At Home With Claire Messud and James Wood, the First Couple of American Fiction

Photo: Wayne Lawrence/New York Magazine

“Don’t make me hit you, sir,” Claire Messud says, as a jaywalker crosses in front of her 10-year-old Passat. Driving to her house not far from Harvard Square, the novelist is narrating an impromptu tour of mansion-lined Brattle Street, academia’s answer to Mulholland Drive. “I think I’m right that that street is where Yo-Yo Ma lives,” she says, tapping her window. “And Stephen Greenblatt lives along here. And Marjorie Garber. I actually haven’t read her work,” she whispers, as if the literary theorist might overhear her. “I know her by reputation only.”

In the seven years since Messud, now 46, published her fourth book and first best seller, The Emperor’s Children, her hair has gone … not gray, exactly. More like pewter, which matches a silver pendant and silver-striped shirt. A compelling and well-­mannered guide, she seems perfectly at home in this affluent town, but she isn’t—not quite. This will turn out, over the next several hours—dinner prepared by her husband, the New Yorker book critic James Wood—to be a general condition, one that may help explain why she decided to introduce Nora, the lonely protagonist of her new novel, The Woman Upstairs, with a passage that begins, “I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl,” and ends with “FUCK YOU ALL.”

The bright interior of Messud’s cozy Victorian house is a quiet riot of children, pets, and bric-a-brac. A brass Buddha and a baby grand piano crowd the shelf-filled front room, accented with vivid Marimekko-style curtains. Livia, 11, and Lucian, 9, both shake my hand confidently. The dogs are less socialized: Bear, a one-eyed terrier mix who keeps bumping into my leg, and Myshkin, a 14-year-old female dachshund who is deaf but decidedly not mute.

Wedged between the kitchen counter and a butcher block, Wood wipes his hands. He’s lanky in a checked shirt and jeans, balding and energetic, and so much gentler in person than he is on the page, where he is famously not very gentle at all. Here, stirring a chunky Bolognese and chopping an endive salad, is the acerbic critic who’s spent two decades on a mission to re-­canonize the high-realist novel—a form he believes has been deposed by postmodernism. He’s the author of the brashly prescriptive How Fiction Works; the scourge of Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison; the best-known book critic in a country without very many of them. And the devoted husband of a best-selling novelist with a few of her own ideas about how fiction works.

Drumming his fingers across his sternum and speaking a clipped Queen’s En­glish, the British-born Wood talks cooking with casual erudition: “It’s been simmering for about two hours, but Marcella Hazan says three”; “Elizabeth David wants you to add chicken livers. Isn’t that odd?” When I tell Messud I don’t cook, she says, “Good thing you and I aren’t married.”

While Wood heads upstairs to deliver spaghetti to the children (the grown-ups get gnocchi), Messud tells of how Bear came by his condition. “When James says he’s blind, people say, ‘Is he a rescue dog?’ And he says yes. And they say, ‘That’s incredible that you did that, that’s so beautiful!’ He does not disabuse them. But the fact is, we adopted him and then we blinded him.” It’s a gruesome story—a loose leash, a car fender—“and all my fault from beginning to end.” Bear is sweet, unlike Myshkin. “She’s really dumb,” Messud whispers, though the dog can’t hear her. Myshkin, smelling the Bolognese, yelps nonetheless. “Oh, shush,” says Messud. “This”—the needy whine—“is her old-lady thing.”

“Well, it’s greed,” Wood clarifies. “It’s the solipsism, the neediness, the selfishness of old age.”

“I always think of Endgame,” says Messud, meaning Beckett’s bleak farce, in which a man tries to shut up his nagging elders. “You know there’s that line, ‘Bottle him!’ And they put the parents in the trash cans. We put Myshkin on the sofa and put a blanket over the top of her. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Dinner, set out on a paisley tablecloth beneath a paper-lantern chandelier, progresses from gnocchi to salad, cheese, and sorbet, in the Continental style. Europe dominates the conversation, too, in anecdotes punctuated with imitations. Wood channels the boozy murmur of Christopher Hitchens, who once asked Messud, “Would it kill you to write something people actually want to read?” Recalling an emergency in Germany, Messud conjures an Italian nurse: “De doctor is not here-a, just-a lie down, have a zleep, you’ll be fine-eh!” They bring to mind the glamorous Shahids in The Woman Upstairs, who occupy what Nora calls “the land of silly accents.”

Messud and Wood play off each other like an old couple—which, in a sense, they are, in a peer group often late to marry and quick to divorce. They met on the eve of Messud’s 21st birthday at the University of Cambridge, where he was a student when she arrived, after Yale, to continue studying literature. The writer Andrew Solomon made the introduction, and within hours of meeting, they were drinking wine together in her apartment. The next day, a friend of Messud’s pointed to a blurred photo on a wall displaying that year’s class. “Have you met that guy?” she asked. “I want to marry that guy!” Messud said.

