For Claire Messud, it’s cooking, sewing, and Tolstoy

Claire Messud is the author of seven novels.
Claire Messud is the author of seven novels.Ulf Andersen

Though the novelist Claire Messud has spent recent weeks teaching her writing students online, she still feels the pandemic has transported us back in time. “It’s as if we are suddenly in 1805. A lot of our mobility and flexibility are gone,” she says. Messud is the author of seven novels, including the bestsellers “The Emperor’s Children,” which was long-listed for the Booker Prize, and most recently “The Burning Girl.” The author teaches at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge with her husband, James Wood (the author and New Yorker staff writer), their two children, and two beagles.

BOOKS: How has the pandemic affected your work?


MESSUD: The truth is when I’m teaching I don’t get much writing done, but I’m coming to the end of the term. In a way, I’m optimistic, perhaps wrongly, that the stay-at-home order will be good for writing. There were all kind of things I was supposed to do in the coming months, which have all been canceled. There’s not even going to be the typical fun summer stuff to do. There is this chance to just hold still and put my head down. Yet there are dogs and kids in the house.

BOOKS: Even though you aren’t writing, has the pandemic influenced how you are thinking of your current project?

MESSUD: The longer novel I’m working on has parts that are drawn from my grandparents’ World War II experiences. They were French and in North Africa, so not in the thick of it but there were bombings, food shortages, and schools were closed. I had been imagining what that life was like but now I have some lived experience. We don’t have food shortages but we’ve been worrying about food. This morning I made a soup from the stems of cauliflower and broccoli. My husband said, “Wow, this is a real World War II soup.”


BOOKS: Has this changed any of your habits?

MESSUD: This hasn’t been a radical change because I didn’t take the subway to work. My children are home, so that’s different. We are a family of four who basically get along really well, though we have our share of spats. Our kitchen is small. We bonk elbows when we are all making sandwiches at the same time. But we have more than one person to talk to and the dogs to make us go out. I feel badly for the people who live alone.

BOOKS: What have you been reading?

MESSUD: I’m having Tolstoy all the time. He’s a great companion now because he’s unafraid of all aspects of life, including the darkest, but he’s got a buoyant life-affirming spirit. The writer Yiyun Li has been running an online book group that is reading “War and Peace.” Then at dinnertime we are reading “Anna Karenina” out loud with the kids. We take turns reading a chapter or two a night. “Anna Karenina” is very amusing and delicious and has lots of romance. Just last night my sixteen-year-old son, who is a soccer player and not really a reader of fiction, said, “I’m really enjoying this.”

BOOKS: What have you been listening to or watching?

MESSUD: I listened to all kinds of things when I was driving but now I hardly drive so I listen to nothing. It’s tricky to find things to watch that all four of us can agree to. Just James and I watched “Unorthodox” on Netflix, a new mini-series about a woman who runs away from her Hasidic community to join her mother in Germany. It’s based on the autobiography by Deborah Feldman. That is wonderfully acted and beautifully shot. Because of that we began watching a series about an Orthodox Jewish community in Israel that has the same actress. It’s called “Shtisel.”


BOOKS: How else have you distracted yourself?

MESSUD: I have fabric from years ago so I just ordered some sewing patterns, one for a skirt and the other for a fitted top for my daughter. Once upon a time I used to sew. Maybe I will again. I also pulled out a bag of half-finished embroidery. I can’t see as well anymore but I can try. Now is the time. If not now, when?

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.