One summer night in the 1970s, Claire Messud’s parents brought her and her older sister to visit friends who also had young children. Sent off to amuse themselves, the kids gathered in the backyard, where Messud volunteered to tell a ghost story. “I was kind of making it up on the fly,” she recalls over Zoom from a corner of her bedroom in Cambridge, Mass. On the wall behind her hang black-and-white portraits of her own two children, now grown up and living on their own. “There was my sister, who was annoyed with me. And then there were these other two kids, and they were totally ready to listen. I remember being amazed that you could just make up junk and people would listen to it. One learns in life that’s not always true, but when I was nine, it felt like a superpower, almost.”

Nearly a half century and seven books later, Messud has trained her superpower on a story she knew “was always going to have to be written”—her own. Spanning 1940 to 2010, her latest novel, This Strange Eventful History (Norton, May), chronicles three generations of a pied-noir family displaced from their home in Algiers, first by WWII, then by the country’s brutal war of independence. Spread at various points in the ensuing decades across Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, and the U.S., the Cassars—like the Messuds—bear with them both the glittering dream of a lost Algeria and the burden of knowing it was never theirs to begin with.

For Messud—whose devout Catholic grandfather, like the novel’s patriarch, Gaston Cassar, bequeathed his two granddaughters a 1,500-page family history—the story of the Cassars is both an act of preservation and an unburdening. “This is the novel I put off writing until I was ready to write it,” she says. “At some point, you realize, if you don’t get on with it, you’re going to be dead. It’s now or never.”

The timing may also have something to do with the fact that her parents, grandparents, and never-married aunt—whose real histories of nervous collapse, thwarted ambition, and physical decline are the drumbeat over which the novel improvises—are no longer alive. Messud, who teaches fiction writing at Harvard, where her husband, New Yorker book critic James Wood, is also on the faculty, admits to being stymied by a question her students always ask: “ ‘How do I deal with the fact that the story is about my mom, and my mom wants to read it?’ You know, Eugene O’Neill just didn’t put on the play until mom had gone to the great hereafter, which I realize is not always a good answer.”

Though the family secrets she spills, especially an open one pertaining to her grandparents’ much-mythologized marriage, would be enough to give most writers pause, Messud views the telling of them as a form of devotion, rather than a betrayal. “For me, this is a book born of love and compassion, and wanting to honor the damaged and still wonderful but seriously flawed people that these people were,” she says. “The self I was at 25, who might have had a lot more anger about some of this stuff—I feel I don’t have anger. I just have compassion, and love. That’s the spirit in which I wrote the book. I feel like it’s my soul on paper.”

This Strange Eventful History may be Messud’s most personal work of fiction, but its profound empathy for people at their most damaged and damaging is the lifeblood of her oeuvre. A devotee of Edith Wharton’s and Henry James’s incisive novels of manners and the modernist women writers—Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf—she discovered on her mother’s bookshelves, Messud has populated her exquisitely crafted stories with the kinds of characters invariably described as “difficult.”

After her first three books garnered good reviews and modest sales (prompting her friend Christopher Hitchens to ask, “Would it kill you to write something people actually want to read?”), Messud scored a breakout success with her 2006 novel The Emperor’s Children. The story revolves around a trio of entitled young creatives in New York City; their intellectual mentor, a crusading Vietnam-era journalist who’s grown self-indulgent and pompous in middle age; and his arriviste nephew who plots to expose his hypocrisies in the months before 9/11. It was followed by The Woman Upstairs, whose protagonist, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge, declares in the novel’s opening paragraphs that she wants her tombstone to read, “FUCK YOU ALL,” and The Burning Girl, which burrows into the fraught inner lives of two adolescent girls whose intense yet deteriorating friendship becomes its own kind of madness.

In the title essay of her 2020 collection Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, Messud describes herself as “a mongrel, a hybrid, made up of many things.” Born to a French Algerian father and a Canadian mother in Greenwich, Conn., and raised in Sydney, Australia, and Toronto, Canada, her sense of home was more imaginary than most people’s. Built largely of memories, it could only be preserved, in fragments, through the act of storytelling. “I realized that in making up stories, as in reading stories, I could create a contained world in which an experience is shared in its entirety,” she writes. “I could invent characters, name them, evoke them, and around them a society, or a landscape, born of my experiences but as free as my imagination.”

And so, from nearly as soon as she discovered what a writer is, she gave her life over, as she puts it in the essay, “to describing—that is, to attempting and failing to understand and explain—some small portion of life itself.”

Such dedication to the pursuit of truth through fiction is a mark of the excellent teacher of writing Messud must be. (Two other tells: the way her stylish, black-framed glasses insist on slipping to the end of her nose, necessitating continual yet unbothered adjustment, and her habit of peppering conversations with cherished literary quotations: “Hope is the thing with feathers”; “Fail again. Fail better.”) It’s also another way of answering the question of why, after lacing shards of her family history throughout her previous books, the time has come to put it front and center.

Noting the gulf between her grandfather’s fixed sense of identity (“We are Mediterranean, we are Latin, we are Catholic, we are French,” he wrote in a letter to his children, to be opened in the event of his death during WWII) and her own “hybrid” upbringing, Messud says she became aware after the 2016 presidential election “that a world I had so profoundly believed in and had kind of taken for granted was historical and didn’t really exist, and indeed was held in contempt by a lot of people.” Her parents, she explains, eschewed religion and national identity. “It was with the faith that the world was moving forward, away from tribalisms, away from nationalisms, towards a sort of openness and hybridity and faith in a future where everyone could belong everywhere.”

Now, at a time when, Messud says, people speak in “very serious and thoughtful ways about everything that had been wrong with that cosmopolitan worldview, that had been naive about it, that had been Eurocentric about it,” she feels compelled to memorialize it. “In throwing out that worldview, people should at least know it existed. The postwar time—paradoxically, that war was so awful, and yet, what came after it was a resolute hope. Like, ‘We’re going to make a better world.’ In all sorts of ways that were naive and shortsighted—but, I don’t know, hope wasn’t such a bad thing itself.”

To hold out hope, in spite of past failures and those certain to come—there may be no more apt description of a writer’s superpower. “I guess I feel, at this point, that telling stories is kind of like running up the beach, from the sea, with the water in your hands, and just trying to get to the top of the beach,” Messud says. “Just trying to tell somebody what something’s like, even as it’s all slipping away.”