cover courtesy Ecco
That moment when your debut novel sells at auction to become an international bestseller with rights in 30 countries: totally fairy tale, right? And that moment when you are plucked from your agrarian family life to become the privileged wife of a wealthy businessman in 17th century Amsterdam: also totes fairy tale.
The Miniaturist is a young woman’s coming-of-age, coming-to-reality saga, in the vein of Girl with a Pearl Earring, with secrets and the supernatural thrown in. Fans of period fiction will enjoy this book, as will fans of family drama—and anyone who wants to see women win, and lose.
I’ll be interviewing author (and actress) Jessie Burton at Barnes & Noble, Galleria Sept. 15, during her six-day, six-city tour of the U.S. Here she answers five questions about her debut.
1. The historical setting of The Miniaturist is fascinating. How is 17th century Amsterdam like our world today?
Well, I suppose one primary similarity between then and now is the worship of material goods and the pursuit of status, tempered by a cringing worry that really we should be thinking beyond onto spiritual matters. Amsterdam was very wealthy and powerful, its citizens ate well, liked to spend money and furnish both themselves and their houses. But there was a moral hypocrisy at play—not everyone could join the club.
You only need to open a tabloid newspaper, or overhear people's conversations to understand that these prejudices are still alive. We shouldn't flatter ourselves that we've made all the progress we can.
2. The miniature dollhouse is described beautifully—a metaphor for the need to control, to order, to present perfection. I wonder if you see women today doing simulated things with their lives?
Yes, I suppose I do. The pressure on women to conform to an externally imposed ideal is enormous. We have to be the right shape, we have to demonstrate the right amount of strength and yet not intimidate, we have to be both modest and sexually attractive, we have to be thoughtful but not 'strident'. The ways we are press-ganged into behaving are both insidious and outrageously overt.
Many women take up the pointless challenge, when really I wish they didn't feel they had to. They are immaculate, they shave and wax every inch of body hair off, they pretend they're having fun all the time, they never go 'overweight'. Controlling one's body is perhaps the only thing they can do when they feel all else is constantly dictated and out of their possession.
3. Talk about the relationship between Nella and her new husband, Johannes. (Without any spoilers) how did their relationship develop in your mind? I wonder if Johannes and Nella helped make each other as characters . . .
Oh, yes, yes, I think they definitely did; they grew together. I love that marriage, which may sound slightly odd, given what happens to them both. No one has ever treated Nella like an actual person before. No one has ever not tried to police Johannes's behaviour. The respect they show for each other demonstrates a true affection. Their behaviour (give or take a few false starts!), is exemplary. But I'll say no more . . .
4. Your experience as an actor, do you feel it helped you flesh out characters, even through the narrowed point of view Nella?
These people gradually presented themselves to me, draft after draft. I can see them right now, actually. But I don't know if that has anything to do with being an actor. Whilst I have certainly enjoyed the process of 'becoming' other people, the ability to verbally interpret a character from a playscript cannot easily translate to being able to create one in ink. The reader has an important role in that. You are doing half my job when you read the book! And there are so many wonderful writers who have never stepped foot on a stage, so I'm not sure. It's complicated.
5. There is heartbreaking fate that befalls some of the most beloved characters. How hard was it to hurt them?
Pretty awful, really. There were so many pinpricks of light in the darkness, growing moments of mutual understanding, shy but determined chances taken to express their feelings . . . only to be dashed. But then would you care as much had they all just tootled off into the sunset?