Tag Archives: dialogue

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Revising the novel again (and again)

Here I go again as the Hollies had it:

266 Hollies

Here I go again

I cant help it

Here I go again

Making the same mistakes

Heading for more heartaches

What can I do when there’s nothing I can do

I looked in your eyes and I knew that I was through

I’m gonna say now

Here I go again

Watch me now ’cause

Here I go again

Here I go again. It’s time to edit the first draft of my novel. Again!

Mistakes! Heartaches! Nothing I can do!

The mistakes

Believing I could work on two major projects and a blog at the same time was my biggest mistake. I’ve written about this before in a post called What I write about when I am not writing fiction in April.

243 New Age coverThe non-fiction book I have been involved in, The New Age of Ageing, will be published in September. We are still dealing with proofs, queries, index, testimonials, and other prepublication matters. It keeps my mind on the non-fiction.

The skills for revising a novel seem to need rebooting every time I sit down with a chapter. But it is now moving slowly, I am happy to report. And I have set myself a deadline (not for sharing yet) to help me move on.

Heartaches

Writing tog

Doubts, I have a few. Can I ever let this novel go? The issues and characters are very important to me. I like spending time with them.

Do I have another novel in me? Will I want to spend the time on it? If this one is to learn about writing a novel what would be the purposes of another novel?

What about another non-fiction book?

These are all dilemmas for which I have no answer, and I experience them as heartaches.

Nothing I can do!

With no current answer there is nothing I can do about those dilemmas at the moment. However, …

145 writing keyboardSomething I CAN do

Get on with it. In particular I need to get on with revealing more of the emotional inner states of my characters. In my notes I have identified four things to look at to do this:

  1. imagery
  2. descriptions
  3. dialogue
  4. closeness of narration to the characters (aka psychic distance)

And there is all the normal editing I need to do to sharpen up all the chapters.

It’s too late to worry about the risks involved, mostly the risk that it isn’t good enough. I need to rewrite, kill my darlings and nail those words.

145 Risk quote

Looking for advice

Any guidance, advice or tips for a would-be reviser?

Related posts

This is the 7th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016

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Filed under Books, Learning, My novel, Writing

Writers’ Residential

Three writers are collaborating on a book. How does that work? They began in 2014 and send perhaps twenty or thirty emails to each other every week. And they must meet two or three times each year to keep the processes of writing on track and in synchronicity. They must write about 70,000 words, on the topic they indicated to the publisher, and in a coherent manner that adds to the world’s knowledge of the subject. Simples! [Add your own ironic Meerkat cheek squeak.]

Our book is non-fiction. It is concerned with the effects of people living longer and it challenges ageist assumptions and exclusionary practices. We show how the population changes concern everyone, partly because everyone who survives will get old, but also because society, families and local communities need to adjust attitudes and practices.

Postcards from the Look at Me! project: www.representing-ageing.com

Postcards from the Look at Me! project: www.representing-ageing.com

We are due to deliver the completed manuscript to the publisher in early March. We have just finished our final three-day residential in Devon. I was not anticipating that the final stretch would feel any more creative than a slog. But our three days made us energised and keen to get on with our allocated tasks. What on earth happened?

Looking after ourselves

230 StoverWe haven’t lived this long without knowing that caring for ourselves is very important. We are good at celebrating successes, knowing that the Prosecco shortage may be due to our frequent celebrations. We kept ourselves warm, in front of the open fire in the evenings and enjoyed good food. We got some some fresh air and exercise, on this occasion a walk round the lake in Stover Park, and kept good hours.

Our agenda

We had planned for these days, exchanging ideas for our agenda by email from early December. The key thing about this meeting was that we had received feedback from three readers on all 14 chapters. We knew they would say the writing needs to become more consistent. But we wanted to explore how to do that as well as address their other observations and comments. And we needed to plan everything to be done before sending our manuscript to the publisher. We began with a list of all the things to be done and began each day by setting the day’s timetable.

230 TT

Key work on vision

Our publisher had asked us to sharpen up one particular aspect of the book: what needs to change. We decided to use the end of every chapter to do this as well as keeping it in mind as we revise the chapters. And we had planned a short final chapter to encapsulate all that. This became the key work of the residential, achieved jointly.

Mostly we talk, go through our many pages, make notes, but sometimes we write together. We do this with one writer at the keyboard, and dictation by the others, or the keyboarder reading aloud and adjusting and amending, sentence by sentence, over and over again. Eileen and Caroline have worked like this before, but it is much easier with two than three. But in the end we cold not see the joins and were inspired by our own vision of a future in which ageing is not assumed to be a problem.

We have found on previous occasions that the idea of a manifesto is helpful, even if it doesn’t appear in the book in this form. Creating a statement of what the book is about is a dynamic or iterative process. Working on the manifesto, shapes the book and the writing of the chapters moves us towards the manifesto in its strongest form. Ours has emerged gradually over the two years of writing,

I remind myself that I should have trusted the process. I realised how important our vision has become when I found myself describing the book differently the following day. ‘What are you writing?’ I was asked. ‘It’s a book arguing that demographic changes do not need to be seen as problematic and how we can achieve this.’ It sounded good to me, even if the words were not what I would have said even a week ago.

Creating excitement and new stuff from dialogue

Working collaboratively with other writers helps achieve these new understandings. It is a key process in writing together. Through dialogue everyone participates and you end up in a different place, one you would not have arrived at if you had been writing alone. And usually where you arrive is at a better understanding of what we want to say and why. This is sometimes called interthinking.

Try it some time. You need tact, patience, trust and an open mind to do it. And you get better the more you do it. Reviewing the process from time to time also helps.

That tricky and elusive title

The publisher wanted us to get to a better title. We have the one from when we proposed the book: Ageing Now. And a revision as a result of an earlier writing session: Living Longer Together. These are not considered satisfactory by the publisher. But she needs it now for the American catalogue. The three of us have been brainstorming away since December when she told us we would need to do this. We had asked her for suggestions, knowing that our previous publisher had suggested the title that was exactly right: Retiring with Attitude. No luck this time.

101 RWA coverBut we tried several ways to agree a title, including looking at the final chapter, our vision. In the end we sent her our two least bad titles. I expect she will favour a variation of one of them. I would have liked to give you the title, so you could run to your bookseller and reserve a copy of this book, but I can’t.

I think we have found the title harder than any other single aspect of the writing of this book.

Future posts about writing this book together

We plan to post every month about the progress towards publication in September. We think that there are some good things to share with other writers: how we write together, the stages towards publication, working with feedback, marketing and so on. And here’s some advice for free – keep celebrating and laughing together, even if it results in a celebratory selfie that casts doubt on the authors’ sanity.

230 3 writers

From left to right: Eileen Carnell, Caroline Lodge and Marianne Coleman.

Related posts

On the tricky topic of titles on this blog in November 2015

Published today: what our editors did for us in July 2014

 

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Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing