'The Woman Upstairs': A Saga Of Anger And Thwarted Ambition In her new novel, Emperor's Children author Claire Messud explores the complicated relationship between two women: Nora, who longed to be an artist and have a family but failed, and the woman Nora befriends, who puts her art first and built a family as well.

'The Woman Upstairs': A Saga Of Anger And Thwarted Ambition

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Being a single woman doesn't have the stigma it once did. A single woman is no longer called a spinster. But being single with no children is not the life that Nora Eldridge imagined for herself. Nora is the main character in the new novel "The Woman Upstairs" by my guest Claire Messud.

Nora wanted to be an artist and mother, not a third-grade elementary school teacher. The novel is in part about the dark side of what it really means to sacrifice everything for your art. Claire Messud is also the author of the bestseller "The Emperor's Children." She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her new novel is set.

Claire Messud, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from "The Woman Upstairs," and you're welcome to just start reading or to set it up for us in any way you'd like.

CLAIRE MESSUD: Thank you, Terry, for having me. I guess I'll just start reading, and this is somebody named Nora Eldridge, who is an elementary school teacher.

(Reading) How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, straight-laced good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend, and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents' (bleep) and my brother's (bleep), and I'm not a girl anyhow. I'm over 40 (bleep) years old.

(Reading) And I'm good at my job, and I'm great with kids, and I held my mother's hand when she died after four years of holding her hand while she was dying. And I speak to my father every day on the telephone, every day mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river because here it's pretty gray and a big muggy, too.

(Reading) It was supposed to say great artist on my tombstone, but if I died right now, it would say such a good teacher, daughter, friend instead. And what I really want to shout and want in big letters on that grave, too, is (bleep) you all.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's a very angry opening of Claire Messud's new novel "The Woman Upstairs." So you wanted to write a novel from a woman's point of view where the woman was being fueled by anger. Why?

MESSUD: Well, that's part of what I wanted to do, although not all. I think as a reader, since very early I have found myself drawn to rants. I was in my senior year of high school when I read "Notes from Underground" by Dostoevsky, and it was an exhilarating discovery. I hadn't know up until that moment that fiction could be like that, that fiction could say these things, could be unseemly, could be unsettling and distressing in that particular way, that immediate and urgent way.

And in the many years since, I have read and loved a number of ranting narrators, and it struck me eventually that they were all men and that I didn't know of a book in which a woman expressed her anger, and I thought perhaps I should write one.

GROSS: The main character in your novel is a single woman who thinks of herself as the woman upstairs, or rather she thinks other people think of her as the woman upstairs. And she thinks the stereotype is the woman upstairs with her cats and her pots of tea and her "Sex and the City" reruns and her Garnett Hill catalog.


GROSS: I was reading that, and I thought Garnett Hill? How did that get into this?


GROSS: But that's an aside. So why did you want to write about a single woman? You've been married for decades. You have two children.

MESSUD: Well, for me it's a book about the interior life and the relation of an interior life to external reality. And I think we all have interior lives that don't break the surface. There's a passage in Chekov's "Lady with the Little Dog" that's very meaningful to me where the protagonist, who has had - he's married with a family. He's had many mistresses, but he falls in love with the lady with the little dog, and she becomes incredibly important to him.

And he's walking his child to school, and he thinks to himself what is most important to me nobody knows about. It is invisible. And then he has the realization that that is true for everybody around him also so that all of us are walking around with what is most important to us unseen.

So I wanted to try to write about one woman's interior life and about the way it swells or burgeons to take up so much space. And thinking about how to do that, it seemed to me that anybody who lives in a communal situation, whether it's a family or some other sort of communal living, has reality checks, comes up against the bounds of reality much more frequently than to somebody who lives alone. And so that's why Nora is single in the book.

GROSS: She's a woman who's always dreamed of being an artist and having children. Having a husband was negotiable in her mind, but the art and the children were not. And she ends up in her early 40s still being single. She's a third-grade teacher. She does some art, but she doesn't think of herself as an artist.

So her ambition, her fantasy has really been thwarted. It's not like she has a miserable life or anything, but it's not the life she wanted. And I'm thinking, like, you are an artist, like you are a writer, you have that life and you have a husband and children. So again I'm interested in this idea of somebody wanting a life similar to yours but being thwarted in getting it.

