Apiece Apart Woman: Claire Messud
Words: Leigh Patterson
Photos: Greta Rybus
Styling: Brooke Beaney
Messud, who lives outside Boston and teaches creative writing at Harvard, has long been someone we’ve admired and been curious about from afar. Her writing sharply observes the inner narratives of women — protagonists who live both boldly and carefully; the sensitive and the strange; the way our perceptions of what is real to us shift, inflate, and sometimes dissolve.
A portion of sales from each Apiece Apart Woman story are donated to an organization of the featured Woman’s choice; Claire has requested proceeds be donated to Room to Read, a nonprofit working to support girls' literacy in Asia and Africa.
Can you share a bit more about your upbringing and childhood — what would someone new to you/your work be curious to know to provide context to the woman you are today?
When I was younger and people would ask where I was from, I'd say “around and about.” I was born in the States, but my father was French and my mother Canadian (and my sister was born in France). When I was four, we moved first to Sydney, Australia, then when I was nine, to Toronto, Canada. We returned to the States when I was in high school; but right after college I moved to the UK for seven years, where I met my husband. I've lived in the US since 1995, and it's definitely home for our family, meaning my husband, me, and our kids. But I feel lucky to have had so many different experiences in my youth and lived so many places. [It] gives you an appreciation for the world's complexity, an awareness that 'elsewhere' is always present ‘here,' and that private histories, perhaps invisible to those around us, shape us all.
In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, you are quoted discussing women with "appetites" and how "wanting things" is interpreted differently for women and men. How have you learned over the years to not only want thing but to boldly insist on them?
The double standard of desire is pervasive, of course. Men are understood to be desirous, and frequently applauded for it — not only sexually, of course, but professionally and socially. Ambition, for men, is generally a positive attribute. For women, it's been less clear. In the matter of literal appetite, it's perfectly acceptable for men to indulge themselves a little, to eat and drink, and in mid-life a certain embonpoint is considered a sign of success. Whereas women are acculturated to deny ourselves on all fronts: put the kids first, stick to the diet, take care of our parents, don't lose your temper, don't want things for yourself, etc. Surely we can find a balance: men and women can care equally for children and the elderly. Men can make time to think of others just as well as women can. I'm very fortunate to have a husband who was brought up to believe this too, and who's been fully a partner in the raising of our kids. Now that I teach full-time, he does even more.
I grew up in a family where the parental roles were super traditional: my father left for the office at dawn, came home for dinner, and never so much as boiled an egg. My mother prepared three course dinners, served with linen napkins. She ironed his shirts and his handkerchieves, those darned napkins, even the pillow-cases. She had two university degrees, for heaven's sake. My mother made a lot of sacrifices, for him and for us, her children. She wasn't happy about it, but she did it. I grew up knowing that I wanted my life to be different. Perhaps paradoxically, both my parents instilled this in me: my mother for obvious reasons; and my father because he encouraged his daughters academically and wanted us absolutely to succeed.
Your latest novel "The Burning Girl” examines relationships between women — how have your friendships evolved in the different eras of your life? What elements of friendship are most nourishing or vital to you now?
My father was a strong character, but I grew up chiefly surrounded by women: my mother, my sister, my two grandmothers, my aunt. For my mother, her lifelong female friendships were at the heart of her life: what she wanted most for her 75th birthday was to travel to Toronto and spend the day with her close group of high school friends, all of them uninterruptedly in touch for 60 years by then. Throughout my life, my sister and my close women friends have been vital, and continue to be so. But women's friendships, in part because they often involve a lot of verbal communication, can get tricky, complicated by miscommunications, rivalry, envy, and projection. I see this with our kids — our son's idea of hanging with a friend is playing soccer on a field, a hundred yards apart, an entire day with almost no words. Our daughter's friendships involve long conversations, late into the night.
I used to have much more patience for drama in my friendships than I do as I get older, and I imagine I created much more drama, too. Now, I believe that kindness, an ability to listen and just be there are the best gifts you can give to someone you love. Not fake kindness — honesty is also a gift — but compassion without judgement. We're animals, after all, and just like my beloved dogs, we want to feel loved and cared for. We want to belong. As Henry James said, "Three things in life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind." I'm with him.
In what ways have you become the woman you’ve always thought you’d be? In what ways has that ideal changed over time?
Well, at 13 I dreamed of owning a convertible and a Chanel suit, and I've never had either, nor do I long for them … so I guess I've changed some. But I marvel that I wanted all along to be a writer, and I am one. I've been able to pursue what I love, if not each day, then many days of my life. That's an amazing gift. And I don't love writing (or reading) any less than I did as an impassioned adolescent. When I was young, the question wasn't whether I'd write — it has always felt to me almost like a religious calling, something I do because I can't not do it, because I can't imagine living any other way in the world — but how I'd earn a living. I finally took a full-time teaching job a couple of years ago, because we need the stability as our kids are heading through high school and to college; but for most of my life, I taught only part-time, and focused on my work and my family.
As for how the woman I thought I'd be has changed — when I was young, I imagined that to be a committed artist I needed to be unencumbered. The adage used to be that you should have no attachments, including nothing that had to be walked or watered. The list of lonely women writers is long. I thought I was preparing for a dark and difficult life, a solitary life, so as to accomplish as much as I could. The Australian writer Christina Stead ended her life eating baked beans out of a tin in a bedsit in North London, broke and lonely, and I reckoned I was ready for that. My expectations were fairly low, and the great unexpected joys of my life have been my husband James (also a writer and a critic, who cares about literature as much as I do, so we have lots to talk about, and whom I met on the eve of my 21st birthday), and our two children. Just as I marvel that I've been granted the chance to write fiction, I marvel too that I'm surrounded by such terrific, unique and surprising people, that my life has been so much richer and more hilarious and full of wonder than I could possibly have hoped. Even if I end up eating baked beans out of a tin, I've been unbelievably lucky along the way.
Do you have any rituals, disciplines, or self care practices that help ground you?
I think my sense of 'wellness' has evolved over time, and is still evolving. Balance is so important, but of course this can mean many things. These days, I've given up all sorts of pleasures — a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate — in search of better sleep, which matters most of all. I was always a champion sleeper, but no longer; and given that I've always loved the wine and chocolate, it says much that I've renounced them. Temporarily, I hope.
Funny enough, the one lifelong ritual I have is reading at bedtime: I need to have at least one book on the go, or I'm at sea. I don't read for work, then, I read for pleasure. Just before I go to sleep, I have the exhilaration of entering another world — whether fictional or real — of my own choosing. I suppose you could say that my reading is feeding my imagination, like watering a plant a little each day.
And I'm a great believer in laughter. Even in the darkest times, with someone you love, you can find the light of laughter. It's much harder to laugh alone, which interests me: I'm thinking a lot these days about our animal selves, our bodily selves, and how we need to attend to them — and laughter, uniquely human, is also communal. So it's simultaneously human and animal, a life-giving release. I remember in the long, difficult stretch when my sister and I were caring for our ailing parents, we'd suddenly find ourselves laughing so hard we couldn't stand up. That's what got us through. Just as there's an overwhelming amount of beauty in the world, there's also a ton of absurdity and hilarity, if you look for it. In these particularly dark times, it's important to my sanity to seek out the beauty and the comedy. Art in all forms is a great source for both.