The Pulitzer Prize winner takes questions from Real Simple’s No-Obligation Book Club.
The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel and our May read, is gorgeously written and deeply involving, and like any family epic (or family, for that matter), it has its secrets, which are slowly revealed over its course. So I cannot urge you enough to stop reading here if you have not yet finished the book, because the author very particularly discusses plot points that should not be revealed outside of her pages. So...SPOILER ALERT!! That said, enjoy!
From reader dconnolly: I read somewhere that Elizabeth Strout said that she loves hearing strangers talking on cell phones. My first question: Are there examples of this in Burgess Boys—specific lines or thoughts that she picked up from hearing a partial conversation from a complete stranger? My second question: Is there a secondary character that she became particularly attached to? And, finally, what was her overall inspiration for beginning this novel?
Good question about the cell phone! In an earlier draft of the book, I did, in fact, use a few things I had overheard, but as I reworked the book I saw they did not really fit, were not needed, and so they did not make the cut.
Was there a secondary character I became attached to? Pam. Perhaps she is not secondary, but for a long while I was not sure about her, even whether or not she belonged in the book. But I saw that she was a deep part of Bob; I could hardly write about him without having her there too, and she was a real part of the Burgess family, in a way. I began to understand that she was one of the many people who have to find a new way of staying engaged as families are rearranged, but mostly I was interested in her relationship to Bob, and she touched me the more I worked with her. Mrs. Drinkwater was also someone I gave a great deal of thought to—her own private story of how she made a cultural and class change herself; what she gained by that, what she lost.
My overall inspiration for the book? The brothers. Their love for each other.
From reader karingam: What were the main influences for you when creating this novel? There are so many in-depth messages and themes jumping out. Which ones were you the most passionate about?
There is a lot of stuff in here, it’s true. What was my main influence in writing this, and what was I most passionate about? I think I was mostly compelled by a sense that life is only partly written by ourselves, and the mystery of where the rest of it comes from is huge: the randomness of events that cast their shadows for decades, the randomness of our own natures, the time we are born into (civil war for the Somalis, affluence down the coast for Jim Burgess). And memory, of course, which is its own fiction, truer than fact. But I suppose what I was most passionate about was how these themes are all connected. Marriage is not separate from class (Mrs. Drinkwater, Helen Farber Burgess…..), or the memories we’re running from, or what our sense of home might be. How we react to the marriage won’t be separate from those things either. And traditionally America has always held out that hope that we can reinvent ourselves. All of this—all these aspects touching—interested me.
From reader himmel: Of course the big question at the end of the book is what did Jim do when he reached New York. I kind of like that the story ends there...leaving all kinds of possibilities for change! But I would LOVE to know how Elizabeth Strout has it end in her mind?
Oh, what happens to Helen and Jim—oh, yes, that’s the question! I wondered about this a great deal as it became clear to me that their marriage would get ripped. And I went back and forth and kept thinking: well, I don’t have to decide that now. And then I understood that I didn’t have to decide at all, that readers could decide because most of the material of who these people are had been given to them. But there is always a question, always a mystery. At times I thought: She should not let him come back. Go out there and grow, Helen. Then I would think, She has to let him back. They love each other (I think they do) and while it’s easy to see Jim as the one who erred, she, remember, has not always been supportive of his background, his family, has thought herself better than they. So both Helen and Jim have some work to do, and I would be more worried about her ability to do it than his. But I think he goes back and begs, and she takes him back. That’s what I think now. They’ll be marked. But life marks us.
From discussion leader Stephanie Sisco: The narrator introduced to us in the prologue was so intrigued by the Burgess boys’ saga that she decided to write about it. Did you have a similar experience in your life that sparked the idea for this novel?
I have discussions like this all the time, with my mother, with friends; that fun sense of a dreamy kind of “Did I ever tell you about…..?” Or, “Hey, remember that guy who used to….?” My mother, my daughter—we love this form of recreation, and it’s a form of storytelling, which moves into Maura Fritz’s question of why I started the book this way. [Ed. note: Here are those questions: Why did you decide to open the book that way? Who do you envision being the author? One point that came out in discussion was the true nature of Jim's character: Do you see him as a born bully? Did you find yourself feeling more or less sympathetic toward Jim and the rest of your characters as you wrote them?] I just wanted to. I wanted it to have that sense of, Here is a story. The author is the author (me), but the narrator is the woman in the prologue (not me.) Also, lots of information gets in there that clears the way to go ahead and start the story; we know things about them before the curtain goes up, and I liked that idea.
Jim. I loved Jim. I understand many people don’t. But I do not think he was born a bully. Many bullies are very frightened people, and I thought Jim was one of the most frightened people in the book, and he had been frightened ever since that day he thought he killed his father. And then he never told, and it just ate at him, put him in a state of anxiety that he could never break out from. Someone wrote me that they thought Jim was evil, and that reminded me that people bring their own life experiences to a book, which is of course how it should be. To me Jim was not evil, very few people are actually evil, I think, though some are; but for me, Jim was not one of them. Just very human. Caught in a trap. Scared. I loved him.