Claire Messud’s three works of fiction (two novels and one book of two novellas) have attracted the praise of critics and the attention of countless awards committees. She has twice been nominated for a PEN Faulkner Award, once for a National Book Award, and was just this week long-listed for Britain’s Man Booker Prize. She is the present beneficiary of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Strauss Livings Award, which pays her a handsome yearly salary for five years to write. One honor yet eluding Ms. Messud may be that of being a household name. But her latest novel, The Emperor’s Children, a big, readable, ambitious contemporary comedy of manners, may well change that.
Messud’s work has often dealt with the ways people and families create and inhabit their own myths, but this is the first time she has trained her calm, steady eye on the most self-mythologizing of Americans — New Yorkers. Murray Thwaite is a tired old literary lion with a virtuous, long-suffering wife and a beautiful, almost 30-year-old daughter, Marina. Due largely to her father’s reputation, Marina has received a big advance for a book (about children’s clothes!) yet seems unable to write it. Orbiting this family are Marina’s close college friends from Brown: Julian, a book critic for The Village Voice; Danielle, a TV producer; and maverick magazine editor Ludovic Seeley. Into this milieu lands young Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, a sensitive, innocent adolescent and aspiring literateur who has dropped out of college and run away to his famous uncle. Calamities of all ilk ensue.
Messud, 39, lives with her husband, the literary critic James Wood, and their two children, Livia, 5, and Lucian, 2, in Somerville, Massachusetts, not far from Cambridge, where Wood has a part-time position in the English department at Harvard. She is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the L.A. Weekly. We spoke by phone and e-mail.
L.A. WEEKLY:You have written four ?works of fiction, three novels and a ?collection of two novellas. This book ?seems quite a departure from your ?earlier work.
CLAIRE MESSUD: It’s different in all sorts of ways. It’s the first thing I’ve really set in the United States. I’m obviously an American. I was born here, but I grew up in Australia and Canada and came back when I was a teenager. I went to boarding school and then to college [Yale] and then to Cambridge [England], where I met James, and ended up staying for eight years. We moved back here in ’95. At that point, I had never lived in a house in a town in the United States, so I felt I couldn’t really write about it. Of course, time goes by. I have now lived a huge portion of my life here, and felt I really should try to write about it.
Another way the book is different from the others is that the whole thing was written with kids, which means that my whole way of writing was different. Before, I was somebody who would go back to the beginning, not every day, but over and over and over. If I didn’t go back to Page 1, I’d go back to Page 2. With this book, time was so limited, if I hadn’t just kept going, I would never have gotten to the end.
In my other writing, there’s a lot of interior stuff — what they call subtext in acting class — on the page. For this book, I made a decision not to have that, to let the things and the people — the surfaces — speak for themselves.
In adjusting your writing life to the demands of motherhood, it seems you landed on the kind of narrative energy, surface and multistoried structure of those big, juicy 19th-/early-20th-century serialized novels. As I read, I thought of James and Thackeray and also Trollope. Trollope also pressed on with it — to the tune of 2,000 words a day!
I really didn’t have any models. I had in mind Buddenbrooks and Oscar and Lucinda because they both have short chapters. I thought, short chapters, I can draft them in a couple days, whereas with a 25-page chapter, I’m going to lose my thread.
Still, yours is a big old-fashioned authorial voice, and it makes a case ?for serious literary writers reembracing the ambitious, well-written, ?social-realist novel jam-packed with characters and ideas and plot — and other such undervalued 19th-century pleasures.
I certainly think that there’s been a problem in separating serious literary endeavor from the profound pleasures of reading. Henry James, of course, never did such a thing, and his novels all have wonderfully convoluted and melodramatic plots: The greatness lies in the prose, of course, but above all in their psychological acuity. But he knew the importance of a great read. Nineteenth-century novelists, of course, in part because of the serialization issue, were very preoccupied with creating satisfying narratives. Then you get into the question of what constitutes a satisfying narrative. I always want my own readers to be both satisfied and challenged.