Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Olive Kitteridge": A Personal Anecdote --Wednesday Journal

Tonight as we prepare for a heavy snowstom in Chicago, my thoughts go back to a warmer time of year.  Last June, Mark and I attended the Chicago LitFest, formerly known as the Printers Row Book Fair.  For anyone who loves to read, or write, or aspires to write greatly, or wants to brush elbows with those for whom words, sentences, and literature are passions, the LitFest is an annual excitement in our city.

Tonight I want to share with my readers this most inspiring of events, which was important in the decision to increase my literary output.

Perhaps my favorite fiction of the past year has been Elizabeth Strout's novel-in-short-stories, "Olive Kitteridge".  It is a deceptively simple but mature work, filled with quiet power.  The chapters stand on their own as stories, yet are arranged in a subtle chronology, creating a delicate architecture of emotion reaching its apex like a finely built staircase..  

 Set in contemporary rural Maine, each story is linked by the headstrong, contradictory title character.  Our sympathies are stretched in many directions, culminating in the final chapters' extraordinary power, in which Olive, like a great wounded beast, rails against the terror of aging, and comes to terms with her regrets over her failed marriage and motherhood.  The book slowly settles on the reader with extraordinary grace, like a soft and forgiving snowfall.

Along the way we are introduced to other complex, fully realized characters, in whose stories Olive sometimes appears only in a sentence, or as a reference,  or a fleeting thought. Even then, Olive's influence is strongly felt.   Strout's gentle style masks a ferocious imagination, and the stories emerge in surprising and sometimes shocking ways.

Rather than write a full review here (I will post one soon, after I have re-read the book), I want to revisit the Book Fair now, my meeting with Strout, and my impresssions of the day, just as I recorded it then in my journal:

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June 5 2009

It's early Monday morning and I am writing at my kitchen table, the table being a significant fact in light of our experience at Chicago's LitFest yesterday.

The excitement that had been bulding around the book festival was dampened, literally, by heavy rains early Sunday morning. Motivated by the rare prospect of seeing two Pulitzer Prize winners speak in person (Tracy Letts and Elizabeth Strout), my partner and I nevertheless fortified ourselves at our favorite coffee spot (Caribou in Mt. Prospect, IL.) and began the drive into the city. We live in the suburbs (a place seeming more like a foreign country to me every day) and fortunately found the traffic easy and parking facilities convenient and (relatively) inexpensive.

(Happily, the rain eased up after our 30-minute trip, and finally ended.)

Elizabeth Strout appeared (along with Elizabeth Berg) in a panel interview. .... I was immediately drawn to her quiet, practical sincerity. No large ego or literary histrionics here. She talked about her growing up in Maine, and how spending time with older relatives helped her to draw characters much older than herself. She addressed the audience with such humble good humor and generosity that I liked her the way you might like a favorite neighbor.

I was very moved as she described her worst days as a lawyer, giving it up to devote her time to writing, stating that she would rather fail as a writer than as a lawyer.

And I thrilled to her statements about how important it is, still, to write good sentences, sentences that produce a "sound" that allows readers, whether consciously or not, to take in the writer's meaning.

Strout revealed these personal anecdotes: she never took a writing course (although she now teaches one); she enthused that the names of her characters are important and described how she came up with Olive Kitteridge (a composite of an elderly aunt and a favorite uncle); she explained that she did not base the character of "Olive" on a teacher of her own, but that the character was vivid and fully formed in her imagination; and stated her belief that no matter how technology changes the way stories are delivered to readers, people will always need stories and will find them, and authors need to keep writing them.

After the presentation I approached the stage and she graciously spent a minute to chat with me. I asked her where she likes to write, if she had a favorite surrounding in which to create. With her characteristic warmth and lack of irony, she said, "the kitchen table".

When my turn in line came up later for her to sign my book, she recognized me and told me she was glad to see me; and in response to my final question, she told me she sold her first short story while in law school.

I came away feeling like I had just received the nod of approval from a new friend, who stood with me in solidarity as I ventured to create my own work.
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  1. Happy New Year !!!

    2010 New Year's Fireworks show

  2. I'm glad you had such an experience with the author. I love street festivals!

  3. Stan,
    It is a great Fair that I look forward to every year. If things work out, maybe I'll have my own panel discussion some day! I enjoy having you visit here.

  4. Great post Tom! I've not met any authors as yet, but I know I would probably have a bunch of questions for them if I ever did. What a great experience for you! And I'm sure you will have your own panel discussion someday, probably sooner than you think.