Diane talks with Ruth Marcus, editor at the Washington Post. Her new book is "Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover."
When her first novel, “The Miniaturist,” was released two years ago, author Jessie Burton wasn’t prepared for the attention and pressure that writing an international bestseller would bring. In her latest novel, “The Muse,” she explores how we struggle with ambition, identity and desire through the fictional stories of two women—one in 1960s London, the other 30 years earlier on the edge of the Spanish Revolution—and how their lives intersect in a single mysterious painting. Author Jessie Burton talks with Diane about her latest novel, the dark sides of success and what it means to be a muse.
- Jessie Burton Author of "The Muse" and the New York Times best-selling novel "The Miniaturist"
Read A Featured Excerpt
“The Muse” © 2016 by Jessie Burton. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Ecco Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It's 1967 in London and a young Caribbean immigrant named Odelle has just landed a job at the prestigious Skelton Art Gallery where she comes across a painting with a complicated history. 30 years earlier, Olive Schloss, an aspiring painter, is struggling to find her place as a woman and as an artist as the Spanish Revolution unfolds. Author Jessie Burton's latest book titled "The Muse" travels between the stories of these woman as they grapple with ambition, identity and a mystery that ties them together.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd throughout the hour, we'll welcome your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or you can send us a tweet. Jessie Burton, it's good to have you here.
MS. JESSIE BURTONThank you very, very much for having me. It's an honor to be here.
REHMJessie, this book is so wonderfully plotted. It made me think of A.S. Byatt, whom I adore, and I just want to, right at the outset, say how much I've enjoyed this book.
BURTONThank you so much. That comparison is extraordinary.
REHMIt -- I wonder why you told the story from the perspective of these two women, 30 years apart. Did you wrestle with that idea?
BURTONI did, actually. I was concerned would I be able to do that, would I be able to marry together 1930s pre-Civil War Spain and 1967 London. And I think I was just partially a bit greedy and I didn't want to give either up so I had to work out a way to synthesize them, to make them a full novel and not just two separate stories.
REHMWhich story began first?
BURTONThe Spanish side began first. I had, in my mind's eye, this sort of southern Spanish setting, the heat and the dust and these sort of white-washed villas and these wealthy people coming to escape, essentially, their lives, from North Europe. And the mother character in the book has suffered a nervous breakdown and in an early scene that's no longer in the book, but I had this image of the father and the daughter leaving her in a convent and speeding off in a convertible car, which hasn't ended up in the book, but that was an early idea of sort of instability and outsiderhood, but also this kind of beautifully hot setting. So that's how it started.
REHMAnd then, placing the other character in the novel.
BURTONYou mean, in the 1960s. Well, that sort of came about partly because the necessity of 30 years down the line being 1960s so there are characters who appear in both streams of the novel. So it was kind of mixture of sort of serendipity because I am actually personally interested in Britain's sort of history in the '60s, particularly with regards to immigration from the Caribbean. So the lead character is from the Caribbean. So the reason why the '60s has emerged as it has in the book is because of Odelle Bastien, the main character being from Trinidad.
BURTONBut also, literally, because of necessity, the time scale, it needed to be 30 years later from the '30s.
REHMTell us about Odelle.
BURTONOdelle, well, I'm very fond of Odelle. Odelle Bastien, she's 26. She's a recent -- well, no, she's been in London for five years so she came in 1962 and she's a graduate of the University of West Indies. She's a writer. She's incredibly bright and gifted and very prim at the same time. And I think she wants to kind of let loose, but she's had a very rigorous English education on the island of Trinidad and she has dreams of writing and sort of living and experiencing, but when she gets to London, she finds it hard to make those dreams realities.
BURTONAnd eventually, she gets a job as a typist in the art gallery called the Skelton Institute where he life really starts to ramp up. And she, yes, she's, for me, a slight exploration of what it means to be a writer and to be a creative person.
REHMAnd tell us about the painting at the center of the connection between these characters.
