Claire Messud: If You Don’t Know Her, You Should

Claire Messud, the current Zale Writer-In-Residence at Tulane University, gave a reading this past Monday, March 9th, from her novel The Emperor’s Children. She stayed to sign books and chat after her reading, more than willing to talk with anyone and everyone, and doing so with a wide smile. On Thursday evening, Professor Paula Morris interviewed her, asking questions about her writing, and how she came to be a novelist.
Born in Toulon, France, Messud is the daughter of a French-Algerian and his Canadian wife. Her interest in her Algerian heritage is reflected in her 1999 novel The Last Life, which tells the story of 3 generations of a French-Algerian family. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl, Sagesse, the story is at times poignant and precise, imbued with distinct voices for each of its characters. As for the author’s voice, Messud speaks softly, almost timidly, and corrects herself as she talks. She writes by hand, on graph paper, with an ultrafine-tipped pen, and types portions of her manuscripts as she progresses.

One of the things that stands out about Messud’s novels is her ability to bring characters to life, whether they are lovable, despicable, or somewhere on the hazy middle ground—and Messud’s characters are almost always on that middle ground. In an earlier interview, Messud said, “I adamantly believe that characters should be interesting, rather than nice.” After reading The Emperor’s Children, and currently being in the middle of The Last Life, I and other creative writing students wanted to know how Messud crafted her characters (and how she kept them straight, as there are at least five main characters and countless supporting cast). In her interview with Paula Morris, Messud said that she chooses the point of view of her novels before she begins writing. She “gets to know” the characters more as she writes, and sometimes they end up being different people. Messud doesn’t believe that books must always have a distinct message, saying she is “resistant to a utilitarian notion of art.”

On writing and becoming a writer, Messud points out that “almost anything will get in the way of writing. And if you let it, it will take up all the room writing would occupy.” Messud would know—she balances her writing with her family, two children and a husband. She writes carefully, her precision embodied in both her chosen method of pen and paper and in her thoughtful, arching sentences. Each of her books, with the exception of her two novellas, The Hunters, has taken around four years to write.

When talking to Claire Messud, one gets the impression of an author who writes because she loves people and what they do, whether their actions are benevolent or not. There’s no question that Messud succeeds in capturing reality within her fiction. Her flair for sentence-crafting and acute knowledge of her characters make reading her work a true pleasure— one that I highly recommend to you.

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