Having her new novel The Burgess Boys finally out in stores is a relief for novelist Elizabeth Strout, who admits she's felt the pressure of following up her last book, the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge.
"As long as I was working, that wasn't involved with my day, but now that the book is done, I've got all kinds of space in my head to worry. But I'm glad that people seem to be receiving it well," says Strout in a call from her home in New York.
Strout has enjoyed acclaim with such works as Kitteridge and Amy and Isabelle, which explore the inner lives and secrets of people in small towns. The Burgess Boys continues these themes, reuniting three adult siblings and forcing them to confront family secrets when the teenage son of one commits an apparent hate crime against a Somali mosque.
Strout was inspired by a 2006 case in Lewiston, Maine, where a 33-year-old man tossed a frozen pig's head into a mosque.
"It was a reprehensible act that occurred in real life, and the man who did this wound up committing suicide a week before he went to trial," Strout says. "I've always taught my writing students to write against the grain, not the direction that's comfortable form you. So as a novelist, I wanted to explore it from the point of view of someone who didn't understand what they did."
A bigger challenge was writing from the perspective of a Somali refugee: "As soon as I made the decision that this was going to be an enormous part of the book, I realized that I had to familiarize myself as much as possible." She spent several years reading up on the history of Somalia and attending lectures in both New York and Maine.
The Burgess Boys also takes its story from the family conflicts and secrets of the Burgess siblings and their community, a recurring theme in Strout's books. "Growing up in small towns, and in a culture that was not particularly talkative, I was always very interested in what was going on beneath the surface, or what was going on behind closed doors," Strout says. "You might see your neighbor briefly, or have a certain kind of conversation with him or her, but there was an awful lot that was just not known."
It's a theme she considers to still be relevant even in today's social-media-saturated world: "Clearly, so much more appears to be said; blogs are everywhere, and information is available to everybody. And yet, there are things that are not said, because that doesn't mean people are telling their deepest darkest secrets.
"I think that fiction still goes into those thoughts that people don't even dare admit to themselves."
She continues to draw inspiration from Maine, where her works are set. "The light in Maine is incredible, because of the angle where it comes in. ... There's an intensity to the seasons, where the summers are very summery and brief and the winters are very long and cold and dark. There's only a million people in the entire state. There's a lot of poverty. It's the oldest state and the whitest state of all the 50 states. And all those things come together to give it a lot of character in some ways."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Small town secrets."