BURTONYeah, so the painting is called "Rufina and the Lion" and it's a long lost masterpiece that is discovered by this young man who brings it to Odelle's office and she sort of falls in love with him and he with her. But it's a painting by an artist known as Isaac Robles who appears in the '30s section and he's rumored to have gone missing in the Spanish Civil War and he's kind of a sort of lost part of the puzzle of the history of Spanish art and everyone's very excited to see this painting reappear and it's a painting about these two sisters who were from Seville in the 2nd century A.D. who refused to make pots for the Romans so they were early Christians and they wouldn't sort of make pots for the pagans.
BURTONAnd they smashed the mask of Venus so the Romans punished them quite severely by throwing one sister, Justa, down a well and making the other sister, Rufina, face down a lion in an amphitheater. But the great anti-climax was that the lion wouldn't fight her.
BURTONYeah. He wouldn't have any of it. So the Romans did a slightly drastic step of cutting Rufina's head off and throwing it down a well to meet her sister. So it's incredibly violent image, but also it's -- for me, it's a story of sisterly solidarity and creativity and sort of single-minded creative vision. And I thought this would be a good subject for a painting, particularly given that they were Spanish saints and they were canonized. And then, I subsequently discovered, once I'd written the novel, that not just my fictional Spanish painter, but real Spanish painters, such as Velazquez and Goya and Murillo and Zubaran had also all painted the sisters.
BURTONI didn't know that at the time.
REHMYou didn't know that.
BURTONNo. So this strange painting is these two girls and there's one woman holding another woman's head so there's this kind of idea of duality and the play of self and all the masks we wear. And then, there's this beautiful lion on the other side of the painting who won't fight, but he's kind of poised to pounce so it's kind of that ambiguity of impulse as well.
REHMAnd there are initials on that painting.
BURTONThere are. So at the bottom, the painting is marked I.R. for Isaac Robles. Yeah, so everyone assumes it's by Isaac Robles.
REHMAnd that, in and of itself, is part of the mystery.
REHMYour first book, "The Miniaturist" was also about art, about a dollhouse. Why are you drawn to so much art in your writing?
BURTONIt's a mystery. I think it's -- there are similarities in the sense, obviously, these are both novels that center around creativity and making things with your hands and your mind at the same time, I think, in order to make sense of the world. And I think that's why we like art or we like music or any of these kinds of arts because...
BURTON...or literature, indeed, because it says sort of either a means of decoding what it means to be a human or kind of elaborating what it means to be alive. For me, I think "The Miniaturist," my first novel, that's a very solid object. The doll's house is real object. You can see it in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It's like a solid anchor. Whereas all the paintings in the muse are fictional and they don't exist and they are kind of my own imaginary creation. But I think -- I don't know. I think it's partly because, as a writer, I'm never going to directly write about writing overtly.
BURTONSo if you write about art, as in painting, you can explore those kind of impulses of creativity and the struggles of creativity, while still enjoying, you know, describing paintings and that enigma, that talent that other people have that you don't have yourself, which is painting.
REHMNow, in this novel, "The Muse," had you already plotted out what the ending was going to be? Did you start with the ending or start with the beginning?
BURTONI started with the beginning and I'm a terrible plotter. I mean, I've very sort of -- I work in a very nonlinear way. I tend to have a scene in my mind and I don't know where that scene's going to actually end up.
REHMAnd you allow that scene to simply play out.
BURTONI do. I do. I have to because I don't think I can worry about the structure too much. I do have a sort of loose idea, but that's always going to change. So, for example, with the muse, the sort of (word?) chapter used to be opening chapter of the whole book.
BURTONYeah. So it ended up really nearly being at the end. So it's like a complete patchwork that I have to accept for two or three years is going to be a bit of a chaos. At the same time, I do have a sort of notepad by my desk saying what needs to happen. I don't know when it's going to happen or how, but I just have to take that leap of faith that somehow all the pieces will slot down over the two or three years it takes me.
REHMYou know, so many people who listen to this program and other programs where writers like yourself appear, question this process and how it works and what these notes that you jot down mean to you and where they come from and why they emerge. Does the process of writing itself provide more and more and more of those ideas?
BURTONI think it does and I think you can't worry too much about where it's coming from because as soon as you start analyzing that, I think, you're going to break that mystery, that enigma so you get that sort of -- you get where you're going as you're going on that journey.
