November 11, 2006KR BlogKRReadingWriting

An Interview with Claire Messud, Part I

With her third novel, The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud did something every writer dreams about: received positive critical notice, and hit the bestseller list. Still, one can’t have everything; when I called her, Ms. Messud apologized for the noise in the background–there was a street cleaner outdoors. Despite the background noise, she was kind enough to talk to me about ambition, art, and what it means to be the character who cleans up the cat vomit.

Liz Lopatto: I was wondering what the starting point of The Emperor’s Children was for you. Where did the initial energy come from?

Claire Messud: Well, you know, as with any book, it was a convergence of a number of things at once. I had made a decision. This is my fourth book and third novel, and I had not yet set anything primarily in the United States. There are bits of other things that are in the United States, but nothing fully, and I wanted to do that. And once I thought about doing that, New York seemed an obvious place, even though I’d never actually lived there. I think it seemed obvious because–why? Because in all my moving around, most of my friends went to New York and stayed in New York, so it’s been more of a constant for me than a lot of other places.

So there was that element. And then, I wanted to write about friendship, and I wanted to write about ambition. And really, it was the characters. I’m a character–what excites me as a reader and what motivates me as a writer is an exploration of characters.

I started thinking about characters, and started in a way, with the father-daughter relationship, the Marina and Murray relationship. I was curious to try to write about a daughter who wants to do what her father does and is successful at. And then Bootie was–I didn’t have a handle on how everything would come together until Bootie came along, and he remained pretty important in my understanding of this novel and how it would take its shape.

I started it, as I may have said that evening, in early 2001 and it was to be a contemporary novel set in New York. And then I had left it to one side because our daughter was born in the summer, and then there was September 11. When I eventually came back to it, I felt as though I couldn’t change the date, or year–the challenge had been set for me. That was sort of given. I had been writing a novel set in 2001 and I was going to write that novel. So. That’s how that came about.

LL: You mentioned that you wanted to write about ambition. And it does seem like all of these characters want to conquer the world. How much of their ambitions are justified?

CM: Well, is ambition ever justified? [laughs] One of the things about–there’s an epigraph for the novel, about how it’s your personal myths, what it is you think that happens that matters. And I always have in my head the story of Schopenhauer, who published The World as Will and Representation in 1819 or so, and it wasn’t even reviewed and nobody paid any attention, and he just went about his business saying, “It’s all right. They’ll come round. It’s all right. They’ll come round.” And in about 1855, maybe 1835–at any rate, a number of years later, they did. And he was still alive to see it. So that makes him a figure of genius and persistence. But of course if nobody had ever come around, he’d just be a fool. He’d just be that crazy guy who thought he was so great. So is ambition ever justified? There’s always something insane about it, there’s something always unjustifiable about it. But what would ever get done without it? [laughs] I think people–I guess I’m pretty interested in people’s self-deceptions and illusions, and how important they are, how destructive they are, or how necessary they are.

LL: I’ve been reading a few reviews, and it’s been suggested that Murray Thwaite is the titular emperor, because he’s so much of a presence in the book. I was wondering how you went about creating him.

CM: You know, it’s hard to remember. I mean, I feel as though there’s an element of a certain–the attitudes of a certain generation, the unreconstructed man, that inevitably are a part of his character.

He and Marina are symbiotically connected. I can’t think of a moment where he existed in my mind without her. They feed off of each other. Always in my mind, they were linked, and there’s some way for me–I mean, I understand why he seems obviously the emperor, but that wasn’t my intention. In some sort of grandiose way, I thought of the emperor as the broader culture, if that makes any sense. It’s about the times that we live in. The Thwaites as a family are what the novel is actually revolving around. And my hope–or my intention anyway–was that Annabel should seem to be unimportant and relatively invisible, at least initially, and then I want Danielle to realize, and the reader to realize, that she is the one picking up the cat vomit, but she’s also the one out in the world, doing things. It isn’t just Murray, and it isn’t just Murray and Marina. None of them would be who they are without each other, and she is absolutely essential to who they all are. It’s about them as a family. And in my mind, anyway, everybody is in some way–they might be in love with one or the other of them, but basically what they’re in love with is this idea of the family. They’re in love with the family.

And in my mind–does Danielle fall in love with Murray because he’s charming and successful? Well, in part. But she also falls in love with Murray because she’s been in love with what it is to be Marina, she’s been in love with the romance of her friend’s life. She’s envious of a lot of things, and this is the closest she can possibly get to it, and in some ways, the most destructive she can be to it.

Which character did you sympathize the most with when you were writing?

CM: You know–I feel as though there’s a little bit of me in every single one, hideous as that is to admit. [laughs] But I think Bootie, for all his flaws, and Danielle are the characters that I begin with and end with. It’s an ensemble story, but they’re the strongest attachment, for me at least.

LL: Danielle has a very strong voice in the narration, and you can really feel her frustration that she’s producing documentaries about liposuction instead of, say, the one she proposes about Aborigines and restitution, which brings us to an interesting issue. Is she right to rate the liposuction documentary below the restitution one, even though the audience for the former would be larger?

CM: You know, I feel as though–it’s murky for me. I feel as though a lot of the ambivalence and confusion that I have felt in my own experience is somehow playing out without resolution, necessarily, in the book. Part of my affection for Bootie comes from the fact that I was a–perhaps foolishly–idealistic and romantic young adult who saw things in very purist, black and white terms and was greatly disillusioned.

I went to temp for a publisher in London who was very kind to me. And while imparting his words of wisdom, he said, “No book that’s going to sell less than a thousand copies”–which in American terms is a very small number, but in British terms is still small–“No book that’s going to sell less than a thousand copies should be published.” And I was outraged. Because it seemed to me that any book of merit–well, that was your job as a publisher, to bring to the light of day works of art that people should read, whether they knew they should read them or not. And if you believed something was terrific, you should make sure it made its way into the world, regardless.

Of course that’s simply not the way the world works. It’s just not how things happen. So by the same token–I don’t know, is it better if Danielle makes a program about comparing possible reparations to African Americans to the Australian model, which did make those reparations–if she makes that program and it costs a ton of money and nobody watches it, is that a more significant thing to have done than to make a flashy program about the dangers of lunchtime liposuction and how women can die from it, that saves a thousand women from popping by the doctor’s office? It seems obviously a more trivial undertaking, but at the same time, if what you’re doing is making films to communicate to people and reach an audience–if you aren’t able to do that, what, then, have you accomplished? I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t have a judgment. I have mixed feelings about it myself, and that’s pretty clear, I think, in the book. All I can really say with certainty is that the world is shades of grey. [laughs] That’s all I’ve figured out, it’s not black and white, it’s shades of grey. That’s not very much, is it? [laughs]