Fresh Complaint is Pulitzer-winner Jeffrey Eugenides's first short story collection. Claire Messud's new novel, The Burning Girl, follows Julia and Cassie, two teenagers from a Massachusetts town who have been inseparable since early childhood, but drift apart as they come-of-age. The authors talked to us about the challenges and rewards of short fiction and writing younger characters, as well as what it means to write literature in these crazy times.
How different are novels and stories for you?
Well, novels are longer. But that doesn't mean they're harder to write. In some way, stories are the more demanding form. They're unforgiving and confining. The way I went about writing a few of these stories was to think of them as novels—as comprising a large expanse, or even the entirety, of a character's life—and then to decant that brew into 30 or 40 pages. With a story, you're going for maximum density—with a novel maximum expression and fluency.
Given that many of these stories are set in the recent past, I was struck by the ways that they heralded or seemed to reference our current situation in ways you couldn't have known at the time.
I was surprised that a story like "Great Experiment," which I wrote in 2005, has more relevance today, perhaps, than it did then. It concerns the distance America has traveled from its origins as reported by de Tocqueville. I wrote it pre-crisis, before the Great Recession, but now it seems to anticipate all that.
What's a literary author's job right now, in this very strained and strange political climate?
To ignore it at least enough to be able to work—90% of the great literature ever written was produced in terrible political climates, and if the authors had thought about their "jobs," none of it would have got written or been any good. The crucial thing is to take notice of what's happening around you, or of what you remember having happened in the past. The significance, political or otherwise, will arise out of that sustained attention to detail and commitment to accuracy.
How much of your own life do you bring into your fiction?
I don't write autobiographically. I feel much freer when I make things up. That said, we are all inevitably constrained by our experiences and our imaginations, and in some ways the character of Julia—in her caution, pessimism, and carefulness—is somebody closer to me temperamentally than some of the others in the book. So it was more natural for me to write in her voice.
Your protagonists are teens, but this is an adult novel. Do you think it will appeal to YA readers as well?
My hope is that any reader will and can read the novel. When I was young, there really weren't YA novels. There were books about young, old, middle-age, and children protagonists and they were for everybody. The stories of young people are a part of life. They are universal stories. Moreover, those years between 12 and 16 mark and shape us. We become the adults that we become because of them.
What do you hope readers take away from ‘The Burning Girl'?
Sometimes we simplify or bring order to life when life is messy, and sometimes we achieve closure where there isn't necessarily closure. I wanted to leave the reader to make decisions for him or herself and to be engaged and actively participate in interpreting the limited information that we have.