REHMJessie Burton, she is the bestselling author of "The Miniaturist." Her newest novel titled "The Muse." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. Jessie Burton is with me. Her beautiful book, "The Muse" and I'm looking at this cover, Jessie, and it's just gorgeous. "The Muse" is following on her New York Times bestseller, "The Miniaturist." And I wonder, first, before we get you to read, Jessie, from "The Muse," what the success of "The Miniature" has meant for you.
BURTONIt was -- I think, yes, it's the sort of most transformative thing that's ever happened to me in my life. It's the best thing that's ever happened, but it wasn't always the easiest. I wasn't actually expecting the -- quite the sort of degree of success so it sort of sold over a million copies and, you know, the TV rights were sold and it was Waterstone's Book of the Year, which is the UK's national bookseller. And I was hoping for 500 copies to be sold, you know.
BURTONWhen you're a first-timer, you just -- you're told it's hard to sell a book. It's hard to get people to read books.
REHMYou bet. You bet.
BURTONRight. And it took me a while to sort of understand quite how extreme it was. I couldn't really catch up with it. It was a sort of phenomenon in a way, without wishing to sound boastful. But it became this sort of, you know, everyone know the name of the book, "The Miniaturist" and it was everywhere. And I was sort of expected to be the representative of that and to be accountable for it, but also, the problem was I wrote from a place of doubt and curiosity. I was no more my book than, you know, anybody else. It's a separate object from me now it's out.
BURTONAnd I did struggle and I found myself very exhausted mentally because it was just hard to -- I felt like I had to keep performing this happiness of success and, you know, the girl next door who sold a million copies because she wrote a novel. And I sort of was very intimidated by what I'd done almost, and frightened by it because all I'd done was write a story that I hoped some people would like to read. I mean, that's the fundamental thing I do so everything else around it was quite disorientating and it broke my identity open because I'd always defined myself by struggle and then I didn't have to struggle anymore.
BURTONSo who was I then? And also to be read and interpreted and have people sort of want to know about me and to not feel ready for that, nobody was expecting it and, you know, I just had -- I was sort of galloping behind it.
REHMHad you gone through several other publishers before you found the one?
BURTONI had written a novel prior to this one that I sort of abandoned that was rejected and several literary agents had rejected this book "The Miniaturist," feeling that it fell between two stools or just they couldn't quite see it placed in the market. And then, somebody kind of took a punt on me and saw something in it and then it -- what happened in the UK was within 24 hours of it being submitted to publishers, 11 publishers wanted it and they had to auction. They had to go into an auction.
BURTONSo on the Tuesday, it was sort of 11 publishers and by Friday, they had to put their best bids in. And by the next Monday, only two had dropped out and we had to keep -- it was ridiculous. They just kept wanting it and I was still working. I used to be a secretary in the city of London. I was a financial PA so I was just sitting at my desk with this notepad of all these chores I had to do for my bosses. And then, on the other side, this list of, like, all these famous publishers.
REHMHow were you writing? Were you doing this in the evening, in the morning? How were you doing it?
BURTONI was doing it just like that, yes. I was -- on the commuter train, I'd sort of tap into my phone. I was a big sneaky sometimes and I would write -- I would make it look like I writing emails, but I was actually in the body of an email writing my Dutch 17th century drama. But then, you know, you do what you got to do. I did also, I feel I must say, do my other work.
REHMOf course, you did. Of course, you did. And were there people supporting you? I mean, personal friends, relatives supporting you?
BURTONYes. I was phenomenally lucky. I have very supportive parents and they've always sort of let me just do it. You know, they roll their eyes, oh, Jessie, off you go. And, you know, my close friends were brilliant. A few of them read early drafts and then when it all went mad with the auctions across the countries of, you know, from Europe right through to here, you know, I'd be emailing people going, oh, Bulgaria's bought it, Brazil and everyone, you know, I remember my friend, Alice, she just broke down in tears.
BURTONShe was so moved. And my friend, Amy, just got the fit of giggles and just couldn't talk, you know. It was just insane. So it's been wonderful and I'm so lucky to have friends like that.
REHMWhat was the worst part?
