Interview with Claire Messud

August, 2017
Claire Messud From the very beginning of her career, in novels including The Last Life and When the World Was Steady, Claire Messud has delivered intimate, spellbinding studies of characters—especially women—coming to terms with their lives in far-flung locations, from Australia to Algeria. With The Emperor's Children, set in Manhattan in the early 2000s, and The Woman Upstairs, which unfolds in Boston, Messud managed to capture essential qualities of contemporary American life as well.

Now, with her new novel, The Burning Girl, Messud continues to explore territory closer to home, focusing on the coming-of-age of two girls, Cassie and Julia, in suburban Royston, Massachusetts. Friends from early childhood, Cassie and Julia begin to grow apart as they make their way through middle school and confront an increasingly complicated world of stepfathers, social pressures, boyfriends, and more. Ultimately their paths diverge in frightening ways, and Julia, who narrates the book's events, struggles to make sense of Cassie's demons.


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Goodreads: We wanted to ask you first about the setting, the town of Royston, Massachusetts. You describe the "Encroaching Forest" behind homes, the local quarry, and Rite Aid. Tell us about this town and what it means to you. Were you basing it on a place you actually knew?

CM: Yes and no. The placement of where the town is in Massachusetts is very specific to me, and with that there are certain implications about the landscape and also demographics. But the town itself is completely made up, though it's defined by a set of parameters that are real. I'm somebody for whom place matters, and if the town were set in, say, northwest Massachusetts or on the Connecticut border, it would be completely different.

GR: You focus on the friendship of Cassie and Julia and follow them from childhood through middle school and the beginning of high school. Speaking of demographics, there seems to be subtle class distinctions between them, particularly as they start to imagine possible ways out of Royston.

CM: The truth is that they're both middle-class girls. Julia's parents are professionals, college-educated. Her dad is a dentist; her mom is a part-time journalist. And it's not as though Cassie comes from any lack of privilege. It's just that her circumstances are a little bit harder.

GR: Cassie's being raised by her single mother, Bev, after her father died when she was a baby.

CM: Yes, there's that, and the fact that she's not particularly driven academically. One of the things that I wasn't so aware of as a kid, but I'm more aware of now as a parent, is how much is borne in us. I mean, there's all this stuff we're brought up in and live with, but how much is borne in us? There are kids who are just entirely their own eccentric selves and on their own paths from nursery school onwards, and then there are kids who are very easily swayed by social stuff.

GR: You also talk about their different ideas of "home."


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CM: We go through life thinking everybody's house is like our house, and then there's that moment when you go for your first sleepover and you're, like, no! I had a best friend in middle school, and I went for a sleepover and realized that everybody in her house went to the bathroom with the door open! And she made fun of me for closing the door. But in our house that was what was normal. There I was the weirdo!

GR: The story of their friendship becomes the story of how they gradually drift apart, for a variety of reasons. But it's also about how they begin to create their own personal narratives—from the fantasies Cassie imagines about her dead father to Julia's interpretations of Cassie's troubles.

CM: Yes, I think for me at least, the whole book is about the way that when we're young, certain imaginative stories are sanctioned. And then we have some idea that growing up involves telling "true" stories. But actually we're still making things up, just slightly different stuff.

So when Cassie thinks she's found her father and she makes up this whole story about how she might fit into his new family—I don't know about you, but there have been times in my life when I've told untruths and almost convinced myself that they were real. Julia is also doing that in telling us the story of Cassie, since she wasn't there when things happened. We live with the illusion as we enter adulthood that we're actually telling true stories because they don't involve angels, witches, ogres, and the like. But, really, are we?

GR: Then there are the realities of becoming teenage girls, which involves new dangers and "learning to be afraid." Cassie, you write, "was beautiful now, but she was also more clearly a wound."

CM: For everybody—but for girls, certainly—there's a lot of growing up that involves…the word that comes to mind is damage. Each girl has her own set of challenges, and those manifest themselves differently for different people. But there's no one for whom it's an easy passage.

I feel our culture has always wanted to believe that you have a choice about who you are and what you become. But the truth is that you often have very little control. Certainly, at that time of your life, practically speaking, you don't. You don't choose where you live, where you go to school, what you eat. You don't choose if your body develops early or late, or how it develops.

GR: Was it difficult to capture Julia's teenage voice?

CM: That was hard, and I had to come to some sort of compromise. In the first draft I was trying to make it as simple as I possibly could. But I felt at some point that I was sacrificing something. I think one of the things about being young is you have much more complex thoughts than you have the words to say them. I think I was aware that when I was first writing, I was trying to put it in the vocabulary and syntax of Julia's 13- and 14-year-old self. When I made her a little older, I gave myself and her a little license and leeway.

GR: The relationship between the girls and their parents is crucial to the book. In Cassie's case, her stepfather, Anders Schute, becomes a menacing figure, though we're never exactly sure in what ways he's endangering her.

CM: I wanted to leave that open and yet keep that feeling of menace. Also, there is the sense that Cassie, insofar as she's telling Julia anything, is suggesting things but not completely confiding in her and explaining what's going on. Is she just being a drama queen or is there something else that she feels she can't talk about?

GR: Even Cassie's mother, Bev, is a tricky figure. Toward the end of the book Julia's boyfriend, Peter, has several theories about who she is and where she comes from. She's something of a mystery, too.

