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The Emperor's Children

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The Emperor's Children Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

Q: In THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN, the introduction of a few outsiders into the world of the main characters drastically alters the lives of everyone. What were their lives like before the appearance of Bootie and Ludovic Seeley on the scene?

Well, Marina had been living at home for the better part of a year, trying to get her book finished; and Julius and Danielle were living pretty much as they had done for some time, each in their apartment. But the three of them spent a lot of time together — more time than they do once the book is underway — in the way very close, old friends do when they are single and childless.

Q: The first chapter is called “Our Chef is Very Famous in London”, which gets to the heart of things that a reputation one place may not carry to another. What made you decide to start the book with that?

Danielle — like Marina and Julius also, albeit in slightly different ways — is very much a New Yorker. Her whole sense of the world, post-college, has been focused entirely on New York. I wanted to begin the novel in a rare moment, for her, in which she has some perspective on her own life, some sense of its provincialism. All our lives are provincial, no matter where we live; but New Yorkers can often indulge the fantasy that they are exempt from this. It’s harder to do from the other side of the world.

Q: What is THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN about, to you? Where did the initial inspiration for the novel come from?

That’s a big question. I don’t think I have a simple answer. What’s it about? I hope it’s about what it’s like to be alive in a certain place in a certain time. It’s about a group of people with certain aspirations and expectations and limitations, and the way they contend with what is thrown at them. Probably in my mind it’s about ambition, and what it means, or meant, and didn’t, in that particular historical moment. And about confronting limitations. And about making a self. All those things. As for where the inspiration for the novel came from, it’s lost in the mists of time. I began the novel (with the same characters but in a different form) in early 2001, a long time ago; and later that year abandoned it, because it seemed impossible to continue. It took me a year or more to come back to it, after failing with a couple of other things; and by then it seemed to have an organic necessity, an urgency in my mind, that has kept me from worrying, ever since, about where the idea for it came from.

Q: Murray Thwaite is reminiscent of a few journalistic bigwigs… was there anyone in particular you wanted him to bring to mind? And if so, will you ever tell?

As anybody who writes fiction knows, it’s a magpie affair. To create a character, you take a shiny button here, a strand of hair there, a bit of tinsel from the garbage can, and build something which, you hope, will look like a person. All the characters in this book (and in my other books too) were created this way; and all of them — including Murray — contain elements of myself in them. I wouldn’t go so far as saying “Murray Thwaite, c’est moi”, but he certainly feels like a part of me.

Q: You live in Boston but chose to write a novel about New York City, focusing on its upper crust. Why this world?

I’ve only lived in Boston for a few years. I lived in DC before that. And London before that. It may seem illogical, then, to have chosen New York, but I feel as though it’s a picture of my parallel life, of a life I might have had. I went to college in Connecticut, and all my friends moved straight to New York. Most of them are still there. My parents also live in Connecticut; my dad was a commuter. All in all, I’ve spent a lot of time in New York. It was always the city towards which I turned. And the dynamics of a group of close friends from college — that’s also a world I know.

Q: We don’t really see the story from, say, Ludo’s perspective. Why?

Geez, would you want to? I shudder to think what the world looks like from Ludo’s perspective.

Q: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the characters here aren’t exactly warm, fuzzy, and loveable; many make some despicable decisions and/or comments in the course of the novel. What compelled you to write about such a lot?

I adamantly believe that characters should be interesting, rather than nice. I also believe that these guys, for all their faults and limitations, are no worse than most of us. If they were your cousins, you’d see them clearly and criticize them and still love them. That’s how I feel about them. I have no interest in sentimental, saccharine portrayals — life’s too short for untruths. I was just trying to portray people as I see them, motivated by conflicting impulses, given to shabby thoughts or actions, but not, for the most part, bad people.

Q: OK, so our heroes and heroines aren’t all bad–there’s an element of likeability there too! Do you have a favorite? If so, will you share him/her with us?

Ach. A parent mustn’t play favorites. I have a few, in fact. But I’d have to say I have a soft spot for Bootie.

Q: Did you set out writing THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN with the characters in mind, or did the plot form them? Is this usually the case as you write–and how does it affect the way your stories take shape?

Everything I write is different, so I can’t really generalize about where I begin. But character is very important to me — it’s why I write, I think; that and language. And if you really know a character, then you figure out how they would behave in a given situation. And the plot comes out of that, really. It’s about trying to observe your people closely, honestly, and without imposing your will artificially upon them. If you make a character do something that character wouldn’t do, your book is a fake.

