top of page
  • NYS Writers Institute

"We'll get through this"-- novelist Claire Messud

We caught up with Claire Messud, a friend of the NYS Writers Institute and "an absolute master storyteller" (Rebecca Carroll, Los Angeles Times). The bestselling author of The Woman Upstairs, The Emperor's Children, and When the World Was Steady, Claire is celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for "creating unusual female characters with ferocious, imaginative inner lives" (Ruth Franklin, New York Times Magazine).

A frequent participant in the New York State Summer Writers Institute during the last several years in Saratoga Springs, she last visited Albany in 2017 with The Burning Girl, a novel about the painful twists and turns of female friendship.

Her new book is Kant's Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays (forthcoming in Oct. 2020), a revealing glimpse of her "rich inner life and generosity of spirit" (Publishers Weekly). Here's a link:

From the publisher:

In twenty-six intimate, brilliant, and funny essays, Messud reflects on a childhood move from her Connecticut home to Australia; the complex relationship between her modern Canadian mother and a fiercely single French Catholic aunt; and a trip to Beirut, where her pied-noir father had once lived, while he was dying.

She meditates on contemporary classics from Kazuo Ishiguro, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Valeria Luiselli; examines three facets of Albert Camus and The Stranger; and tours her favorite paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In the luminous title essay, she explores her drive to write, born of the magic of sharing language and the transformative powers of “a single successful sentence.”

Q: What advice do you have for University students and young people during these uncertain times of plague and protest?

These times may seem to us wildly uncertain; but of course that’s because we’ve been privileged to live with a high degree of certainty. Historically, uncertainty was the norm – on account of wars, pandemics, tyranny, famine, disasters, etc. Which means there’s a lot we can learn from reading and listening to the experiences of our forebears.

My grandfather wrote a memoir for my sister and me about the family’s experiences during World War 2 in Europe – they lived in Algeria and were very fortunate in comparison to millions, but they still didn’t have enough to eat, had to sell their clothes and sheets for food, took in lodgers in their small flat, slept in their clothes because of having to rush to the bomb shelters in the dead of night, suffered more than one infestation of locusts, etc. My dad and aunt, kids at the time, had long stretches with no school at all, and then periods when there were just a few classes a week, held in unexpected locations because the school buildings had been requisitioned by the army. A useful reminder that what we’re going through has precedents; and that we’ll find a way forward.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are seeking motivation to write during quarantine?

As aforementioned, the accounts of our forebears, both fictional and real – whether you’re reading Boccaccio or Katharine Anne Porter or James Baldwin or Toni Morrison – are able to convey to us experiences beyond our ken, across centuries and cultures. Bearing witness, recording or exploring imaginatively what it’s like to be alive on the planet – this is never unimportant, and surely never more important than in a time of quarantine. Language is a great power, and the rich and evocative deployment of language can be many things – balm, revelation, inspiration, source of outrage, provocation, exhilaration. Above all, communication. A way to share experience, emotion, thought, wisdom, with great depth and complexity…

Q: What books do you recommend we read?

I’m all for big novels, books you can immerse yourself in, with new worlds to discover and new people to live alongside. Such books, for me, are as good as taking a trip. Here are a few that I’ve rediscovered or discovered with great pleasure in recent months – Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (always a joy); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain; Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad; Salvatore Scibona’s The Volunteer. I’m also reading essays and non-fiction – Anne Applebaum’s important Twilight of Democracy and the brilliant Jenny Erpenbeck’s forthcoming book, Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces.

Q: Anything else you'd like to tell us?

Several years ago, visiting friends in Rome, we decided to climb the bell-tower at St Peter’s to see the view out over the city. I hadn’t realized how many people would be in the stairwell, which was a narrow spiral, with thick stone walls on either side. Occasionally there were tiny slits in the outside wall, through which warm air drifted in, and some light. And there were many steps, many. I started to panic, and then felt panicked at my panic: if I were to scream or faint, there might be a great trampling. But where was there to go? How could I escape? When would this end? I whispered to my friend behind me, “I don’t know what to do; I’m panicking.” He was very calm. “Don’t look up ahead of you, don’t look behind you, don’t look out the windows when they come. Just keep an eye on your feet, focus on your breathing, and put one foot in front of the other.” It was very helpful advice then (we got to the top and the view was spectacular) and I’ve found it very helpful advice over these recent months: one foot in front of the other. We’ll get through this.

Learn more about Claire on her website:


bottom of page