CM: Right! In a funny way, here I am at 50, and life is more mysterious to me now than it ever was. It's not as if I feel I'm getting older and wiser. I'm getting older and more certain of the adage "All that I know is that I do not know."

GR: Did you want to focus on that period when characters go from a "time of unknowing," as you call the seventh grade, to painfully acquiring knowledge of the adult world?

CM: Yes, well, there are lots of reasons why that time is interesting to me. One is that I have children and nieces and nephews who are these ages. I have been living as a witness to that part of life for the past ten years or so, in different guises. I've been watching that unfold, that time of life of which you would now say, "That's one thing I would never do again!" I remember when I was going through those years, I was told, "These are the worst years of your life." And I was, like, "Really? Is that helpful to tell me now?"


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GR: Here are a couple of questions from Goodreads members: Yu-Shih asks how you would describe your progression as a writer from your earlier novels to the more recent ones And Sean wonders whether the range of topics you write about has changed.

CM: For a long time people used to ask me where I was from, and I'd say, "Around and about." And until The Emperor's Children, I hadn't really written anything that was set in the U.S. There was this long time when I felt I couldn't do that, and then I sort of bit the bullet about ten years ago.

So now I feel free in the places where I can write about. I still feel, though, that the themes that have always preoccupied me preoccupy me still. There are questions about belonging and not belonging, about displacement. Also about knowing one another, the gaps and abysses between people, what is communicable and what is not. Are we entirely stuck in our subjectivities? Or is there some external reality that I can touch and you can touch and we can commune there? Those sort of ideas run through all my work. I haven't found the answers, so I keep worrying away at it.

GR: There were several reader questions about The Emperor's Children. One reader, Tony, says that he's seen the book described as an early contribution to the post-9/11 novel and wants to know whether you've commented on that label before.

CM: I think maybe there was an event five years after 9/11 where I was on a panel. But I don't really think it's up to the writer to put themselves in a genre. As a writer, you're just trying to tell a story as accurately and truthfully as you can. I had started a novel with these characters before 9/11 and then afterwards wrote a different book. But in some ways it was a story about these characters in which history intruded, if you will, and changed the course of their stories.

At the time, I remember, I said that I thought of it as a sort of August 1914 novel. It's a novel of before, in a way. In one of the reviews that made me laugh somebody said, "For three-quarters of the novel, it could be any year." And I thought, For three-quarters of 2001, it could've been any year. And then suddenly it wasn't anymore. That was actually the point!

GR: What were your influences when writing The Burning Girl?

CM: In a way I would say my influences here were different. A lot of writers whose work I like are darkly comic, a whole strand of writers that goes from Dostoyevsky through Italo Svevo, Beckett, Camus, Thomas Bernhard, and Philip Roth.

With my last book I could say that strand was in my mind. For this book it was a very different set of antecedents. I know it will sound weird, but Greek myths and certain children's books were much more important to me. Tonally I was aiming for something very different.

GR: Do you have a regular writing routine when working on a novel?

CM: As a parent, what you used to think of as a routine can get a little changed! But for me to write—I write by hand—all I need is my notebook, my pen, and no children. And no demands from anyone. I can work at Starbucks—the loud music, the coffee machines, that's OK, as long as they're not asking anything of me!

GR: And what are you reading now? Is there anything special you've been reading over the summer or on vacation?

CM: I feel like I have so many things that I am reading and want to read. Right now, let's see, Louise Gluck, the poet, has a book of essays out called American Originality. I'm reading that and a nonfiction book by a British writer named Andrew O'Hagan called The Secret Life.

We also just came back from Malta—there's a big, long story behind the trip. It was like a roots project for me. My name is Maltese, my grandfather's grandfather was from Malta. And so I read The Kappilan of Malta by the writer Nicholas Monsarrat. It's a doorstopper of a novel, written in the style of midcentury realism, very Graham Greene-ish. But what's great for me is that Monsarrat is also telling the history of Malta, which is an amazing history and full of derring-do.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.




Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Chidinma (new)

Chidinma She's sure a good read.


message 2: by Mary (new)

Mary Griffith This sounds like an a.azing book and one I can't wait to get my hands on.


message 3: by Avsenajith (new)

Avsenajith This interview is a superb exchange of ideas. So interesting. Thank you.


message 4: by Helene (new)

Helene Trudel This is probably one of the best interviews I’ve read so far. So thought provoking. It definitely gives one the desire to read more and find out more or, more to the point, share into what the author has to say. It awakens questions one had while growing up because in every grown woman there’s still that little girl somewhere both with her questions and her curiosity about the experiences of others. A definite must read.


message 5: by Maria (new)

Maria Coronel Reminds me of Elena Ferrante's (Italian writer) Napolitan Novels. I hope this novel is as good as those.


message 6: by Eves21 (new)

Eves21 Really good interview, looking forward to reading it


message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary Very interesting to hear an author's perception of their own novel. I read the Burning Girl recently and it was more than a coming of age story.


message 8: by Emily (new)

Emily Dukes I would love to read the book! It sounds very interesting!🐱👤


message 9: by Nehemiah (new)

Nehemiah Yakub it was vry interesting interview keep it up,how i wish my dream will come true like yours may God help.


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