BURTONWell, I think the thing was -- I never doubted that couldn't write, but it was finding the mental strength to write again in the face of a massive success like that and finding a path to do that and to understand why I was doing this. What was -- where did I lay my value? So, you know, I think -- it's odd because I felt terribly guilty to feel so exhausted and slightly depleted of energy because obviously, I'd been given this massive blessing and so many writers would've wanted that.
BURTONBut it was finding the belief that I could do it again somewhere deep inside me that I didn't want to be defined by the first book and that I, you know, I am a storyteller and I will continue doing that. So yes, it was literally the daily grind of going back to the desk, was promoting "The Miniaturist" globally and talking very, you know, glibly about writing, but also then struggling at the desk in front of a blank page and I lost it.
REHMDid that mean that you did have to travel globally to promote it?
BURTONI did, yes. I went to -- I was in the States and then France and Italy and Spain. I did about 18 months of promotion.
BURTONIt is hard because it starts to sort of become -- it's like you're talking about somebody else and then the more you repeat one thing, obviously, it becomes more and more unreal and it's just a story separate from you. And yeah, so that was tough. And it was just -- I was -- it was going at 100 miles per hour and I just had to try and keep up with it and I couldn't.
REHMAnd how long has it taken to write "The Muse"?
BURTONIt's kind of astonishing. I think I did it in two years and I'm -- the bulk of it was in 2015. And if I'm honest, I can't really remember most of 2015. It's sort of a blur. But yes, the bulk was done last year.
REHMTell us how you define a muse.
BURTONFor me, I think -- well, I can only obviously -- well, I can talk personally. I think, for me, I don't have a muse externally in the sense of another person who inspires me. I feel that the muse is a conversation you're having with yourself, with your own psyche and how you interpret the world. Many, many things inspire me, but I think you have to remain very open-minded and open-eyed and keep your antenna up. And that's my muse. That's literally the world and the way I absorb it.
BURTONAnd as long as you keep doing that and keeping curious and humble, then that muse, that channel, that open channel, that's as easily as I can describe it. But I think, historically speaking, muses have been sort of blamed for, you know, creative breakdowns or, like, absence of inspiration and that’s rubbish. It's always about the individual artist.
REHMAnd who or what is the muse in this novel?
BURTONWell, I think there are several muses in this novel. I think that, for example, the young woman in the '30s, Olive, believes that her lover is her muse and that she cannot paint without him, that she cannot do anything without that passion. I don't think she's right. There's another character called Marjorie Quick, who's a very unusual individual, who is Odelle's muse. Odelle uses her to tell us the story and so the muses in this book are essentially the energies you get from other people.
BURTONAnd I do think writers are -- they do tend to harvest individuals and people that they know.
BURTONYeah, so, for example, the opening chapter of this book is a story my mother told me. She used to work in a shoe shop when she was a teenager and this woman came in and said, you know, I don't care what size shoe you offer me, because I -- and then she took her shoes off and she had no toes. And my mom told me this when I was 8 and I didn't tell my mom this, but I put that in the novel. And that's what I'm saying. It's like the muses are kind of accumulations of stories and how you recalibrate that.
REHMThat's a good definition of a muse. Would you read for us from a section of the book? Set it up for us.
BURTONYes, I'd be happy to. So this section is -- we're in the 1930s and it's 1936 and Sarah is the wife of Harold Schloss, an art dealer, and she -- they've arrived in the heat of the south of Spain to kind of -- as I said earlier, to escape their sort of troubled lives up in Paris and London. And her daughter, Olive, who's 19, is watching her mother and Olive has recently got into art school and she doesn't know what to do about it.
BURTONBecause Olive is intimidated by her father being an art dealer and she's scared to kind of admit to her parents what she really wants to do and be, which is to be a painter. And she's confident in her own talent, but not confident in her talent in the world and how it will be received.
REHMBut it's also because her father doesn't really appreciate that Olive, a woman, could be an artist.
BURTONExactly. She's been burned once before when she was 15 by showing her father a painting that she'd done and her father dismissing it and saying, you know, it's, you know, painting's -- women can be painters, but maybe not artists and that comes up in this section, this sort of debate. What is genius, you know? Does it always have to be men?
