Knopf’s Robin Desser edited Claire Messud’s breakout novel The Emperor’s Children, and is also the editor of Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. This month, Desser and Messud emailed each other about their experiences working together on that surprise best-seller and this very different new book.
Robin Desser: I’d admired your work from your first book, and so it was a particularly exciting moment for me, reading the early manuscript of The Emperor’s Children. I’ll never forget it.
Claire Messud: I, too, remember the excitement of that time, of sitting down to lunch with you and talking for hours. I was ruefully aware afterward that I’d talked your ear off, in fact; but you were too gracious to shut me up.
Everyone at Knopf worked so hard to make the book’s publication a positive one, starting with your long letter full of editorial suggestions—I can’t remember whether it was 18 pages or 30 pages, but long, your questions at once delicate and probing. You’re always careful to comment on the positive—which makes it possible for touchy authors to hear the tougher things, too. I never know if you and I are old-fashioned, in the nature of our editorial exchanges—these piles of paper marked up with ink, these long typed letters—or indeed whether you do it all by computer with other writers.
Desser: Yes, we are both quite old-fashioned. I guess. Though you are one of the most scrupulous, meticulous writers I’ve ever worked with.
Messud: But the rhythm of our editorial exchanges works well for me: I think we both love to talk, and talk to each other, but that we talk best about the manuscript when we write, if that makes sense.
Desser: Did the book’s reception change anything for you—the writing of this new book for example?
Messud: I couldn’t have imagined the reception. It was thrilling, and an amazing experience in so many ways (not least to meet readers all over the country, and have so many interesting conversations), but also challenging in others: My children were so small, and I was traveling so frequently for what felt like a very long time.
But your question is how the book’s reception changed things for me. I honestly can’t say. As you know, soon afterward I entered a time when first one parent and then the other was ill, and eventually both died—these have been the defining facts of my 40s thus far. These years have changed me, and changed things for me; and it’s hard now to distinguish what part The Emperor’s Children played in that transformation. I was always such a good girl, as someone nastily said once, “an A student.” But at this point in my life I’m powerfully aware that there isn’t an unlimited amount of time ahead, that if you don’t please yourself, then you please nobody, and that nobody will ever care more about what I write than I do. Which is a liberation, really. I’m pretty late to come to these realizations. I knew them in principle before, but now I really know them because I’ve lived them.
Desser: I’m glad you felt this freedom—I worry about writers feeling burdened by the success (or disappointment) of whatever happened before. How open are you really with your work-in-progress? Do you let friends, family, have an early glimpse? And might you feel particularly wary of your editor or publisher glimpsing any of that? And other writers?
Messud: As you know, I’ve never been a huge collaborative writer. I’m someone who wants to feel a book is as finished as I can make it before I show it to people, including you. I used to ask James to read things earlier on than I do now. He is always my first reader, which is great for me and hard for him—he has to live with me! But then Georges and Anne Borchardt, my agents, are the next readers; and then you, of course. I’m not a writing group member, not a joiner in that way. I don’t seek a wide swath of feedback. By the time Georges or you read a manuscript, it has its integrity. Which is not to say it can’t be improved, even by a lot; but that any editing is aimed at attaining the platonic ideal of an existing work, rather than at changing the nature or shape of that work. I’m not very flexible that way, as you know. But I don’t know whether, as an editor, you work more closely, from an earlier stage, with other writers; do you feel that you’re usually, or often, or even sometimes, involved in shaping the substance or nature of a book, rather than just refining it? And are those two different undertakings, if so?
Desser: Some writers won’t say a word about what they’re up to—and won’t sign a contract or show you anything, until a book’s complete. Some want to talk a lot about a book they’re contemplating, and then it might turn out they don’t write that book at all, but surprise you with something completely different.
Messud: It means a lot to me that you as an editor understand and support this basic impracticality in this writer’s approach. I know it’s not easy to do that, either, in the heartfelt way you do. After all, you’re answerable to the publishing house, and I’m sure it can be uncomfortable to be defending your writers and our odd books to colleagues who don’t necessarily feel as you do.
Desser: Mostly I think as an editor you have to listen, to water the soil, and simply not get in the way. Sometimes you do say something completely idiotic, and there’s an explosion. Well, but maybe that might not be so terrible—if something great gets produced as a result. What do you think about that? How do you deal with the things I say that get stuck in your craw, maybe especially with this new book?
