Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Claire Messud believes being a writer is a calling, not a job

The author of The Burning Girl answers eight questions posed by eight fellow writers.
Claire Messud is the author of novel The Burning Girl. (W. W. Norton & Company/Ulf Andersen)

Claire Messud's fifth novel, The Burning Girl, is a clever mix of fable and Bildungsroman. By exploring the ties that bind between lifelong friends, Messud crafts an intimate tale that juxtaposes lofty childhood dreams with painful adult reality. 

Messud answers eight questions submitted by eight fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

I don't believe it's laziness per se. Obstruction can be caused by so many factors ― perfectionism, distraction, faltering confidence, external demands and pressures. At some point, of course, you've got to push through it all if you're to write, and if you don't, or can't, you're sunk.

2. Cordelia Strube asks, "What keeps you writing?"

The answer is surely different for each of us. For me, it's how I live in the world, how I make sense of things.

3. Ami McKay asks, "What's the most prized book on your bookshelf?"

A tough question, as there are so many books that I love. But the most prized is surely the spiral-bound book of my mother's letters to her parents from Turkey, where my parents spent a year soon after their marriage in the late 1950s. She knew they would never have the chance to visit the country, and so recorded her experiences and impressions meticulously and vividly for them. Many years later, as a gift to my mum on their anniversary, my father had the letters printed along with photographs ― just three copies, for my mother, my sister and me. My mother was a wonderful letter writer; and the book reminds me also of my father. They are both gone now, and the book is extremely precious to me.

4.  Shani Mootoo asks, "Is the writing life a selfish indulgence, a narcissistic quest or a plain crazy way to try and make a living?"

None of the above. It's manifestly not a way to make a living. It's not ― or shouldn't be ― either a narcissistic quest or a selfish indulgence. It's a calling, like being a monk. It's a life of service to the work. Don't do it if you don't have to. 

5. Pasha Malla asks, "Who is one writer, living or dead, who you wish could edit or critique your drafts?"

I can't choose just one. Albert Camus for the honesty edit. Henry James and Marcel Proust for the music and capacity of the sentences and for analyses of interiority. Anton Chekhov for compassion. 

6. Kate Hilton asks, "Do you have an abandoned manuscript sitting in a drawer (or on a hard drive) somewhere? Do you think you'll go back to it?"

Yes, somewhere; several. No.

7. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What non-literary inspirations inform your work?"

Music, art, the natural and man-made worlds, and above all, human beings. 

8.  Alison Pick asks, "How would you most like to be remembered?

I'd wish for my work to be remembered rather than myself. As for how, if at all ― not my call, alas.