Novel's focus took a turn after 9/11

By TRESCA WEINSTEIN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, November 5, 2006

Claire Messud never planned to write a book about 9/11. In early 2001, she started work on a contemporary novel set in New York City, about middle-class people and their everyday dramas. The birth of her daughter slowed down the process, and then September rolled around, and with it the events that transformed both the real world and the one Messud was creating.

Her novel of manners became a historical novel, one in which every character is deeply affected, in ways both trivial and tragic, by the attack on the World Trade Center.

"Writing about it seemed insane," she said, and yet also unavoidable. "It's a challenge for every writer who writes contemporary fiction now, because of the ripples. You can set your novel in a fishing boat in Alaska, and one of the people in the boat will have been affected (by 9/11). Its effects are so subtle and so wide-ranging."

Messud threw away her first draft and started fresh, with the knowledge that 9/11 would come upon her characters as it had come upon the rest of the world -- out of the blue, forcing them to re-examine their lives and what they thought they knew -- and also knowing that its echoes would gradually grow fainter.

"The Emperor's Children" (Knopf, 448 pages, $25), she says, "is not a 9/11 novel. It's a novel about people living in 2001, and, yes, it changes their lives, but it also doesn't change them."

Messud will read from the book at 8 p.m. Thursday in the University at Albany's Campus Center Assembly Hall as part of the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series. She will also offer a seminar that day at 4:15 p.m. in Assembly Hall.

Gripping details

"The Emperor's Children" revolves around three college friends, now hitting 30 and still to some degree at sea, and their relationships with lovers and family members. With beautifully rendered details and spot-on emotional nuance, Messud takes readers deep into the desires, ambitions and fears of beautiful, overprivileged Marina; passionate, earnest Danielle; charming, troubled Julius; Marina's father, Murray, a renowned liberal journalist; and her cousin, Bootie, a small-town boy who comes to the big city looking for truth and eventually discovers that the only truth he can trust is the one he makes up as he goes along.

Sept. 11, 2001, not only changed the trajectory of Messud's novel, it also changed her approach to her characters.

"I had had trouble with the tone in the first attempt," she said. "It was too knowing. I was torn between wanting to give the characters space, and feeling that I couldn't let them off the hook. It was too ironic, too satirical, too much about my not wanting to be too close to them." As she began her second draft, she said, she felt "more open and warmer and tender to them. ... History had dealt them a blow, and I didn't have to."

Falling short

Despite its contemporary setting, "The Emperor's Children" recalls the novels of Henry James, Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster in its microscopic focus on how people interact and how they fit in -- or don't. Messud's characters strive, sometimes blindly, toward romantic fulfillment, social standing and, although they mostly fall short, a moral high ground.

Even the well-off, well-established Murray, cocooned in his Central Park West apartment with his lovely wife and daughter -- he is, in a sense, the "emperor" of the title -- struggles to find meaning in his life and work and to avoid betraying his family. Meanwhile, Julius hides from his friends the fact that he has to work as a temp to afford his cockroach-infested studio apartment in lower Manhattan.
"It's a myth that this country doesn't have social hierarchies," Messud said. "My daughter's nursery class has hierarchies. It's endemic, it's everywhere, and I suppose I was writing about it in the context of a social world where people see each other as outsiders and insiders. It's not clear what it means to belong."

The intricacies and heartache of finding your place in the world may have special resonance for Messud, who was born in the United States to a Canadian mother and Algerian French father, grew up in Australia and Canada, and came back to the United States for high school and to attend Yale University. Now married to an Englishman, she lived in England for seven years before returning once again to the States in 1995; she and her family now live in Somerville, Mass.

Earlier novels

Her first novel, "When the World Was Steady," published in 1995, revolves around two estranged sisters whose separate quests for identity take them to London, Sydney, Bali and the Isle of Sky. (Both that novel and "The Hunters," her book of novellas, were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award.)

"The Last Life," released in 2000, also ranges far and wide, from Algeria to the United States to the south of France, and focuses on an isolated, outcast family holding fast to a reality of their own making.

The gap between subjective and objective realities is a persistent theme in "The Emperor's Children," and the ways in which Messud's characters choose to reconcile that gap illustrate the lengths to which people will go in order to survive with their egos and will to live intact. As finely drawn as they are, Messud's characters at times seem to be representing something larger than themselves -- a generation, perhaps, or a liberal mind-set, or a fall from innocence -- though their creator doesn't see it that way.

"I try to step back, but it's as if they're my relatives," she said. "I can't see them clearly. It's wonderful if your characters have a broader resonance, but I certainly didn't intend them to be archetypal. For me, it's about trying to capture these made-up people as roundly and truthfully as I could."

Capturing made-up people on paper is what Messud has always wanted to do. She asked for and was given a typewriter for her sixth birthday and -- except for a brief moment as an adolescent when she considered becoming an actress -- has stayed true to the writing life ever since.

She says she can't trace an obvious evolution between each of her books and the next. "Each book is different, written in a different way and a different time, but hopefully with the same energy and intensity," she said. However, writing "The Emperor's Children" was different in one essential aspect: Between the time she started it and the time she wrote the last words of the last chapter, she became a mother, twice over. Her daughter is now 5 and her son is 3.
"I didn't have any proof that I could have children and write," she said. "Now I do. My favorite thing about the book is that it's here."

Tresca Weinstein is a freelance writer from Canaan and a regular contributor to the Times Union.

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Claire Messud