About The Author
Jessie Burton was born in 1982 and lives in London. She studied at Oxford University and The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and worked for nine years as an actress and a PA before her first novel, The Miniaturist, was published. It was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies around the world. Her new book, The Muse, now out in paperback, is a novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception, and the Spanish Civil War. It tells the story of a lost masterpiece with a secret history dating back to the 1930s that is delivered to a London art gallery one day in 1967, where the young Odelle Bastien has been taken under the wing of the enigmatic Marjorie Quick.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Jessie about the nature of muses and whether they are merely a conversation with your own psyche, what life was like for children of the Empire in the 1940s, and how a book lives on beyond its final sentence.
You can also watch Jessie talking about her book here:
* Read author and Sunday Times Drinks critic Damian Barr's blog #NovelPairings as he shares some wine inspired by The Muse, and reflects on both the book's and the wines' fine qualities.
Author photo © Harry Borden
Questions & Answers
Did you have your own muse for this novel?
It’s hard to talk about muses in concrete terms – even if it’s a person, what are they to you, really? Do muses run out, and if so, how do we find and move on to a new one? Is a muse merely a conversation with your own psyche? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that I was inspired by so many things when I wrote this book – huge scopes, like war, and love, and art, and colonialism – and I wouldn’t say any of these themes were my fixed muse. Perhaps it was a case of many muses, in the abstract. So oddly, compared to The Miniaturist - which was anchored by a very solid, physical object - The Muse derives from multiple interests, and was driven more by experience than curiosity. My approach to the historical research was the same, but my impulses to write this book were very different. I was chasing something different.
Were Olive Schloss or her paintings inspired by any particular artists?
Partly, and I’m loath to name them, because I’d like the reader to picture them in her own mind’s eye. Also, most art historians would have conniptions if I revealed the strange marriages of artworks in my head. Anyway, thanks to fiction, I can say that Olive Schloss’s works are her own, unique creations.
What did making Odelle Bastien, Olive's artistic counterpart in the 1960s, a Caribbean immigrant allow you to add to her character and her challenge to become a writer?
I knew from the beginning Odelle wouldn’t be a white woman, but I didn’t make that choice so I could augment her character. Nevertheless, as a non-black woman myself, there was a lot of consideration that followed the knowledge that Odelle was going to drive the story.
I have long been interested in British behaviour and policy in the West Indies from the time of slavery, and how this trickled down into the 20th century. Odelle’s life as a child of the Empire in the 1940s was a direct product of the legacy of slavery and colonialism. She would have been brought up to talk and think almost more Englishly than the English – and as a bright girl would have absorbed the message of ‘connectedness’ that the British Isles had to the islands in the West Indies. She would also have subconsciously absorbed both the insidious, and more overt, messages of how whiteness equalled safety, power, wealth and authority. She would have been told how she was a family member of empire, and she would have also been told that she was an outsider. That must have had a profound, splitting effect on first arrival in England. Odelle is an ‘immigrant’, but she knows the English better than they know themselves, because she actually reads those Shakespeare plays and Tennyson poems, and has posters of Princess Margaret on her wall. She speaks the Queen’s English, she possesses all the signifiers of alleged Englishness except one thing: the colour of her skin.
She is turned into one general shade when she comes to London: black. She has not ever been ‘black’ before, and is too new to this blanket label, to politicize and own it for herself; perhaps the shock of London is too overwhelming, the desire just to live her life too alluring. For me, Odelle’s Trinidadian heritage assimilates into her womanhood, her falling in love, her fear of love, her ambition to write – it is not solely a racial prism through which I see her. I was striving for a woman who meets us at the axis of all these points. But obviously she is exposed to racism on a micro- and macro- level, in a way a white woman would never be. Does this fuel her ambition even more? I don’t think so. I think her secretly knowing she’s a great writer is fuelling her ambition. She resists thinking of herself as a generalized representative of her entire island. She is an artist. She is also a prim girl, desperate to rebel. She is Caribbean. She is a Londoner. She wants better make-up in the department stores. Marjorie Quick sees all this in her, and I hope that I do too.
Why do you think the 3rd-century martyred saints Justa and Rufina, whom Olive depicts, are so resonant in Spanish culture?
I only found out after I’d decided they would be Olive’s subject matter, that Goya, Velazquez, Murillo and Zurburan had all painted them. This little moment of serendipity thrilled me so much, making me feel that subconsciously I had tapped into something. Less romantically, you could say, well, here we have two young women (photogenic opportunities for rich patrons) and regional folklore (Seville, chances to paint the city’s Giralda tower) – aka a painting that’s a good commercial bet. And yet, the messages behind this sisterly tragedy are potent. Creative rebellion, sacrifice, organised and unified defiance, dying for one’s art, a lion that refuses to eat a woman, smashing a mask of Venus, the idealized goddess of love…it’s dramatic and attractive. At least, it was to me and Goya. Ha.
