In her newest novel, The Burning Girl, Claire Messud focuses her attention on a group often dismissed: teenage girls. She tracks the dissolution of narrator Julia and her friend Cassie’s friendship and the consequences and mysteries that follow. As Julia attempts to figure out how and why her longest friendship is unravelling, she comes to terms with the limits of human connection—even with those we consider to be closest to us.
Next Monday, Messud will join novelist Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) for the second evening of Inprint’s 2017–2018 Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. We caught up with Messud to talk about her latest novel ahead of her visit.
The Burning Girl centers on teenage girls, but you treat your characters with the utmost sincerity and respect. How was that different than writing adult characters?
I feel that the stories of teenage girls—really, teenage people—are as important as anybody else’s stories. One of the things I wanted to try and do was write, if you will, an adult novel about being a teenager. When I was young—I’m 50 now—there weren’t young adult novels. There was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and I think that was sort of it. There are many wonderful things that have come from the burgeoning of the Y.A. field, especially that so many stories are being told for and to young people. When I was young, everybody read stories about all ages of people. Nowadays, grown-ups and adults rarely read stories about young people when, in fact, that is the time in which we are formed as adults; it determines who we become. And I think as adults, we turn away from that kind of life or scorn it at our peril.
I feel like you do a good job of incorporating pop culture into the book, with the nods to figures such as One Direction and Katy Perry. Did you turn to your own children for help with those kinds of references or did you figure them out on your own?
There comes a point—probably when the kids are about 11, 12—when as a parent, your job is largely to be the chauffeur. You’re driving them around, but they have their finger on the radio dial, you don’t get to touch it. They don’t really want to talk with you; they want to talk to their friends in the backseat. And you’re sort of supposed to be the Uber driver, and you’re supposed to let on that you don’t hear. So, in that sense, some of the research was done for me just simply by the circumstances of my life.
There’s a moment in the book where they’re still younger and the two girls are looking at the magazine Tiger Beat. And my editor said, “I don’t think kids read that anymore.” And I said, “Well, actually, I know for a fact that my daughter has a friend that has a subscription.” There were certain things like that. And I did ask my daughter—which I’d never done before—to read the manuscript when I was done and flag places where the language was way off. And for that, I was very grateful.
It’s funny that One Direction gets name-checked in the book, because Harry Styles caused a fuss before his debut album was released when he insisted that his fans—many of whom are teenage girls—are smart. He said, “How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future.”
I’m with him on that! I think people underestimate the intelligence and the thoughtfulness of teenage girls and teenage people. I do think they are our future, and they’re always looking, listening, and thinking. And sometimes the narrative that the culture offers is that teenagers care about nail polish and pop bands, but actually, when I look at my kids’ generation, I feel like they’re woke. (Laughs.) They really are. They’re very aware of the world, and of politics, and of feminism, and all sorts of things that we don’t give teens much credit for.
I like how you capture the volatility of young friendships, too. Julia says early on that Cassie could be affectionate and scornful at the same time, and, if she isn’t careful, “the scorn might win out.” Was it hard to strike that balance when writing these characters?
It’s something that I was very aware of. Over time I’ve seen friendships—female friendships—dissolve in lots of different ways. Some are dramatic and sudden, and some are a slow fizzling. In the case of Cassie and Julia, I didn’t want them to have a huge blowout. I didn’t want it to be a friendship that came to a dramatic end, for all sorts of reasons. In terms of the narrative, I wanted there to be these threads that still tied them to each other, even though they don’t spend time together. That might not be the first thought one might have about a friendship breaking up—often it can happen quite spectacularly—but it does also often happen where there’s a definite estrangement or drifting, but in the right circumstances, it’s still possible to hang out and consider yourself allied with someone. It’s the murkiness of teen life where so much of it feels unclear to teens themselves and people watching teens.
You credit Louise Glück’s poem “Midsummer” as an inspiration in your acknowledgments. I read it after finishing the book, and it’s very fitting. How often do you find yourself turning to other forms, such as poetry, for inspiration?
There must be some teenage memories of my own from when I was a kid in Ontario that it was bringing back. For me, there are a number of other literary influences and narratives that were directly present in my mind when I was writing this book. I wrote this in an article and now I’ll repeat it because I like how it sounds: We are as much the sum of our lived literary experiences as of our literally lived experiences. I do think that that’s true, and the stories, the poems, the films, the narratives that we internalize—they shape our understanding of a story, or of the world, or of ourselves. And even when they’re not consciously present, they’re always there. And the more narratives we have, the more stories we have, the more powerful and empowering stories we have, all of those things can change our sense of what’s possible. I could sit down and write out a list of 30 stories I had in mind while writing this book, but I will spare you. (Laughs.)
Finally, since this is a book about teenagers: What were you like as a teenager?
We moved a lot when I was growing up, and I changed schools. I started a new school in sixth grade, in seventh grade, and in 10th grade. I was the same person, but I moved with a different crowd in each place. I became aware of the very strange phenomenon that I could be exactly the same and in one school, be “in” with the cool kids, and in another school, not be. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with who I was. It was a very weird experience. Basically, I was the kind of kid who got on with everybody. I was not sort of terrifically cool or terrifically uncool: just kind of in the middle. It’s a good place to be.
Jennifer Egan/Claire Messud, Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $5. Stude Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St. More information at inprinthouston.org.