By Sidney S. Stark
Can you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes? I’ve never doubted for a moment that I could until last year after I’d been to a lecture given by Elizabeth Strout on the subject of how she structures her novels. In the process of explaining her approach to the start of her work she made it clear the characters always present themselves first rather than the narrative. Elizabeth’s innate curiosity about what makes people tick takes over and she has to find out what that character is all about. That explains why she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her work Olive Kitteridge which is so powerfully character-driven. That said, I found it even more interesting to hear her reason for being mesmerized by the people who beckon to her from that primordial soup she finds them in, and of course her faith in the creative process to reveal them.
After describing the start of her novel Olive Kitteridge as a vision she’d had of a woman standing at a picnic table set up in her garden for a family wedding, she explained she was driven to find out why the woman looked as she did and why there was a certain magnetic aura around her. Many novels start out as visions of a particular scene in the author’s head so that in and of itself didn’t give me too much pause for thought. But her comment that followed did. Ms. Strout said she’d always had a yearning to know what it felt like to be another human being; she was haunted by the thought that she could never really know since she could never actually be anyone but herself. She feels it’s that passion to identify with another’s life experience right down to the level of perceiving their soul that drives her to write in the first place. The writing is the best way to put herself, as it were, in somebody else’s shoes; and I sense also her way of coming to know herself better through them.