Elizabeth Strout and Billy Collins

Last week was a literary smorgasbord, which is the best kind of smorgasbord short of cornucopias of food. If not food, then books, I say. Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge, was in town doing a reading preceded by an intimate, entertaining Q & A. You don’t meet a lot of writers who used to study law while secretly reading Nabokov concealed in a textbook. You also don’t meet a lot of writers who know small towns and can write about them so effectively despite living in New York City. And you definitely don’t meet a lot of writers who, when answering a question, say, “I don’t know. But that’s not an interesting answer, is it? Let me make something up.”

Strout was chatty and affable and talked in depth about Olive Kitteridge, the ornery main character and the linked stories that revolve around her. It was like having a book club with the author.

I love to hear writers talk about their writing schedule and discipline and while Strout didn’t lay on the guilt trip I sometimes need to hear (as in, I rise at 5 a.m. and write until noon, eat some nuts, and then write for another 17 hours), she did say, “Writing is serious stuff” and that it should be treated with gravitas. Yes, approaching one’s writing half-heartedly rarely earns one a Pulitzer, which she was too humble to say, and that reminder is a good one. She also writes anywhere—the kitchen table, the subway, the library—and is constantly revising, quite a trick for a writer who writes by hand.

That same night, I caught poet Billy Collins at the MFA reading some new poems and some old favorites. He’s always delightful to listen to. One minute he’s stabbing you in the heart with a sad poem and then he’s making you laugh like a school girl. When he does both, he’s at his best. He said he likes to write poems that start funny and get serious or poems that start serious and get funny—a brilliant concept and one I wish I had employed in this post. Pretend it happened.

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