The Pulitzer Prize-winning author revives a beloved protagonist in her latest novel.

Elizabeth Strout's readers are already familiar with the title character of her new novel, Oh William! (on shelves now). He's the man who left his wife in the hospital for weeks in 2016's My Name Is Lucy Barton, the man who let his mother repeatedly introduce Lucy as coming "from nothing." Even though Lucy topped the New York Times best-seller list (and bumped the chart fixture The Girl on the Train down a peg in the process), Strout didn't realize there was more to say about William until a fortuitous day of rehearsals for its 2020 Broadway adaptation sent her on another emotional journey with him.

She remembers being in a room with the play's director, Richard Eyre, and star, Laura Linney, when, she tells EW, "Laura pushed her glasses back on her head and said something like, 'Perhaps William had an affair.' In a flash, I realized: He'll have his story. I literally thought the words 'Oh, William!'"

After that day at the theater, Strout began mining the original novel and a few of her own real-life encounters to build the story's foundation. (Linney's idea about William's extramarital relationships did make it to the page.) This William is Lucy's ex-husband, a once successful scientist in the midst of a late-life crisis.

Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout
| Credit: Victoria Will

"I have this visual of him with his white hair sticking out, and a great big mustache, all well-dressed," Strout says.

In the book the exes are still friendly — consciously uncoupled, as it were — with William relying on Lucy for moral support as the consequences of his past affairs, and newly surfaced family tragedies, begin to weigh on him. The feeling that Lucy has actually dodged heartache through her divorce is palpable, even as she works through her own grief after the death of her beloved second husband, David.

A common interpretation of My Name Is Lucy Barton is to see it as a mother-daughter story (in William's absence, Lucy's long-estranged mom keeps vigil at the hospital). But Strout, 65, says her intention was actually to explore poverty — something she chose to expand on in Oh William!

"We see more of Lucy's sad beginnings, and how she crossed class lines to be with William," she says. "That element of deprivation, and how people manage to move beyond it, is really interesting to me."

Through all of William's tribulations, Lucy remains front and center in the new novel. She is the narrator and also the embodiment of charm and wit that endeared Strout's fans to the author's work in the first place. And for what it's worth, there's a lot of Laura Linney there too.

"I don't see Lucy as Laura, but they are both without guile," Strout says. "There is a simplicity in their voices — not in content, but of delivery — that they share."

October Books
'Oh, William!,' by Elizabeth Strout
| Credit: Random House

As Strout speaks via Zoom from her cozily appointed Manhattan home, it's hard not to get the impression that there's more than a little Lucy Barton in the writer herself; the words that come tumbling out of her mouth could double as dialogue in a third Lucy novel. Delight abounds, whether she is discussing a Wi-Fi glitch or the anxieties she felt during the early stages of her career — all of which she poured into Oh William! As we catch up with Lucy in the new novel, she is in her 60s and a notable writer (with enough published books, and book sales, to describe herself as such).

"I often thought of myself as having three jobs," Strout says of her literary beginnings and the differences between her and Lucy. "A teacher [at Borough of Manhattan Community College], a writer, and a mother. I felt people would respect the teacher part. I had been writing for years but not telling many people, because nothing was getting published and it was too embarrassing to say I was a writer."

Despite her massive success, Strout admits to still feeling prepublication anxiety. Asked to predict what longtime fans might connect to most in Oh William!, she says that she "just hopes for the best." She also confesses that she's uncomfortable with success and self-promotion. She has no social media and says it's against her "cultural heritage" to call attention to herself. And yet here in the spotlight she remains. Her 2008 novel Olive Kitteridge was also a best-seller, and its 2014 HBO adaptation won eight Emmys. Its sequel, Olive, Again, was an Oprah's Book Club pick, which required Strout to liaise publicly with Ms.Winfrey — including on CBS This Morning. Oh, and then there's the matter of the Pulitzer Prize Strout won in 2009, which she has only recently come to terms with.

"Just the other day, I was going through old journals — I shred them because I don't want anybody to ever read them — and I read a sentence that said, 'So I've won the Pulitzer and that seems to impress people,'" she says with a laugh. "It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, and I couldn't accept how great it was. I thought, well, yeah, dopey-head."

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