Messud: For this book, for me, it wasn’t that I wanted to show it to you in an earlier stage, but that the impossible circumstances of my life dictated that I must. Which was an experience that we both learned a lot from. You were wonderful about making observations without intervening, if that makes sense—you reflected back to me your experience of reading the manuscript, and then let me go away and keep working in my own way. But in that regard, I’m fortunate in having you as my editor, and we’re both fortunate that you’re at Knopf, where that kind of independence is strongly supported. Perhaps you’d say something about that aspect of your work, about how you as an editor stand in the middle, negotiating the balance between a writer’s independence and individual vision, and the practical requirements of the publishing house?
Desser: Sometimes, the books you think are going to be critical and/or commercial successes don’t “work.” And then sometimes it’s the others that surprise you. It seems to me that a writer often knows far more than an editor does. It’s called intuition, or prescience … Everyone I work with at Knopf is sensitive to this, and yes, as you say there is a spirit of independent thinking here, nurtured by Sonny Mehta on down.
With The Woman Upstairs I tried to remember that what I was reading was something raw, unfinished. The voice was so powerful. I remember well where I was when I read the complete first draft: on a plane coming back from a conference in Korea. I was kind of knocked over by what you’d done—almost scared at the book’s visceral power. Maybe also because I had absolutely no sense of what time it was, or where I was, as I was reading. But what was clear was the voice—Nora’s voice—which was so strong, right from Page 1. Where did that voice come from?, I kept asking myself. It seared into my skin on that long plane journey.
Knowing what a difficult time it was for you personally during the years between Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs, I found it incredible that you could bring such focus, such attention, to the work before you, to creating Nora and her world. Yet I also had a sense that working on this novel helped you, provided a very much needed focus.
Messud: Yes, writing is essential to me. It’s my way of living in the world. So through these difficult few years, writing kept me anchored. Well, writing and my beloved, amazing family. In 2010-11, we had a year at an institute called the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and it was an extraordinary gift: I would sit in my beautiful little office there and marvel that I could work quietly for hours at a time. As a mother of young children and the daughter of ailing parents, I hadn’t had the privilege of working that way for so long. I wrote much of the book in that office, with big windows looking onto a hillock where there was a great deal of animal activity—field mice and twittering birds and occasional cats, and once even a bird of prey with a bird in its claws. It was very peaceful and grounding; and I think it was great for me that it was far from the madding crowd, if you like, far away from American literary life and all of its potential anxieties.
Desser: I so appreciated that with The Woman Upstairs you wrote something that in so many ways was different than The Emperor’s Children—a departure you felt free to take. It might not go down easy for some readers, but it will be taken seriously. What do you hope for, with this book?
Messud: I believe that in an ideal world writers would feel free to write what matters to them, without having to consider success, failure, the market, etc. When I set out to be a writer, I had from very early the image of Christina Stead in old age living in an attic bedsit in north London eating baked beans out of a can. Popular success is a wonderful gift if it happens, but like money, it’s not the motivation. The effort to create a work of art that is true and potentially lasting, that is the very best work of art you can create at that point in your life—a book that may only reach or move a few people but will seem to those people somehow transformative. That’s the ideal; that’s always the motivation.
This maybe makes me sound a bit crazy. Maybe you have to be impractical to embark on such a precarious road. I’ve never been very practical or realistic—I’ve always felt that if a project seems easy, or even attainable, why pursue it? I’ll always find the hardest path. Needless to say, not always a good idea. I always say to my students, if you can do anything other than writing and be happy, then you should. But given this perspective, the success of The Emperor’s Children was a bit strange for me. Exciting and wonderful, but also surprising—as if I thought I’d been on the train to Washington, D.C., and ended up in Chicago. Where I am is a great place to be, but it’s important to remember that I was not a different writer before people paid attention to what I wrote; so I’m not a different writer afterward. If people like something you’ve done, or don’t like it—this shouldn’t determine what you write or how you write it. Those are two separate things entirely: your work, and the world’s response to it.
The ideal is to have an editor who understands that, who believes in the merit of the endeavor and is willing to stand by you through thick and thin. Who trusts you to take risks. Someone who will encourage you to publish a challenging book if it’s good; and who, by the same token, will hold you back from publishing a potential best-seller if it’s garbage. In this world, that’s rare. So far, I’ve been very lucky.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Knopf.