November 12, 2006KR BlogKRReadingWriting

An Interview with Claire Messud, Part II

For the first part of the interview, please click here.

Liz Lopatto: It sounds as though the emphasis for you is on communication, on the audience as well as the author. When you’re writing, is there something special you do to make sure you’re writing clearly?

Claire Messud: I write by hand. I’ve spent a lot of time, like Julius, as a temporary secretary–like I said, a little bit of me in everybody–and I type quite fast, and I type faster than I think. And stuff onscreen tends to look more presentable than it actually is. So I sometimes write book reviews on the computer but I don’t write fiction on the computer.

I feel as though writing by hand, I have this curiously ritualistic thing with graph paper and pens with very fine points. I write in a certain way, and so a lot of thinking goes in my head before it goes on paper. There’s a revision when it goes onto the computer, then I print it out and revise it again, and again.

I feel I’m pretty interested in the sentence, in the rhythms of the sentence, in the capacity of the sentence, in what can be said. My experience of the world–well, I think anybody’s experience really isn’t linear, and verbal communication is linear, so are there ways to widen that line? Are there ways to actually get more into a sentence, to make a sentence rounder rather than thinner, if you see what I mean. So those are preoccupations of mine, and hence the digressions–I am somebody whose thought processes tend to be pretty digressive, and it’s interesting because some people say to me, “That’s exactly how I think!” and other people say, “Why are your sentences so bloody long?” [laughs]

Clarity is important to me, too. There’s no point in having a long, murky sentence–you have to try to have a sentence that can be parsed [laughs] and can be understood. I suppose I also think that in a broader sense, it is like music, it is about having the precise word or phrase in terms of meaning, but the music of the language is important also. The narrative–any narrative–has a music, and the only way you can feel something is right is by feeling it, if you see what I mean. It isn’t something that you can–no craft lesson or knowledge is going to make it right. It’s a visceral thing. It’s about having the rhythms right, the movement right, the balance right, and so on. And that goes in the sentence, and then in the chapter, and in the novel as a whole. But those are things that I think about. Or don’t think about, but try to feel, if that makes sense.

LL: All this talk about the sentence has put me in mind of Gertrude Stein.

CM: [laughs] A great lover of the sentence with a very different sense of rhythm.

I do remember seeing it suggested in the Slate review that Iris Murdoch was one of the great influences on you. Who else might have been a strong influence on your style?

CM: You know, I read some Iris Murdoch fifteen years ago or twenty years ago with great pleasure–I must have read four or five of hers. But you know, there are about a hundred! [laughs] She wrote a huge amount. And I can’t by any means say I am someone who is well-versed in Iris Murdoch–and you know, my memory being what it is, I can’t even tell you what I read or what it was about. So who knows? An influence might be there, but I don’t necessarily know about it.

And as far as more broadly–who knows? Who knows? I decided when I was very small–it was just one of those things, I was a mule-headed child–I decided by the age of six that I wanted to be a writer and that was what I wanted to be. I’m trying to think… [laughs] Goodnight, Moon–that was a strong influence in my literary development.

Certainly now that I’m going back and reading to my daughter some of the books I loved as a child, I realize that in some way, my sense of what a good story is comes from that early reading. There’s a story that I’ve read to her several times, and it’s one of my favorite stories from childhood and it makes me cry every time I read it! [laughs] Every time I read it, and I’ve read it a million times in my life now, and it still makes me cry, you know, like “Good story, good story.” It makes me happy and sad at the same time. And there we are.

I mean, there are so many writers whose work I love and admire–I couldn’t say emulate, but certainly… There was a class in high school, where I remember really feeling, “Oh! You can write like this? Wow!” and it was a class in which I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Death of Ivan Illych–that was when I read that first–and Notes from Underground and To the Lighthouse, and I was sixteen. And who knew? Who knew that all this could be? And that was incredibly thrilling.

LL: You spent quite some time abroad.

CM: Yes, I was in Australia until I was nine, and then in Toronto until I was thirteen, when I went boarding school in Boston, actually, for three years, and then college in Connecticut, then went to graduate school in England for two years. I came back here very briefly to start an MFA program that I dropped out of, and I went back to England and stayed there for seven years.

LL: With all of that time abroad, was it strange for you to write an American novel?

Well, I think that’s why I hadn’t done it. We came back here, back to the States–well, my husband is British, so he came to the States–in 1995, and I think the reason I didn’t write anything set here until some years after that is because I hadn’t lived here as an adult. So I had to figure out what that meant before I could write it.

LL: Were there any specific challenges involved in writing an American book? I guess I am thinking specifically of diction.

Well, I know people say “Why is it full of Anglicisms? What’s with the Britishisms?”

And you know, I grew up for a long time in Australia and Canada. I lived in Britain a long time. My husband is British. I don’t actually have the clearest division in my mind about what words originate where. [laughs] So some of them–I know “lorry” is British, right? [laughs] So an American won’t say “lorry,” but there are things. I suppose I understand that it’s a potential problem in dialogue, but in text itself, I sort of feel like, I’m the author. It’s my language. [laughs] That’s my idiosyncrasy, that’s what it is. Maybe that’s apparent.

There was one complaint on Amazon–a cupboard instead of a closet. So there’s a cupboard instead of a closet. So what? It’s not unintelligible, and it’s not in somebody’s mouth. I understand it’s a problem if it’s in somebody’s mouth. And I’m sure there are many instances where that’s the case. But in the text itself? That’s the way it is, guys. [laughs] It’s like… People used to be appalled when I’d let slip I went to boarding school. But you know what? Life’s too short for me to pretend I didn’t go to boarding school. If somebody’s upset I went to boarding school, that’s somebody else’s problem, not mine. I didn’t ask to go to boarding school. [laughs]

So my language is messed up. If that gives me a bigger vocabulary to use, to make use of, then for me, at least, it’s a fun thing. An exciting thing.