By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
So what was the germ or seed of this book — or handful of seeds?
One was wanting to write an American novel. Another was to write about the world I knew. And then Bootie was always there. For me, he’s the most important character in the book.
I had started this book in early 2001, when I was pregnant with Livia, and I had envisioned it in a certain way. Then she was born in July, and I stopped writing, and then, of course, there was September. I set the book aside, and when I came back to it a year later, it was a different undertaking. One of the problems I’d had in the first instance was tone — it was more knowing than I wanted it to be, more judgmental, more frankly satirical. Weirdly, the changes in the world helped me with that. History dealt my characters a blow that made me more compassionate and even indulgent of their foibles. History passed judgment on the preoccupations of my characters, so I didn’t have to.
So you didn’t exactly set out to write a 9/11 novel.
I was confronted with this problem. ?In 2001, I was writing this novel set in New York in 2001. Even though I had to start it again, it was already so present in my mind, it wasn’t a novel set in 1999, it was set in 2001.
People have said, Oh, you’ve written a 9/11 novel, but I was trying to write an August 1914 novel. In August 1914, everybody was punting up and down the Thames River and eating strawberries and having picnics, and then, a few months later, they were in uniform and being sent out to the front — an absolute disjunction.
Your editor, in a letter included with the galley proofs, says that this book has a character for everyone. Yours is clearly Bootie. Where did he come from?
Watertown! Oh, there’s some of me in each of the characters, and I suppose the novel contains debates that go on inside my head. Bootie is naive and has a very pure idea of how the world should be, because he hasn’t been brought up in the world he aspires to. His mother has great expectations for him, but, on a small scale, she’d like him to be a lawyer or doctor in town.
And the other “children,” Marina and her friends —
Then, you go somewhere like Yale, and with all these people who are your friends, it was just a given that they will go somewhere, do something. So I thought, “What would it be like to grow up with that?” It is a whole other set of problems. Does Marina want to be a writer because she really wants to be a writer? Or is it just because her father is a writer, or because she’s any good at it?
The symbiotic relationship of the famous father and his beautiful daughter seems very apt and accurate. Does she use his fame to her advantage? Do people like her for herself, or for her connection to him? And then along comes Ludovic Seeley — you write narcissists very convincingly.
One day, I was standing around the Harvard co-op, and I picked up a book, one of these best-seller things, about how one in 25 people is a sociopath. I took it home, read it in the afternoon, completely riveted, and said to James, I’m going to write a novel about a sociopath. But then I finished this book, and said, “I think I already did.”
So what was the main struggle in writing this book?
Initially, in the early attempt at the novel,
the problem lay in the tone, in feeling I had to remain ironically detached. Once I had the sense that my characters’ frivolity — their innocence, if you will — was doomed, not by my authorial hand but by history itself, then it became possible for me to be more fully engaged with them, to the point where their concerns were very real, and even moving, to me.
Otherwise, what didn’t I struggle with in this book? But there is also some way in which I wrote it in my sleep.
Just out of curiosity, how do you write with a literary critic in the house?
It’s perfectly easy for me. I show him stuff, and I want him to be my loving husband and the honest literary critic at the same time. It’s not a problem for me, it’s a problem for him, he has to negotiate that one. I have to say, it does seem an incredible gift in life to spend so much time with somebody who cares so much about the same things I care about.
So you have a household that’s dedicated to literary endeavor.
[Laughs.] Most of the time. Right now, it’s about changing diapers.
THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN | By CLAIRE MESSUD | Knopf | 448 pages | $25 hardcover