Claire Messud on what matters, including dogs

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Claire Messud is the author of six works of fiction, including the novels “The Woman Upstairs” and “The Burning Girl.” This fall she published her first book-length nonfiction: “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays.” The subtitle is a bit misleading, she said.

“I don’t think of myself as writing about myself, but as writing about things, people, and experiences that have formed me,” she explained. “It’s called an autobiography but I think of it almost like the plaster cast of a face. These are the impressions that have been made upon me.”


One of the essays concerns two of Messud’s dogs. “Watching the dogs I learn so much about myself, I learn so much about my relationships,” she said. “We tend to forget that we are at the mercy of nature, that we are animals like the dogs. We think that we’re in charge of it and actually we are not. The idea that we wouldn’t learn from them is only possible if we have delusions about ourselves and our separateness from the world of which we are a part.” In part, it’s a lesson driven home by our current pandemic life.

The essays span 20 years and many topics, but, Messud said, “I think oddly I was chiefly struck by how abiding my preoccupations have been.” Among those are the value of art and literature, the importance of truth, the dignity of small things, and the power of language.

“These essays represent for me a sensibility, a set of beliefs or faith in what matters,” Messud said. “Those things wouldn’t for much of my life have needed to be repeated. But it seemed a good time to reaffirm them.”

Messud will discuss the book in a pop-up book club hosted by Book the Writer. 7:30 p.m., Nov. 17. Bookthewriter.com


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.