Their courtship was a constant exchange of gifts, primarily books. She urged him to read Italo Svevo; he introduced her to Philip Larkin. She worried when he mocked W. B. Yeats just before she gave him a rare £25 edition of his poems. Twenty-five years later, that exchange still excites them. Both tend to favor close realism over parody or experimentation, though it’s the novelist, oddly, who seems to have the more expansive taste. “I’ve learned from Claire a great deal about the importance of comedy,” Wood says, “of not necessarily laughs but of the tragicomic kind of [BARK!] view of existence.” (Myshkin is getting restless.)

“You didn’t learn it from me!” says Messud, refilling our glasses.

“It’s hard to codify in any way,” says Wood, “but [BARK!] Claire is liable to learn much less from me than I am from her.”

“That’s not true—can we stop that dog?”

“We can bottle her,” says Wood.

“Especially since having children,” Messud continues, “a lot of the time if you ask me ‘Have you read that book?’ the answer would be ‘not personally.’ [BARK!] The household has read it! I’m like the dog eating the leftovers, preying on James’s erudition.” (“On my employment,” Wood mutters, deflecting the compliment.)

“But the embarrassing [BARK!] truth,” she continues, “is that we probably spend more time together than almost anybody we know.”

“It’s funny, in a way, that you don’t have a room of your own,” Wood says. He has a work room upstairs, Messud an office elsewhere, but she often just works around the house. “On the one hand, there is this continuous marital exchange, but on the other there’s an independent thing going on, which is [BARK!] that her work is a life very separate from me [BARK!].”

“And you from me, which is as it should be,” says Messud. “When James says he writes his pieces between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.—it’s not just the children that he’s escaping.”

“I think there’s something to that,” Wood says. “That something is claimed at the expense of the [BARK!]—God, it’s not working tonight”—meaning the “bottling.” “That there’s an assertion of need and space and—”

“Selfhood,” says Messud.

“Selfhood it absolutely is,” says Wood. “Neither of us is good at boundaries.”

“Bark,” says Myshkin.

To the extent that Messud had a reputation ten years ago, it was for gorgeous, Jamesian prose and an interest in dislocation. Her first two novels, When the World Was Steady and The Last Life, were meditative, circuitous, and intricate. But they each only sold roughly 10,000 copies; in an early Bookforum rave for The Woman Upstairs, Daphne Merkin called the characters of those books “literary exercises, rather than fully fleshed creations.”

Then came The Emperor’s Children, a novel that was rapturously received and debated, in literary quarters, as though its characters were actual flesh and blood. Its plot weaves among a group of friends hitting 30 in the shadow of their accomplished elders, unsure what to do with their abundant privilege—until 9/11 strips them of their pretensions. Published just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks, it was hailed as “a masterly comedy of manners” on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, under the headline the end of irony. To ambitious young New Yorkers, it felt like a roman à clef left unlocked, a portal through which they could see their own lives as the deserving stuff of fiction.

“I feel that I have an impractical and deleterious snobbery about the relation of literature to the market,” Messud says. “I thought, I’ve become the kind of crap you buy at airports! It was exciting, but it was not a fantasy I’d ever had.” The paperback spent nine months on the best-seller list, allowing Messud to move her family out of a sketchy part of Somerville and into that Cambridge Victorian.

“Of course, you wrote that for the money,” even a few good friends told Messud, assuming she’d finally taken Hitchens’s advice (or maybe followed her husband’s haute-populist prescriptions). In fact, she says, those short chapters and quippy sentences were all she could manage between feedings of her infants. “I had a memory span about as long as the lines in a school play,” she says. “It was like a book by somebody else. The idea that there was any plan or strategy—” Well, she did try something new. “I had never been very interested in plot,” she says. “I felt I should practice drawing hands.” But gone were the days when she went over her sentences so many times that she memorized them. “It’s actually a good thing not to be able to recite every last line,” she says. “Lighten up a little!”

The Woman Upstairs is another swerve, a departure from both the ornate early books and its social-novel predecessor. The title is a play on The Madwoman in the Attic, a feminist study of Victorian literature, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. It’s an intense, digestible work, whose real subject is the ways women try to balance work, family, and dreams.

After Messud’s father became ill in 2008 (he’d die from a different illness two years later), she scrapped a novel about a dying patriarch that hit too close to home. Then her mother developed a fatal neurological disease—just like Nora’s mother in the new novel she’d begun—and moved into Messud’s home for five months. She passed away last October, and two month’s later Messud’s unmarried aunt died in France, leaving her to deal with what she calls “the admin of death” all over again. “This book felt like a pound of flesh,” she says—then repeats it like a mantra. “This book, this book, felt like a pound of flesh.”

