Elizabeth Strout writes about the region of America where she grew up—New England, especially Maine. Strout is an eighth generation Mainer on one side of her family, and a tenth generation on the other. She was born in Portland, Maine in 1956, and grew up in Harpswell, Maine and Durham, New Hampshire, where she spent a lot of time playing in the woods and on rocky beaches. While growing up, Strout's family attended a Congregationalist church until she was about twelve but stopped attending when the church changed pastors. Strout now lives in New York City, where she has lived for the last two decades, but visits Maine frequently.
Strout knew she wanted to write at a very young age, and her mother, a teacher, encouraged this desire, buying her notebooks to record her observations of the world when Elizabeth was only five years old. Strout still writes in longhand today, scribbling notes on any pieces of paper she can find. Strout published her first story at age twenty-six.
She graduated from Bates College with an English degree in 1977. She then spent a year in Oxford, then attended Syracuse Law School, graduating in 1982 with both a law degree and a Certificate of Gerontology from the Syracuse School of Social Work. Strout married Martin Feinman, one of her law school classmates, and they had a daughter together. She practiced law briefly, but found she did not enjoy it. In addition to the law, Strout has also worked cleaning houses, as a secretary, cocktail waitress, and artist's model. She has served as a project worker on elderly abuse, and worked for Legal Services in Syracuse, New York.
After practicing law, Strout focused on teaching and writing. Strout has taught at Manhattan Community College, the New School. Strout is on faculty of the MFA program for Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina (a low residency program in which students from all over come the country to North Carolina for brief but intense periods, studying the rest of the time at a distance).