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Claire Messud Captures Generation’s Spirit In Emperor’s Children

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Messud book cover

The Emperor's Children
by Claire Messud
Buy this book
via Amazon.com

Claire Messud’s THE EMPEROR’S CHIDREN does what great novels do best –captures the spirit of a generation while telling personal stories that portray the nuances of human experience.

“Being a novelist is all I ever wanted to do,” said Messud. “I love the form for its capaciousness, room for digression, room for oddity. In a novel can incorporate all the stuff that isn’t tidy.”

That said, she advises new writers to be open to a variety of forms.

“Every writer has a different breath and rhythm. You need to figure out which form serves your needs best and which you serve best,” noted Messud.

Her other books include two novels — WHEN THE WORLD WAS STEADY and THE LAST LIFE — and a book of novellas, THE HUNTERS.

“Character is the prime mover for me, rather than plot."
—MESSUD

THE EMPEROR’S CHIDREN is set in modern day America. Her story captures America’s innocence, hubris, and American’s fundamental belief in the power to reinvent ourselves. These themes are explored through the story of three friends, Marina, Danielle and Julius, who are attempting to find their place in the world, the relationship between Marina and her famous father Murray Thwaite, and the impact of the arrival of Marina’s cousin, Frederick “Bootie” Tubb.

“I wanted to write about a father /daughter relationship and what it is like to follow in the footsteps of a prominent, successful parent. When I was starting out, I envied people in that situation, until I realized it was as much a burden as a gift. I also wanted to explore the moment when all-consuming youthful friendships begin to fracture,” said Messud.

She said she found the crux of her story when she introduced the character Bootie, the ambitious nephew of Murray Thwaite, who comes to New York City to make a name for himself.

“Character is the prime mover for me, rather than plot. I didn’t have a story until I had Bootie. He is the most American character, a combination of innocence and resilience with the power to destroy things,” said Messud.

"Bootie feels like he should be somebody. We live in a culture that feeds that belief . . ."
—MESSUD

The story centers on Bootie’s plan to unmask what he sees as the intellectual dishonesty of his Uncle Murray, a revered intellectual and journalist.

She noted that Bootie has a sense of entitlement, one that is shared by most Americans.

“Bootie feels like he should be somebody. We live in a culture that feeds that belief,” observed Messud.

Because it was set in 2001, the book includes the events of September 11, 2001. Messud had begun writing the book prior to those events and struggled with the feeling that the book was more satirical than she wanted it to be.

After 9-11, she started writing again from the beginning. When she was able to use the events of 9-11 to move the story forward the tone changed.

“With 9-11, history lifted the veil so I didn’t have to,” said Messud.

She noted that her characters carry on with their lives after 9-11 much like the characters in Flaubert’s SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, who go on a picnic in the midst of revolution.

“For me, the novel is not a 9-11 novel. It was set in New York in 2001 and I couldn’t write the book without including those events. I felt that was a challenge that was set for me,” she said.

"This book was written in a different way than my other books because I have small children now."
—MESSUD

 

The creation of the book was marked by other challenges and unexpected breaks.

“This book was written in a different way than my other books because I have small children now. That meant that I wrote short chapters and had to let go of the idea of writing in the way I used to,” said Messud. 

"Working on the manuscript together was great. Robin is very detailed."
—MESSUD

The first draft was “a jumble” in which she might find two versions of the same scene. She continued to write and smoothed things out in later revisions. Messud describes herself as a “big believer in outlines, even if it is just 10 words on a sheet of paper.”

She worked with Editor Robin Desser at Knopf on this book. “Working on the manuscript together was great. Robin is very detailed. She sent me 10 single-spaced pages of notes, for starters. She is a terrific reader, but she's also very respectful and generous, and made it clear that while she had recommendations and suggestions, she wouldn't make me do anything I didn't want to do. I don't recall having to cut anything I didn't, in my heart, feel should be cut. As I recall, I did more adding in than cutting out,” explained Messud.

Money was tight and writing time was scarce when she received notification that she was the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Strauss Livings Award, which pays a yearly salary for five years. She was chosen for the award by a panel consisting of Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Cynthia Ozick.

“It was an endorsement from four of the living writers I admire the most. After that, when life sucked, when I asked if there was any point to my efforts, I would tell myself that they thought there was a point,” said Messud.

She is no stranger to critical recognition. THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN was named a New York Times Book of the Year in 2006. The American Academy of Arts and Letters also honored her with an Addison Metcalf Award. Her work has been nominated twice for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 2002, she received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

"I would stress emphatically the importance of writing what you want to write, not what you think other people want to read."
—MESSUD

Despite her success, Messud said there is no magic bullet when it comes to getting published.

“As I was first published in the UK, a very different place, in '94, now a long time ago, I'm afraid I don't have any good advice to give first-time novelists about trying to publish here, now. I often think that I'd never manage to publish at all, if I were setting out now. I would stress emphatically the importance of writing what you want to write, not what you think other people want to read,” she said.

“My agent (Georges Borchardt), who is very wise indeed, said to me years ago, “You work on your book until you're happy with it, and if you're happy with, I'll probably be happy with it too. Whether we can sell it – that's another matter. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” I loved him for that advice, and still hang onto it,” she continued.

"I'm not very good at explaining why I tell the stories I do.
I'm trying to be as truthful
as possible . . ."

—MESSUD

Messud explained that there were books she read that changed her ideas about how it was possible to write and what it was possible to write about. She cited works including ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, THE MOVIEGOER, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE AND NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND. “Reading those books was like fireworks exploding in my head.”

In addition to reading great works, Messud said writers should consider attending writer’s conferences. “Writing can be lonely and finding a community is important,” she noted.

Of her latest work, Messud acknowledged the mixture of hard work and mystery that brings forth a novel.

“I'm not very good at explaining why I tell the stories I do. I'm trying to be as truthful as possible, and to follow the characters as carefully as I can — to ensure that I don't make them do things they wouldn't, in fact, do. More than that, I can't claim.”

  Claire Messud is the author, most recently, of THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN, a I Book of the Year, 2006. Her other books include two novels — WHEN THE WORLD WAS STEADY and THE LAST LIFE — and a book of novellas, THE HUNTERS. Twice a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, she is a current recipient of the Straus Living Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She lives in Somerville, MA, with her family.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.