BURTONAll right. "Sarah was unconscious. Her face turned sideways. Her artificial curls crushed on the pillow. The cuts on her bare legs covered in Calamine smears. A soured scent of the night's last glass rose from her mouth. On the bedside table was an overfilled ashtray, a pile of detective novels and her Vogue magazines, their corners curled. Her clothes were everywhere on the dusty floorboards, here stockings like sloughed snakes, there a blouse flattened in the effort of escape.
BURTONHer rouge had melted in its pot. In the corner of the room, a lizard flicked across the tiles like a mote upon the eye. Olive stood at the door. The letter from the Slade School of Fine Art gripped in her hand. The letter was only two weeks old, but it had a handkerchief's flutter, the creases almost oiled from so much refolding. She walked over to her mother's bed and perched on the end to read it again, although she knew it off by heart. 'It is our pleasure to invite you to undertake the fine art degree course. The tutors were highly impressed, rich imagination and novelty, continuing the rigorous, yet progressive, tradition of the school. We look forward to hearing from you within the next fortnight. Should your circumstances change, please inform us.'
BURTONIf she read it aloud, maybe Sarah would hear her through the fog and that would be that. Olive would have to stick to her word and go. Maybe a shock like this was best administered under the residual effects of a sleeping pill. When Olive had received the letter back in London, she wanted to shout from the skyline what she'd gone and done. Her parents had had no idea. They didn't even know their daughter still painted, let alone that she'd applied to art school. But part of Olive's problem was that she had always been used to secrecy. It was where she was comfortable. The point from which she began to create.
BURTONIt was a pattern she was superstitious to break and so here she was in this village in the south of Spain. As she gazed at her mother's sleeping form, she remembered showing her father a portrait she'd made of Sarah from art class at school. 'Olive,' he'd said, as her heart hammered, the expectation inching up her spine. 'Give it as a present for your mother.' That was all he'd said on the matter, a present for your mother. Her father always said that, of course, women could pick up a paintbrush and paint, but the fact was, they didn't make good artists. Olive had never quite worked out what the difference was.
BURTONSince she was a little girl playing in the corners of his gallery, she would overhear Harold discussing the issue with his clients, both men and women and often the women would agree with him, preferring to put their money behind young men, rather than anyone of their own sex. The artist is naturally male was such a widely help presupposition that Olive had come, at times, to believe in it herself. As a 19-year-old girl, she was on the underside, the dogged, plucky mascot of amateurship.
BURTONBut right now, in Paris, Amrita Sher-Gil, Meret Oppenheim, and Gabriele Munter were all working. Olive had even seen their pieces with her own eyes. Were they not artists? Was the difference between being a workaday painter and being an artist simply other people believing in you or spending twice as much money on your work? She found it impossible to express to her parents why she's applied, the portfolio she's collated, the essay she'd written on background figures in Bellini. Despite all she'd absorbed about women's shortcomings in art, she'd gone and done it anyway.
BURTONThis was what she couldn't understand, where the urge had come from, and yet, even though an independent life was just within her reach, still she was sitting at the foot of her mother's bed."
REHMJessie Burton reading from her brand-new novel, "The Muse." Jessie, you said that the year after "The Miniaturist" came out, indeed the 18 months was kind of a blur. Were you writing on "The Muse" at the same time?
BURTONI was. Yeah, I was doing both at the same time and I think that's partly why I can't remember any of it, but I also believe that this novel, "The Muse," mutated in response to my own experiences of being a public artist and a private person and perhaps it was a way of me working it out. And so, you know, I was contractually obliged to deliver a second novel.
BURTONSo I was writing. And, you know, writing is -- I have a complex relationship with the act of writing and it's...
REHMTell me about it. I know the feeling well.
BURTONI think it surprises some people. They always think you do it for pleasure. It's literally like the least pleasurable thing.
REHMExactly. It's the hardest thing I do.
BURTONRight, exactly. And it's -- and yet, it's a compulsion. It's an itch you need to scratch and it's not a hobby, you know. It's work. And I do find it a struggle to always find what's in my mind's eye and to translate it onto the page.
REHMAnd how do you do that?
BURTONI guess you do it -- well, I do it by accepting that the first draft and the second draft is nowhere near -- and actually, Olive, the painter in the book, she describes the shining citadel of perfection that she believes she's getting towards. And you just have to accept that maybe you'll never reach it, but that doesn't matter.
