Interview: Claire Messud
I recently read her latest book, Kant's Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays (Amazon, Bookshop). "A glimpse into a beloved novelist’s inner world, shaped by family, art, and literature." I love that subtitle; I love the idea of an autobiography told in essays.
I couldn't wait to talk to Claire about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Claire: I see on your website, Gretchen, that your challenge for 2021 is 21 minutes of reading a day – and reading is, in fact, the habit that makes me happy. At bedtime every night, without fail, I do two things: I write just a few lines in my 5-year diary (I have a separate notebook for longer entries, in which I write irregularly) and I read about 15 or 20 minutes entirely for pleasure. I do a lot of reading for work – teaching and reviewing – but I save for bedtime each night the books that I want to read for myself.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was young, I didn’t believe in happy endings; I thought they were for fairy tales. But life has taught me that even in times of hardship and sorrow, there is beauty and joy – that’s grace, I think. And knowing that, I see beauty and joy and wonder all around me, all the time. A quote I love from one of my favorite authors, Albert Camus, expresses my experience: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I by no means stick to it religiously, but I did learn the healthy habit of cutting out sweets, which (alas) I adore – thanks to Susan Peirce Thompson’s guidelines for ‘Bright Lines Eating’. It makes a huge difference to set out the evening before what you’ll eat the following day, and simply to stick to what you’ve planned. I’m an inveterate list-maker, so I already did this in other areas of life; but have found it very helpful in relation to food.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Yes, my commitments to other people, for one thing – family, colleagues, work responsibilities. And dastardly email too.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Perhaps unexpectedly, my high school motto has been a guide all my life: “Dare to Be True." A good reminder. And the other adage I live by is a quotation from the medieval mystic nun, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
So many books have changed my life! Books as much as people have shaped my life, in fact. Just to pick one seems impossible. For starters, each of the books I write about in my book of essays – including Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies (Amazon, Bookshop); or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (Amazon, Bookshop); or Magda Szabo’s The Door (Amazon, Bookshop) – changed my life; the essays try to explain why.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Yes: it’s the idea that fiction should necessarily tell morally uplifting or exemplary stories. Thrillingly, fiction is an art form through which we can explore human experience in all its complexity and diversity. The subject of fiction is simply this: what it’s like to be alive on the planet; as George Eliot put it, it’s ‘the nearest thing to life’. And infinite stories have yet to be told.
Author photo by Ulf Anderson.
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