Far from her oldest friends and bereft of her parents, Messud felt simultaneously burdened and strangely alone, with neither the solitary space to work nor the consolations of community. “I am an outsider—which, logically, I shouldn’t be,” she says. “And I sometimes have to wonder, ‘What is it? Is it that I didn’t follow the trajectory that was expected of me? Is it that I didn’t come to live in New York? Is it that I married an Englishman? Is it that I married an Englishman who is a critic that everybody wants to have an opinion about, and in having an opinion either embraces him—in which case they can’t embrace me because that would seem like nepotism—or they don’t embrace him, in which case they either embrace me because they’re not embracing him, or they don’t embrace me because they’re not embracing him?’ ”

Messud’s parents gave her a privileged but rootless childhood, a world of silly accents from the start. For her 6th birthday, she was given a typewriter. By then the Messuds (Claire’s father French, her mother Canadian) were already living on their ­second continent—relocated from Connecticut to Australia by her father’s employer, a French steel conglomerate. A few years later, they moved to Toronto, and then back to Connecticut, where Messud was sent to Milton Academy. “Obama,” she says, “was the first president whose biography makes sense to me. He can walk into a room anywhere and find common ground with any person.”

Messud’s old Milton dormmate Sheila Gallagher remembers her as “incredibly worldly and cultured and civilized.” The “well-adjusted, athletic blondes” occupied a different house and another social stratum, but among the “darker brunettes,” Messud was a presence: a smoker, a stem-winding storyteller, the queen of the outcasts. When I say it sounds like she’s describing Susan Sontag, ­Gallagher says, “She’s nicer. She’s a very good girl.”

After Yale and Cambridge, Messud went off for an M.F.A. at Syracuse, carrying with her the “very British and high-­modernist, feminist” novels her mother raised her on. Up there, “Ray’s last deer was still in [his widow’s] freezer,” she says, referring to Raymond Carver, whose minimalist aesthetic ruled the day. “Men, guns, and dogs—and me,” she adds. “When I was young I didn’t realize how things were determined by fashion. I thought, Oh, that’s what writing should be, and I can’t do it.” She dropped out and moved to London—and to Wood—in 1990.

Two years later, Wood became the chief book critic for the Guardian, where he made a name behaving like a brash young man on the hunt for sacred cows. But literary London came to seem small, “airless.” Messud wanted to move closer to her family and friends, and Wood “was making myself sick,” he says, “by how much I cared about what was going on in the reviews—who’s up, who’s down.” In 1995, a year after Messud’s first novel came out, Wood was hired to lend The New Republic some highbrow English flair, and they moved to D.C.

“I had been the one saying, ‘We need to move to the United States,’ ” Messud says, mocking her own complaint in a whining, mousy voice. “But I didn’t mean Washington! And I was miserable there, miserable. I always felt that all the people who you knew and hadn’t been friends with in college—they were all in Washington.” Messud’s real friends were in New York, which she insisted on visiting every free weekend. At Washington parties, the icebreaker question was what government sector you worked in. “To be writing a novel—forget it.”

“I remember practically stamping my foot fifteen years ago,” Messud says, again in that mousy voice: “ ‘I want to live in Brooklyn, I don’t want to live in any more second-rate cities! Why can’t I ever live in a first-rate city?’ ”

There was one bright spot. Messud and Wood lived on the third floor of a building called the Wyoming; up in its penthouse, wrapped in a swirl of social activity, were Christopher Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue. “He was incredibly generous in every possible way,” says Messud. Whenever they entered, Hitchens would stop all conversation, gaze across the crowded room—“the entryway was bigger than this entire floor”—hold out his short arm, and say, “My dear, be still my heart.” But the older couple gave her more than flirtatious attention: “They took me seriously.”

Photo: Wayne Lawrence/New York Magazine

As we close in on 10 p.m., the salad has been cleared from the table and Myshkin is finally, blessedly, silent. After taking espresso orders, Messud begins to talk about her “season of death” and the time it stole from her writing. “We offered on this house,” she says, “and then two days later my father ended up in hospital with a perforated ulcer.” He recovered just in time for her mother’s diagnosis, then fell terminally ill. “It’s like when you lock yourself out of the house and you know exactly where the keys are and you can’t see them—but you can see them. You think, How can it be that the keys are there and not here? Isn’t there some force of will by which I could change this fact?

“Having children can feel like that,” says Wood. “Having children and having dying parents, in your case.”

