew my line before all those things happened.

And when people raise their hands at events and say, “How do you have time to read all these books?” I’m like, “I don’t use the internet, and I don’t use a cell phone, and I don’t have kids.” Although the Malcolm Gladwell podcast is fantastic, that’s my only one. I listened to them all while I was in Utah by myself for three weeks finishing this book, and I just needed to hear somebody’s voice while I was eating dinner so I had dinner with Malcolm Gladwell every night. [Laughs]

STROUT: I do have a cell phone, and I like my cell phone.

Is this era of novelists interacting so directly with readers online unsettling to you, or is it just another way of doing what you would do on a book tour?

STROUT: It does really take down some barriers.

PATCHETT: All the barriers, everything. Sandy Boynton is a good friend of mine, and she goes online every day and puts a fabulous little chicken [illustration] out there or a hippo, and she has this wonderful relationship with her millions of readers, but she doesn’t go on book tour. So she finds what I do appalling and barbaric, which I do too. [Laughs]

And Liz Gilbert, too, connects in a really wonderful way with all these people. She does so much good — that she can say, “Hey, everybody, today is my birthday, could you all send $10 to this group that’s helping refugees at the border with legal aid?” And [claps hands] she raises $3 million in two minutes. The way she can take that and use it to help the world is phenomenal. And I just feel like, “Well, in another life.” But that ship sailed. I am who I am.

One upside to all that is when celebrities use their powers to promote books they love — particularly people like Bill Gates, Emma Watson, Reese Witherspoon…

PATCHETT: She picked my essays! She put on a red sweater and red lipstick that matched the cover and held it up, and my gosh, it was adorable. It was a book of essays, and it sold, only because she did that. Thank you, Reese.

Also I want to say, with the bookstore [Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville], people don’t know what to read, and that’s a good thing, in many cases. They want a suggestion, they want to talk to you and look at books and pick them up, so if these different [celebrities] have book clubs, that’s great! Then people don’t feel intimidated because the book has already been vetted by Bill Gates or whoever, and that’s wonderful because if you read and you have a good experience with reading, then the next time you go into the bookstore you feel like, “Oh, I can do that by myself.”

It does feel that for all of the dominance of Amazon, people have also really returned to the idea of small brick-and-mortar bookstores — sort of the same way they’ve gone back to vinyl in the last 10 years or so, just because they love that analog part of it, the community.

PATCHETT: Oh, it’s me and Jack White. [Laughs] He’s pressing that vinyl. But yes! They do.

When you finish a book do you shed your writing skin for a while, or do you still find yourself having ideas or wanting to start the next thing?

STROUT: I am always writing. Always writing. So often what happens is I am finishing a book, another book has already begun in me. For some reason that happens.

PATCHETT: You’re actually writing. I’m thinking, but I’m totally not writing.

STROUT: It’s always been a gift in a way that I never knew was a gift, as many gifts are. But something will rise off the surface just as I’m finishing a book and I’ll realize, “Oh, that’s where I’m gonna go.”

PATCHETT: Liz came to Nashville once and and there was a snowstorm in New York where she couldn’t take off and she couldn’t land, and [turns to Strout] you were there for four days and you were writing. And you kept saying, “Oh, I’m so happy!” Just in this hotel room writing. And we’d have dinner every night, and I’d say, “Come stay at my house,” but you wouldn’t.

STROUT: And I felt so bad, but it was also kind of wonderful because I could be in touch with my husband and my daughter through my cell phone, because otherwise it was just this sterile room, and I got so much done. It was really fun! And I didn’t have to be touring for four days. [Laughs]

What are you both reading right now?

STROUT: Well, I have been going through a bunch of biographies, so right now I’m reading a biography of Tolstoy, and I then I have another one waiting, because I always like to read more than one biography of the same person — because I’m very aware that the biography I’m reading is filtered through the person who’s writing it.

PATCHETT: I just finished the new Margaret Atwood, which I loved — what a ripping read, one of those books where you think, “Oh I’ve got 15 minutes before I have to go, I’m gonna go pick it up.”

I tend to only read books that haven’t been published yet, because it is the way of the bookstore world, so in my suitcase I have the galley of a Louise Erdrich book that’s coming out. I love Louise, and I have to say for me, in all seriousness, it’s [turns to Strout] you, Colson [Whitehead], and Louise, you’re the kings of the world as far I’m concerned.

And then the book that I am pushing and I want you to remember — Gish Jen has a book coming out in February called The Resisters, which I think is going to save the world, if the world could possibly be saved by a novel. It’s such an important book. She hasn’t written a novel in 10 years.

It feels nice that fiction can do that right now, that it can have that kind of impact. I mean, sometimes we just want to escape into another world, but also, look at the resurgence of Handmaid’s Tale in the last couple years, or 1984.

PATCHETT: [Gasps] Which is such a bad book! I had to write an introduction for a new edition of Animal Farm, and I was like, “Sure, Animal Farm, that would be so much fun!” And of course I hadn’t read it since eighth grade, and then I went back again and read that and 1984. Did not hold up. His essays are great, though.

What about television, are you a fan?

PATCHETT: I only use my TV for my yoga video. I understand that this is the golden age of television, and people are always telling me, “You should watch this!” But also for me I am very aware of my eyeballs — like, everything that matters to me is eyeball-based. I don’t want another hobby or interest that is going to take my eyes. I’ll cook, I’ll knit, I’ll take a walk, I’ll do other things. I just don’t want to be looking at a screen as a way of relaxing from looking at a screen. But audiobooks! Love them.

Speaking of audio books…

PATCHETT: [Laughs] Yes, Tom Hanks read The Dutch House.

That’s kind of the ultimate, isn’t it?

PATCHETT: I know, I read at the 92nd Street Y last night, so I actually went to the part in the audiobook and listened to it and I just got up there and gave my Tom Hanks imitation, it was super! I just cribbed the whole thing. [Laughs]

When you meet fans, what’s that interaction like — do they just want to connect, or is it something else they’re looking for?

PATCHETT: Oh, that’s a good question.

STROUT: You know, there are always a few readers, they’re often a little bit shy, but I understand that they’ve been touched in a way that I was hoping, and I think they just want me to know it. And I do know it. We always know the truth of things among people, I think, and that’s a wonderful thing to see.

PATCHETT: I get a lot of people who cry, and a lot of people who want to touch me. It’s very physical, and it’s weird because I’m not the warmest person in the world, and I’m not the snuggliest. But people will be like, “Will you stand up so I can just hold you for a minute?”

STROUT: That’s lovely.

**

Related content:

Jenny Slate is ready to reintroduce herself
How Ronan Farrow wrote the best (and most horrifying) spy thriller of the year

Comments