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.
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.”
. . . 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.