15 Questions: Claire Messud

Claire Messud is the newest addition to Harvard’s creative writing faculty, and an acclaimed novelist, speaker, and lecturer. Her novel, The Emperor’s Children, was a New York Times bestseller. In 2002, she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. She lives in Somerville with her husband, fellow Harvard English Professor James Wood. She leads two fiction workshops.
By Bovey Rao

Claire Messud is the newest addition to Harvard’s creative writing faculty, and an acclaimed novelist, speaker, and lecturer. Her novel, The Emperor’s Children, was a New York Times bestseller. In 2002, she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. She lives in Somerville with her husband, fellow Harvard English Professor James Wood. She leads two fiction workshops.

FM: What first made you want to become a writer?

CM: Oh, that should be an easy question, but I think the honest answer is that even when I was a kid, I loved stories, and so when I realized as a child that stories were written by people, I said I wanted to do that.

FM: What inspired your first novel, When the World Was Steady (1995)?

CM: So, my first novel … started as a bunch of short series as a senior project in college. I was writing stories about a family, about a set of characters, and then I went to graduate school eventually. I started again. I didn’t use the stories that I had, but I was still writing with those characters. Those are the characters who became the characters in my first novel. So, you could say I started it in graduate school, or you could also say I started in college.

FM: What did it feel like to finish your first novel?

CM: You know, in a funny way, I always wonder if anything is ever finished. You always feel like you could change more, you could keep working, and at some point you have to let go of it. It’s a combination of amazement that you actually managed to do it and some fear that you should keep working on it. It’s a whole bunch of different emotions, but … [it was] thrilling it was to feel that I had finished it, and then to give it to other people to read. That was an exciting experience.

FM: Have you ever experienced “writer’s block”?

CM: You know, I think we all do. Everybody who writes at some point is going to have trouble with it, and the trick is really just not giving in. I was told there was a course at community college on overcoming writer’s block, where they just locked you in the room and gave you a pen and paper, and said you couldn’t come out until you had written 10 pages.

FM: Your most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs, draws on allusions to Henrik Ibsen’s, A Doll’s House. Which other works have influenced your writing?

CM: I think lots of different things. I always think that when you are writing fiction, it’s like being a magpie. You pick up little pieces from one place and fly off and pick up pieces from another place. There’s certainly references to Ibsen, but I didn’t reread Ibsen. I wasn’t trying to write some riff on Ibsen. […] Dostoyevky’s Notes from the Underground was on my mind. There were a lot of other things that I’m not thinking of right now, but it is always a funny combination. I think a lot of it is unconscious. A lot of it we are not aware of, until afterwards, and then you make up a story about what you were doing.

FM: Does The Woman Upstairs have a central message?

CM: I don’t know that I was trying to get a message across particularly... There were different things I was trying to explore, and one of them was... the question “What does it mean to be an artist?” Who decides who is an artist and who is not an artist? Are there different challenges for women who try to be artists than for those who are men? I think the biggest thing I was trying to tackle was the interior life. My character is somebody who lives on her own, who has a very rich interior life, [but one that] doesn’t [often] break the surface, [or show in] interactions with other people. I mean she has interactions with other people, but there are things she thinks or experiences [that] she doesn’t tell anyone [about], which I think is the case for all of us. That’s what it is to be human. There’s the life outside and there’s the life inside. So I wanted to try and write about the inside.

FM: How do you handle criticism from editors, critics, and the public?

CM: Well, I think different criticisms affect you in different ways. At this point, I have some people close to me, who I think of as my first readers. And they also know me well. From them I want the crucial truth and I want to know what’s not working, and what their thoughts are. I don’t want [them] to just pat me on the back. I think when you have a relationship where you trust somebody in that way, and you know that they have your best interest [in mind], they really want your book to turn out... the best it can… Criticism is a gift. It’s something that somebody is giving you [with] attention, and time, and thought. I feel like sometimes it hurts, but I try to receive it as a gift. And then there are other people who you feel like… have an agenda... I think you just have to learn not to pay too much attention.

FM: Do you collaborate with your husband, literary critic James Wood?

CM: He is one of my first readers… He is usually the first reader, and I always laugh and say that it’s hard for him and not for me. I just want [him] to be [both] my loving husband and my best critic, so I want him to tell me the truth and tell me he loves it. He has to figure how to make that work.

FM: Your husband is also a Harvard professor. What is like working with him in an academic setting?

CM: It’s all brand new. I’m sharing his office for these few weeks, until the one that I’ll be in is ready. I found myself today wanting to tidy it up, but I can’t because it’s not my office, it’s his office.

FM: What have been your most memorable teaching moments so far?

CM: I think just the thrill of it. I teach two workshops… Each class has met once. [But] in the space of a couple of hours, [you have] the wonderful discovery of such interesting young voices. [Students have] such different experiences, such passion, such intelligence, and such senses of humor, too.

FM: What is it like to teach and write at the same time?

CM: I think... the type of energy that goes into teaching and the type of energy that goes into writing are similar. Even though one is about… a conversation and the other is about being alone. It is sort of interesting to find the balance between the quiet and talking time. Both use a sort of creative part of the brain.

FM: Can creative writing be taught?

CM: That’s a good question. I think that it used to be said that it can’t be taught. In some way, there are things that can’t be taught, but you can teach how to be a better reader. How to be more observant both in life and on the page, and how to almost live in the world in a slightly different way... to see almost anything as potentially part of your fictional world. I think it’s a combination of reading and writing and looking at different elements of fiction, of what goes into making fiction, characters, setting, point of view, trying by looking at other examples and seeing what is effective and why.

FM: What brought you to Boston?

CM: We came here for [my husband]. He was taking a job here. It was a long time ago. It was 2003, but we love it here, and it’s actually where I went to high school. There’s actually some nice circle about coming back.

FM: What do you do in your free time, if you have any?

CM: What do I do in my free time? I like to read, I love to read. I love movies. I like bike riding. I like eating.

FM: So where are your favorite place to eat in Boston, or Somerville?

CM: You know, one of them is Sarma. Do you know of Sarma? Very, very tasty.

Ana Sortun is the head chef. Oleana, tasty, right? Have you ever been?

FM: Yes.

CM: Do you know of Sofra Bakery. Those three are all hers. Sarma is sort of casual. It’s meze with sort of small dishes, you eat too much by the end, but it’s yummy.

FM: Any last thoughts, or comments, or spontaneous outbursts?

CM: It was such a pleasure to meet you. I don’t think I have any. Spontaneous outburst? Live Life to the Fullest! No.

BooksLiteratureFifteen QuestionsFacultyConversations