Jessie Burton on The Muse | Her new book, writing history and life after The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton on The Muse | Her new book, writing history and life after The Miniaturist


My name’s Jessie Burton and my new novel is
called The Muse, and it’s about two women — one woman in 1960s London and another in
1930s Spain — and their stories, and how this long-lost masterpiece of a painting connects
them together. I did want to examine what it means to have a muse, and what it means
to be a muse, both in the positive and negative aspects. So there’s a character in the book
who you — one might argue practically harvests a man to — as her muse, because he sort of
inspires her, and he’s left feeling pretty drained by the experience and doesn’t find
it flattering or particularly edifying. My muses personally were, well, my — my interests,
my passions, and that’s, you know, this — in this book the Spanish Civil War, and London
in the 60s with the Caribbean immigration, and the world of art and creativity and the
marketing of art as well — so there were these three things that interested me. When
I started researching the 1930s section, when I was starting about the outbreak of the Spanish
Civil War in July of 1936, what I wanted to do more than anything was to investigate or
to portray what it’s like to have civil war come to your doorstep and invade your private
and your domestic sphere — on a fairly banal level. Individuals finding within their own
families or within their own villages that there was discord, and discord turning to
hate, and hate turning to death and, you know, families severed and families psychologically
destroyed for generations after. And I was very interested in that, and I — I didn’t
want to paint a big sweeping political landscape. The one that drives the book, the one who
is the sort of propulsive engine is Odelle Bastien, who is the woman in the 1960s who
tells us the story through first person and also — well, I don’t want to give too much
away — but has involvement in the way that the 30s section is told. Odelle was always
in my mind Trinidadian, or black I suppose is another description — although given what
I’ve learned about the Trinidadian or the Caribbean experience in London now, even,
like, thinking about how that word was used — and unexpected even to her — because she
wasn’t black when she was on her own island, in her own country . Which again was a very
interesting thing for me to read about and understand, or try and understand. Odelle
is born in the 1940s — well, she — sorry, she’s at school in the 1940s — and is more
English than the English: public school-style education, boys playing cricket, Princess
Margaret posters on the wall… Having her come here and experience — feeling that she
should belong, and being told both insidiously and overtly that you don’t, that you’re not
‘one of us’, you’re not a ‘Londoner’, psychologically must have been very alarming
and disconcerting. That said, I don’t think within the book I wanted to — to make — to
look at Odelle solely through a racial prism. Odelle’s ethnicity, the colour of her skin,
absolutely is a massive element of her identity, but I think it was incredibly important and
something that I wanted to honour is that she’s also a woman, she’s also someone with
ambition, she wants write. She also wants to buy makeup that suits her skin tone and
she can’t find any. She falls in love. She has this strange boss. It’s funny because
I never really think of myself writing particularly politically; I had it in The Miniaturist as
well; I was asked, you know, ‘Did you make all these deliberate choices, putting a gay
man in there, and a black man, and a woman who wants to have a job?’ No! You know, these
for me are just, like, responses to the world I see. When The Miniaturist became super successful
and selling in all these countries and, you know, we hit the million copy mark it was
— it was very surprising, it wasn’t what I expected or anticipated. I just wanted to
be published and I didn’t really think beyond what that meant. But at the time because there
was so much going on and there was a lot of interest in — in the book and me, I didn’t
really take stock of it, I didn’t really understand perhaps what the effect on me was as both
a sort of individual, as a person, and as a writer professionally. I think The Muse
mutated through its writing process; what it was at the beginning was definitely not
what it was by the end, and I do think it was written partially in response to what
happened with The Miniaturist in terms of what happens when something just becomes kind
of out of your control, and yet you’re still sort of at the – you’re the anchor of
it. Although you don’t feel particularly anchored yourself. It’s weird though because I feel
The Miniaturist, it was more of a journey of exploration, and The Muse feels more like
something I know, like I’ve offered something that’s come from hard-earned experience — of
being published, being disseminated, being mass-consumed, casually owned — you know,
all of those thing happened to me, I feel, I think I can confidently say that now without
feeling too guilty of that experience, because it was overwhelming it was, you know, a blessing
— but it was also came with a price. But I think running through it is this exploration
of what it means to be public artist and a private artist, and a person, somewhere in
the middle of all of that.

2 thoughts on “Jessie Burton on The Muse | Her new book, writing history and life after The Miniaturist”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *