Claire Messud on Getting Distance on Characters

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

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In this episode, Mitzi talks to Claire Messud about her new novel, This Strange Eventful History.

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From the episode:

Mitzi Rapkin: Some of your novel is influenced by your grandfather’s memoir that he wrote that he gave to you years ago, but it took you decades to read it.  It seems to me that there’s this idea of space, like having enough emotional and mental space to take his words in, and how maybe reading it piecemeal while you were raising your kids or going to work every day didn’t make sense for you, even if you couldn’t articulate it at the time.

Claire Messud: I’m somebody, just as a fiction writer, generally, I haven’t really written autobiographical or biographical things before, but I’m a big believer in character and that character determines a lot. One of the things about creating characters, however fictionalized who are based on people that you know, and know very well and love, but have complicated feelings about is that if a writer’s aim is to see characters clearly and in the round, to be able to understand what it’s like to be them, then I think a certain type of dispassion is necessary a certain type of distance. And it’s decidedly true that for a long time, certainly, as long as my parents were alive, and for some time after, it would have been hard for me to try to clear my own thoughts out of the way to make room to sort of really inhabit or try to experience what their thoughts and experiences might have been unchanged and uncolored by my own.


Claire Messud is the author of six works of fiction. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Her essay collection is called Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write. Her recent novel is called This Strange Eventful History.  She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family.

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