Elizabeth Strout: ‘My guilty pleasure? War and Peace. I read it furtively’

Her in-laws felt so embarrased by her reading it on holiday, they said: ‘Liz, that’s so pretentious, can’t you cover it up?’

The book I am currently reading
A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey. It’s an astonishing piece of work: so Peter Carey, and yet completely on its own, about a couple in the 1950’s who are doing the Redex Trial – a race around the Australian continent – with their navigator. The places the book goes – well, it’s just wonderful; it feels necessary.

The book that changed my life
Honestly, all the good books I have read have somehow changed my life. A good book creates a sense of opening – of the soul, of one’s life, of other people’s lives.

The book I wished I’d written
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. The cultural history of Cuban Americans is something I would have had no knowledge about, but boy, did I admire that book!

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
The Collected Stories of William Trevor. I credit him with a great deal of my ability to find my way around a sentence. What a writer he was; he could flip over a sentence so gently, and show the underbelly in a heartbeat. His work is always quietly compassionate. Also the work of Alice Munro has influenced me. Munro and Trevor have been like two bookends in my writing life.

The book that changed my mind
The Return by Hisham Matar opened my mind. It brought me into unfamiliar territory, and made it familiar; the sense of loss was something I understood right away, and I was so grateful to have read it.

The last book that made me cry
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus. The first novella in this collection of three novellas, called “Fear Not,” had me tearing up almost immediately, and I could not understand why at first. By the end of it, I was weeping openly.

The last book that made me laugh
I recently reread The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, and I had forgotten – or maybe I didn’t get it the first time around – how funny he is, how funny the book is in places, the observations thrown out. I laughed out loud a number of times reading it.

The book I couldn’t finish
I can’t remember. But I am not a person who feels obligated to read a book to the last page if it is not doing something for me.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Moby-Dick. I am so embarrassed that I never read that book; I feel as if I should start it right now.

The book I most often give as a gift
I give out Trevor’s Collected Stories like a preacher with his Bible. And people are always glad to have it, I have noticed that.

My earliest reading memory
Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories by John Updike. I must have been about six or seven. Obviously I couldn’t understand much of what was going on, but I did understand this: that to be a child did not pay. Adult life was where the real stuff was happening.

My guilty pleasure
Seriously? It’s War and Peace. The first time I read it, I was on vacation with my in-laws and sitting by the pool one of them said: “Liz, that’s so pretentious, can’t you cover that up?” I almost died. So now I read it furtively in the privacy of my home.

Anything Is Possible is published by Penguin. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP £8.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Elizabeth Strout

The GuardianTramp

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