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Sitting down with Claire Messud

Claire Messud

Claire Messud, JE ’87, is a writer and professor of creative writing, perhaps best known for her 2006 novel, The Emperor’s Children. Messud is returning to Yale this semester to teach The Writing of Fiction. She sat down with the Herald this week to talk about her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, the goal of fiction, and the relationship of a novelist to her age.

YH: I read The Woman Upstairs. A lot of people seem to take issue with Nora, the protagonist, and with her being “unlikeable,” but personally, I found her to be really honest. What have you thought of people’s reactions?

CM: Someone said, “If a woman were to tell one iota of the truth of what it is to be a woman, the whole world would run screaming from the room.” I have to say, I feel there are people who read the book and say, “She’s not me.” There are people who read the book and say, “She’s me,” and I’m a little heartbroken for them. And there are people who read the book and say, “You know, she has elements that I totally recognize, she has things—she’s just a person.”

Writing the book was sort of a liberation for me because I felt for a long time that I was hoping people would approve of what I did, But you know what—you hate her? She’s real to you. I did my job. But the fact that she’s hated is so interesting to me.

The people who think she’s dislikable, the vehemence that they feel is almost like that of a betrayal—as though by writing her story, I wasted their time, or even forced them to engage with somebody they can’t approve of. There’s a great deal of moral disapproval; it’s very peculiar. I find it actually turns out to me to be a litmus test of people. I learn a lot about people from their responses to Nora.

YH: What do you think the moral issue has to do with?

CM: I think in some sense it’s that she’s a weak person who makes bad choices and is self-indulgently complaining about them. And that there’s nothing wrong with her life, she has a perfectly good life, she shouldn’t be dissatisfied.

YH: For me the terrifying thing about the story was not necessar- ily that she made bad decisions but that she spent so long not making decisions, and then that became its own bad decision. Especially to a young, educated audience with the feeling of pos- sibility, that seems to be a hard thing to read.

CM: I feel as though your 30s are an odd time, because when you’re 32 you’re still young and the world still thinks you’re young, and historically, no one’s young at 32. Right? Many people were dead. Not just Amy Winehouse, but like Keats, and you know, Je- sus was dead at 33. Mozart, all these people. Dead, dead, dead. But now, in western culture, 32 is still considered young.

Thirty-seven is not. And there’s this time in between when I think a lot of people aren’t really looking, they’re thinking of themselves as young, and then suddenly the perspective has shifted without their having really been aware. And in my case, you know, I had a child at 34, and another child at 37, and I sort of emerged from that super-intense moment when I was 40. So when I went into the tunnel I was young and when I came out of the tunnel I wasn’t young. And I hadn’t really counted on—I hadn’t really thought about it and I hadn’t really anticipated it.

But I think the sense of the retreat of infinite possibility, and the luxury—the delusion—of feeling that there’s infinite possibility is already so insane

YH: Did you want to write novels at that age?

CM: I always wanted to write. My parents gave me a typewriter for my sixth birthday; I’d already declared that that was my inten- tion. It was like, “Oh, Elizabeth is exploring this and this—and Claire, she’s going to be a writer.” But there was a moment, very seriously, my father took me aside when I was about 15 or 16 and he said, “You know, Claire, you know you want to be a writer. But writers are geniuses, and you, Claire—(silence).” To which my attitude thereafter was always partly fuck you! Well, partly fuck you and partly, oh, maybe he’s right.

My experience is that writers aren’t geniuses. I mean, I feel there’s something poignant to me about that reverence—I feel that says something to me about my upbringing, the reverence and respect in which my father held writers. But I know some writers now, and I can tell you, no. I do not know any geniuses, not one. I mean, I know some very brilliant writers, but you know what I mean.

YH: So you’ve recently said that you shouldn’t read to make friends. But as a kid, what did you read for?

CM: Lots of reasons—to make friends, though? For adventure, for discovery, for love, fear—you know, to experience worlds and emotions and households and characters that I didn’t otherwise know. There are many great things about having kids—one of them is giving them the books you loved. It’s pretty fun. I also got to read all the Lemony Snicket books.

