Jessie Burton Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jessie Burton
Photo: Wolf Marloh

Jessie Burton

An interview with Jessie Burton

Author Jessie Burton describes the overlap between writing and her other profession, acting, and what drove her to work on The Miniaturist.

What was the inspiration for The Miniaturist?

I was visiting Amsterdam when I came upon this dolls' house in the Rijksmuseum. It had been built in 1686 and was a thing of true decorative beauty. The owner was a woman called Petronella Oortman, who had commissioned it as an exact replica of her own townhouse in the heart of the city. She had spent as much money on it as you might on a real house, and miniature pieces had been made for its interior as far away as Japan and China. I was so curious as to why she would miniaturize her existence, why she would purchase food she couldn't eat and chairs she couldn't sit on...and then there was the city of Amsterdam and its history. A place of trade and power, contradictions of outward modesty and bursting inward pomp - and the dolls' house was a perfect symbol of this, of the need for secrets, for control, for domestic harmony that covered over inner chaos.

The streets of 17th-century Amsterdam come alive in this novel, and the social structures are richly explored. Can you describe the research conducted to create this authentic world?

I researched as I wrote. I needed the fictional story to pose factual questions rather than just me absorbing historical facts and regurgitating them as prose. I could neither afford the time nor money to travel extensively to Amsterdam, so I read a lot about the social and art history of the region, looked at paintings, and used Google maps and moved through the city, parts of which have barely changed since the 17th century! I had the fictional skeleton of the novel in my head, but certain facts, like what pie they might have eaten and in what season, or the debts accrued with a tailor, or draconian citizenship policies, or the type of dog an Amsterdammer might have favored, would trigger my imagination and root the story in a factual, yet still impressionistic, setting. The facts that I learned allowed me to play. The priority was the story. Sometimes I conflated real-life events, sometimes I adhered to them in their chronological order. Other times, I rebelled, because it's a novel. I let imagination take control.

Do you feel your life as an actress has affected your writing?

I think the two disciplines are quite different! Acting is communal, it thrives on mutuality, of leaving ego at the door. In writing, you have to be director, actors, and also the draconian producer who makes sure you turn up and do the work. You are godlike. But I do think my training has aided me in terms of getting into a character's head - yet all good writers can do that, I would hope. Being an actress has given me a sense of generosity to all characters, even the 'bad' ones - to understand that being a human on this planet is a 360 degrees experience - that just because x says words to y in a certain way, it doesn't follow y receives them how x intended, or indeed even that x had even planned them to have a particular effect. No one is inherently evil, or a saint. Acting has given me an appreciation of the ambiguous, because the best playwrights often leave it open as to what the character wants. Character is fluid. Life is a series of reactions, lived in the moment and suffered (and repaired) at leisure.

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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Books by this Author

Books by Jessie Burton at BookBrowse
The Muse jacket The Miniaturist jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Jessie Burton but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Alix Christie

    Alix Christie

    Alix Christie was born in California, spent her childhood summers in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, and has lived in Paris, San Francisco, and Berlin. She has been a widely published journalist for thirty years, ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Miniaturist

    Try:
    Gutenberg's Apprentice
    by Alix Christie

  • Claire Messud

    Claire Messud

    Claire Messud is a recipient of Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Author of six works of fiction including her most recent novel, The Burning Girl... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Miniaturist

    Try:
    The Woman Upstairs
    by Claire Messud

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View all 5 Readalikes

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