Wayback Machine: Claire Messud at the Toy Store

[Claire Messud is a genius and this month’s The Woman Upstairs is probably the best book of the year: check the vintage Gawker reference! Also, I have decided that Girls’ Alison Williams is real-life Marina Thwaite. Today that sort of gilded girl would be on a TV show. And if you compare/contrast my piece with the New York piece, clearly Messud is awkward/not media savvy, per se - but it’s the writer’s choice how to present said quotes. For what I was writing, I thought she was hilarious, and charmingly self-conscious and aware of the inanity of our particular interview set-up.]

The acclaimed author sorts through Mad Libs and crayons at Henry Bear’s Place in Cambridge

By Elisabeth Donnelly

“It’s a little baffling,” said Claire Messud, talking with the cashier at the Cambridge toy store Henry Bear’s Place about the success of her fourth book, “The Emperor’s Children.” When the cashier said he had just received the book as a gift, Messud replied, “Oh, it makes a good doorstopper.”

“The Emperor’s Children,” which is being released in paperback next week, is much more than a doorstopper, though. It received ecstatic reviews and ended up on the major best books of the year lists in 2006, even inspiring the normally snarky media gossip website Gawker to sincerely ruminate on who could play Messud’s characters – Jeff Daniels as patriarch Murray Thwaite – for example in a possible film. A friend forwarded the Gawker piece to Messud, and “it made me laugh,” she says. She revealed that she didn’t really know some of the younger actors cited in the piece, such as Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, bandied about as the serpentine Ludovic Seeley. Messud wasn’t sanguine about the possibility of a film on the horizon, although she noted that Ron Howard’s production company had optioned the book.

On a dank and unseasonably cold Wednesday, the chic Messud, clad in an olive marching-band-style jacket with big gold buttons, had a long to-do list. One of her primary tasks was putting together a travel pack for her two young children. That Friday, she and her husband, Harvard professor and literary critic James Wood, were taking the kids to visit family in Scotland. Messud lives in Union Square, and as it turns out, she and I are neighbors. “We could’ve stayed in Somerville, gone to Sherman’s Café, and you could’ve watched me do laundry,” she quipped.

She had other pressing matters, such as a book review for The New York Times that was due, but Messud was looking for gizmos, gadgets, and books to entertain her children on the lengthy plane ride. However, in “a hideous confession,” she admitted that her children would probably be happier with a portable DVD player. Starting over by the books, between the Harry Potter cardboard cutouts and “An Inconvenient Truth” for younger readers, Messud perused the display of Mad Libs on the table. “I hate Dora. I can’t get Dora,” she muttered, kneeling and flipping through the books before deciding on a Pirate Mad Libs.

After asking whether magnetic truck cutouts would amuse a small child more than once, (the consensus was no) she checked out the Shrinky Dinks and the dinosaur eggs that “hatch” in water. As she browsed, Messud talked about the fact that she has always been a fiction writer; she worked as a journalist for a while, but it wasn’t her forte. She spent a year in Syracuse’s MFA program but ended up dropping out and moving to England, where Wood was living. As she searched unsuccessfully for the crayons among the shiny gadgets, Messud gently chided herself: “I’m being a eejit! A ninny!”

It has been a hectic year of promotion for “The Emperor’s Children,” and Messud is close to the end of book readings and signings. (She’s on the market as a professor in the fall.) The success of the book has been gratifying, but Messud noted that “the one thing it hasn’t been good for is writing another book.” And crafting her beautifully composed Henry James-ian sentences takes time – four years per book on average.

The “satire” tag has been applied to “The Emporer’s Children,” but for Messud the label is limited – “It doesn’t involve compassion,” she says. A first draft of the book played more satirically, but she took a different tack after Sept. 11. Compassion is important to Messud, right down to the characters she writes about. Even though they move in a world of privilege, she said, “I have compassion for them.”

Before long, Messud had a pile of books and crayons to amuse her children on the plane. Going to the cashier, she whipped out her frequent-buyer card and joked that this travel pack was integral to having “more resilient children.” Messud has been traveling frequently this year, and under Wood’s watch, the kids have been eating candy for dinner and own 12 new toys, she said. It’s a funny story. Messud is a sly wit, and it’s striking how she’s just as funny as you would expect from the droll humor in her writing. After gracefully acknowledging the compliment, she noted, rhetorically, in a line that could fit into her book, “Don’t you find in life people are a lot more unfunny than you wish?" 

Originally published in The Boston Globe Friday, June 22, 2007