The Atlantic

When Memories Are True Even When They’re Not

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout discusses Louise Glück’s poem “Nostos” and the powerful way literature can harbor recollection.
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


In My Name Is Lucy Barton, the bestselling novel Elizabeth Strout published last year, the ailing narrator recalls her childhood with the help of her mother’s stories. Now, in a new book, Anything Is Possible, Strout takes us back to Lucy’s hometown—and we start to learn there’s more to the story. Not that Lucy was necessarily being coy about her traumatic upbringing, which seems to have been worse than she presented. It seems, instead, that some details are too painful for her to access consciously. In one scene in the new book, as her siblings begin discussing a sequence of particularly disturbing family memories, Lucy nearly has a nervous breakdown.

This blurry boundary between memory and the past is one of Strout’s main subjects as a writer, and was the topic of our conversation for this series. With help from a Louise Glück poem, we discussed the way memory works in fiction and how Strout balances objective, factual history with her characters’ more subjective—and sometimes more revealing—recollections. Strout also shared insight into her process, explaining the astonishing way that her own long-gone memories float to the surface as she writes. That experience should be the goal of literature, too, she

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