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.
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