In Claire Messud’s eighth novel, This Strange Eventful History (Norton, May), various members of the Cassars, a nomadic family of Algerian pieds-noirs, take turns narrating their stories as they navigate around one another and through a world in flux. Here, Messud discusses her most autobiographical fiction yet, the loaded meanings of such words as family and homeland, and why she admires booksellers.

You note in your acknowledgements that the Cassar family movements “hew close to those of my own family.” Just how autobiographical is this novel?

This novel is more autobiographical than my earlier novels. The characters are fictionalized. Events and dynamics are invented or imagined. But the basic outline of the Cassars’ lives, the places that they live, the sorts of jobs they do, the ways they interact with history and to some extent with one another, correspond to the movements and experiences of my family. But this is crucially a novel, not a memoir.

Is there one character in this novel with whom you especially identify?

I identify with all of them. In writing each of the characters I tried hard to live inside that character’s skin, mind, context. Unsurprisingly, Chloe, the writer in the family, is the character closest to my own experience. But I really do identify with them all.

In the epilogue, which jumps back in time to 1927, there’s a shocking revelation. Without any spoilers, why did you leave that revelation for the very end?

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster makes a distinction between story and plot, in which “story” is basically a series of events, and “plot” is the arrangement of the telling of those events in such a way that the story has meaning. If the last chapter in this book came at the beginning, the entire novel would be different. Another way to put it: what you know first shapes everything you learn subsequently. And, of course, many of the novel’s characters don’t know the facts of the epilogue.

It’s taken me all my life to be ready to write this book, and it matters profoundly to me.

What is it about the meanings of family, home, and homeland that you want the reader to take away with them?

I wrote the novel to explore a whole host of meanings and thoughts, and I’m also aware that each reader will approach the novel with a different set of experiences and interpretations. In the book, characters reflect on how a single word can have different meanings for different people: family, home, and homeland are exactly those kinds of words. I want the book to open a conversation about these questions, rather than to provide any clear answers. In our era, when few people stay all their lives in one place, we all grapple with what home might mean. Salman Rushdie has a brilliant essay on the subject, “Imaginary Homelands,” which I highly recommend.

What is one thing you want booksellers to know about you, and one thing about this book, when they meet you at Winter Institute? [pullquote= align right]

Independent booksellers have been my heroes ever since I was a child, when my family’s idea of a great Saturday afternoon was to pile into the car, head to a bookstore, and spend an hour or two there. Where else but in a bookstore can you find passionate readers who’ll argue about sentences or characters’ motivations, who’ll stay up all night to finish a novel, or will press copies of something they love into your hands? And now I find out that all my fellow book nerds gather at Winter Institute. That’s a dream come true!

As for what I’d like the booksellers to know about This Strange Eventful History, it’s that it is, for me, the most significant work of my life. It’s taken me all my life to be ready to write this book, and it matters profoundly to me. I wanted to try to capture some sense of the vanished world, not so long ago, in which I grew up, an era that had lots of bad and challenging elements, for sure, but also lots of good ones, and idealism and optimism which we could do with now. ­­

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