Long Island fans of Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Olive Kitteredge," have a pleasant surprise waiting for them in the third installment of her Lucy Barton series. Following "My Name Is Lucy Barton" and "Anything Is Possible, set in Manhattan and Amgash, Illinois, her latest, "Oh, William!" (Random House, $27), introduces a new supporting locale: Montauk.
"For a number of years after Catherine died, William and I and the girls would go to Montauk for a week in August; we would stay at a small hotel, and we would walk through the tall grass along a tiny path that led to the beach across the street," she writes. "I liked the beach; I loved the ocean; I would stare at it and think how it was like Lake Michigan, but not at all. It was the ocean! Though, in truth, I have mixed feelings about our times there.
Though Strout now makes her home in Maine, she’ll be back here to talk about "Oh, William!" in a Long Island LitFest event at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post in Brookville on Oct. 25. She recently chatted by Zoom about how the new installment continues Lucy's saga.
I read that you wrote the first two books at once, that as Lucy and her mother gossiped in her hospital room about their neighbors in Amgash, you planned the stories about those people that comprise "Anything Is Possible." Did this third book occur to you at that time as well?
No, this one was a complete surprise. It came to me watching Laura Linney in rehearsal for the Broadway version of "My Name Is Lucy Barton." One day, she pushed her glasses up on top of her head and murmured something about William. At that moment, I remember thinking, "Oh, William!" And it came to me that, of course, he would have his story and let's find out what it is.
There were certain facts already in place. He is the son of a World War II P.O.W. who was sent from Germany to Maine to work in the fields — there were real people who did that — and he ran off with a potato farmer's wife.
That potato farmer's wife is William's mother, Catherine, and her story plays a big role in the plot.
This part of the book came because a college friend of mine told me about learning something unexpected and upsetting about his family on Ancestry.com. This seems to be happening to people all the time now. William learns that his mother had a baby before him, that he has a half-sister he's never met, and he asks Lucy to help him look into it.
Lucy and William are exes who have had a close but prickly connection for many years. Their relationship is the central axis of the book. Yet as it opens, we learn Lucy has just lost her beloved second husband. Why doesn't she talk more about that?
Her grief about David is too raw to talk about. As she says on the first page, grief is solitary, like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you. So instead she tells us instead about some sad things that have happened to William.
Devoted readers will enjoy the connection we discover between the Lucy Barton characters and those of your 2013 novel "The Burgess Boys."
One of William's many extra-curricular relationships during and since his marriage to Lucy is with their friend Pam Carlson — who is the ex-wife of one of the Burgess brothers, a parasitology assistant from Shirley Falls, Maine. I didn't exactly plan this in advance — it's all there and I can't help myself.
So does this mean that Lucy's world could someday overlap with Olive Kitteredge's?
I really don't know! I thought I might be finished with Olive, but she's certainly not going to die on my watch.
"Oh, William!" reads like a memoir, with Lucy telling stories about her past and present in a conversational style. "I already told you about this," she'll often say, "in another book." Is Lucy an alter ego?
Lucy is a voice, that voice is who Lucy is, and that is what I keep coming back to. I pretend with all my concentration that I am Lucy Barton, and I think how would I present my words. They come out with a certain breathiness, a hesitancy, and yet I hope clarity. I'm always listening to see if I got it correctly.
WHAT Long Island Litfest presents Elizabeth Strout
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25, Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville
INFO $50 (includes a copy of "Oh, William!"); longislandlitfest.com