It’s E.M. Forster: “Only connect!” That’s why we need to read. I said to somebody—my graduate class, I think—there’s a movie called The Long Good Friday, which is a British gangster movie. This guy is trying to make a deal with these American mobsters and he says, “Hands across the ocean, mate! Hands across the ocean!” and I’m like, that’s what it is. Hands across the ocean!

You can read Tolstoy and recognize emotions and experienc- es, and the count 170 years ago, feeling exactly as you feel, or not saying something in exactly as you would not say something. Or Othello, right? Or Hamlet. Here are emotions shown to us ex- actly as they are as if no time has elapsed, as if you were right there with them. You can read and know what it’s like, imagine what it’s like, to be anything from a penniless illiterate child in the tenements of lower Manhattan in 1900 to a shepherd in wherever-the-fuck.

It’s what we have. We have chicken scratches on paper that can communicate whole worlds. It’s incredible.

Why would you lie? Why would you then do a crappy job of it? Or do a sort of broad-stroke job of it? Why would you as a reader—why would you want Law and Order? Do you know what I’m saying? Why would you want CSI? If you can have Truffaut? Why? Life’s too short! Like, I don’t get it! Why would you want the fake stuff if you can have the real stuff?

So that’s how I feel about people saying, “Oh, so and so should be likable.” Because Humbert Humbert is likeable? Be- cause Othello is likeable? What are you talking about? I actually feel it’s a misnomer—it’s saying a different thing. It’s somebody asking a different question or stating a different problem, when they say, your book makes me feel uncomfortable. My response is, art should make you uncomfortable. Art is not here to make you feel comfortable. And in fact, if you’re under the illusion that art is here to make you feel comfortable, you’re not interested in art.

YH: Do you have a goal when you’re writing?

CM: Truth. I think my goal is to try to approach some—sorry, this sounds so pretentious—but some little truth, however small, of what its like to be human on this planet. I wouldn’t go further than that. Hands across the ocean. That’s it. Quoting somebody else’s line, “a suicide note to the future.” Interesting. I don’t know about that. Some sort of note. It’s literally traces in the sand, right? Some traces in the sand.

YH: Do you have a goal when you’re writing?

CM: Truth. I think my goal is to try to approach some—sorry, this sounds so pretentious—but some little truth, however small, of what its like to be human on this planet. I wouldn’t go further than that. Hands across the ocean. That’s it. Quoting somebody else’s line, “a suicide note to the future.” Interesting. I don’t know about that. Some sort of note. It’s literally traces in the sand, right? Some traces in the sand.

YH: So then do you read your old work?

CM: Never. You know, I won the writing prize in my high school, and somewhere what they did was sort of bind it and put it in the school library. That was the prize. So somewhere in the base- ment, if it hasn’t been just thrown in the garbage, somewhere in the basement is my senior fiction project from 1983. And it would be interesting someday to go read. But one of the reasons I don’t keep a diary is because it was so depressing how little I’d change. I’d go back five years later.

YH: What do you think about Claire circa-Yale? What would you say to her?

CM: Don’t be afraid. I had a lot of anxiety just about a lot of stuff and I feel one of the great things about getting older is just letting go of anxieties. I feel like now that I’ve watched both of my parents die from different horrible illnesses, a plane crash doesn’t seem so bad. So I’m no longer afraid of flying, which is good, right?

By the same token, I feel as though a lot of youth is spent worrying that you’re saying or doing the wrong thing. I mean, not for everybody, but certainly it was for me. Who cares, right?

And suddenly now as a parent I’m torn because, really, why give a fuck? Why? Why do you need an A? Why do you need to go to Yale? Go to UMass, it’s not going to make any difference! It will make some differences in some things, but I feel like, if you have something you’re passionate about and really care about and really want to do and you give it your all, you don’t have to be straight-A in math! Who cares?

I feel as though there was a lot of pleasing people. So I would say please people less; please yourself more.