Interview: February 2000
There is an audible buzz around about Elizabeth Strout's debut novel AMY AND ISABELLE, a story about the complex relationship between one mother and her teenage daughter. What is the cause for this clamor? Elizabeth Strout hopes it's because she cares so deeply for her characters, and in turn her readers care about the story. We agree --- but would add that it is also an amazingly well-written story. It leaves you wanting to read more by this talented author.
Find out how long it took Elizabeth to write AMY AND ISABELLE, where her characters come from, and how lack of honesty can break apart a family in this interview.
TBR: For years you wrote short stories. What made you decide to write a novel? Which form comes easier to you?
ES: There was never a conscious decision on my part to write a novel. AMY AND ISABELLE began as a short story --- but there was so much to say. I think now that a story is a more ""difficult"" form in many ways, but characters and the style of telling the story dictate, for me, what form something takes.
TBR: Was the subject matter of AMY AND ISABELLE once a short story? How long did it take to write the book?
ES: It took me around three years to ""clear my throat"" for this book. During much of that time AMY AND ISABELLE remained a story. Once I got down to actually writing it as a novel it took another six or seven years.
TBR: You take an age-old theme --- the relationship between a mother and a daughter --- and make it fresh in AMY AND ISABELLE. What made you decide to write about this topic?
ES: Again, there was no conscious decision to write about this topic. The characters became compelling to me. Their situation was one I felt drawn to.
TBR: Do you feel that there is a jealousy between Isabelle and Amy? How typical is this of the relationships between mothers and daughters in real life?
ES: Isabelle is jealous of Amy's sexuality. I don't think Amy feels jealous of Isabelle in any way. I don't know how typical this situation is in real life --- I have certainly observed this dynamic in certain situations, but definitely not all.
TBR:What was your relationship with your own mother like? What is your relationship with your daughter?
ES: My own relationship with my mother and my daughter is not the relationship of Amy and Isabelle, I draw on my knowledge of the huge complications of mother/daughter relationships, as I am both a mother and daughter. I would describe my relationship with my own mother and daughter as rich, complicated and very loving.
TBR: One thing I particularly enjoyed about the novel was how you explored not just Amy and Isabelle, but also Fat Bev, Dottie, Stacy, Avery Clarke and even Puddy the school principal and his secret lover. Are any of these characters based on people you know, or are any of them taken from other stories you've written?
ES: I have sketched out some of these characters in previous stories (stories that never ""worked"") and I have mixed and matched certain details of people I have known, but all the characters in the novel are fully fictional, quickly taking on lives of their own.
TBR: At one point Fat Bev says, ""I need to talk, It's a kind of physical thing,"" but for Amy talking is something that doesn't come easy, it's as if she doesn't think anyone --- especially her mother --- wants to hear what she has to say. Is this what draws Amy to her math teacher, Mr. Robertson?
ES: Amy's shyness and lack of a father make her vulnerable to the attentions of an older man. Her shyness prevents her perhaps, from receiving attention from boys her age.
TBR: Hair is a significant symbol in your book...Amy hides behind curtains of it before her affair with Mr. Robertson, then as she becomes more aware of her sexuality she notices the beauty of it. Meanwhile, Isabelle's thin brown hair is severely pulled back in a bun or a twist. Is this a metaphor?
ES: Not a conscious one, but it can work as one. How Isabelle wears her hair is directly related to her character. Amy's hiding behind her hair is also true to her character.
TBR: There are several disturbing occurrences that provide a backdrop to the novel --- a twelve-year-old girl was kidnapped from her home, Amy's best friend Stacy's pregnancy, and a woman at the mill claims to have spotted a UFO. Why were these included and what relevance do they have to the story?
ES: They were included because they interested me. And they relate to the story because they are going on in Shirley Falls. They cause actions and reactions.
TBR: You look at a theme of an older man/younger woman twice within this book. Do you think that we are hearing more about this subject today since sexual relationships are more frequently spoken about? Or, do you think these relationships always existed, but in the past were couched in secrecy?
ES: My own sense is that these relationships always existed --- and that we simply are hearing about them more now. But I guess there is no way of knowing for sure.
TBR: Lack of honesty between the mother and daughter causes so much damage between them. Do you think if Isabelle was more honest with Amy about her own past (including the subject of her father) things would have been different? If so, how?
ES: Had Isabelle been capable of being more honest there would hardly be a story --- at least not this story. The story is about how we sit on secrets, how much they hurt us. And how we can be liberated by love (Fat Bev and Dottie are loving to Isabelle) and we can therefore learn, as Isabelle learns, to forgive ourselves for simply being human.
TBR: I feel you don't know the history of your mother until you have a history of your own. This book shows both sides of a mother-daughter relationship from the inside out. Who do you see as the best audience for this book?
ES: While mothers and daughters make a good audience for the book, the book is meant for anyone who can take something from it. Many men have told me that they have been deeply moved by this book.
TBR: Do you always have a story spinning and running through your head? If so, can you give us a quick insight into what you are writing next?
ES: I always have characters running through my head --- picturing these characters in certain scenes. Right now my new friends are rather too tender to bring out into daylight. I'm sorry.
TBR: Do you ever look back and wish you had written one of your finished works differently as your own perspectives change?
ES: When I finish a piece, I put it behind me and look to my future work. It's true that my perspectives change, but these changes get reflected in whatever work I'm doing at the time. I pretty much think what's done is done.
TBR: There is a buzz about this book which is building to a quiet roar. What do you think people are relating to in it?
ES: I hope, and think, people are responding to this book because I have cared so deeply about my characters and my reader that the reader ends up feeling cared about too. I also think one of the themes, self-forgiveness, is something more of us are interested in.
TBR: What writers have influenced you the most?
ES: The journals of John Cheever had a great impact on me. Also, Tolstoy, Oscar Hijuelos, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, William Trevor, Alice Munro. I love many, many writers.
TBR: What are you reading now?
ES: I WILL BEAR WITNESS: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer.
TBR: What are your thoughts on the millennium?
ES: I don't have too many thoughts on the millennium. Once in a while, when I think about it, it seems like a huge change --- but of course we'll just continue on with the quotidian joys and discomforts, which is lovely, really.