During a career spanning more than two decades, Claire Messud has specialized in creating complex, fierce female characters. In her newest novel, she looks back to the fraught years of adolescence and weaves a tale that is both a fable and coming-of age story. Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship.
What was the catalyst for ‘The Burning Girl’?
Watching my kids go through the adolescent years brings back my own adolescent years very vividly—sometimes too vividly. I’ve been so immersed in that time of life, although from a different perspective than when I lived through it myself, that it seemed urgent to write about it.
There was also an experience from my own youth that I wanted to fictionalize and had been wanting to try to write about, even when I was working on The Emperor’s Children all those years ago. I had moved away, and friends wrote letters to me about something that happened to another friend. I never knew the whole story, only pieces, and that experience haunted me my whole life. When you lose touch with someone, you have to invent something of the story that has befallen them.
You have a son and a daughter; have you noticed that the way each has experienced friendship has been different?
My daughter is in the 11th grade, and my son is in the eighth grade, and yes, a lot of our son’s friendships involve doing things. Whereas our daughter’s friendships involve talking. That starts right from the beginning; in kindergarten, the boys were building trains, the girls were sitting around the table drawing and talking and fighting and establishing hierarchies.
What I would say about girls’ and women’s friendships is that old line: you can’t hate someone if you don’t care. Girls do have a gift for intimacy, and it’s part of the Sturm und Drang of the adolescent years that girls’ friendships are often so passionate in that time. They talk to each other, they talk about each other, and it is the time of life in which their adult personalities are shaped.
What were the challenges in putting this story together?
What was hard was that I wanted this to be in the first person. I wanted my narrator, Julia, to be 17 at the time she tells story, when she is outside the events but still fairly close to them. So, I kept having to make decisions to tighten the focus and keep the narrative voice, using as much leeway as I could to give her a clarity and articulateness that is literary, but still stays within what she would know and experience at that age. The capacity of the long compound complex sentence is a delight for me, so it was like going on diet.
How do you feel about bringing this latest work into the world?
It’s always a slightly trepidatious but exciting moment. It is like having baby; suddenly it’s outside you and has to make its way in the world. When I was younger, I probably wanted people to say nice things about my books. At this point, if people hate it, that’s fine. I just hope for it to be a way into their discussions.