YJA meets prize winning writer
I first met Jessie Burton in July 2014. For Jessie, the evening was one stop of many, on a tour that would take her from being an unknown PA and jobbing actress, secretly writing her first novel, to an internationally bestselling, prize-winning author. For me, that evening was a break from the hospital ward. My mum had been diagnosed with cancer a month previously. I took along a friend and drank a glass of wine. I was lucky enough to interview Jessie before she gave her talk and spent the few hours afterwards, tuning my notes into an article. Turning experiences, conversations and feelings, into words on a screen, gave me something to focus on.
I met Jessie again yesterday: Wednesday 31st August 2016. The last two years have been eventful for both of us.
The Miniaturist became Waterstone’s Book of the Year, selling over 140,000 copies in the UK alone. It hit the number-one spot on the Sunday Times bestseller list in summer 2014 and then again at Christmas. At the National Book Awards, Jessie won both New Writer of the Year and Book of the Year. To an outsider like me, Jessie’s life looked perfect. Her dream, of becoming a published author had not only been realised but had burst spectacularly through any expectations she could have had. She was a triumph, which must have felt wonderful.
Only, as she reveals in the essay on her blog, entitled Success, Creativity and the Anxious Space, it didn’t always. The success was so fast and so unexpected, that it became overwhelming. In 2015, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Though the last years had involved incredible highs, it was not easy to dispel the lows. If you haven’t read Jessie’s essay, I’d suggest giving it a go. At 9,000 words, it takes a while but, if you ask me, it’s definitely worth it.
Yesterday, I met Jessie and her publicist at Lincoln Drill Hall. The event was, again, organised by Lindum Books. Tickets invited customers for tea and cake – rows of beautiful china cups were positioned on tables, next to Jessie’s second novel, The Muse. Written during the turbulent time of 2015, The Muse focuses on two women; Odelle Bastien, a young woman emigrating to England from Trinidad in the 1960s, and Olive Schloss, a nineteen-year-old girl who moves to Spain with her parents in the 1930s. Olive paints secretly, under the nose of her father, a successful art-dealer. Odelle works in an art gallery. The two women’s stories are connected through a painting, which later determines both of their fates.
I met Jessie in the auditorium of the Hall, away from the rest of the guests. She said she remembers me and I was pleasantly surprised – I had assumed my face would blur into the hundreds of others she’d seen during that crazy tour. I was curious as to whether this second tour for The Muse feels as relentless as the first.
“I didn’t know what to expect the first time,” Jessie explained. “With the second one I’m a bit more prepared. It’s kind of astonishing the way people have reacted to The Miniaturist and I’ve enjoyed that more on the second tour because I was trying to sell the book the first time! I feel a bit more experienced, I suppose, with the good and the bad that brings. I feel more battle-scarred, but also more prepped, in a weird way.”
Whatever she may have felt over the last couple of years, Jessie seemed confident and assured yesterday, giving me eloquent, concise answers to every question I asked. She was also very friendly and the conversation flowed. But I knew she was busy – that afternoon tea was only one of three events she attended yesterday – so I kept it brief.
It must have taken a great deal of courage to write the essay concerned with her anxiety and so I asked what prompted her to do it.
“Carrying on pretending everything was fine would have made the situation even more polarised,” she said. “I felt like I needed to let people know that, just because you get your dream, that isn’t always an easy thing. What happened was transformative and an amazing change but sometimes the best things that happen to you – the most seismic things – are not always the easiest to handle. It was part of my process of being open and honest about that.”
I’m studying English and Creative Writing at university. What I’d really like to be is an author, so, I optimised on Jessie’s knowledge. With The Miniaturist, she had one setting – Amsterdam in the 1680s – to research and reanimate. In The Muse, she has two: London in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s. I wondered what it was like to research two interesting settings, with the view of twining them together.
“I suppose they’re linked through the characters rather than any setting, or familiar connection,” she said. “I guess I just greedily wanted both of those time periods so I had to make the decision how I was going to synthesize that. I suppose it’s more thematic, through the women in the books. Both of them have analyses of female friendships, female bonds and creativity and the importance of that independence. I think they’re both trying to find a place to belong. I went that way, rather than trying to link up Spain with a Caribbean experience of London.”
When I asked her what she’ll be doing next, she joked that she’ll spend the next two months asleep. Her next project is a children’s story – a kind of fairy tale – that she’s writing for Bloomsbury. But she’ll be having a ‘creative breather’ after that – something it sounds like she deserves.
Before I began writing this article, I re-read the one I wrote in 2014, when I met Jessie for the first time. Two years ago, I quoted her as saying, ‘I’ve learned to just never try to anticipate, never try to predict. Just take every week or moment as it comes.’ This seems a pretty good way to end. Who knows where either of us will be in 2018? As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to try not to stress out. My week’s going pretty well so far and that’s enough right now.
YJA Senior Correspondent