Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Strout thinks it was her mother who first told her about Brent Matthews, the 33-year-old man who rolled a frozen pig’s head into a mosque in downtown Lewiston in July 2006. Instantly, she thought of it as the material for a novel – the horrified Somalis who were at prayer at the time, the chagrined Mainers who faced a national press assuming the state was filled with like-minded racists, Matthews claiming it was all a joke and his horrifying choice of a pig unintentional.
“I thought ‘Oh my God that is just made for fiction,’ because the act is so immediately reprehensive and so awful,” she said.
Over the years, she’d told many classrooms full of aspiring fiction writers to avoid going to the page with their own points of view and agendas, to examine the character whose point of view is most difficult to grasp and find their material there, in that area of complexity and mystery. With Matthews, she thought, “What if you took the point of view of the person who did this?”
The novel inspired by that incident, “The Burgess Boys,” is just out in paperback, and Strout is slated to make two local speaking engagements – a benefit for Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project on April 4 and a free talk at Bowdoin College on April 17 – before heading out to promote it nationally. Her fictional spin on the mosque incident includes turning the culprit into an aimless teenager named Zach Olson. And it happens in Shirley Falls, not Lewiston. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the name Strout used for the Lewiston-like setting of her first novel, “Amy & Isabelle.”)
The book revolves less around Zach than his family’s response to his crime, ranging from panic to confusion to exasperation, particularly on the part of his oldest uncle, Jim Burgess, a high-powered attorney who lives in New York and can’t believe he has to deal with this mess in Maine. “During prayer,” Jim tells his wife after learning what his nephew has done. “During Ramadan.” Jim and his brother Bob both travel to Maine to dispense legal advice and counsel their sister, Zach’s mother, Susan. Both men, but particularly Jim, a former Maine attorney general, are practically allergic to their shabby hometown of Shirley Falls. None of these people are easy characters, not impatient, snobby Jim, or the almost pathologically passive Bob, or the parsimonious, sharp-tongued Susan.
But that’s the Strout way, as any reader who has already been introduced to the titular character in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Olive Kittredge” knows. Blunt and often punishingly bitter Olive was distinctively a Mainer, the one who calls to mind that woman at the grocery store who tells your kid to mind his manners, the person it is hard to hate – but easy to resent – because she tells the truth. And maybe the same is a little true for Strout, herself an eighth-generation Mainer.
“I did have a couple of people, after ‘The Burgess Boys’ came out, say to me, ‘Do you like Maine?’ ” she said, over tea at an inn near the home she shares with her second husband, Jim Tierney. (It’s in a midcoast town, but she prefers not to advertise which one.) “And I thought, oh dear, you might not be my readers, my ideal readers, the people that you just assume need your book and want your book and will be patient with your book.”
Not only does she not dislike Maine, she loves it. And Lewiston, where she went to college at Bates? That too. “I have always loved Lewiston,” she said. “Whatever is exposed, I don’t feel bad about that because I know was writing about it from love. Not that you have to, but I am just saying, that is how I work.”
Bowdoin professor Brock Clarke, himself a novelist (his books include “Exley” and “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England”) asked Strout to come speak at the college.
“She’s one of the best living American fiction writers,” he said. “She’s one of those sly writers who can work in different modes, different traditions, all within the same book. I mean, there’s a definite attractive streak of American Yankee realism in her books, but her books also have strong elements of satire, of social commentary, of chance-taking that you don’t always see.”
The social commentary in “The Burgess Boys” is one of the book’s strongest aspects, it deals with racism, culture clashes, intolerance and the slow process of assimiliation in an immigrant community. But Strout was surprised when she went out on book tour with the hardcover edition last year. Readers seemed to regard the book as a “family drama.”
“It was striking to me how (the racism) was just bypassed, it was not even mentioned, as though it wasn’t in the book,” she said.
In Seattle and also in Minneapolis, she met Somali readers who told her how much they appreciated the book. From Lewiston itself, where Strout spent time to research the story, she heard nothing. That might have had something to do with how hard those passages in the book are. The real life version is even harder; Matthews shot himself in the parking lot of Marden’s in Lewiston, right before his trial was due to start. “What was so attractive to me as a novelist was how messy it was. It was life,” she said.
