Jessie Burton is an author I’ve admired for a long time. And, this week, I got to meet her.
She has a special place in my heart, does Jessie Burton. She’s been part of many firsts in my bookblogger life. Her debut novel, The Miniaturist, was the first book we reviewed at book club. She was the first author I ever had the guts to tag in a tweet (she replied and I now fully blame her for my over-confident Twitter game). We also share the same birth year – 1982 (vintage) – so I’ve often considered her achievements against mine (the very subject of that tentative first tweet) and she always comes out on top (obviously!).
So, when I saw that the lovely folks at Waterstones Newcastle were hosting an evening with Jessie (I feel our relationship is such that I can refer to her as just Jessie now) I had to go along.
Waterstones Newcastle goes all out when they have an author in town. The window display was outstanding and the entrance decked out in copies of Jessie’s second novel, The Muse, created a magic eye-style book wall that I couldn’t stop looking at.
Alongside 99 other people, I headed to the Wednesday night event excited to hear from my favourite contemporary writer. In true book geek style, I was first in the queue (loser) and, without shame, I trotted straight to the front row (utter loser). I was feet away from where Jessie would sit and felt slightly unnerved – it’s always the same when you follow someone on social media and then meet them in person, realising they actually are flesh and bone.
The hour-long interview was fascinating, covering everything from writing a debut novel to Jessie’s favourite childhood books. Here are my highlights.
Being a muse
I won’t give away any plot details, but Jessie’s second novel The Muse is a beautifully written consideration of the role and significance of a muse (as you may have guessed).
Jessie deliberately challenged the trope of the women as muse by making the woman the artist and the man the inspiration. This doesn’t come without complexities, and her text deftly explores the dangers of laying the responsibility for your creative output on the doorstep of your muse.
It was enlightening to hear how Jessie intricately wove the lives of her characters together so that muses come in every guise, and creative people are flawed and inspiring in equal measure.
Check out my book review of The Muse for more info.
Being a writer
Jessie talked at length about the joys and challenges of being a writer. From the practical stuff like grabbing time between jobs or on commutes to write her first novel, to the mercantile responsibility of honouring the publishing contract to produce her second, she inserted reality into the romanticism of authorship.
There is a writer in The Muse, Adele, who Jessie modelled partly on herself. She explained it was a meta experience to write a character who writes about the writing process. Marjorie Quick, the lady who encourages (insists) Adele writes is a pastiche of all of the influencers in Jessie’s life, with editors, agents and publishers being a vital force in channelling an author’s creativity into productive output.
Being a woman
Women writers are always asked about being a woman. Men aren’t. They are also asked about why, how or what they are trying to say by having “strong female characters” in their narratives. Strong male characters are excluded from such scrutiny.
Jessie clearly explained that she wants to explode the shorthand behind that pernicious little phase. Talking about SFCs implies women are inherently weak and being strong is something unique and newsworthy. They’re not. It’s not.
Characters in Jessie’s two novels are extremely complex, regardless of their gender. She writes women who are flawed and complicated, just like we all are. They are not good because they are a women, neither are men bad because of their manhood.
There was a fascinating debate at the end of the session about the role and significance of the Miniaturist character in the first novel. In essence, she embodies other people’s psychosis and challenges the constructs of reality. We all make up our own truths to get through the day and the Miniaturist’s heighten perceptiveness taps into the components of those realities in a masterful plot device that drives the story to a deliberately ambiguous conclusion. Jessie wants her readers to make up their own minds about her characters and their fates.
Being a reader
As we were sat in the children’s section of Waterstones basement floor, it was only appropriate for an audience member to ask Jessie what she read as a child.
Like all good, decent and sane people, Roald Dahl was top of the list. Alongside Alison Uttely and Penelope Lively.
In true Dahl fashion, Jessie also has a shed at the bottom of her garden where she writes, reads and often falls asleep on the comfy chair installed in there. It sounded delightful and is now the top of my wishlist for when I move house.
She also revealed that she’s been asked by Bloomsbury Children’s Books to write fairy tales for their 2017 and 2018 collections. They’ll be reimagined with dark, feminist twists and I can’t wait to get my hands on them. As you know, this is one my favourite subjects – check out my essay on whether fairy tales can be feminist.
So, what did I learn from my evening with Jessie Burton? That she is an utter delight and fully met my (high) expectations for what a contemporary, sharp and savvy author would be like.
I’m now off to reread both of her (freshly inscribed) books – talking to her reminding me now nuanced and intriguing they are and I want to dive back in to discover more.