Hear More from Claire Messud & James Wood: LIVE! with an Author

James: As a critic, is it difficult to read criticism of your own work? Does it in any way inform your own approach to criticism? 

Yes, it’s made me gentler and kinder over the years — I’m always aware that I have the power to ruin not just someone’s day but potentially their entire publication experience, and faith in themselves. 

James: How have you seen the New Yorker change over time? 

It has been wonderful to write for a magazine that has retained its commitment to serious journalism and criticism over time, and has been rewarded by readers and subscribers for doing so. The ever-expanding online side of the magazine, together with the urgent need for journalism about the pandemic, has situated the New Yorker as a news-magazine in a way that it hasn’t historically been — the articles are totally relevant now. 

Claire: Please share about your most surprising or a couple of learnings when writing your grandfather’s memoir? 

There’s such a wealth of material in my grandfather’s memoir – my grandparents had extraordinary experiences, and lived through dramatic and terrible times. So there’s a lot of event — my grandfather on a plane mid-war from Beirut to Algiers when it loses an engine, for example, over Egypt, and they’re not sure whether they’ll have to crash-land in what is (at that point) enemy (ie British) territory; or my grandfather working for the Free French in 1943-4 in Algiers, running spies into France by submarine. But there’s also a lot of reflection and interiority, and I come to know my grandparents in very complex ways, as parents, as spouses, as readers and thinkers, in love and fear and hope. 

Claire: Does being an award winning novelist and the title give confidence or added pressure to want to write another award winning novel? 

I’m actually not much of an award-winner – my novels are, I think, too idiosyncratic for most prize juries. I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I am always grateful for my readers – both the ones I know, like my agent and editor, and the ones that I don’t — and I don’t want to disappoint them. That’s to say, it matters very much to me that I do the best work I possibly can. But I think the writing and the wider world are very separate, and I’m aware of that fashions matter a great deal, and they change. Life experience has helped me more fully to separate my work from its reception in the world, which is a relief!

Both: Given your family backgrounds, what languages were you read to or did you read at an early age (French, English, another language)?

We were both read to in English, by our parents, as children, and learned to read in English. Claire’s French grandparents read to her in French, as did her aunt, and she and her sister had French lessons from very early as children in Australia; but French was by no means the primary language at home.

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