In her latest novel, Claire Messud went where most writers of literary fiction rarely deign to go: The inner life of an eleven-year-old girl.
The Burning Girl follows the dissolution of a fiercely intense friendship between narrator Julia, a someday-college-bound kid with married parents, and Cassie, the Virgin Suicides-y blonde daughter of a man who, according to her mother, died when Cassie was a child. Taking up the vacant space in Cassie’s house is an overbearing parody of a patriarch, who polices Cassie’s clothes, language, and behavior until she spins out– out of his grasp, she hopes, but at least out of her life. Julia is a casualty of the spinning, though given the trajectory of most pre-pubescent friendships, she probably would have gotten left behind by Cassie before long.
Julia is looking back on the events that led to what can only really be called a breakup (or maybe a slow burnout, but the end result is the same) from the not-too-distant future, and much of her memories are tinged with the awareness that she and Cassie were at the end of a time in their lives when their gender didn’t matter much, and the start of a time when — whether they agreed to these terms or not — everything they did and said and were would be, in some way, about the fact of their femaleness.
“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t felt as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified. On TV, in the papers, in books and movies, it isn’t ever men being raped or kidnapped or bludgeoned or dismembered or burned with acid… So you learn, in your mind, that your body needs to be protected. it’s both precious and totally dispensable, depending on whom you encounter.”
Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs, spoke with ThinkProgress about what it was like to take on a girl’s coming of age, “the most reviled story.”
Why did you want to write about a teenage friendship dissolving?
I have a teenage girl and a teenage boy, and nieces and nephews, and in the past years have both witnessed their journeys through adolescence and, in doing so, have been prompted or obliged to relive my own. The memories of my own adolescence have been very close to me. So I think that was the catalyst.
The experience you write about is a universal one, but it feels like we don’t really have a vocabulary for it, the way that we do with romantic breakups. Why do you think that is?
That’s an interesting question… I think it’s an experience that is also common to boys but perhaps less universal, and in that sense, it just hasn’t historically been made as a focus for attention in the same way. I actually have spoken to people who said, “That happened to me but I didn’t realize it happened to other girls!” The degree to which it’s universal hasn’t been acknowledged so, over the past century or so, [it hasn’t been perceived] as worth thinking about.
What did it feel like to go back to the emotional headspace of your teen years?
It was, in some ways, challenging. I found that the blush rises to my cheeks as if no time had passed. I remembered certain exchanges or moments and I’d think, oh shit, as if it was in the room next door just now. But I think also, there’s something really precious about that time, and the ways in which our friendships matter to us — how central they are to our daily lives and to our happiness. And it is, as you mentioned earlier, it is almost like a romantic relationship. You wake up and think, I have to do this and I have a math test, but I get to hang out with my friend, so that’s the thing I’m looking forward to today. The stakes feel very high and that intensity is to be cherished, even if it also can lead to pain, the suffering of loss. The intensity of it.
“The stakes feel very high and that intensity is to be cherished, even if it also can lead to pain, the suffering of loss.”
Cassie and Julia’s friendship, as far as the adults in their lives are concerned, obviously has an expiration date. They’re from just different enough classes; their futures won’t align. But to them it’s not inevitable at all. It comes as a real shock to Julia in particular.
When you’re kids, you’re just experiencing. You don’t look up. You don’t have a broader societal concept for things. You don’t ask certain questions. And yet, as parents, you have a different perspective, and you see things. Your view may be trapped by your own experiences or world, but you also have a longer view in some way. I certainly remember from my own childhood or youth — we moved a lot when I was growing up, and at one point, we moved from Toronto to Connecticut and I went to boarding school. About six months in, one of my closest friends from public school in Toronto wanted to come visit me, and I remember thinking, I just couldn’t put those two worlds together in my head. I was speaking to my mom on the phone, and saying, “She wants to come.” And without a second’s hesitation, she said, “That’s absolutely impossible.” She had the long view. Let’s cut it off before that event. That event would ended the friendship. I sensed that, but I couldn’t have said it.
On the one hand, you can say it’s artificial and harsh, and my mom could have said, “Invite her and see how it goes!” But I don’t know. There are many different ways to approach it. The realities of these vast discrepancies in people’s lives, they’re very real. And, I’d add, one of the things we all know — one of the reasons this story is set in a small town — is because it’s in small towns where people from different backgrounds are still childhood friends and maybe grow up and stay friends forever. And that’s so important, that people from different worlds should not just live alongside one another but live with one another and love one another. That’s something that maybe gets harder as we get older.
You write about how girlhood involves learning to be scared — this transition moment when you discover, as a girl, that the world reacts to you and treats you in ways that are different from how it treats and reacts to boys, and you feel like you have to modify your behavior, your ambitions, everything, really, accordingly. And you pin that moment here to seventh grade.