MESSUD: Well, I think all of us are thwarted in some ways, some more than others. I happen to be very fortunate in being able to - I always wanted to write, and so far I'm able to do that, and I'm very lucky. But I'm mindful of the fact that that is a rare good fortune, and I think there are many different experiences.

There are people who never had a particular ambition and have discovered a happy life or an unhappy life without having had a trajectory they dreamed up. But for many of us we set out thinking there will be time in the future, and then suddenly we find ourselves at a moment when we have to acknowledge that the future isn't infinite.

In our culture we're able to remain young or to think of ourselves as young for a very long time, probably an amount of time unprecedented in history, and so we can get well into our 30s thinking that the future is all ahead of us. And there comes a realization at some point that it isn't, and that's a realization that happens for people who doing what they want to do as much as for people who haven't been able to.

GROSS: You know, you have an interesting description of your main character Nora's mother, and Nora thinks of her mother as being of the generation where the rules changed halfway through her life. She was born into a world of pressed linens and three-course dinners and hair-sprayed up-dos, a world in which women were educated and then deployed for domestic purposes.

Did that happen to your mother, where the rules of what it meant to be a woman changed halfway through her life?

MESSUD: Yes, yes, and Nora is basically of my generation. My mother turned 40 in 1973. So in 1970, when "The Female Eunuch" came out, and Ms. Magazine was founded, my mom was 37 with two children. And she was just that little bit too old, and the circumstances of her life were set up in a certain way that for her to fulfill her ambitions and dreams, she would have had to break with the family. She would have had to leave the family, and she didn't want to do that.

But I think she always felt a sort of wistful longing, as if she had been left on the shore watching the boat, watching the boat go.

GROSS: Being cognizant of feminism, did she change her life in any way?

MESSUD: Each person's story is - has its twists and turns. And our family moved a lot for my father's work, and we were in Australia, and we were quite small. My mom went to law school and had almost finished her law degree when we had to move for my father's work. We moved to Canada, which is where my mom was from, and it was a move that she had wanted, but when she got to Canada they wouldn't accept any of her credits from law school in Australia, and she had to begin again.

And very soon my father was transferred to New York, and initially we stayed with our mum in Toronto so she could keep going to law school, but he was commuting Monday to Friday, staying in a hotel and coming home at weekends, and it was just very hard. And at some point she threw up her hands, and we all moved to the States.

GROSS: Wow does that sound frustrating. That's - that sounds so unfair, that she would have put so much time and effort into studying law and then be thwarted, twice, like that.

MESSUD: Yes, I think versions of that were common because wives moved with their husbands' work. And so anybody who was married in a marriage where the husband had to travel and was posted in different places had to accept that bargain, if you will.

GROSS: Part of the novel is about how selfish and self-absorbed do you have to be in order to be an artist and what license does being an artist give you to be selfish and self-absorbed, because if your art comes first, what are you sacrificing for your art, other people, your relationship with them?

And I'm wondering, especially in light of the story you told about your mother having to give up law school because your father's job kept moving him to other countries, what was it like for you when figuring out what balance you wanted in your life between doing your art - writing fiction - and, you know, your commitment to your husband and your children and your parents?

MESSUD: Right, I don't think it's ever figured out. I think it's a balance that anyone is negotiating and renegotiating throughout a life. I certainly felt when I was a teenager and wanted to write, looking at the women writers who had come before, I felt that obviously one should not marry, obviously one could not have children. Ideally, one would be gay, and then you'd have a woman partner who would fully understand the situation.

I think then the generation, actually pretty much my mother's generation and afterwards, suddenly there were women writers with children, with families, and it seemed maybe it is possible. Why not? But part of what the book is about for me is yes, absolutely, this question of how you, particularly for women, the choices that are necessary to make art, which are choices to make something that doesn't exist that nobody needs.

So how...

GROSS: When you put it that way.


MESSUD: But it's true. People might be glad you made it once you made it, but before you made it, it doesn't exist, and what's the point? And so you really do have to - there is some selfishness that's required. And if you have been acculturated to care for other people, to put other people's needs first, how do you take that step? How do you carve out a space for yourself?

And that's something that Nora hasn't managed to do and that Serena somehow has.

GROSS: Have you met artists for whom, like, nothing is more important than my art? And where would you place yourself in that kind of range of what you're willing to put underneath your art, you know?

