Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout has trouble with transitions, she says, especially going back and forth from her Manhattan home and her one in Maine. Books, she finds, help. She keeps a selection in each place that she’s looking forward to reading. Strout reads from her new book, “The Burgess Boys,” April 4 at 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, co-hosted by the Harvard Book Store.
BOOKS: You read a lot of writers’ biographies as a teenager. Do you still?
STROUT: I’ve been reading painters’ biographies recently. I read the biography of the painter Joan Mitchell by Patricia Albers and that got me started. I have two different Matisse biographies going. One is at our Maine house, and I can’t remember the author. The other is “Matisse” by Volkmar Essers. I have also read the second volume of Hilary Spurling’s. I like biographies, but I have a different view of them now. They are very much the biographer’s point of view. When you are young you don’t realize that. I also recently read the Philip Larkin biography by Andrew Motion. That was wonderful. The problem with biographies is that you know how they are going to end, and you are like, “Oh no.” I just read the biography of Martha Gellhorn by Caroline Moorehead. It was sadder than I had anticipated.
BOOKS: What makes a biography compelling for you?
STROUT: What I’m looking for is something that seems to be as agenda-free as possible in terms of the writer and the stuff we wouldn’t know otherwise about these creatures who live mythically in our minds. I read three Mary Todd Lincoln biographies. I got interested in her because I read “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read “Mrs. Lincoln LP” by Catherine Clinton. Then I wondered what a different biographer would say and read Jean Harvey Baker’s, which was more of a feminist treatise on how badly she’d been treated. Then I read “Behind the Scenes’’ by Elizabeth Keckely, a former slave who became Lincoln’s dressmaker.
BOOKS: Do you typically follow your nose as a reader?
STROUT: I’ve always have been that way. It’s an interesting way to go through the world. I’ve often thought you could build a school on this, just let a student follow his or her natural curiosity.
BOOKS: What’s your taste in fiction?
STROUT: I’ve been reading a couple books by Penelope Lively, “The Photograph” and “How It All Began,” and some by Elizabeth Taylor, the English writer from the ’50s. I just read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores”, which I found lying around the house. Now I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment.” It felt very close to the bone. Sometimes I shy away from that kind of thing so I made myself read it.
BOOKS: Do you largely read contemporary fiction?
STROUT: I go back and forth. Recently I’ve been reading contemporary because I wanted to see what is going on. I’ve been reading two story collections, “Stay Awake” by Dan Chaon and “Drifting House” by Krys Lee. Chaon was nominated for The Story Prize along with Junot Diaz, and Lee won it. Just as frequently I will go back to the Russians. I love Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Anton Chekov’s stories. I love his plays, too. I’ll read those straight through like novels.
BOOKS: You sound like a fast reader.
STROUT: I don’t think of myself as a fast reader. I just read a lot. When someone else might think, “I might do the dishes,” I don’t. But then the dishes multiply.
BOOKS: Did you read a lot in law school?
STROUT: Oh, I did. “Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov, which is a literally small book, fit right in my common law book. I would sit in class and read it.
BOOKS: Is there a way in which you’ve changed as a reader?
STROUT: I sometimes miss the sense of excitement that I remember having when I was younger. I miss that sense of, “Oh wow.” I think it’s part of aging. Although I felt it with “Stoner” by John Williams. I just adore that book. So it can still happen sometimes.