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This past November, our book of the month was 'The Burning Girl' by Claire Messud, who we were lucky enough to sit down and talk with when she stopped by Seattle on her book tour.
Refined Reads: You write that each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are. What do you mean by that?
Claire Messud: One of the things this book for me is about, is this friendship and its unraveling. It’s [from] Julia’s point of view. But for me, it’s also a book about stories and how we use stories and tell stories and need stories, and how often stories are made up to a greater or lesser degree. And that we make up stories about ourselves. I think fewer are the people who would describe themselves as bad people. And we usually have justifications for the things that we do and ways we behave, and our version of our story is the one that makes sense to us. But that’s why if you have five people in a room, they might have five different versions of the same event because everyone is seeing it from their perspective. And what’s the objective truth? It’s hard to know.
Did you have a friendship like this when you were young?
I didn’t have one exactly like this. I had a number of best friends. We moved a lot when I was a kid so, there was a lot of starting over. And sometimes I had to leave best friends behind because we were moving to another place. And I had losses of various kinds. There was, I don’t know if she was my best friend, but there was my good friend, Wendy, who just one day stopped speaking to me and I never knew why. She finally explained. At first, she said, 'You know why'. 'Why aren’t you speaking to me?' 'You know why'. And, eventually I got through the grapevine she doesn’t like you because you pout. I never got more explanation than that. It’s been some years now.
Where did this story come from?
There were various things. Most briefly, I’m now the parent of two teenagers. And I have nieces and nephews who are teenagers. And, for the past seven or eight years, I’ve witnessed this sort of stage of life from a different perspective, as a witness rather than a participant. It brought back all my own memories of the intense emotions and the travails of that time. It was striking to me how much has changed. Social media has changed a lot of the way kids interact with each other now. But the emotions are the same, and the intensity of that, especially between girls is never going to change. So, that was one part of the story, and another sort of source for me or one of the other things was this business about story-telling. When I was a kid, we lived in Australia and we moved to Canada when I was nine. And in those days, you kept in touch with your friends by writing letters. So, I wrote letters and had pen pals. And some years later, I had three or four friends’ letters about another friend of ours, who I wasn’t in touch with, and a series of events that happened in her life that ended with her death. I was haunted my whole life by that because I never really knew what happened. It was like having these fragments, and I had them from these friends, and in those days you couldn’t call people up, it was a huge thing to call Australia. You didn’t call Australia. I didn’t know what was true. I made up a story in my head to make sense of these pieces. And then I became aware that that’s what we do all the time. We have the pieces of the things we know, we put together a story that we believe makes sense and corresponds to the person we think we know.
How do you write kids?
How do you write kids? Well, kids are people too. (I know, thank you very much.) In this case, one of the things that I did that I’ve never done before, is ask my daughter to read the manuscript and to tell me whether there were things that she felt people her generation would never say or would never do. And that was really helpful. I mean, I didn’t do that until I had finished the manuscript, but I’m very lucky. She’s very patient and generous with me. But she was also pretty firm about places. She was like, no, that exchange would never happen, that’s not how she would react. For me, that was a very helpful gift that she gave me.
Maybe all of us had our Bonnybrook. Someplace secret – someplace away from adults – where we could imagine. What does Bonnybrook mean to you – what role does it play in this story?
You know, again, different versions. I’m not sure I had…I had fantasies about there being an abandoned building next door to run through. I didn’t actually have an abandoned building. We had places we could go and there was a bike path. When I was a kid, in ways I don’t know how much is true now, your parents had no idea where you were or what you were up to, you just showed up for dinner, and that was that. There were lots of places that we went. But the abandoned asylum, I’ve just always felt abandoned buildings have always been evocative to me, as if I were a kid, like haunted houses. And, we spent a year in Germany some years ago on a fellowship, and in Germany, just south of Berlin, there’s a huge abandoned asylum compound. There’s also the abandoned Olympic Village, where the 1936 Olympics, where everybody lived. And they don’t cordon it off, there’s no barbed wire, you just go and have a wander. That adult experience was present for me in writing about the asylum.
This is Julia’s story. How would the story have been different if Cassie was narrating it?
Oh, I think it would have been completely different. The girls don’t have a huge bust up, they don’t have some huge argument, they kind of drift apart. Julia blames Cassie for that, that Cassie has abandoned her. And there’s a moment in the book when Julia says, I asked her later what happened and she seemed kind of hurt, but I was the one who had been wronged. If Cassie told the story, I think Cassie would tell the story of how her friend let her down, and let her down from early on. When Cassie befriended the new girl at school and Julia refused to join in that group, that that was a betrayal. And, take it from there.
How well do we know ourselves? And turn it around, how well do you know someone else? How did this notion come to play in this book and where is it exhibited?
