Richard and Judy Interview: Jessie Burton on The Muse

Richard and Judy Interview: Jessie Burton on The Muse

You had huge international success with your first novel, The Miniaturist. No pressure writing this one, then! Did you have to push all thoughts of your debut resolutely from your mind as you wrote, or did it keep sneaking back in, whispering unhelpful, treacherous comparisons?

I don’t think I pushed any thoughts away! I analysed and recycled the experience of being the author of The Miniaturist in order to help me write The Muse, which deals partly with the ups and downs of public creativity, and how much an artist is attached to her work once it is out in the world. These were both issues I had the privilege of wrestling with when my first novel was published. The consequences of my first book were hard to ignore, so I had to do something with them! I knew it was pointless to try and replicate the success of The Miniaturist – you can never predict how things are going to turn out. My job is to write, and write the truest I can to the vision in my head. That’s all I’m supposed to do. The two novels are very different in their content and style, but elements of The Muse are the direct result of me trying to work out what it means to be an artist. And for that, I’ve got to thank the experiences created by my first book, not push them away.

The plot of The Muse is intricate, even ornate. It can hardly have occurred to you in one bright flash. How long did you spend in preparation before settling down to write?

I seem to like elaborate casts of characters, and plot . . . and this novel has two time periods, and people with dual identities. So it took a while to find the rhythm, to work through the plot and re-balance it, again and again. I knew I wanted to write something set in Spain, as I had lived in Andalucía as a student, and have felt an affinity with the country since I was a teenager. But I also knew I was very interested in the Caribbean experience in London in the 1960s, and I was also interested in the psychology of making and disseminating art. Greedily, I didn’t want to give up any of my passions, so I had to work out a way to fuse these three interests together. I often start with big ideas – what do I want to say? What is this about? That’s all very well, for a while, but then you have to boil it down into actual characters and scenes.

I gradually felt my way in, but occasionally I’d write a whole scene, not knowing quite where I was going, but making the most of my enthusiasm anyway. I chop and change with plot a lot, so any preparation I do in advance is a bit of a delusion to reassure myself. I do a lot of read-ing around the subject, getting books from the library, watching films. There’s a bibliography at the back of the novel of all the resources I used. I can’t remember how long I took, probably a couple of months. But whilst research¬ing, I try and get writing fiction as soon as I can, because I’m not giving a history lesson, I’m constructing a novel. So I do both as I go along.

So much has been written about 1930s Spain and the civil war, so there must have been mountains of source material. Whose writing influenced you the most?

There is a lot. I found the smaller, non-fiction books the best for me. I was looking for Spain as viewed by the Spaniards, not as a touchstone for romance and heroism by foreigners at the expense of a country’s freedom. A book called Death’s Other Kingdom by Gamel Woolsey was tremendously help¬ful, as was the non-fiction work of Paul Preston, Richard Barker and Arthur Koestler. I think in terms of the emotion of the place, the works of García Lorca were invaluable. His poems and plays are hard to translate into English without them sounding a bit odd, but they capture the elusive spirit and life of a place I am very fond of.

Your stories are so unusual and distinctive – have you decided what the next one will be about?

Thank you! I haven’t yet. I’m just giving my brain a bit of breathing space, time to marinade before the ideas present themselves.