Two decades into her career as an acclaimed novelist, Claire Messud has recently found a second vocation as a “chauffeur.” Lately, Messud is more often than not behind the wheel with her 13- and 16-year-old kids in the backseat—and Harry Styles pumping through the AUX cord. At a certain point, though, Messud’s chaperoning also became material: As the writer said from her home in Massachusetts this week, the adolescence unfolding in front of her also became the subject of her new novel, The Burning Girl, which details the intense bond—and break-up—of a friendship between two girls named Cassie and Julia. Here, Messud shared how she managed to capture the voice of a teen, plus what else she’s been up to lately, with her culture diet.
Friendship is at the center of The Burning Girl, but Julia also speaks so eloquently about simply being a girl: She describes the experience of growing up as “about learning to be afraid,” and coming to know “that the body you inhabited was vulnerable.” That message seems so timely now—when did you start writing this book?
I started writing it about three years ago, but it’s interesting, because I just read an article in the Guardian yesterday responding to a study about girls and happiness, and early on, it talks about how girls feel physically vulnerable, more now than ever before. But I felt that way growing up, too—I feel like it’s something that girls are and have been trained to feel by the culture for a long time. It’s complicated, because there’s a difference between exactly how vulnerable girls are, and how vulnerable they’re made to feel, but there are very real dangers—and narratives that the culture is always pushing, sometimes consciously and sometimes not so consciously. If you think about all the police dramas you’ve ever seen, count the number of dead men’s bodies—there are almost none. The dead bodies are always female. We all logically know that’s fiction, not everyday life, but it’s the narrative we carry in our heads.
Is it something you’ve seen your daughter struggle with, too?
Yes, and I’m aware having both a daughter and a son that there things like, if he’s at a friend’s house and wants to bike home after dark and it’s not too far, we’re like, “Okay, go ahead.” He’s 13, but when she was 13, we’d say, “We’ll come get you.” And is that rational? Is that the right thing? Am I imposing my neuroses on her? I don’t know.
Have your kids read your books?
In the past, no. But I did ask my daughter read this one in manuscript and to tell me if there was anything in it that was way off, and I was very grateful because she did have some suggestions for me, and I made some changes, particularly on the level of dialogue. There were a few places where she was like, “You know, nobody would say that.” [Laughs.] She’d be like, “That doesn’t seem the way any of my friends would talk,” or, “I don’t think that’s something anybody would be trying to say in any words.”
Did she like the book overall?
Come on, what’s she going to say? [Laughs.] She was really nice about it.
Getting into the culture diet questions, what’s the first thing you read in the morning?
I’m sad to say it, but it’s my emails.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I just finished reading a book by a German author named Jenny Erpenbeck called Go, Went, Gone. It’s great. I’ve been reading Eileen Myles’s new dog memoir that’s coming out called Afterglow, which I’ve been really loving. And I have ahead of me to read a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder called Prairie Fires. It’s coming out this fall, but I’m lucky; I have a galley.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Well, I’m a little sad on the TV front because it’s not just that I’m, like, a little behind. I’m very, very, very behind. In the past few months, we’ve watched much of Veep in my household altogether, and then I’ve been watching a little House of Cards on my own—but season one. I haven’t yet watched Breaking Bad. [Laughs.] I have many things still ahead of me. Somebody just told me Game of Thrones was ending, and I was like, Really? I haven’t seen it yet! Look, I’ve only ever watched about five episodes of The Wire. I have a backlog of watching homework that’s a little bit tragic at this point.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
I saw not once, but twice—and did really enjoy—Dunkirk. Because that was a family outing, but one kid was at camp and the other wasn’t, so I ended up seeing it twice, and in IMAX one time. It was very loud, very loud. But great—and beautiful.
Did you notice Harry Styles?
Could I miss him? [Laughs.]
Are you a fan of his?
You know, I’m not a fan. Again, we’re entering a terrain where my life has moved sort of through my daughter, so this summer I’ve been hearing a lot of Harry Styles in the car, because I guess before he released his album—which is out now, right?—he was releasing singles one at a time, and I’ve been enjoying them. So I would have recognized him even if my daughter hadn’t nudged me.
What was the last thing you saw at the theater?
We don’t get to go so often, but it was Sam Gold’s The Glass Menagerie, in the spring, and it was very powerful.
What’s the last piece of art you bought, or ogled?
For our 25th anniversary, I gave my husband a little William Kentridge print of a couple in evening wear in a bathtub with a shower over them dropping water on their heads. [Laughs.]
What’s the last museum exhibition that you loved?
Well, this isn’t a specific exhibition, but when we were in New York, we took our kids to the Frick, which I hadn’t been to in a long time because they’re not that old and you’re not allowed to go until you’re over 12. So they’d never been, and it was fantastic.
What upcoming release are you most eagerly anticipating right now?
That’s a tricky one because I’m so oblivious, but there are a lot of books coming up this fall. I’m excited about Jennifer Egan’s new novel.
Who are some your favorite writers writing right now?
How long do you have? [Laughs.] I could give you a really long list, but I do love Jennifer Egan, Jenny Erpenbeck, Peter Carey, and Alice Munro.
Where do you typically do your own writing?
Usually at home—sometimes at Starbucks. [Laughs.] But we’ve actually been doing some renovations at home and soon I’ll have a little study, so I’m excited to have a place with a door that shuts. Right now, I have a little lap desk, you know one of those things with a bean bag on the bottom, so I just go wherever the rest of the family isn’t.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
The songs that are on repeat are the ones that my daughter, in particular, puts on, and I don’t even know the names of them except for the new Harry Styles album. As for what I listen to on my own, it’s probably embarrassingly mom-based, do you know what I mean? I listen to not so much Adele now, but for a long time Adele, and Amy Winehouse and this Scottish singer Amy MacDonald, and Emeli Sandé, and then some old stuff, too.
What’s the last concert you went to?
Usually I’m just driving the car and dropping off people at concerts. My husband does more of that and has actually attended some with [the kids], including most recently Ed Sheeran. Our daughter is a big Ed Sheeran fan. But I think the last one I was at was Emeli Sandé, about three years ago here in Boston.
How do you get your news?
With the kids the age they are, not driving yet, I’m a chauffeur a lot, so NPR is a big source of news for me. Online, the Guardian is what I go to most often, and sometimes at night, I’ll watch CNN. Get the bad news right before bed.
I know you’re not so much on social media, but do you have any favorite accounts to follow?
I have a Twitter account, but I find it so overwhelming, so I don’t really keep track, but there’s a wonderful poet named Henri Cole who posts these lovely clauses and lines of poetry and images. I love following him—I get notifications when he’s got stuff up, and I love checking it out. And I now have an Instagram account, where I follow all kinds of different things—a bunch of writers, bookstores, publishers, things like the Brooklyn Book Festival. But I also of course inevitably follow some dog rescue accounts, some sort of arty photographer people.
Do your kids let you follow them?
Yes, although then I discovered that no. They have other ones—or my daughter certainly has another one that I don’t follow.
Last thing: What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
I read. I read a book—an actual book that I hold in my hands.
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