Elizabeth Strout on Creating The Burgess Boys

The published version of Elizabeth Strout's newest novel, The Burgess Boys, differs greatly from what the Pulitzer Prize winner originally envisioned.

Strout, appearing at the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series on February 24, tells us the basic elements of The Burgess Boys, a novel about two adult brothers living in New York City who return to their hometown in Maine to help their sister when her teenage son commits a hate crime, are the same, but her depiction of them changed greatly. Brothers Jim and Bob have a complicated relationship; their conflict's rooted in the accidental death of their father, an accident Bob supposedly caused while still a young child. Jim, overbearing and aggressive, is a successful lawyer while Bob, meek and passive, is a legal aide.

"The central story is the same," Strout tells us. "The relationship between the boys is not that different. That stayed. What changed was my understanding of the characters. You spend so much time with them and rewrite so many scenes, that the characters just became more and more clear to me. That kind of refinement probably in some ways makes the book unrecognizable, if we could even find an earlier draft."

In the novel, the sister, Susan, stayed in their small hometown in rural Maine when the brothers moved to New York. She resents them and their apparent success. When her son throws a raw, bloody pig's head in the door of a mosque, she turns to them for help. As pressure on the family builds, sibling rivalries, barely contained in the best circumstances, explode.

Readers have had easily understandable reactions to the characters (in general they dislike Jim, like Bob and feel pity for Susan). Strout's feelings differ.

"I really like them all," she says. "People say Jim is so horrible, and that's okay. People can have any kind of reaction they want. I love Jim. There's a part in the book where hopefully the reader realizes why Jim is the way he is. I knew that all along so my heart was more open to Jim because for a long time I know more about him than the reader does. Jim was fun to write because he was just so outrageous.

"I love Bob. I had a very soft feeling for him. He was a little more difficult to write because he's essentially just a really good person and that's always more difficult to get on the page.

"Susan was originally a little difficult for me. When I'm on tour I meet people who really like her and people who can't stand her and I'm always surprised at the veracity of both of those reactions. I think there are Susans in this world, all over the world, women living in isolated areas doing the best they can every day. I feel that her story should be told with some dignity. She was certainly a product of her time and place. The more I worked on her, the more I felt for her and the more invested I was in her. The more I wanted for her to be able to get out of her situation."

Strout first wrote about the Burgess family when she was working on her 2005 release, Abide with Me: A Novel.

"I think of this book as having taken six or seven years but I ... happened to find a scene that mentions these Burgess kids attached to my second novel. Apparently I already had these Burgess kids and their situation in my head even then. That was [10] years ago. So they've been running around in my mind for a long time."

Elizabeth Strout reads from and discusses The Burgess Boys at 7:30 p.m. on February 24. Houston novelist Katherine Center conducts an on-stage interview with Strout following the reading. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-521-2026 or visit inprinthouston.org. $5.

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