I think the question of how well do we know ourselves, there are people who mercifully just never ask the question. And then you’ll end up in some hall of mirrors just wondering. But it seems to me that part of being…I had someone say it seems that Cassie’s life is more interesting than Julia. And I said, that’s what it is to be the narrator. You’re the observer. That’s what it is. You’re standing on the side observing. If you’re out living the extraordinary, the difficult, dramatic things, you wouldn’t have time to write them down. But that position, the position Julia is in, the observer, the wary, thoughtful person, that is the person who asks, how well do I know anything? How well do I know myself? It takes a long time to get to know you. I have a wonderful postcard in my office, from Lichtenstein, I don’t know if it’s from his letters or his diaries, but it says, I’m 62 years old and I’ve only just realized that I like my toast lightly toasted, and that every time I’ve been presented with a piece of burnt toast, it’s been a small agony for me. And it’s true, there are so many things that don’t occur to you of what does this mean to me, do I like this, do I want this. I think often we see ourselves as passively-engaged when we aren’t really. We’re making choices and we’re not really self-aware to know that. I think Julia is asking that question through the course of the book because that’s the time of life too, as children we don’t ask so much, but that’s what adolescence is, this coming into the world. You’ve been looking down and you look up and you realize there’s this world around you and you think where do I fit in, how do I fit in? And part of it is the world reflecting back at you, saying you don’t fit in here, you do fit in here. These people are saying come with us, these people are making fun of you, well, I guess you’re going to go that way. So, that’s part of it. It happens on all levels, starting with your family, in your community, everything.
How well do we know the people in our lives, and how do we get to know them?
There’s a lot I left open in the book. That is very deliberate because it’s from Julia’s point of view. There are things people aren’t going to tell her directly. There are experiences in the book, she tells the story but she wasn’t there, so she’s partly making some stuff up. For me as a person, there was a long time in my life where I thought things were getting clearer, I get to know more, the world is rational, it all makes sense, we know each other in certain ways, and then you come to some sort of realization halfway through life that you know what, none of us knows everything, we’re never going to know anything, it’s all a mystery. And, we don’t know. All we know is we don’t know. And on some level, it’s a terrible feeling of aloneness when you realize you are never fully known and you never fully will.
Tell me about Cassie, a girl who already seems to feel alone, and then she goes in search of her missing father.
In my mind anyway, for Cassie, she and her mother, and she thinks of her father as an angel, the dream of her father have formed a unit. They had been a family. And then, when her mother brings home a boyfriend, then the dynamic is completely different. And, she not only feels that she can’t sort of, in her home life, have any access to the angel father, but also she’s lost her mom, she’s lost her family. So, that’s what prompts her to go looking. She really is alone. And alone is some sort of existential way.
And then she sees the other example of family and she can’t believe it.
It becomes something she can’t really watch. It becomes something she doesn’t really want. And at one point, Julia says you can come live with us for a while, and Cassie just laughs. And, I think for me anyway, it’s complicated because Cassie is not wrong in some way, she’s alone. Julia may be somewhat wrong to think that she’s not.
As you think about your characters down the road, what do you think is going to happen to them, to their friendship? Or understanding each other?
I don’t know that they will ever be friends again, or meet again. I don’t know what Cassie’s trajectory will entail, but it could be anything. For Julia, she’s one of those people who’s a worry bee. She goes over and over everything. She will come to some story or some understanding, but when I was talking to some people about the book at a presentation, a woman from the audience said, “I am the Cassie. I am the person who walked away. And, I’ve never forgiven myself.” She said she went back to her 50th high school reunion and she went up to the people she treated poorly when she was 14 and she said, “I’m so sorry. And she just patted me on arm and said it was a long time ago.” She said, “I wanted her to absolve me and it was just so painful she seemed to have forgotten, or wanted me to believe that she’d forgotten.” That question of how will we respond, how in time do we respond to these memories? I think in some way, they’re never answered. And, the wounds get covered over, but they never, it’s not as if they weren’t there.
We’ve all used the phrase, “we just drifted apart.” And, maybe that’s not a bad thing?
No, in some cases it’s a great thing. I think people change, and I think people come to know themselves better, and they realize they have less in common than they thought, they’re going different directions and they drift apart. But I also think the stories that we tell, “we drifted apart,” that’s the story, is actually papering over something much more complicated almost always, even if ultimately it’s a good thing. The story is always more complicated than the one we tell.
What would you like us to take away from the book?
There’s a wonderful thing that Nabokovian said, the reading experience is the reader and the writer climbing the mountain from opposite sides to meet at the top. And that’s different from a film experience, where the filmmakers come over the mountain and haul you up. Each of us as a reader brings our history, our experiences, the things we’ve read, the people we know, everything, when we read a book. And each of us has a completely different experience. And then it becomes, hopefully in some way our version of the book, our book. So what I would hope, I wanted deliberately to try to write a book that has openings or leaves openings for readers to come and have different experiences, different interpretations, in the same way we do in life. That we make the decision about the people we know and what we think is happening to them, because they don’t tell us everything. My dream would be if three or five or ten people read the book, that they would have a conversation and each of them in some sense would have a different version of the book that they could then talk about. Some of these things, existential things, but also things about adolescence and friendship generally, that are conversations that people might have. That would be my hope.
We ask our readers to read their favorite passage. Is there an aha moment in the book for you?
I feel there are different moments in different ways. Some are more cheerful and some of them less. I think there’s a moment at the end of the book where Julia says, “I want to imagine Cassie this way.” And, why not? It’s a moment of hope. It’s something that is almost threaded back to the beginning where they adopted these kittens and Cassie’s cat ran away and Cassie says, “why imagine she was hit by a car, why aren’t we imagining she’s having a great life in someone else’s house not far away?” I don’t know if it’s a foolish thing to hope, but that hope for happy stories is what I hang onto.