Jessie Burton: An Interview on The Muse

Jessie Burton: An Interview on The Muse

Why did you decide to write The Muse?

I knew I wanted to write about art and creativity – what it means to have a muse, or be one, and to explore the relationship between the private creator and the public artist. I wanted to write about women. I wanted to write about normal people experiencing the upsurge of civil strife within their own Spanish village. And I wanted to explore as well England’s relationship with her former colonies. Not too much, then.

In what ways did you want Odelle’s Trinidadian heritage to contribute to the novel?

Odelle was always Trinidadian. It wasn’t an overtly conscious choice. That said, I do have an objective interest in how whiteness and Englishness affected life in the Caribbean for those born under British rule and those who came to Britain’s shores after Britain officially ceded those countries. Perhaps this key facet of Odelle’s identity was partly constructed out of that. It was kind of half-organic, half-deliberate. How it ‘contributes’ to the novel – that’s for the reader to decide. But you might say Odelle’s immigranthood is a commentary on outsider/insidership, of the search for a place to belong, and how ‘history’ is lived out by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Is there a specific painting or artist that inspired the paintings in the book?

I’m often reluctant to say because my hope is the reader sees these paintings in her mind’s eye without the help of other triggers. But if pushed, I’d say that personally I am very keen on Bellini, Bruegel, Kahlo, early Miró and Dalí . . . make of that what you will! I am drawn to colour, and narrative, and symbolism in art. I like decoding the puzzle, I like being drowned in shades of red to blue to gold. I like landscapes that don’t always make perspectival sense.

If you had to name one personal practice that fosters creativity, what would it be?

This is an interesting question, and one I basically battle with all the time. How do I stay creative? Is it by being under pressure, or by being perfectly relaxed? I don’t find any one thing fosters my creativity, but I would say that staying open, curious, seeking, and humble allows me to keep working and finding paths through my work. I think it’s a balance – you need some tension or adversity against which to define yourself. You also need to feel free and confident in the steps you are taking. I also think physical exercise, and good food, really help the body meet the mind. And sleep.

Who is whose muse in this novel?

Odelle uses Quick as a muse, but I think Odelle is also a muse unto herself. For me, having a muse is nothing more than having a conversation with your own psyche. Olive thinks Isaac is her muse, but she’s just displacing responsibility and all the creativity comes from her. Quick is inspired by Odelle – and so the cycle goes on. Artists always borrow from other people’s lives; they harvest them for their own use. It can be a dangerous game!

Were any elements of this novel based on real-life events?

In terms of the story of the painting that is discovered; yes. Misattribution of artworks certainly happens. The case of Judith Leyster and Frans Hals in seventeenth-century Holland, for example – no one thought a woman could paint the paintings she did! Also in the 1960s, there was the Big Eyes story – a man called Walter Keane passed off his wife Margaret’s paintings as his own, and pocketed millions for himself. It is often a gendered thing. Women historically have not been considered capable of ‘great’ works of art, of universal messages to give to the world. Men have. So it stands to reason that unconscious bias and misattribution of authority take place in the cultural field as much as it does in the economic and political ones. In terms of what happens in the Spanish village, then yes; many villages and towns were split down the middle in terms of people’s loyalties, there were brutal extra-judicial killings and families’ lives ruined for ever.

Women of various backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures play central roles in this book. Why do you choose them to play central characters?

This is life how I see it: the world looks like this to me. Yes, I’m white, but I don’t only see white women. It’s just the way the story unfolded, reflecting as it did my interests and what I consider important.

Can you elaborate on your specific narrative structure?

One of the greatest novels I’ve ever read is The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. If you like, the older narrator voice in The Muse is a homage to that book. It’s fun to write an older narrator looking back, because you get to step into quite authoritative, reflective shoes. The character of Nella in The Miniaturist, my first novel, was very green and ignorant, and things were rushing at her. But in this book, I could really set up my stall and say: ‘This is what happened. This is what it was like.’ That’s thrilling. Also – in terms of the story within the story – as in, Odelle rewriting Quick’s tale – well, that’s fun too, playing with the very nature of storytelling, of reconstituting life into fiction, into another tale to tell.