Jessie Burton’s gripping, intricately crafted debut novel, The Miniaturist (2014), inspired by a dolls’ house in the Rijksmuseum, was a worldwide bestseller: over one million copies have been sold. Not much to live up to then…
Fortunately, her second novel, The Muse (2016), is a worthy successor. Set during the Spanish civil war and London in the 1960s, it tells the story of one painting – and four women whose lives are inextricably bound to it. It’s a tour de force double narrative of creativity.
The Miniaturist was a huge success. Was there one pinch-me moment which brought it home?
There were so many! I wish I’d kept a diary. I think going down to Waterloo station and seeing a giant billboard of the book was one pinch-me moment. And getting an email from one of my favourite actresses who’d read the novel and loved it. I’ve still got in pinned on my corkboard.
Your new novel, The Muse, has not one, but four heroines – what type of women do you write, beyond the standard “strong female characters”? What qualities are you drawn to in a heroine?
I don’t write any type of woman, I hope. I write individuals, whose womanhood flows in and out of their identities and experiences. In terms of an attractive character to write – I like curious, vulnerable, honest, imaginative and funny women. It helps when they’re confrontational too!
Is writing historical fiction a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle: slotting the pieces of imagination and research together?
Yes, it’s a fine balance between fact and fiction, I suppose. Ultimately, it’s a novel – and the story must be king. But I want the reader to feel like they can trust me, so I do work hard to make my research as broad and enriched as possible.
What was your favourite discovery whilst researching The Muse?
I think my favourite discovery was a book called Disappointed Guests, published in 1963 – a direct insight into the lives of young people from Britain’s ex-colonies in England. It was fascinating. Another discovery was that other famous Spanish painters from Goya to Velazquez had chosen the same obscure subject as I did for the painting in the novel! It was a weird and validating coincidence.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
You might as well have a go.
What would you tell your 18 year old self?
Persevere. Have fun. Listen. Use more suncream.
You get to choose six women – dead or alive – to spend the evening with. Who? Why? And where do you go?
Hilary Mantel – I worship undeservingly at her feet, but I’d try to be cool
Elsa Schiaparelli – to see what fabulous outfit she’d be wearing
Jane Austen – I reckon she’d have a dry sense of humour
Bette Davis – the stories she’d have
Anne Boleyn – so she could set her record straight
Juliet Mushens – my literary agent, so we could dissect it all after
We’d go to Venice, sail up the Grand Canal and have a fantabulous dinner in an old palazzo full of sparkling candlelight and beautiful men serving us…
We think female friendships should be treasured – what one quality do all your friends share?
Oh, they are all so different, my friends! Ok, one thing – they all have a huge capacity for love. And that’s priceless, and wonderful.
Which female writers inspire you?
Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Joan Didion, Siri Hustvedt, Miriam Toews, Jane Austen, Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Kate Atkinson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Claire Tomalin, Pat Barker...
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My two novels.
When were you happiest?
February this year, in the Surinamese jungle.
What did you want to be growing up?
A pub landlady.
How do you unwind?
What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
Reading: The Vegetarian by Han Kang / watching Bloodline 2 on Netflix, listening: to a lot of David Byrne.
Minimalist or maximalist?
Maximalist. I cannot buy anything simple however hard I try.
Night in or night out?
Over or under dressed?
Favourite holiday destination?
Lazing on the beach or city break?
Favourite UK beach/holiday spot?
Summer or autumn?
Over or under packer?
Overpacker. It’s ridiculous.
Last time you laughed out loud?
No pleasure is guilty...
What word do you overuse?
Visit Jessie's website here for more information on her new novel!