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new england writers at work

Give Claire Messud the right pen and paper

Novelist Claire Messud writes her novels in longhand using notebooks.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Novelist Claire Messud writes her novels in longhand using notebooks.

Claire Messud has remarkably even penmanship. Over the years, she has used it wisely, writing out each of her five novels longhand. She is currently at work on a follow-up to her 2013 novel, “The Woman Upstairs.” She lives in Cambridge with her husband, the literary critic James Wood, and their children.

JUST FICTION: When people ask what kind of fiction I write, I say the kind that’s no kind. It’s not historical fiction, it’s not fantasy or romance . . . it’s just not a kind.

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DON’T FENCE ME IN: My husband teaches at Harvard, but he never writes there. If he’s out of town, I will work at home because the dogs need to go out in the middle of the day. Otherwise, there’s a lot more distraction. It’s not even a physical space thing; it’s a mental space thing. I remember a New Yorker cartoon where there were two people writing novels on opposite sides of a table, and [the caption] said, “At first it seemed like such a good idea.”

Her room is decorated with paintings of her children.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Her room is decorated with paintings of her children.

. . . AND THE HARE: I’m slow. Part of being slow is doing a lot in my head. I feel as though, in some ways, I have a lot of false starts, but not so many written on paper. My ideas are sort of like planes in air traffic control; I don’t necessarily have an order for them. I have friends who work on a novel and a nonfiction book at the same time, but that seems too challenging to me. I do journalism along the way, which interrupts [my fiction writing]. All sorts of things come in the way of writing. In the spring semester, I teach at Hunter College [in Brooklyn]. I taught at Yale this year. Between the teaching and the commuting . . . progress on anything is pretty slow in the springtime.

SPEED TYPIST: I type my stuff out as I go along, not every day by any means, but once a month or so. Then I print it and revise it. I have a past as a temporary secretary, so I can type. A lot of the time, I’m hardly reading [my work] as I type; I’m inputting as if I’m making $10 an hour. I can type faster than I think, and it looks good, which is a problem. Writing [in longhand] makes me go more slowly. It’s also a Pavlov thing — you give me the right paper and the right pen and I write.

SILENCE ISN’T GOLDEN: I don’t have a place I need to be to work. Starbucks will do. Glenn Gould used to put the vacuum on while he was practicing, and I feel like the noise you don’t have to contend with, it helps you block everything out. Here [at home], if it’s quiet and the dog barks, it’s over.

MY NEW PAD: I’m very particular about pens and paper. I use those Rhodia notebooks with the orange cover [and] graph paper. For this new book, I’m not using the pads I always use. I’m writing bigger than I usually write because this paper is bigger than the graph paper. I’m going back to the old notebooks when I finish this novel [but not before] . . . It’s a little bit of an OCD thing. I can’t change now. I have a semi-superstitious feeling about it.

SMOOTH IT OUT: I have a shell that looks like a bone that’s incredibly smooth. When I’m fretting about things, I rub it like worry beads. I got it at the beach in St. Croix some years ago. It was incredibly pleasing texturally, so I brought it home.

MAKING THE CUT: I had a plastic figurine of Shakespeare holding a detachable quill, but a friend of mine made a film with a writer in it [called] “Love Is Strange” . . . that I haven’t had a chance to see yet. Marisa Tomei plays the writer, and somewhere on her desk is my little plastic Shakespeare. I asked my friend if he’s in there, but I worry he may be on the cutting-room floor.

One of Messud’s notebooks.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

One of Messud’s notebooks.

Eugenia Williamson can be reached eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.
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