REHMJessie Burton, her new novel is titled "The Muse." When we come back, we'll open the phones, take your calls, comments, questions. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Jessie Burton is here with me. Her newest novel, "The Muse," coming after the phenomenal bestseller "The Miniaturist." Here's what you and I have in common. I, too, was a secretary, then I was a homemaker raising children for 14 years before I ventured into radio. You went on to university after high school, secondary school. Why did you become a secretary?
BURTONI became a secretary to pay the bills in between trying to make it as an actress. So, right.
REHMOh, I see.
BURTONSo after university I went to drama school, and the thing I'd -- I'd always written that that was never something I considered as my sort of career aim. The thing I wanted to do was act and be on the stage and maybe TV. So in London, and I think anywhere, it's quite tough to make it.
BURTONSo I -- it was a good job, like, so for eight years I temped in various institutions, insurance companies, private equity, hedge funds, all those different places because it allowed me flexibility to drop out and go into a play whenever I got a job, but if I'm honest, Diane, I started doing a lot more of the secretary work and a lot less of the acting as I kind of moved through my 20s, and that's when the writing came back.
REHMAnd that's when the writing came back, all right. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Bob in Silver Spring, Maryland, you're on the air.
BOBHi, thanks, Diane, hi Jesse.
REHMSo I called and asked the question, and then you started to address a little bit about 2015. You kind of made a throw-off remark about how you worked so hard, and you didn't remember the year.
BOBAnd then Diane asked you a question, and you addressed some little bit. So I wonder if you can expand on that a little bit. Is it so all-encompassing that 24/7 you're involved your head in the thinking and writing process, and you're that absorbed for that long a period of time?
BURTONIt is quite terrifying, but yes. I mean, you know, I did remember to eat.
BOBWell good for you.
BURTONAnd I remembered to rehydrate. But this is -- this is something that I experienced, and it is -- and I slightly look at in the book about, you know, how to handle creative talent and how to handle your work because I lost balance essentially. I couldn't discipline myself, I couldn't apportion my time well. So, you know, I'd be working all hours of the day. You know, when you're writing a novel, you are essentially out of your current time. You're on a sort of different metaphysical plane. You're in a fictional world.
BURTONAnd it does require an inordinate amount of focus and effort, and it's -- it scared me, and it worried me. I thought I don't know if I can go through this again with a third novel. I'm going to have to work out a better way of working. And, you know, I think it does happen to artists that, you know, once the kind of flow is there, everything else goes out of the window, and it can be quite selfish, and it can be quite destructive if you're not careful with it.
BURTONBut, you know, you come out of it at the other end, and it's easier once you've got writing on the page, and you can -- when you start editing, it becomes easier to have a much more regular time of it, I think.
REHMDo you work with one editor?
BURTONI do. I mean, I have a fantastic editor in America, as well, actually, but my kind of first port of call is my editor in the U.K., and my agent, actually, my literary agent, is one of the first people to see my work. Probably about the third draft I'll start sharing it, and actually I think from my acting background, I'm pretty collaborative. I enjoy the to and fro of ideas.
BURTONBecause I think it opens windows and doors rather than closes anything up, yeah.
BURTONI'm not -- I'm not intimidated by other people's opinions of my word, and actually it helps me to find my own stance.
REHMGood. All right, I hope that answers it for you, Bob.
BOBYes, it did, thank you.
REHMAll right, let's go to Flat Rock, Indiana, Richard, (PH) you're on the air.
RICHARDI just had a question for the author. Ms. Jess, correct? I apologize, I didn't know your name.
RICHARDSo my question was I -- I just graduated, I'm a writer, I'm working really hard work, and I just wanted to know if you have any advice for how to keep going, you know, if you have an idea, how did you keep going, how did you make sure that a light at the tunnel stayed there?
BURTONI sympathize, I do, I do.
BURTONIt's hard because, you know, no one's forcing you to do this, but at the same time, if it's the thing that you really, really want to do, you just have to keep going. And, I mean, I do remember when I was writing my first novel, my then-boyfriend reminded me, we're good friends now, but he reminded me, you know, Jessie, you were often in tears, you were, you know, despondent. And I do think it's part and parcel, and I think rejection is inevitable. Not everyone is going to love your book and what you write.
