The Muse: Jessie Burton

The Muse: Jessie Burton

Event: The Muse: Jessie Burton in conversation with Alex Clark 

Venue: Foyles 

Report by Eleanor Baggley

Jessie Burton is a phenomenal success story. Her debut novel, The Miniaturist, was released in 2014 to brilliant reviews and shed loads of enthusiasm from readers and reviewers alike – it went on to be named as Waterstones’ book of the year. Burton, a former actor, wrote The Miniaturist over a number of years whilst working various temporary jobs, until it became the subject of a bidding war at the London Book Fair in 2013. It is no surprise then, that Burton’s second novel, The Muse, has been eagerly anticipated since rumours grew of its coming.

Although it seems that enthusiasm for The Miniaturist has yet to die down, Alex Clark and Jessie Burton tried to keep The Muse at the centre of their conversation at Foyles. The evening started with a reading from the opening section of the novel, which was enough, I’m sure, to whet the appetites of everyone in attendance.

Creativity in its many forms – visual art and writing, in particular – is a focal point of The Muse. Burton talked about the novel as a book about female creativity, about friendship, about what it means to be a muse, and about finding a place to belong.

‘Psychic scar’

It’s an intricate novel, set across two timelines, but Burton elucidated on many points and talked about what led her to write about Spain shortly before the Civil War and London in the 1960’s from the perspective of a woman from Trinidad. She is interested particularly in ‘the psychic scar’ that’s develops as a result of not being able to talk about something, whether that’s a personal scar or a scar on an entire community.

I’m sure many in the audience had read the moving essay Burton published on her website about the difficulties she faced when writing this second novel in the wake of the huge success of her first. The conversation soon moved round to this and Burton did not shy away from sharing her experiences in an honest and uplifting way. She talked of how surprised she was at the mental exhaustion she felt after the publication of The Miniaturist and how she doesn’t remember much of 2015 at all. She feels that The Muse has ‘mutated as a result of my experience as a creative who finds her work devoured by millions’.

Public or private?

The Muse by Jessie Burton

For Burton ‘the reader is the final act’.

What followed this short exchange was a wonderful discussion about art as a public or private act. For Burton, writing certainly is a public act and the reader is an indispensible part of the creation – ‘the reader is the final act’. Although Burton, surely like the majority of other writers, questions her work, she recognises the importance of finding your own place. This is an idea that is central to The Muse. There’s also something to be said for owning your place once you’ve found it and Burton received a round of applause for her impassioned speech: ‘I don’t apologise for the space I take up, and I won’t’.

The evening’s conversation was insightful, engaging and wonderfully intimate. Burton is a surprisingly candid speaker and she brought warmth, passion and barrels of personality to the discussion. She spoke honestly about the struggles of her early success and demonstrated a true love of language and storytelling that also shines through her writing. Thanks to Alex Clark’s interview style the evening felt like we’d been allowed to listen in on a conversation between friends and had me wishing I could join them for a chat about books and creativity over a glass of wine. Yet another fantastic event at Foyles!

Report by Eleanor Baggley

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