With a career that extends more than two decades, Cambridge resident Claire Messud is no stranger to crafting expert fiction. Ahead of her appearance on Oct. 28 at the Boston Book Festival, the best-selling novelist chatted about female authors, creative Bostonians and her latest work, The Burning Girl—an intimate portrait of adolescent friendship.
What was the initial inspiration behind The Burning Girl? One was an experience from long ago—not my own experience but someone else’s that I knew—that had haunted me for a long time. So that has been in the back of my mind for many years. And then I think more immediately it was happening that [my] kids were going through the experiences of adolescence, and standing on the sidelines watching that brings back all your own memories as well as giving you new experiences.
You often dive deep into what it means to be a woman in your work. Are there any female writers who have influenced you? Hundreds! From Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf to Alice Munro to many people in between. I think when I was growing up, I read what my mother put in front of me. There wasn’t [young adult] then, and as a teenager I read a lot of books by 20th-century women writers.
Do you usually have an outline of where a novel is going to go when you begin writing? I always know where the story’s going to go, but discovery is really important to the process. So even though I have an outline, it’s always an adventure about finding new things as I go along. There’s a wonderful and now very famous [E.L.] Doctorow quote saying that writing is like driving on a country road at night and you know what your destination is but all you can see is what’s in the headlights. I’ve always felt that pretty well sums it up.
How has living in the Boston area influenced your work? There are so many amazing creative people, both writers and academics and the creative visual artists and musicians. So, it’s a really exciting and inspiring place to be. And there’s also the landscape and the communities. … Both my last novel and this novel are set in the Boston area—this one, about an hour north of here. So if I lived somewhere else, that wouldn’t be so.
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