BURTONAnd I think the thing is that for me, the conception of "The Miniaturist," the idea and what I wanted to convey and what I wanted to do was so strong in me that I didn't care, and I wasn't going to give up. And I think you do have to have a real bloody-mindedness and a self-belief but also a flexibility in terms of your attitude to your own writing and if people are giving you constructive criticism to listen to it if you're not getting anywhere.
BURTONSo it's this weird line you have to tread between self-belief and then, you know, being realistic about, you know, being flexible and having to change your direction. But the thing is, I really feel like you have to keep turning up because if you don't turn up, you might not get lucky, you know.
BURTONAnd there's -- it is in the book, "The Muse," you have to be ready in order to be lucky.
BURTONBut I think the thing is, yeah, just -- it sounds so trite and basic, but, you know, just keep going, and the more you read, and the more you write, the better you will get and the more people will look at your work. But just keep your own vision.
REHMHere's an email from Marian. She says, I'm a 63-year-old female jazz musician.
REHMAnd when I heard Jessie read her passage about living in a man's world as a female artist, I could relate. I am constantly running into walls of men in my field and having to fight for an equality of respect, not necessarily talent or skill but respect. I think it is a reality all women artists face.
BURTONYeah, I mean, I think it's -- it's so tricky, but it does feel that you have to be super-brilliant to sort of get an equal amount of critical or sort of literary respect that a man might get, but I think it has to do with some kind of unconscious bias of where we assume natural authority lies. And men, in my experience as a reader, since I was a little girl and then as a student and then as a woman, they always seem to be able to write about things, and it's seen to be a universal comment on mankind, but if a woman does it, it's like about a personal experience.
BURTONWe never seem to be able to be fully authoritative about the world. Well, we feel authoritative. It's about how our authority is received.
REHMSo here you have your book, "The Miniaturist," at first turned down, and then finally someone, as you say, takes a chance on it, and all of a sudden all these people are bidding on it. How do you account for that?
BURTONIt's a mystery.
REHMYeah, I mean, what was it, do you think? Was it that one person says this is brilliant, and that says to the world, this is brilliant, and then all these other people come in?
BURTONWell maybe. I mean, I think by the time it was submitted, I had refined it. So it was a stronger piece of work. So maybe that was why more heads were turned. I do think that often if one editor likes something, or two editors like it, it's likely that more are going to anyway, probably because of the quality of it. You know, they do get submitted an awful lot of books every day.
BURTONSo -- but it is a bit of a conundrum, and it's something that I'm interested in in terms of the art world. You know, if one art dealer decides he or she is going to garland a particular artist and say, God, you've really got to invest in him, or you've got to buy him because...
BURTONAnd then the kind of rumor mill starts, you know, and it's -- is it emperor's new clothes, or is it a truth of that quality? It's all about subjective opinion, fundamentally, and it's a gamble, you know. Publishing is a gamble.
REHMIt's so interesting because in "The Muse," both Odelle and Olive have very complicated relationships with men.
BURTONYes, they do. Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting one, and for me, I think Olive and Odelle are two sides of the same coin of artist, and Olive is supremely confident in her talent and quite sort of myopic and kind of sexually rapacious and uses that sex drive, I think, to kind of paint. And I was kind of playing with a kind of trope of Picasso and all his female muses and that kind of need for that female beauty and form, and I kind of flipped it, whereas Odelle is a lot more ambivalent about her gift, shall we say, and doesn't like people interfering with whether she should write or not, and she's a bit shier about it.
BURTONBut both of them, yes, have complex relationships and particularly I'm interested in Odelle's relationship with Lori, her kind of boyfriend, and, you know, I don't want to give too much away, but there seems to be an inability, slightly, for Odelle to accommodate a standard romantic relationship and the relationship she has with her work, and you could say the same for Olive because actually Olive's entire relationship with Isaac is about her work.
BURTONSo yeah, they -- yeah, it's an interesting exploration.
REHMHow did your relationship with your then-boyfriend change?
