Claire Messud Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Claire Messud
Photo © Derek Shapton

Claire Messud

An interview with Claire Messud

Claire Messud discusses The Emperor's Children

Q: In The Emperor's Children, the introduction of a few outsiders into the world of the main characters drastically alters the lives of everyone. What were their lives like before the appearance of Bootie and Ludovic Seeley on the scene?

Well, Marina had been living at home for the better part of a year, trying to get her book finished; and Julius and Danielle were living pretty much as they had done for some time, each in their apartment. But the three of them spent a lot of time together – more time than they do once the book is underway -- in the way very close, old friends do when they are single and childless.

Q: The first chapter is called "Our Chef is Very Famous in London", which gets to the heart of things that a reputation one place may not carry to another. What made you decide to start the book with that?

Danielle – like Marina and Julius also, albeit in slightly different ways – is very much a New Yorker. Her whole sense of the world, post-college, has been focused entirely on New York. I wanted to begin the novel in a rare moment, for her, in which she has some perspective on her own life, some sense of its provincialism. All our lives are provincial, no matter where we live; but New Yorkers can often indulge the fantasy that they are exempt from this. It's harder to do from the other side of the world.

Q: What is The Emperor's Children about, to you? Where did the initial inspiration for the novel come from?

That's a big question. I don't think I have a simple answer. What's it about? I hope it's about what it's like to be alive in a certain place in a certain time. It's about a group of people with certain aspirations and expectations and limitations, and the way they contend with what is thrown at them. Probably in my mind it's about ambition, and what it means, or meant, and didn't, in that particular historical moment. And about confronting limitations. And about making a self. All those things. As for where the inspiration for the novel came from, it's lost in the mists of time. I began the novel (with the same characters but in a different form) in early 2001, a long time ago; and later that year abandoned it, because it seemed impossible to continue. It took me a year or more to come back to it, after failing with a couple of other things; and by then it seemed to have an organic necessity, an urgency in my mind, that has kept me from worrying, ever since, about where the idea for it came from.

Q: Murray Thwaite is reminiscent of a few journalistic bigwigs… was there anyone in particular you wanted him to bring to mind? And if so, will you ever tell?

As anybody who writes fiction knows, it's a magpie affair. To create a character, you take a shiny button here, a strand of hair there, a bit of tinsel from the garbage can, and build something which, you hope, will look like a person. All the characters in this book (and in my other books too) were created this way; and all of them – including Murray – contain elements of myself in them. I wouldn't go so far as saying "Murray Thwaite, c'est moi", but he certainly feels like a part of me.

Q: You live in Boston but chose to write a novel about New York City, focusing on its upper crust. Why this world?

I've only lived in Boston for a few years. I lived in DC before that. And London before that. It may seem illogical, then, to have chosen New York, but I feel as though it's a picture of my parallel life, of a life I might have had. I went to college in Connecticut, and all my friends moved straight to New York. Most of them are still there. My parents also live in Connecticut; my dad was a commuter. All in all, I've spent a lot of time in New York. It was always the city towards which I turned. And the dynamics of a group of close friends from college – that's also a world I know.

Q: We don't really see the story from, say, Ludo's perspective. Why?

Geez, would you want to? I shudder to think what the world looks like from Ludo's perspective.

Q: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the characters here aren't exactly warm, fuzzy, and loveable; many make some despicable decisions and/or comments in the course of the novel. What compelled you to write about such a lot?

I adamantly believe that characters should be interesting, rather than nice. I also believe that these guys, for all their faults and limitations, are no worse than most of us. If they were your cousins, you'd see them clearly and criticize them and still love them. That's how I feel about them. I have no interest in sentimental, saccharine portrayals – life's too short for untruths. I was just trying to portray people as I see them, motivated by conflicting impulses, given to shabby thoughts or actions, but not, for the most part, bad people.

Q: OK, so our heroes and heroines aren't all bad—there's an element of likeability there too! Do you have a favorite? If so, will you share him/her with us?

Ach. A parent mustn't play favorites. I have a few, in fact. But I'd have to say I have a soft spot for Bootie.

Q: Did you set out writing The Emperor's Children with the characters in mind, or did the plot form them? Is this usually the case as you write—and how does it affect the way your stories take shape?

Everything I write is different, so I can't really generalize about where I begin. But character is very important to me – it's why I write, I think; that and language. And if you really know a character, then you figure out how they would behave in a given situation. And the plot comes out of that, really. It's about trying to observe your people closely, honestly, and without imposing your will artificially upon them. If you make a character do something that character wouldn't do, your book is a fake.

Q: Our three main characters—Marina, Julius, and Danielle—are on the cusp of thirty. Do you see that age as the portal to true adulthood?

True adulthood? Show me a true adult! But I do think that in contemporary American society, among the bourgeoisie, many young adults aren't forced fully to take on the mantle of adulthood in their twenties. It's wrong to generalize; but for Marina, Julius and Danielle, at least, the combination of their vast ambition and their professional meandering leads them, at around 30, suddenly to feel it's time to get their lives together, with a sort of panic they might not have felt if they'd noticed earlier how quickly time was passing.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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