Author Q&A: Elizabeth Strout

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author returns to the titular character of her 2016 book My Name is Lucy Barton. Anything is Possible (Viking, £12.99) follows the damaged lives of the people Lucy left behind in a poverty-stricken American small town of Amgash, Illinois.

Anything is Possible quickly followed Lucy Barton and in some ways the books are two halves of the same story. Did you write them together?
I did write much of Anything is Possible when I was writing My Name is Lucy Barton. As I was writing the first book, I realised that the people Lucy and her mother spoke of in the hospital had their own stories, and so I would grab a piece of paper and scribble some scenes with the Pretty Nicely Girls, or Mississippi Mary, for example. And when I was done with My Name is Lucy Barton, I realised I had another book getting ready.
Is that story complete now?
I think the story is complete now, but I never know.
Is Anything is Possible an attempt to highlight the lives left behind by the main narrative of Lucy Barton?
Yes, Anything is Possible is there to show what Lucy left behind. But I wrote the book because these people were interesting to me. I felt the need to record their lives.

To what extent is the small town of Amgash and the characters that live there based on your own experiences growing up?
The characters in Amgash are not based on people I knew growing up. But I did grow up in small towns, and their lives felt easy for me to imagine.

The popular rhetoric is that the small town vote is what won Trump the election. Do you agree there is a chasm between urban and rural America and have you seen that widen in recent years?
I do agree that there is a chasm between urban and rural America, and it has definitely widened in the last number of years. The amount of money that is in cities these days – through hedge funds and foreign investors – has changed the nature of the cities, and the increase between the wealthy and the poor throughout the country has increasingly grown. This has become a class issue.

Can books help bridge the gap?
Oh, I wish books could help bridge the gap! That is my deep wish. But I don’t know if they can, if the people reading them can change their view on the other as a result of reading, but I wish they could.

Do publishers need to look outside the major cities for writing talent more?
I think it would be great if publishers looked outside of major cities for their talent. I think people leading lives that are different from city lives should be represented in fiction – and they often are. And this is what I hope to be doing with Anything is Possible.

This interview was originally published in Big Issue North in May 2017

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