BURTONYou know, I was so lucky with him because many -- I don't know. I don't wish to speak for all mankind, but -- or men. But I think the amount of attention and success and glory I was garlanded with may have intimidated a different type of man. But he was always very happy for me and very proud, I think partly because he'd seen the struggle. And he was often one of the first readers of my work. He was a very -- very logical, rational kind of person, and I'm not.
BURTONSo he helped me refine the book in different ways I could never have done. And he was cool about it, but I think, do you know what, it was more that I changed, and we're actually not together anymore. We were together for eight years, and we're good friends now, but I think I -- it's like I broke the professional mold of my life, and then I sort of broke the sort of emotional mold of my life and had to -- everything just -- all the playing pieces just got moved, and I had to sort of go it alone, really.
BURTONBut, you know, he's promised that he'll still read my manuscripts, and that's a deal we've made.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How do you believe that the success of "The Miniaturist" changed you?
BURTONIt was gradual, but it's like a sort of -- I think it's kind of been consolidated by "The Muse" because "The Muse" was number one in the U.K., and we didn't know, you know, were we going to hit that again. It gives you status. It gives you respect. You suddenly realize, like, people want your opinion, and they want your approval for things. You get taken seriously.
BURTONOh, and financial -- well that's the thing, of course that's the massive thing is, you know, I will have to write another novel to keep the, you know, bills paid, but I've -- you know, I'm a financially independent woman, so I don't need any kind of relationship where I'll need to rely on a man for anything, and that does change things.
REHMChanges the way you see yourself.
BURTONWell yeah, I mean, and also, you know, to find somebody who would be happy with me being very worldly and maybe not having the money and me paying for everything. You know, it's a bit -- it's pretty unbalanced, that. But yeah, it's a sort of sense of belonging to myself and arriving and having -- I can't really believe it sometimes, like, the dream I had for myself probably when I was seven or eight has actually become a reality.
REHMSo you were writing those stories when you were seven or eight.
REHMAnd your parents were reading them. And how were they reacting?
BURTONWell, I think, you know, you know mean now have they reacted or back then?
REHMNo, how were they reacting back then?
BURTONWell, they, you know, they were always -- dad has kept every single note or Post-It Note.
REHMI have a feeling.
BURTONHe has got a ridiculous kind of treasure trove in the attic of everything. Mom is a bit more -- I don't know, mum is much more of an in-the-moment kind of person. Dad is (unintelligible) nostalgic and also with an eye on sort of the future. But I think they were just always proud of me, but, you know, sometimes I feel perhaps they didn't realize quite how much I worked hard. Maybe they sometimes thought, well, Jessie's just...
BURTONWell, or that she -- it's easy for her, and she's gifted, like it's easy. But no, I always work very hard. But yeah, it's a complicated one.
BURTONWell, it took them a while to realize quite what was going on, I think, with "The Miniaturist."
REHMAnd now you've got children's books coming up.
BURTONYeah, I've got two short children's books that I'm going to be writing, which are fairy tales, which have got a kind of feminist twist. So I'm not quite sure which ones I'm going to do. I'm thinking maybe "The 12 Dancing Princesses" because I like the idea of these women dancing all night, literally while I'm doing it. I just love this idea of all these shoes being worn out and the dad not knowing why.
REHMWill these be illustrated?
BURTONYes, the whole point of them is -- well not the whole point, but they are very beautifully, heavily illustrated. So I think there'll be 64 pages of extraordinary illustration.
REHMWho will do that?
BURTONThey haven't decided. I don't know -- I don't know really how it works, but I think they kind of put it -- they put it out there, oh, Jessie Burton's written this story, are you interested in illustrating kind of thing. So...
REHMAre you excited about that project?
BURTONI am because it's a real palate cleanser because it's only a 5,000-word project, each one, whereas a novel is 100,000 words. And I think it will be an equal challenge because obviously with a child you've got to, you know, respect them and get their imagination.
REHMAbsolutely, and they are very, very critical readers.
BURTONI know, they'll be much worse than any New York Times critic. But it will be -- oh, it'll just be a joy. I can't wait. Yeah, it'll be great.
REHMGood for you. Jessie Burton, her newest book is titled "The Muse," and it's already at the top of London's bestseller list. We'll see what happens here. Jessie, good luck.
BURTONThank you so much. Thank you for having me.
REHMMy pleasure, and thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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