She found herself uncharacteristically spent after finishing “The Burgess Boys.” “It was kind of like this knocked my socks off,” she said. “There was so much I wanted to get right, you know, taking on the Somali community and having read so much about their history.”
QUIET ON THE SET
There has to be some pressure involved, following yourself when your last book won the Pulitzer Prize and was optioned by HBO, starring an Oscar winner. Frances McDormand fell in love with “Olive Kittredge” even before the book started winning awards; she’ll play Olive in a mini series to debut on HBO sometime this year.
Last fall, Strout and Tierney had the surreal experience of visting the “Olive Kittredge” set on Cape Ann (no Maine locations, sorry). Strout had been talking to McDormand regularly during the process of bringing it to the screen, but she had no idea what to expect on set. The slow pacing of movie making surprised her. Take after take of trying to get beer foam just right, for example. So did seeing how closely the screen versions of some characters matched the people on her pages. Like Angie O’Meara, a worn-down woman who plays piano at a local bar in Olive’s town. Strout was falling asleep in her chair when she looked up and “Angie O’Meara was standing there,” she said. “It was Rufus Wainwright’s sister, Martha, and it was amazing, she just looked so much like Angela. And that was so cool.”
She and Tierney live part time in Maine and the rest of the time in New York, where he teaches at Columbia Law School.
For anyone who knows a little about Maine’s political past, this is the point of the story at which things get confusing. Or interesting. Jim Burgess is a fictional character who was Maine’s attorney general and was considered at one point a strong candidate for governor. When Jim speaks at a public rally for the Somali in Shirley Falls, he outshines the current attorney general and has the crowd rapt.
Jim Tierney is a real person who was once Maine’s Attorney General and ran for governor in 1986. Liz Strout made up Jim Burgess before she met Jim Tierney at a reading of “Olive Kittredge” in New York, when he stood up and asked her a question.
“I was writing this book before I met Jim,” she said. “Way before. I would never have called a character Jim if I had known I was going to have a husband named Jim.”
She had simply given the Burgess family 1950s-style names, Bob and Susan. And Jim. When she met Tierney she told him about Jim Burgess. He was fine with the coincidence. Even though Jim Burgess – again, not the sweetest of fellows – and Jim Tierney have similar resumes? “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said, nodding vigorously and laughing. He didn’t ask her to change it? No.
“People don’t ever dictate to me what happens on the page,” Strout said. “But he would never have asked me anyway. I never would have married someone who would have been the type of person to have asked me.”
Did she conjure Tierney into her life through fiction? “I remember hearing Ann Beattie talk years and years ago,” Strout said. “Somebody said to her, ‘Do you write things that have happened to you?’ And she said, ‘No, but after I write something, sometimes it does happen to me.’ And I have often thought of that. It is weird. It is almost like, be careful what you write. But one can’t be careful, that is the point.”
That includes being too careful about whether or not a character is nice enough. The Washington Post, in its review of “The Burgess Boys,” aptly called Strout “a connoisseur of emotional cruelty.”
“If I find myself trying to protect anything, I have to pay attention to that,” Strout said. “The kind of fiction writer I want to be has to be ruthless and expose whatever parts of human nature and society that I am interested in exposing. Like every so often I would find myself thinking, ‘Oh, Olive is so awful I should really …’ And I would think, ‘Just stop it. Let her go.’ ”
Character likeability has been a bone of contention in the literary world of late, with high-powered writers like Claire Messud taking umbrage at the suggestion her characters should be likeable and others, like best-selling writer Jennifer Weiner, defending that staple of commercial fiction, the likeable lead (“When did beloved become a bad thing?” Weiner wrote on Slate.com last year). For Strout, there’s no question of trying to make her characters more likeable. She points to the example of John Updike, who kept people like her riveted through the three “Rabbit” novels. Even though Rabbit Angstrom was “an awful man,” Strout loved reading about him. “People don’t have to like my characters, but I feel like I have failed if they are not somehow invested,” Strout said.
She might be protective of them after the fact: Susan Olson, Zach’s mother, who keeps the heat in her house so low that her brother Jim refuses to stay with her, could well be a sister to Olive Kittredge, prickly, plain-spoken, not about to fake it for anyone. Strout has heard negative things about her from readers. Her defense of Susan is simple.
“She exists,” she said. “Why shouldn’t her life be recorded with dignity?”
Contact Staff Writer Mary Pols at 791-6456 or at: