In 2009, Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “Olive Kitteridge,” a novel told in sublime stories about the life of an imperious but nuanced Maine schoolteacher.
In her new novel, “The Burgess Boys,” Strout returns to the cold, fertile ground of her native Maine to explore the worlds of three siblings whose lives in the fictitious town of Shirley Falls were forever scarred by the horrific accident that killed their father 50 years before.
Jim and Bob Burgess escape Maine for New York City, where Jim becomes a high-flying, wealthy corporate lawyer and Bob becomes a lowly legal-aid defense attorney with a failed marriage. They are called back to their hometown by their sister, Susan, when their teenage nephew Zach rolls a severed pig's head into a mosque full of Somali refugees. The attempts by Bob and Jim to save their nephew from activist lynch mobs and relentlessly ambitious politicians have a profound effect on all three siblings and their futures.
Strout, 57, divides her time between New York City and Brunswick, Maine. She spoke with Printers Row Journal from her New York office. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: You use fragments of your own biography and geography in writing this novel, drawing from your upbringing in small-town Maine, the three decades you lived in Brooklyn, N.Y, and your background as a lawyer. Why?
A: My life is really all I've got, in certain ways. I wasn't a practicing lawyer, but my first marriage was to a (legal aid) defense attorney. I've always been tremendously interested in criminal law. It goes to a deep interest I have in prisons and the criminal element, and what we do as a society with it. I've always been touched by the idea of criminality.
Q: Zach Olsen, the Burgess brothers' sad-sack nephew, commits an offensive and careless crime against a local mosque in Maine. Where did Zach and the crime come from?
A: Zach was entirely invented. There was, however, a similar incident in Lewiston, Maine, which is a town close to my heart because I went to college there. In real, nonfiction life, it was a reprehensible act. But as a fiction writer, I am always looking to go against the grain, for you get more interesting material that way. If my instinct as a person is to say, "This is terrible and an indefensible act," let me as a novelist release myself from that judgment. Zach became very real to me as a character. There is nothing technically wrong with him, but he is one of those kids who is weird, very lonely and misses his father, who left the family.
Q: What inspired you to write about a dark family tragedy?
A: I grew up in small towns, and my mother was a fabulous storyteller. There were always different stories, different tragedies being told in the most matter-of-fact ways. As a very young person, it always piqued my curiosity. This kind of material was delivered in the driest of tones, with almost no reaction. As a little kid, I always thought, "Ooh, that's amazing."
I've also always been interested in families and how we try to run away from each other, and try to run away from the past. With the tragic accident, one would assume it shaped parts of the three Burgess children. The key thing to me was to have them scatter into their own separate directions and their separate lives.
Q: The dynamic Jim Burgess often mocks and berates his younger brother, Bob. Where does this come from?
A: I have a brother, and we don't have that kind of relationship, but it was surprisingly accessible to me. Who knows where these things come from? Bob is younger enough than Jim, and because they both lack their father, Bob would look up to Jim. While Bob is goofy and kind, Jim is who he is. He is full of a lot of rage. He was partially born that way, but in my mind as the novelist, he developed that way because of the terrible pressures he is under.
I know people won't like Jim, and that's OK because it is the readers' book. I have to tell you, I love Jim. You have the sense he would kill on your behalf. Most of the time, he's trying to do the right thing. He's having a crackup, though, and he behaves reprehensibly because of it.
Q: Zach and his mother, Susan, live in a grim, unheated house. How do they cope with their bleak circumstances?
A: I was very interested in place and the culture that it brings with it. If you get divorced in New York, you go into therapy and will talk to anybody you meet on the sidewalk about it. Susan has remained in the Maine culture where people don't talk much. People are not going to say, "I am so hurt by my divorce." There is still a sense of shame, and people can't communicate about it. With Susan, she has a difficult child to raise and a husband who has left her. It is more than she can bear. It's the culture she's living in, and she can't just reach out.
I thought a lot about Zach. I think it is absolutely true that people can die from loneliness. Zach's one of those people. He's so malnourished from loneliness that when his uncles come up to help him, it does mean something to him. Even if Jim is yelling at him, he's doing it with him in mind.
Q: What interested you in writing about the cultural phenomena of Somali war refugees settling in dying New England towns?
A: My interest always has to arise from a deep place or it is not going to be meaningful to myself or anybody who reads my books. When the Somali community started to emerge in Lewiston, Maine, I was fascinated by it. There were a number of incidents, but I chose (the pig's head incident). At first, I wondered what they were doing in Lewiston, which is a mill town that has been dying for years. I didn't know if I should go into the Somali shops. I didn't want to be a gawker. I read an immense amount about Somali history. It's very moving. I did not feel I could write from the Somali point of view if I didn't immerse myself in the material. I also spoke with some Somali people. I did all the research I could.
Q: In your novel, the Somali elder Abdikarim has a profound moment of grace, shifting the whole story. How did he develop for you?
A: I don't plan a whole lot as I write. I tend to write in circles, and Abdikarim came to me in one of those circles. Once I made the decision to have this marbleized Somali point of view running through the text, it didn't seem like much of a struggle to take him on. I loved him quite a bit. He's absolutely exhausted, both physically and emotionally. His heart is good, but it is truly broken because he saw his first son murdered in front of him in Somalia. Thinking about it as a mother myself, you have to imagine the unimaginable. Abdikarim didn't strike me as someone who would become bitter. There seemed a transferential possibility that he could see Zach in the courtroom and think, "My God, he's just a scared kid."
Q: After many years in New York, you are now living in Maine half the time. What does Maine mean to you?
A: My husband comes from Maine, as well, so there are family and friends there. Your question is a valid one. I left Maine such a long time ago, with steam beneath my feet. I have friends there I grew up with who stayed there, and I love them so much in a way I wouldn't have 20 years ago.
I don't want to live in Maine full time, but the physical beauty is very striking. It is the exact opposite of New York. When you walk through my small town to get a cup of coffee, you bump into five people you know. You have to think, "Do I want that cup of coffee?" It has a real coziness to it. In New York, nobody cares about anything, and it's heaven.
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"The Burgess Boys"
By Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 320 pages, $26