To illustrate his point, Wood decides to give a reading—not from Messud’s work but from Elena Ferrante, an Italian novelist he recently wrote about for The New Yorker. “I was amazed at the overlap with some of the material in The Woman Upstairs,” he says, though “you add some of your own pressures and anxieties.”

“Different set of problems,” Messud says. Nora’s anger is internal; on the outside she’s still a good girl. “The acculturation of women does not encourage selfishness, assertiveness, single-mindedness.”

I ask Wood if he agrees with Messud’s friends that she’s almost too well-behaved.

“Yeah, she’s very obedient,” he says.

“Obedient, that sounds very bad!” says Messud. “Take that back. That’s on tape!”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t use that word. What I mean is—”

“Would you like cheese?” Messud asks me. “Well, you don’t have to …”

“I don’t mean about obeying me,” says Wood. “I mean rules have weight for you.”

To explain, Wood recites two sections from Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, passages about what children can do to a woman—first to her body, then to her work (“like an insect’s poison injected into a vein”). It’s an oddly brutal thing to read to the mother of your children. At the end of the second passage, the narrator abandons her family. “Nora’s a softy compared to this,” says Wood. Messud is listening stoically, and I begin to wonder if she might even be a little jealous of this unhinged narrator. Then Wood pivots to discuss “this strong counter-impulse” they both feel: “Fuck the outside world. Fuck the work. Children are right in front of you. That’s the work, and the joyous work.”

These aren’t the usual sentiments you hear from a power couple.

“Power couple!” Messud shouts theatrically, working the espresso machine. “Ha ha ha!” A minute later, she spies Lucian, who’s sneaked downstairs. Wood volunteers to tuck him in. Left to her own thoughts, Messud begins circling around all the constraints in her life—those recent deaths and much more. She speaks in low tones, with few interruptions, for almost half an hour.

“There’s been a great deal of closely spaced difficulty to sort through,” she says. “You know that Katherine Mansfield story, ‘The Fly’?” It’s about a fly being slowly drowned in ink. “Well, I am the fly. Every time I hope that things will get better, somebody drops another inkblot on me. So it seems to me if there were a divine lesson it would be to stop hoping that the blots will cease, and instead to come to terms with it … At some point you have to think, All right, it’s not as if someone is promising you something easier or better. You have to be grateful to get it done at all.”

I ask if she thinks Wood’s controversial criticism has affected her career. “I certainly have felt at various moments that the reluctance of a certain world to take me seriously as a writer is not unlike the fact that only one of us can actually work in the house at any given time. That there isn’t enough air.”

But if a best-selling highbrow author isn’t part of the Establishment, who is?

She shoots me a wide-eyed look. “I’m never asked to do anything. I’m asked to write things, but … but … things like the PEN festival, the New Yorker festival, the Brooklyn festival—I’m not on anybody’s mind, that’s for sure … I’ve never had a mentor. There’s never been anyone who’s pushed for me in my entire life. Never.” She catches herself, pauses. “Maybe nobody has it, is the truth. Maybe everybody is alone.”

When Wood returns, the talk moves to the slightly safer ground of literary reputation, especially in light of gender. “It’s so easy,” he says, “for the male voice to be the authority, the scrutinizing and stern corrective voice. And then the female does this thing of propagation, of generation, of creation. The husband says, ‘No, yes, no!’ ”

Messud interrupts his laughter. “Well, what is the status of off-the-record, if there is such a thing?”

At half past midnight, an hour after I catch a cab, Messud sends me an e-mail from an old account she shares with Wood. In a few paragraphs, she sets out to “clarify a couple of small things.” She clarifies but also complicates, in a tone somewhere between damage control and a searching letter to an old friend. “I’m aware that I may have sounded self-pitying,” she writes. “I might naïvely fantasize about a more porous or open literary life, but I’m also grateful every day for the life that I lead.”

Over the weekend, she elaborates some more. She compares the last few years of illness and death to “being in a prison.” She lists the organizations that have supported her writing, and remembers that she has been invited to the PEN festival. She invokes Kant and Schopenhauer on the nature of reality, and writes that the “fundamental questions” of her life and The Woman Upstairs are the same: “how to balance the relation between art & life? (between the interior & external worlds)? how, as a woman raised to care for others, do you claim space for yourself? at what cost? in what state of delusion?”

A week and a few e-mails later, she concludes on another note. “I’ve spent the past week—as I’ve spent much of the past few years—wanting only for the world to go away, for all engagements to be canceled, and to have more time with my family,” she writes. “It’s almost as if the desire for community is a nostalgic one; and the reality, with time’s winged chariot hurrying near, is that one longs increasingly for simple affections, for space, and calm, and time to work. What contradictory beings humans are. Best, Claire.”

*This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

At Home With Claire Messud and James Wood