MESSUD: Well, I think it's interesting because there - our idea of the artist and what the artist should be entitled to and so on is always - is a cultural convention and therefore changes over time. So I think if you look back to a certain male writer of the mid-century or second half of the 20th century, there are these strong, patriarchal men whose wives brought tea and left them in their studies and raised children.

So - I mean, you can go much further back and find that with Tolstoy, too, of course, or Dickens, you know, the wives were doing a lot of work and not necessarily having much fun, and the men were getting on with the great work of creating. I think, though, now that society has changed somewhat that it's harder for men, also.

It may still be harder for women than for men, but it is also hard for men to claim that space as fully as once men did. So where would I place myself in a spectrum? Well, you know, I would say not far enough along the selfishness track to get enough done is what I would say.


MESSUD: But on the other hand, I can't be otherwise. I can't be who I am and live otherwise. I love my family. I couldn't live without my family. So being attentive to the people that I love is an important part of my life.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Messud, and her new book is called "The Woman Upstairs." And Claire Messud is also well-known for her bestseller "The Emperor's Children." Let's take a short break; then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Messud. She has a new novel, which is called "The Woman Upstairs," and it's about a 42-year-old single woman looking back on when she was about 37, and her life really changed. And she's a single woman who wanted always to be an artist and to have children, and instead she's teaching third grade and in that sense has a lot of children, but it's not her family. And she still does some art, but she is not what she would consider an artist.

The main character in your novel takes care of her mother - helps take care of her mother when her mother is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. And I know that your mother had a neurological disorder and that you helped care for her. Was it ALS, like in the novel?

MESSUD: No, no, my mother had Lewy body dementia, which is - the easiest way to explain it is that I think about half of Parkinson's patients will eventually develop dementia, but with Lewy body you develop the dementia and the physical symptoms at the same time.

GROSS: Oh, so it's like a cousin of Parkinson's?


GROSS: Wow, so your body and your mind are going at the same time?

MESSUD: Yes. But she did not have - it's not right to say she did not have the disease when I was writing the book, but she did not have the diagnosis when I started writing the book. And so I had actually been writing another book that involved the death of a difficult patriarch. And every time I was writing it, my father would get ill, and every time I would stop writing it, he would seem to get better. So I stopped writing it, hoping that would have some black magic, you know, good outcome, which it did not.

But I started writing this book, and it in a funny way at that point had no intimation of my mother's decline.

GROSS: Well, it's so interesting that you would kind of accept this magical connection between your writing and your father's health and actually changed the book because of it. I could see how - how easy it would be to - yeah, go ahead.

MESSUD: (Unintelligible) Sorry, it wasn't literally that I thought, you know, but I certainly felt I couldn't keep writing such a thing, on such a subject, in that circumstance, if that makes sense.

GROSS: It does make sense, it does make sense. In your book you describe the father like this: He doesn't want you to feel concern about his symptoms but would like you to be aware, as he is aware, that at any and all times he is or may be stepping closer to death. What does that mean to you?

MESSUD: Well, I think we're all stepping closer to death all the time, but there are certain people who, as they enter their later years, are - it's almost like in Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" that you have to balance anxiety along with some buoyant optimism. You have to hold those two things in your head, and in that way you're holding the plane up in the air.

I think by the same token there are those who, as they approach the ever greater possibility of illness and ultimate death, feel that they need to be buoyantly nonchalant and also mindful of disaster.

GROSS: I'll tell you how I interpreted it: That there are some people who, as they get older and closer to their own mortality, want you to know that they know that they may die soon but can't really have a conversation about it at the same time. You know - that they're not ready to sit down and talk about what does it mean to face death, what will it mean to the person who may die soon, what will it mean for the people they leave behind.

MESSUD: Yes, I think the whole question of how we as individuals and as a culture face mortality is there's much, much to talk about. And having had in the past few years some experience with both my parents and my father's sister - who was our only other relative of that generation, she died also - and each person coming to that - to their mortality in such different ways.

It's been very - as well as being very emotional and involving a lot of grief and sorrow, it has also been inspiring and full of grace and all those other things. But each of those three beloved people had such different responses.

GROSS: To facing death?

MESSUD: To facing death.

GROSS: What did you take away from that? What did you learn by watching three people you were very close to, three people you helped care for, face death in different ways?

MESSUD: I think one thing I learned is that I could not have anticipated how they would have responded, you know, how they would have confronted mortality, each of them, although after the fact it made sense but beforehand I wouldn't necessarily anticipated. So I think we don't - it's true that we don't become different people in our - in the ends of our lives. We don't suddenly transform, you know, into somebody else.