Thomas Keneally - author of Booker Prize winner, Schindler's Ark - said in a recent interview that novels work best with marginal characters, as they can offer a lens on major events. Did you find that focusing on the Spanish Civil War from the point of view of one community allowed you to tackle such a major historical event afresh?
Yes, I suppose I did. I wasn’t much interested in armies and battles, figurines being swept across a map. Neither was I keen to come at it from a foreigner angle – we’ve got Hemingway and Orwell who did that. Obviously, I am a foreigner writing it, but I wanted to see it all on the ground from a normal Spaniard’s eye-view – to show how the microcosm of a national tragedy is lived out, one village as the country. What happens when your school friend becomes a fascist? When your brother is a revolutionary and you just want to care for your cabbages? When fear enters the village and people’s bravery is tested? So yes, it was helpful to have characters like Teresa and Isaac. I was more interested in describing the tensions in the hearts of people who just wanted a better world, and the build-up to the rebel uprising against the democratically-elected government (an uprising which arguably had been brewing for thirty years), than the more ‘romantic’ and ‘heroic’ ideas of the Spanish Civil War. It was a ghastly, unfair disaster. But for many it was lived out in a very domestic setting, not on the plains of Castile.
Certain details of the story that links Olive and Odelle are taken to the grave. Do you feel that the process of storytelling needs to retain aspects of mystery to be authentic?
Yes. I love the hinterland, the bits not written, because that’s where the relationship with a reader really comes to life, where the reader is invited to step in and complete the picture. Obviously I wouldn’t want to leave too many threads hanging, but neither do I want to have everything down pat. However, I think the world of this novel still feels quite whole, and I made sure everything was explicable – but you know, everyone joins the dots differently, and that’s what’s so wonderful about writing a strong enough book that it can have more lightly sketched elements to give it more life beyond the last sentence.
How do you feel your writing has developed between writing The Miniaturist and The Muse?
You’ll have to ask my editors! Well, no, I think I can answer that a bit. The Miniaturist was my first full attempt at a novel. I was a novice, really, and thank god I wrote it in ignorance of what was going to happen to it, otherwise I’d probably never have had the guts to hand it in. Being edited taught me many things about the structure of a novel, about character development, but also it revealed a determination and confidence in myself to stand up for how I wanted to write, and a voice that I didn’t know I had. So perhaps the key to answering this question lies in the voices that drive the two novels. Nella in The Miniaturist is ignorant yet confident, Odelle in The Muse is knowledgeable and philosophical. So immediately, the tones of the two books are very different. I chose to write The Muse from a distant perspectival voice, à la The Go-Between, so this aided me in giving the impression of authority at least. I as the writer derived confidence from Odelle’s writerly sanguinity. The Miniaturist is immediate, three months’ of action, present tense – a dense, bejewelled book, its heart made of sugar and damask and velvet. The Muse is tighter and brighter, I’ve been braver in my structural choices, I feel like I have a handle on my characters more, the action is aerated by thirty years. But as to the development of the writing itself, it’s hard for me to judge. All I know is that it’s always hard to hold the arc of an entire novel in your head whilst dealing with the paragraph by paragraph minutiae. I don’t think writing gets any easier; you just get more familiar with the pain, is all. And if it’s easy the first few drafts, you’re probably doing something wrong. But I’m a masochist, so don’t listen to me.
You've written on your website about struggling with anxiety and depression when trying to write a follow-up to The Miniaturist, a huge international bestseller. Is there any advice you'd want to share with anyone else overwhelmed by the demands of success?
I’m sure everyone would deal with something like this differently, but the obvious thing I would say is talk to someone, and don’t feel guilty. Hilary Mantel once described winning the Booker as a ‘crisis’ and I was so happy when I read that, because of course sometimes great moments of bounty are as debilitating as trauma; it’s a moment in your life when everything is completely exploded, you are not who you were when you got out of bed that morning, everyone is looking at you, and it will take time to rearrange the pieces. Of course, because ultimately being a bestseller is not a negative thing, there isn’t the public discourse to discuss and analyse such a sudden (and lingering) transformation. So you think you shouldn’t ask for help, that you should perform happiness in perpetuity. It’s not that you don’t want the success, but understanding it, adapting to it, and discarding the extraneous elements of it, takes time. So be kind to yourself; do it on your own terms, as much as you can.
Jessie Burton was interviewed by Jonathan Ruppin exclusively for Foyles