CLAIRE MESSUD, Monday (May 6) at the Brigantine Room as part of the Authors At Harbourfront series. See listings.
American author Claire Messud's exceptional novel The Woman Upstairs follows Nora, a third-grade schoolteacher with artistic aspirations whose world is rocked when the Shahid family - epecially Sirena, a working artist - enters her life and excites every one of her senses. Messud sat down to talk with NOW before reading tonight.
Though you're known for more cerebral novels, you begin this one with an outright rant from Nora.
I love a rant. I love the immediacy, the urgency, the direct address, the sense that you can give a reader intimate access to somebody you're trying to figure out. How much do you trust that person? How do you connect? Is there validity in what that person says? I don't have a problem with extremity. I like energy. More life is more life.
You let it be known on the first page that something big is going to happen to piss off the narrator. Was that a risky narrative choice?
After reading my first drafts, both my editors said, "It's not working." I originally wanted the story to unfold so the reader knows what's happening but Nora doesn't, because I didn't want the ending to be the whole point.
Why did you choose to make Nora and Sirena visual artists?
I'm more visual than aural. I've always been interested in visual art. It's a different world than being a musician, because it's solitary; you have your own vision and make your own thing. There are rare people who earn a living from it. There are those who show in local galleries and peo-ple buy their art and they have to have another job. And there are those... I mean George W. Bush is an artist now.
You suggest that to experience rage is to be alive. Do you think a person has to experience pain in order to make art?
The truth is, everybody suffers. Even the most apparently blessed of lives involve suffering. I'm on the Schopenhauer end of things: if your big toes hurts, that's what you notice even if the rest of you feels fine. You don't need disasters to become an art-ist. You just have to be awake, not just to your own suffering but to the suffering around you.