Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Image Credit: NYT

When Elizabeth Strout was growing up among the cornfields of Maine, she would spend a lot of time imagining she was someone else. “I would stare at other people so hard, wondering what they were thinking, that in my head I almost became them,” she tells me over tea at the Bridge Theatre in London. “I was a very solitary child; my brother and I didn’t play together the way some siblings do. I would spend many hours alone in the woods. And I didn’t realise it then but spending so much time alone at such a young age gave me the inner resources I needed to become a writer.”

Now 62, Elizabeth Strout is one of America’s foremost novelists. Her books — among them Olive Kitteridge, which has sold more than a million copies and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — are peopled with characters so fully realised you imagine she has known them her entire life. In 2016 she published My Name Is Lucy Barton, an exceptional novel narrated by the eponymous Lucy, a novelist who has been forced to spend several weeks in hospital where her estranged mother comes to visit. She followed it last year with Anything Is Possible, which took up the stories of several characters that had appeared fleetingly in its predecessor. In June, My Name Is Lucy Barton was adapted by Rona Munro into a one-woman stage show; it opened at the Bridge, directed by Richard Eyre and starring the American actress Laura Linney.

It’s not the first time that Strout will see her characters made flesh: in 2001 Elizabeth Shue starred in a TV adaptation of her debut novel Amy and Isabelle; then, in 2015, Frances McDormand won an Emmy for her performance in the title role of a miniseries based on Olive Kitteridge. “They did a great job with Olive Kitteridge but to be honest, I thought Frances McDormand was way too pretty for my Olive,” Strout confides with a laugh. “But Laura is perfect as Lucy. It’s odd, I’ve only recently been thinking about that novel in terms of my own life. It must have been something about watching the rehearsals. I thought, ‘Oh, Lucy, she’s so ruthless. She’s as blind as a bat and yet off she goes through life.’ I realised that one could have said the same about me.”

The similarities between Strout and Lucy Barton don’t end there. Both have fled conservative upbringings in rural America to become successful writers in New York. Both are on their second marriage (Strout’s husband, James Tierney, is the former Maine attorney general). And both have grown-up daughters — Barton has two; Strout has one, 35-year-old Zarina, from her first marriage to Martin Feinman, whom she met when they were both studying at law school in New York.

Moreover, both have complicated family backgrounds. In Strout’s novel, Lucy and her two siblings grow up dirt-poor; their home is a garage. Her mother loves Lucy fiercely — but she also abuses her physically. For Lucy, the act of confronting her mother’s behaviour many years later becomes an act of forgiveness.

There was no abuse in Strout’s family but there was trauma of a different sort: her maternal grandfather committed suicide in his 50s, yet the profound impact on her mother was never discussed.

“I am very interested in how damage that no one talks about can reverberate through generations,” Strout says now. “I don’t know if this is why I became a writer. But from my earliest memory I always understood that I was a writer, and my mother encouraged it. Perhaps her silence was trying to come out through me.” Strout has never written directly about her mother, a former high school English teacher, now in her 90s. “I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she says. “She is so impenetrable to me. But there is obviously something I must have with her since I write so often about mother-daughter relationships. My generation changed their way of parenting: we are much more open with our children. But Maine is very puritanical, and that closeness between the generations wasn’t part of the culture back then. When I had my daughter it was incredibly restorative for me. I raised her in New York and I was able to hug her and kiss her all I wanted. Finally, it was allowed.”

Strout was in her 20s when she left Maine. “I used to joke that there was some mutation of genes. Because I just came out different. I can remember my father, who was a lovely man but not at all talkative, saying at the dinner table: ‘Elizabeth, less talk, more eat’. I had this inquisitive spirit that somehow understood there was something over the horizon.”

She wouldn’t publish Amy and Isabelle until she was 42. But throughout her 20s and 30s, first while working as a waitress and later after enrolling in law school, she would submit short stories to The New Yorker. “Each time I would get a rejection letter back, but they would be longer and nicer rejections each time. Then one day the editor called me and said: ‘Don’t stop because you are better than about 90 per cent of what comes over my desk, but you are not there yet.’

“And I knew he was right. Even before he had said it I knew my work was not yet good enough. And I thought — if I keep doing this I will get to the point where it will be good enough. Now I think, thank God no one took any notice of me while I was learning. It would have been bad for me.”

Strout taught herself to write by reading the classics. “Tolstoy: I kept going over him. I read all the Russians. And William Trevor. He can flip a sentence over so quietly. But all the time I was looking for my voice, and how to get it into a sentence that was muscular enough to convey everything I felt. Because I felt so many things.”

This reminds me of something Lucy says at the end of My Name Is Lucy Barton: “All life amazes me.” In the book, an older novelist tells Lucy that writers need to approach the page “with a heart as open as the heart of God”. It’s a philosophy that Strout applies to her own work.

“I realised early on that to write the sort of novels I want to put out in the world, one can’t go to the page with an agenda,” she says. “One’s job is to simply report on people and to love them all.” In Strout’s case, most of those people live in Maine or Illinois. Some are caught in bad marriages; others have left bad marriages and found a degree of freedom. Yet more are trapped by poverty. “In every rural town that I’ve ever known there is always some family that is so poor and so peculiar that they are ostracised by everybody,” says Strout, whose own family may have lived modestly, in rural isolation, but was not poor — her father worked as a parasitologist. “And I see those children. I see them all the time. As a child, we were fed this myth that America didn’t have a class system, that we were all middle-class. But as I grow older, I become more and more aware that we are absolutely not.”

Which isn’t to say that she wants the reader to pity her characters who live in an America she was so desperate to leave. “I’m always sympathetic to people who can’t get out but it’s not a tragedy,” she says. “It might be tragic from my point of view but it’s their life. There are so many lives in this world, and we are a self-selecting bunch of people. We stick with those we are comfortable with. If I can possibly show a life that we wouldn’t otherwise know then maybe we can be more empathetic.”

A few years ago, Strout and Tierney bought a second home in her home town and she now splits her time between New York and Maine. Even after all her successes, she remains a curious mixture of ambition and self-effacement. When she was younger, she read the biography of Edna St Vincent Millay, a poet from Maine who won a Pulitzer. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’d like to win that.’ And I did. And that was pretty great. But I was in my 50s when I won it, so it didn’t change anything.”

Still, I say, it must have made her parents pretty proud? “My dad had died by then, which was very sad as he would have loved it,” she says. “I have no idea what my mother thought. But I’ve been re-reading my journals over the last year and the other day I picked out this entry. It’s so funny. I wrote: ‘So I have won the Pulitzer, and this seems to impress people.’ I thought, ‘Oh, Strout, you might live in New York, but you’ve never left Maine’.”

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018