Pulitzer Prize Winner Returns to ‘Gate

Elisabeth Tone

On Thursday, October 22, novelist and former Colgate professor Elizabeth Strout returned to campus as part of the Living Writers series. Her schedule was packed, as she was involved in four different events during her short time back at ‘Gate. She reconnected with several of her old students at an intimate lunch on Thursday afternoon, followed by a question and answer session with the English 360 class. Later, during the public reading, she read a selection from one of the stories in her novel, Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pultizer Prize for Fiction. She continued her visit on Friday, engaging in a conversation with Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice, Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin and two graduate students that was streamed online.

Strout was at Colgate in theFall of 2007, during which time she taught two classes: English 217 (Introduction to Creative Writing) and English 377 (Fiction Writing Workshop). Seven of her ENGL 217 students, who are now seniors, joined members of the Living Writers and Fiction Writing Workshop classes at a lunch with Strout in the English lounge.

“Lunch with Professor Strout was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve had at Colgate,” senior and English major Welles Wiley said. “Getting the ability to not only have lunch with a Pulitzer Prize winning author, but also someone who you admire as a professor and a person was just amazing. We were able to have a great back and forth discussion about writing and other subjects. It was also great to see her happiness over having just won the Pulitzer. You could definitely tell it was a dream-come-true for her, and to see it happen to someone like her is exciting for all of her former students.”

Strout’s visit to campus also drove Pinchin to reflect on the time that she spent working with the novelist.

“[Elizabeth Strout] is a wonderful human being. It was a great pleasure to work with her. She is so clearly engaged by and interested in her students, which made it a pleasure, not unexpected, that her students came back to see her,” Pinchin said.

Strout’s busy schedule continued throughout the afternoon. She first met with the Living Writers class to answer their questions about the unique characters and motifs in Olive Kitteridge, as well as her own personal writing process.

Though Olive Kitteridge has been advertised as a “novel in stories,” Strout revealed that this characterization was a construct of her publisher’s. When she was writing and compiling the different chapters, Strout thought of the collection as the “Olive Stories.”

“The ‘Olive Stories’ give a sense of discrete tales, with characters walking into and out of each other’s stories,” Pinchin said when asked to compare Olive Kitteridge with Strout’s other, more traditional novels, Abide with Me and Amy and Isabelle.

The so-called “Olive Stories” are all set in the small town of Crosby, Maine, where Olive Kitteredge and her husband Henry live. Together these stories deal with adultery, eating disorders, hostage situations and a host of other serious issues. Olive shows up in every story, though in some she makes only a fleeting appearance.

“I decided very early on that the reader wouldn’t want to read about Olive front, center stage all the time,” Strout said.

Indeed, Olive is a large, arguably unlikable individual, who bullies her husband, son and almost all of the other townspeople who encounter her. Nevertheless, she also has a compassionate side that occasionally appears, such as when she is helping to take care of a young anorexic girl. Olive’s stubborn blindness often prevents her from noticing her shortcomings; thus, her image of herself differs from the way in which her neighbors see her.

“I’ve never written anyone I don’t love,” Strout said during the public reading. “I do understand [though] that Olive is not likable.”

Although the publishers branded Olive Kitteredge as a “novel in stories” as a marketing strategy, Pinchin noted that the book’s unique format is particularly effective for the story that Strout is telling.

“The interlocking stories are separate, yet form a whole. Olive is such a powerful presence that she can bring the whole together even when she’s a minor character in some stories,” Pinchin said.

Olive Kitteredge was the first novel that the Living Writers students read this semester, but Strout’s visit was not scheduled until the end of October. Pinchin did admit that she and Brice had a moment of worry that there was too much time between the students’ reading of the novel and Strout’s presentation. Their concerns were ultimately unfounded, however.

“The specificity of the questions showed [the students’] real involvement with the text,” Pinchin said.

Pinchin and Brice intentionally scheduled this gap in the syllabus so that they would, according to Pinchin, have a chance to get to know their students and the rhythms of the class’ discourse. Pinchin commented that this plan has been very successful, and she is “pleased that [we] had a chance to meet [our students].”

At the public reading held in Golden Auditorium, Strout read a large section from the story “Tulips,” and then fielded questions about the order of the stories, the characters in Olive Kitteridge and her future writing endeavors.

“I did attend her public reading, and thought it was great to hear her read the voices of some of her characters, namely Olive. She seemed to say Olive’s quotes with such venom in her voice, and it made the passage seem even more compelling than it already was,” Wiley said when asked for his opinion of the reading.

As with all the Living Writers’ lectures, Strout’s reading was streamed online. Whereas previously e-mail notifications about the readings were only sent to former English majors, notification about the Strout reading was included in the e-mail newsletter, “Gateline,” which is sent out to all alumni. According to Director of Alumni Affairs Tim Mansfield, 40 guests watched online on Thursday and an additional 20 to 25 alumni tuned in for the lunch broadcast on Friday.

Mansfield believes that these numbers demonstrate the alumni’s genuine enjoyment of and appreciation for the online recordings of these readings.

“Alumni are so excited that Colgate thinks outside the box to connect them with students and great faculty,” Mansfield said.

At the end of the reading, Strout revealed that her next step is to rewrite a “great big novel.” For now, though, she continues to revel in her current literary success.

“Sudden fame has its downsides: importuning fans, invitations that take one away from one’s work and pressure to write an even better book the next time,” Brice said. “Not so in the case of Liz Strout. She is absolutely lit up with joy, every minute of every day, about winning the Pulitzer. When a student at lunch last Thursday prefaced her question with the phrase, ‘When you won the Pulitzer…,’ Liz interrupted, asking her to repeat it. She said that, all these months later, the prize still doesn’t seem quite real.”