A Conversation with Claire Messud

Book Cover The Burning Girl

Claire Messud is an an author who belongs to many places, and thanks to some time growing up in Canada, we also get to call her our own. Plus, one of the novellas in her book The Hunters is set in Toronto, so it's totally legit. Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs was nominated for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her latest book is The Burning Girl, and she was kind enough to answer our questions about it. 

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49th Shelf: I read The Burning Girl during a week by a lake, which seemed most appropriate: it’s such a summer book. You’ve mentioned that Louise Gluck’s poem “Midsummer” was an inspiration for your novel—can you tell us more about that?

Claire Messud: Louise Gluck is one of my favorite poets, and “Midsummer” is a beautiful, melancholy poem about being a teenager, about the mysteries of sexual awakening on summer nights, the sense of danger and excitement, and the future stretching out ahead. It’s set at a quarry—and when I came to write about Cassie and Julia, I pictured them in such a place. I had an actual Massachusetts quarry in mind, but I realized that the very image had come to me through the poem, and that the emotions Gluck evokes hovered over my memory of that place.

49th Shelf: You’ve created such a compelling geography in —with the encroaching forest, the stretches of highway and, in particular, the quarry. There is something so ominous about a quarry in fiction—it reminds me a bit of Chekhov’s gun, that somebody’s going to drown there by the second or third chapter (though of course your story is more interesting than that). What about the quarry compelled you as a writer?

CM: In a way, I think an answer to this question is bound up with my answer to the previous one! More broadly, the quarry, the forest, the asylum—they all feature in the landscapes of our primal stories from childhood, our fairytales and gothic narratives. On account of those stories, we expect something from the places themselves, as if they innately carry meaning. I had in mind Hansel and Gretel, Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Domain, Elizabeth Goudge’s Henrietta’s House and many others—a wealth of stories that involve being lost in the woods and discovering something precious, or dangerous, or both. And of course there’s inevitably a Freudian echo.

49th Shelf: The novel’s treatment of time is so interesting—it’s set in the contemporary moment but through the perspective of a narrator for whom 2005 is ancient history. Julia, your protagonist, is so young but has this very long-view when looking back on fairly recent events: “You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now… Two years have passed.” It’s like the inverse of your novel, The Emperor’s Children, in which everything turns out to be epic and monumental. Everything in The Burning Girl is so small…and yet. Is this just inevitable when one is writing a teenage character? Or is there something here that interested you in a literary sense?

CM: It’s interesting to see the treatment of time in The Burning Girl in comparison to The Emperor’s Children—of course, I hadn’t thought about it! As a writer, I think you take each new project on its own terms, and tackle its particular challenges and questions without, in some sense, looking up. When you’re 17, two years seems a long time! I teach undergraduates who say “when I was young…” and I have to keep myself from smiling; but in fact, each of us is where we are, in the intensity of our immediate lives. And of course Julia’s life is in so many ways smaller than the lives of the characters in The Emperor’s Children, but for me, the book is addressing themes and issues that are no less universal, or big, or important—about how we are forged as people in adolescence; about how stories shape us, and particularly shape girls and women; about how little we know one another, even when we think we do, and about how much we invent—it’s just coming at them in a different way. My aim was to write a simple fable-like story about two girls’ friendship, like a simple jazz melody, behind and around which all these other questions riff, hopefully without burdening or obscuring the melody itself, so that a reader might experience the book in a variety of ways.

49th Shelf: I’ve enjoyed thinking about The Burning Girl in relation to your previous novel, The Woman Upstairs—both are about the complexities of female friendships and feature unreliable narrators who are largely invisible both within the societies they live, but also in the stories they’re telling (although I keep thinking about Julia’s swollen fingers, which are oddly conspicuous in the novel). What do you see as the through-lines between these two books?

CM: Certainly the two novels are companions, in my mind. They’re very different; but they share central thematic elements: female friendship, of course, as you say; and also my preoccupation with the partiality (in all senses) of each story, the fact that none of us can escape our subjectivities, no matter how we try. Julia is, I think, not unreliable in the way that Nora is: she isn’t willfully seeing the world as she wants to, blocking out facts. Rather, she’s a young person who acknowledges, to an extent, that she doesn’t know things; but is still compelled to fill in the gaps. Because we’re always compelled to fill in the gaps. It’s uncomfortable to rest in uncertainty—that’s a discomfort that both novels share. But of course, the truth of our lives is that uncertainty is where we mostly live, no matter how many stories we invent to try to make order and resolution. 

49th Shelf: Who are your favourite Canadian writers? Any recent or forthcoming Canadian books you’re looking forward to? 

CM: There are so many amazing Canadian writers. Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are, of course, writers I’ve loved since I was a teenager, and their work is very important to me, as is that of Carol Shields. I’m an admirer of Jane Urquhart, Lisa Moore, Sheila Heti, Miriam Toews, Johanna Skibsrud, Catherine Bush, Madeleine Thien, to name but a few… I realize I’ve just offered a list almost entirely comprised of women! Of course there are plenty of male writers whose work I esteem highly too—among them, Rohinton Mistry, David Bergen, Rawi Hage, Peter Behrens… I could keep going. I don’t keep up very well with what’s forthcoming, but I’ll look forward to any book by any of these writers.

September 4, 2017
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