It happens with puberty. It happens when girls’ bodies become women’s bodies. That’s when the parents or the society or teachers or whoever is suddenly expressing that anxiety for girls in one way or another. It may be for different girls that they come into consciousness about it sooner or later, depending on the kid, but the reality of when it is happening societally is actually at puberty. There’s a difference between an almost genderless-seeming child running around in a park and a young woman. There’s a difference in how our society views those two things. And girls are made to feel that difference.
How do you think about that differently now, as a parent, versus when you were experiencing it back in middle school?
As a parent, I think the anxiety is twofold. On the one hand, you want your children to be above all, safe. But you also want your female children to be as strong and autonomous and independent and free as male children. As a parent, you’re always trying to strike that balance, I think we all, that low-grade fear, it’s reinforced constantly by all these narratives in our culture. By the news but also social media, and by television dramas and films and books, all of these things reinforce it. There’s never, in a police drama, there’s almost never a dead male body. So we grow up with those narratives around us all the time, and it’s very hard to let go of the almost preconscious sense of: This is how the story goes. Even as a parent, it;s hard to let go of that. I’m not encouraging my daughter to ride home on her bike at 11 at night.
“There’s a difference between an almost genderless-seeming child running around in a park and a young woman. There’s a difference in how our society views those two things. And girls are made to feel that difference.”
Men are inundated with those narratives too, but it seems they don’t absorb or internalize them in the same way as women do.
Well, we don’t have a choice! There is at some point, and I don’t mean this in any way as a lack of imagination on men’s part, but if you’re not actually confronted with something, it’s hard, really, to know what it’s like. You can frame it also, what’s it like to be a person of color in this culture, right now? I’m not a person of color. I can listen, I can observe, I can try to imagine, but there’s some level at which I will never know. For many people who aren’t listening or paying attention, it doesn’t even occur to them. If you poll the nation at large: Is it difficult to be a person of color? There are many people who say, I don’t think so, because they’ve never thought about it. Many men just never do.
You introduce Anders, this controlling stepfather figure, but you keep him on the periphery. His influence is felt but it’s more of this looming threat. We never really get the answers about what his motives are, what he’s up to. In real life, of course, you don’t get answers most of the time; but in fiction, sometimes, you can. What was the thinking behind keeping him relatively inscrutable?
My thinking behind that is, that’s what life is like. In life, it would be great to have somebody spell out for us: That guy is doing this or not that, we literally know these things. But in reality, especially when we’re teenagers, we have a lot of thoughts, a lot of suspicions, a lot of rumors and so on, but in life, what we actually know — often we actually know very little, and we have to live with that uncertainty. And I wanted to write about the experience in a way that felt true to me.
I was talking to my sister not long ago about someone she knew in high school, and she says, “To this day I wonder if she was abused by her father.” Here we are, we’re 50, and we don’t know! It’s rare for all the truths of life to come out. In the case of Cassie and her stepfather, Anders, what Julia does know is that there’s something not right, that he’s menacing in some way, and controlling. I don’t know if you’d call it emotional abuse, but there’s intense, controlling behavior going on, and it’s not healthy. But there’s a spectrum of things that are possible, and beyond that, she knows nothing. Cassie, on some level, is aware that she’s almost taunting or teasing Julia with some sense of that menace. She’s aware that she, too, is telling a story. And that’s something that goes on with all of us. We give a little information, we give part of a story, and we withhold other parts.
“I jokingly said, but it’s sort of true, it’s the most reviled story. Teen girls. Who is going to take that seriously?”
It reminds me of that moment in My So-Called Life when Claire Danes’ character goes to her friend’s house and has this thought that going into someone else’s house is like going to a foreign country.
You ask, is mine normal? Is theirs? And you might decide, mine is abnormal, everyone else’s family is how it should be. Which way you decide will affect how you behave in the world.
What’s the reaction to this novel been like so far? You’re writing about teen girls, a demographic many people dismiss as silly and frivolous. But you’re also writing literary fiction, which tends to get the highbrow approval treatment (unless people really hate it).
Each book involves a different set of risks, and this in some ways felt like the biggest set of literary risks that I’ve taken. And in part for that reason: I jokingly said, but it’s sort of true, it’s the most reviled story. Teen girls. Who is going to take that seriously? And it’s been very interesting. The responses have run the gamut. There have been a lot of thoughtful, sensitive responses, and then there have been — I have to say, factually speaking, mostly from men — some very dismissive, “Oh, we know how this story goes” responses. Which is only funny because, of course, the book, for me, is in part about the way we all assume we know the way stories go when we don’t know at all. The idea of, “oh, teen girl angst, I know how this goes.” It’s all interesting.