I meet Claire Messud at the London Review Bookshop one sodden evening in September when she is London to promote her latest novel, The Burning Girl. Her normal speaking voice is gentle anyway, but tonight she is speaking particularly softly so as not to disturb book browsers in the shop’s basement. I’m conscious we don’t have much time, so ask her to explain the genesis of the book.

“Why this book now?” she asks.

“Yes, exactly.”

“Should I explain what the book is about?”

“Sure.”

“The book is narrated by Julia Robinson, who is seventeen and entering the last year of high school. She’s telling the story of her lifelong friendship with a girl named Cassie Burnes and the unravelling of that friendship earlier. I have been known to say that writing a book is like being a magpie; latterly I’ve said it’s more like composting. There’s an immediate answer to ‘why this book now?’ of having children who are teenagers and nieces and nephews. For eight years, I’ve been ensconced as a witness rather than as a participant in the teenage years. It also brought back to me very powerful memories of my own experience in a different time.

“Another part of it is wanting to write a book which is also about stories. My aim was… there’s this really great Nina Simone documentary and I watched it again recently and I wanted the book to be like jazz, to have a very simple melody, with riffs, to be on the one hand this very simple archetypal story about American girls’ adolescence and friendship and then I wanted it to be about other things too. One of the things it’s about is the way in which we need stories to make sense of things. We gloss over what we don’t know or fill it in, make it up, and we make it up with the stories that the culture has already provided us. The impulse for that aspect of the story comes from much further back, from my own childhood. When I was a kid, we lived in Australia and then we moved to Canada when I was nine and I kept in touch with my friends by writing letters. And then when I was about fourteen there was this dramatic story in the life of a girl who had been in our class. I wasn’t in touch with her but my four friends each wrote to me and they were each giving me a piece of the story, but I didn’t have the whole story. As a teenager, I made in my head a story of what had happened and it was a tragic story because the girl had died. I needed to have a story which made sense to me. I was aware even then that I didn’t really know what had happened. I wrote a piece about this for American Vogue and they had a fact-checker go through months of the Sydney Morning Herald to find a mention of this actual incident and when they did, it bore almost no resemblance to the story I had in my head. My first thought was that I’d made it up but then I thought, this story is just the official story and that’s as much of a fiction as anything else, it’s the story that the family or the police or whoever wanted put in the press. And that’s not the story in my book by the way! But it was that whole sense of how much are we making up stuff the whole time. We have points of fact and then in between the points of fact, we actually fill it in. We trust from experience that we’re more or less close to the truth.”

Watching my children grow up, I became hyper-conscious of the narratives of doom for girls. Every police show you watch, all the incidental stories you read. The assault on girls is constant, endemic.”

“I’m interested that you’re returning to female friendship again after examining it in your previous novel, The Woman Upstairs. Do you feel there’s still more to explore?”

“Oh, well, you could write a thousand books! I do in some ways think of the books as companion pieces though. In The Woman Upstairs, Nora projects a great deal of emotion and intimacy, which is very real to her, on to Serena, and that we certainly do all the time. In this book there’s that, but then also there’s a cultural thing as well. Watching my children grow up, I became hyper-conscious of the narratives of doom for girls. Every police show you watch, all the incidental stories you read. The assault on girls is constant, endemic and that’s what our girls take in. There’s this whole bit in my book where Julia imagines what it was like to be Cassie getting into the neighbour’s car. I assume it’s not what Cassie would feel because Cassie is a different temperament but it’s palpitations and terror and that’s ginned up by the culture. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience, but almost every woman I know has had that experience where she hears footsteps behind her and thinks ‘this is it’, but footsteps go past you and you breathe a sigh of relief.”

“Yes, the sense that an assault is inevitable and that by the mere fact of your biology, you are in danger.”

“And on some objective level that’s true, but to what extent are we made to be afraid? In Western society, we are being given the message that we should be afraid. In the United States at the moment, statistically, it turns out that immigrants are responsible for some really very minute percentage of crime, but if you go out into the general public and ask about sentiments, people will say ‘We’re afraid of immigrants because they are criminals.’ And I feel that’s a narrative that has been very effectively delivered. What would it be to live without that?”

“Anders Shute, who becomes the boyfriend of Cassie’s mother, is quite an ambiguous character. Was there a point where you wanted to make him a more obvious villain?”

“No, but I know how that story goes, that he’s a molester. But then if you think in the course of your life about the number of creepy guys you’ve had dealings with, in how many instances have they turned out to be child molesters? Very few. And that’s a narrative Anders has to suffer. He’s a creepy guy, he’s controlling, but is there a case for a lawsuit? We don’t know. It would be very satisfying if he was a molester and was punished, but that grey area is where we live.

None of us wants to be uncertain, it’s very uncomfortable, but I’m asking the reader to participate – it’s that Nabokovian thing of the reader and writer climbing the mountain from opposite sides.”

“There’s something I jokingly say, that I write these clichés and then frustrate narrative satisfaction. I feel like I’m trying to do something a little bit radical. None of us wants to be uncertain, it’s very uncomfortable, but I’m asking the reader to participate – it’s that Nabokovian thing of the reader and writer climbing the mountain from opposite sides – I’m asking the reader to climb the mountain. It’s that Chekhov thing: it’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad, it’s my job to tell you what these horse thieves are like.”

“I wonder, was it difficult to write in Julia’s voice, as a teenager?”

“Yes, because as a writer, I love a bell and whistle, I love a capacious sentence, I love a compound, complex sentence, I love a metaphor, I love it all.” Messud looks sublimely happy as she says this, then adds, “So I had to go on a diet. But this is not a transcript of a teenage voice, it’s not a reality-TV show. I had my daughter read it and she had some corrections for me. I think there’s nothing there that a teenager wouldn’t think, but it’s certainly more simply articulated and direct than certainly my daughter would be.”

“I’m fascinated by your distillation process, because your books often deal with complex ideas but are very accessible. Is that a hard thing to achieve?”

“I’ve said that when I interviewed the novelist Peter Carey he said ‘If it doesn’t seem impossible, why bother doing it?’ It goes back to the jazz thing, for me in this book the effort for simplicity was quite hard. Writing is also like being a kid, though, you’re free. I have a friend’s who’s a filmmaker and he makes wonderful films, but in order to make his films he has to enlist a hundred people and raise a million dollars. It doesn’t seem so free. I just need a pen and a paper.”

Messud beams again and, polite as she is, I suddenly feel terrible for keeping her from writing.

 

Claire_Messud_420Claire Messud is a recipient of a Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children. The Burning Girl is out now from Fleet in hardback, eBook and audio download. Read more
clairemessud.com

Author portrait © Lisa Cohen

Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and 1843 magazine.
@AlexPeakeTom

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