In Conversation with Claire Messud
Featured in the 2017 New York Times Magazine article "Who's Afraid of Claire Messud?" and with numerous bestsellers under her belt, it is no surprise that Claire Messud was the featured speaker of this year's Frances Steloff Lecture series at Skidmore College.
On Oct. 3, Professor Boyers and President Gloztbach gave eloquent introductions and awarded her with an honorary degree. When she got up to speak, she humbly thanked everyone and lit up the room with an intelligent, warm smile. Ms Messud began with her life's story of how she became a writer, before reading two passages from her 2013 New York Times bestselling novel, The Woman Upstairs.
She had everyone in the room smiling, nodding their heads in approval, and chuckling at her witty humor. After the lecture, I knew I had to contact her and ask her a few questions myself:
1. What were the hardest challenges (creatively, style wise, deadline wise) you faced while writing The Woman Upstairs?
I wrote that novel [which came out in 2013] in the years when my parents were ill and dying. The intensity — emotional, practical — of that time certainly colored the narrative: I think that Nora’s rage, which arises both from her frustration and passion for life, was probably on some level sparked by my own rage against death itself. The writing was challenging in that I had to harness that energy and channel it into the character and her story; but it was also very powerful for me, a life-saving challenge.
2. How did the character of Nora come alive? Had you envisioned her character for a while? Was there a moment or person that sparked your creation of her?
The novel’s opening rant came to me whole, like a voice in my ear, and I wrote it down. Then I had to figure out who was talking to me, and why. As with any literary character, she was surely sparked by a number of different moments and people. When you get to my age, you look around and realize that so many of the people you thought, when you were young, would be making art — you knew they were amazingly talented, sometimes the best artists — have been stymied by different obstacles — money, family, illness, temperament, luck. The world is full of Noras. There’s a great novel by Thomas Bernhard called Wittgenstein’s Nephew, about his friendship with the philosopher’s nephew. And in it he says, ‘Wittgenstein was a philosopher on paper, my friend is a philosopher in his head’ — basically, what’s the difference? Nothing, and everything.
3. How long had this novel been churning in your mind before you actually started writing?
I’m not sure, now. Writing a novel is a bit like learning the lines for a play: once it’s over, you don’t know how you did it. I do know that it takes time for all the elements (characters, voice, plot, etc) to evolve and come together. Much of the writing of a book actually takes place inside my head.
4. What do you love most about being a writer and the writing community?
I am grateful every day that I get to do something I love and believe in; and grateful too that I get to talk to and work with people who care passionately about similar things. Writing and reading is central to the way I live in the world; so to live in a way that feels purposeful and meaningful (at least, most of the time!)— well, you can’t ask for more.
5. What advice would you give to undergraduate students pursuing writing?
Perseverance is key. Talent matters, of course; but hard work and sticking with it matter much more. To want to have written is different from actually writing. If you want to write, just keep at it. It’s like going to the gym: make yourself do it, a little each day, and then in time you’ll realize that you can’t do without it. If you can do without it, of course, that’s great too — it means you’re not meant to do it, and are free to do all sorts of other things.
6. What do you think will come next? Are you considering writing another novel? Or chasing another creative medium?
I’m a novelist through and through. If there were world enough and time, I’d love to make a film, or write a play, but I’d need to learn everything about those forms. Realistically, I’ve found that everything takes much longer than you think it will. I’m focused on writing fiction: that’s my life’s work. My next project is still fairly amorphous, but it’s one I’ve got to do, and one I’ve put off for a long time because it seems daunting. Then again, if it doesn’t seem impossible, why bother?
7. What is the biggest misconception about the general act of writing a novel?
It’s not a matter of genius, or inspiration. It’s a matter of one word after another, one foot after the other, just getting down to it. And revision is every bit as important as the writing itself.