But on the other hand, in a funny way to get back to Nora, there is some way in which the self that you are inside has no choice but to manifest itself. There is no more pretending.

GROSS: Claire Messud will be back in the second half of the show. Her new novel is called "The Woman Upstairs." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with novelist Claire Messud. She wrote the bestseller "The Emperor's Children." Her new novel, "The Woman Upstairs," is about a single woman in her late 30s whose life isn't turning out the way she wanted. The novel is in part about the sacrifices it takes to devote your life to your art, and if it's selfish, when what you give to your art comes at the expense of others.

So again, Nora, the main character in your novel, she wants to be an artist - that was her fantasy, her dream, and has been frustrated by being a teacher. She does it very well. It's not like she doesn't like teaching, but it's not, it's not the fantasy that she always had and the life she always wanted. When did you know you wanted to write?

MESSUD: Oh, I can't remember not knowing. I think as soon as I understood as a child that somebody made up stories that, you know, that was a thing you could do, as soon as I understood that was a thing you could do, I wanted to do that.

GROSS: So that's what it was, the first storytelling that you wanted to do?

MESSUD: Mm-hmm. I mean I must have announced - my parents gave me a typewriter for my sixth birth date because I had already announced that I was going to be a writer. So that's the family lore, anyway, you know? And I had a typewriter. But I don't remember.

GROSS: Who taught you to type?

MESSUD: Oh, I taught myself much later. They didn't teach it in school at that time. Now they do.

GROSS: Oh, and like your mother didn't teach you?

MESSUD: No. My mother said never learned to type.


GROSS: Right. 'Cause then you'll be a typist.

MESSUD: Exactly. Then you'll be a secretary. No woman should learn to type.

GROSS: Right. So you taught yourself to type. Do you know how to type quickly now, like do you - 'cause you have - I'm sure you're at the keyboard all the time. Are you good at...

MESSUD: No. I write by hand. I write by hand.

GROSS: You write by hand?


GROSS: And then on the keyboard, or only by hand?


GROSS: And then...

MESSUD: No. I then, you know, type it into the computer. But...

GROSS: Only when you have the draft that you're happy with?

MESSUD: No. I revise a fair amount as I go along, but then, I type it in and then, I printed out and revise again. I don't - I write other things on the computer but I don't write fiction on the computer.

GROSS: Do you know why?

CLAIRE MESSUD: Well, in part, because I do type fast.


MESSUD: I'm a very good secretary, in fact. And, you know, it looks pretty good -typewritten, even if it's garbage.


MESSUD: So the combination of typing fast and having it look good and be garbage means that...


MESSUD: ...means it's better to write by hand for me.

GROSS: But the thing with writing by hand, I know when I tried to write something by hand it's so messy. I know that you're saying like it's looking good in print is a liability, but for me, it's a way bigger liability to have this scrawl that I can barely read that's crossed off - that's crossed out - and written over and I have no idea what I've even written after a while, it's so, it just becomes useless to me.

MESSUD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'm not writing great fiction. I'm just whatever it is that, you know, I'm writing and it's not fiction. You know, I might be writing, say, an intro or a talk or something. But it's just so unusablely(ph) messy.

MESSUD: Mm-hmm. You know, I feel for me, it's probably a sign of some particular set of, you know, of insanity or neurosis or something, but I write very small. I write very neatly. I write on graph paper.

GROSS: You write on graph paper?

MESSUD: I write on graph paper. I make my edits with, you know, funny little symbols over on the back of the - you know, like over on the back of the page.

GROSS: Like publishers use?

MESSUD: No. Like little, you know, asterisks and dots and, you know, stars and whatever, I guess an asterisk and a star are the same thing, but little symbols that, you know. And then I have little boxes that are, you know, on the back of the page that I know where I see the asterisks that's supposed to go in, you know. You know, but I just...

GROSS: Did you start doing this when you were a child and you knew you wanted to write?

MESSUD: Long ago. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And, so you started this is a child and never gave it up?


MESSUD: I write on a certain kind of pad. I write with a certain kind of pen. The whole nine yards.

GROSS: Right. OK.


MESSUD: You know, what can I say?

