I wasn’t prepared for how physical motherhood would be,” Jessie Burton says via Zoom from her eclectic kitchen—think green patterned wallpaper and quirky cat figurines—in southeast London. The author gave birth to her first child, a son, last September, and it’s been diapers, midnight feedings, and playtime ever since. “I’m constantly crawling around on my hands and knees, holding the baby on my hip. I feel okay, but I’m also primed for more injury.”
Burton was pregnant when she wrote her new novel, The House of Fortune (Bloomsbury, Aug.), which follows a family in financial straits in 18th-century Amsterdam, whose fates are connected to a mysterious artist who leaves miniature figurines on their doorstep. The novel, a showcase for Burton’s graceful prose, is a standalone companion to her debut, The Miniaturist, which has sold two million copies worldwide since its 2014 publication, according to Bloomsbury, and has been translated into 40 languages.
“It was odd the way my pregnancy mirrored the pregnancy of The House of Fortune,” notes Burton, who battled morning sickness while writing. “I pushed myself to finish it before my son was born. I thought, I’m sure as hell not going to be able to work this freely when he’s here. So I got my book baby done, then the human baby turned up.” She adds: “I did something with this novel that I’ve never done before. I wrote a whole book and threw it away, then I did it again and threw that away. The book that readers will get is my third attempt. I really wanted to do justice to the characters, and I don’t like letting myself down.”
Jonathan Lee, Burton’s editor, says, “Jessie’s new novel speaks to the head and the heart. It never feels like fusty, dusty historical fiction. As an editor, you look desperately for first pages that crackle with charisma, and when you find someone who knows how to charm you with unexpected details, it’s a pleasure.”
Burton, whose books include a retelling of a German fairy tale and a young adult novel about Medusa, was born in London. “I had quite an osmotic relationship with fantasy and couldn’t always keep track of reality,” she recalls. An only child, she had a “strange triangular dynamic” with her parents, who took her to galleries and museums instead of fairs and theme parks, and a passion for fashion. “I was usually wearing 15 hair clips and a pearl necklace, and clutching a little bag. I like to dress up, always have.”
A graduate of the University of Oxford and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Burton worked in her 20s as a theater actor. “I loved acting, but it’s a demanding and unfair business,” she says. Auditions were hard to get, and she hustled as a temp to make ends meet. “My brain was calcifying, and I felt frustrated in my life. By the time I was 28, I could see the writing on the wall—the dream to be the next Kate Winslet wasn’t going to happen. I never fell out of love with acting, it fell out of love with me.” She had to make a career pivot. “I replaced one dream—being a successful working actress—with the dream of getting published.”
Burton wrote parts of The Miniaturist on her phone while commuting by train to a temp job. Set in 17th-century Amsterdam, it follows a teenage bride who develops a connection with a miniaturist after her wealthy older husband gives her an elaborate doll house. The subject of a bidding war at the 2013 London Book Fair, the novel propelled Burton onto international bestseller lists. It was later turned into a PBS series. She should’ve been thrilled, but instead she fell into a depression.
“I’d been given the jackpot, but I wasn’t ready for the exposure that came with it,” Burton admits. “Perhaps I’d been used to hiding in plain sight as an actress. When your name is on the cover of a book and you’re doing interviews, you’re no longer playing a part. Getting published is what I wanted and it wasn’t making me happy, but you can’t say that, because it looks ungrateful. I’m very grateful, and I’m grateful to people who understand that it’s complicated. The thing you love can be the thing that disables you from doing more of it. But that was then. Therapy has helped enormously.”
Sophie Jonathan, editorial director of Picador and Burton’s U.K. editor, says, “I don’t know any writer who can conjure a world as vividly as Jessie. She’s interested in color and texture and has a beautifully curated home. All that shows up in her writing, and you feel pressed up against the experience of it all. The House of Fortune is a perfect sequel to The Miniaturist, but one that stands on its own two feet. It shows a writer who’s at the height of her powers.”
Burton, who turns 40 in August, plans to take the summer off from fiction writing to be with her son. (He’s already made several adorable appearances in her Instagram feed.) “I talk about books as something I have to push out, but the difference between my son and my imagination is that his is a story I don’t know,” she says. “Some novelists don’t wish to talk about motherhood and babies, but I don’t think I feel like that. The more we pretend it’s stuff that happens behind the scenes, the more we reinforce this idea that children are a threat to our time and identity.”
“Jessie doesn’t see limitations, or she does and chooses to rebel against them,” says Burton’s friend Elizabeth Day, a BBC broadcaster, podcaster, and bestselling author of the novel Magpie. “I feel deeply connected to her, almost like we were linked in a past life. It’s amazing to have such an emotionally intelligent sounding board. I’m blown away by her ability to understand human nature, and to inhabit her characters. Her books are commercial and literary, and it’s a rare bird who can do both. And she makes a great margarita.”
Becoming a mom has given Burton the opportunity to reflect on what makes her happy. “I used to think that being an actress meant that I was a show-off, but I’m actually not,” she says. “I’m more introverted than I thought. The quieter things in life, the smaller pleasures—that’s what I’ve come to value.” She smiles. “That said, I am desperate to go on a big trip and get out there again.” Time is not infinite, and Burton still has a restless heart.
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.