GROSS: So, now your husband, James Wood, is a book critic. He's a literary critic who used to write for The New Republic and now for The New Yorker. Is it hard to be married to somebody who is a critic whose job is to be really honest about writing? I mean sometimes you don't really want honesty. You just want somebody to say that's really wonderful.


MESSUD: Right. Well, I always joke it's hard for him. It's not hard for me. I want him to be honest and say it's really wonderful.

GROSS: And to love it. Yes. Exactly.


MESSUD: But it's not hard for me. My demands are very simple. It falls to him to kind of figure that, square that circle. But, in fact, you know, he's my first reader and I think he - we know each other very well and, unless he thinks something is disastrous, in the first instance he's encouraging and vague, you know: Keep at it, keep going. And then when there's a draft and it's possible to be a more critical reader in a productive way, then he will be. But if I show him 20 pages, he won't start doing line edits or, you know, say, this character needs more development on page four, you know. He won't do that. He'll just say, keep going. That's great.

GROSS: But he will do that later on.

MESSUD: But he will do that later on. He's well trained.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments for your new novel, you thank your mother for basically teaching you how to write through the letters that she wrote. Did she write a lot of letters to you?

MESSUD: She did. She did.

GROSS: When? When you were in college or...

MESSUD: I went to boarding school. And...


MESSUD: And so in boarding school and in college, and then I went to grad school in England, so she was writing to me in England. I have boxes of her letters and she would type aerograms. She used every available millimeter of space on the aerograms, so sometimes when you opened it up, you'd cut through a line. It was very frustrating.


MESSUD: But she wrote wonderful, wonderful letters and they were very precious to me, and it's precious to me that I still have them.

GROSS: What would she write about?

MESSUD: Oh, anything. Lots of descriptions. Lots of vignettes of her exchanges with people, or descriptions of things that she'd done, lots about books that she read. And when traveling, she wrote amazing descriptions. One of the - I'm trying to think if it was from, I think it was for my parent's 40th wedding anniversary, my father had printed up - along with photographs - the letter she had written home from Turkey. When they were first married, my father was doing graduate work and they went and lived in Ankara in the mid-50s, late 50s, for a year, and she knew that her parents who were in Toronto, Canada would never see Turkey, and so she wrote home letters describing everything. And he, my father, made a book of those for - with copies for every - you know, not a bound book but, you know, like going to Kinko's and having bound that way, for everybody in the family, and they're amazing letters.

GROSS: So do you write a lot of letters?

MESSUD: I used to. I used to. In my youth, when I had many jobs as a temporary secretary, I'd write...

GROSS: Oh, you really did have those typing jobs.


MESSUD: I really did. Yeah, I really did. Whenever there wasn't anything for me to type, I would type letters to my friends. So many of my, you know, through the summers of college, my friends were overwhelmed by endless letters from me. I wrote a lot of letters, but now just emails.

GROSS: Did you type letters for bosses who really couldn't write at all?


MESSUD: Yes. They were - I don't have memories of, you know, terribly embarrassing letters. No. But a lot of, you know, corporate speak - a lot of corporate speak.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MESSUD: Right.

GROSS: You are so lucky in that you and your husband are both successful writers. It's very hard to become a successful writer. Was it a good thing for your relationship that you were both able to succeed as writers? Because sometimes in a relationship like that one person is more successful than the other or one person like fulfills their professional dream and the other person doesn't and, you know, that could create for some inequality or resentment within the relationship. Was it good to both - to some extent, you know, achieve what you wanted to?

MESSUD: Well...

GROSS: It sounds like you're laughing.


MESSUD: I'm - well, I'm just reminded, my father had an expression that I - that always made us laugh. He would say, it is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick.


MESSUD: Yeah, well, is it better for two people to be successful and happy than unsuccessful and miserable? I suppose it seems - it doesn't seem an arguable point, really.


MESSUD: So, of course, you know, it's a wonderful blessing that we're both able to do the things that we care most about and love doing, and a particular gift for me to share my life with somebody who cares so much about so many of the same things that I do. What it would be like in a different circumstance? I honestly don't know.

GROSS: Well, Claire Messud, thank you so much for talking with us.

MESSUD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Claire Messud's new novel is called "The Woman Upstairs."

Coming up, we listened back to an interview with Ray Harryhausen, who was famous for his stop-motion animation in the films, "Mighty Joe Young," "Jason and the Argonauts" and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad." He died Tuesday at 92.

This is FRESH AIR.


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