Q: Our three main characters–Marina, Julius, and Danielle–are on the cusp of thirty. Do you see that age as the portal to true adulthood?

True adulthood? Show me a true adult! But I do think that in contemporary American society, among the bourgeoisie, many young adults aren’t forced fully to take on the mantle of adulthood in their twenties. It’s wrong to generalize; but for Marina, Julius and Danielle, at least, the combination of their vast ambition and their professional meandering leads them, at around 30, suddenly to feel it’s time to get their lives together, with a sort of panic they might not have felt if they’d noticed earlier how quickly time was passing.

From the Hardcover edition.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

6669 I dont know if you know, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by 6669 I dont know if you know)
Best book of the decade.
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(1 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
rosalind, July 17, 2008 (view all comments by rosalind)
My bookgroup read this, 9 out of ten of us did not like the book, though acknowledging the literary skill of the author. None of the characters were likable, and were not well formulated. The one person who liked it said that it was "like pulp fiction (genre, not the movie)" and a fun read.
Compare it to Zaidy Smith's "On Beauty" ( well there isn't any positive comparison ) a book with well developed characters, plenty of literary illusions, a jab at the academic world,and set in the eastern seaboard.
Our group is 60+ in age. Are the positive comments coming from younger people?
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(8 of 15 readers found this comment helpful)
Celia_Garner, February 14, 2008 (view all comments by Celia_Garner)
Incredible story of the changing nature of relationships under the stress of tragedy.
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(12 of 24 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780307276667
Author:
Messud, Claire
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
20070631
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
496
Dimensions:
8 x 5.2 x 1.1 in 0.8 lb

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The Emperor's Children Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.50 In Stock
Product details 496 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780307276667 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Absolutely brilliant. The best novel I've read in months, if not years, The Emperor's Children has left me powerfully moved; Claire Messud's knowledge of the human psyche is uncanny, and her characters became, in one afternoon, more important to me than the friend who I made wait on my couch while I finished the book. Gorgeously written, painfully honest, and, often enough, funny as hell, The Emperor's Children is a classical novel which perfectly depicts modern times, describing what humanity looks like up close with a brutal yet sympathetic clarity.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Marina Thwaite, Danielle Minkoff and Julian Clarke were buddies at Brown, certain that they would soon do something important in the world. But as all near 30, Danielle is struggling as a TV documentary maker, and Julius is barely surviving financially as a freelance critic. Marina, the startlingly beautiful daughter of celebrated social activist, journalist and hob-nobber Murray Thwaite, is living with her parents on the Upper West Side, unable to finish her book — titled The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes (on how changing fashions in children's clothes mirror changes in society). Two arrivals upset the group stasis: Ludovic, a fiercely ambitious Aussie who woos Marina to gain entrée into society (meanwhile planning to destroy Murray's reputation), and Murray's nephew, Frederick 'Bootie' Tubb, an immature, idealistic college dropout and autodidact who is determined to live the life of a New York intellectual. The group orbits around the post-September 11 city with disconcerting entitlement — and around Murray, who is, in a sense, the emperor. Messud, in her fourth novel, remains wickedly observant of pretensions — intellectual, sexual, class and gender. Her writing is so fluid, and her plot so cleverly constructed, that events seem inevitable, yet the narrative is ultimately surprising and masterful as a contemporary comedy of manners." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "[A] riveting comedy of manners....Gradually, Messud...converts academic hairsplitting into a matter of larger consequence, extracting considerable suspense from the young cultural pretenders' attempts to topple the old guard and wrest an erotic prize." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review" by , "Messud deftly paints the neurotic uncertainties of people who know they're privileged and feel sorry for themselves anyway; she makes her characters human....Intelligent, evocative and unsparing."
"Review" by , "Messud's comedy of manners is extremely well written and features characters that come alive....This wonderful read is an insightful look at our time and the decisions people make. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "Messud's ambitious, glamorous, and gutsy new novel, The Emperor's Children, is a leap forward, a marvel of bold momentum and kinetic imagination."
"Review" by , "Claire Messud is a novelist of unnerving talent....The Emperor's Children is a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11."
"Review" by , "Absorbingly intelligent....[Messud] writing is so sure-handed that she doesn't even stumble on the hurdle of the Sept. 11 attacks...and her exploration of entitlement is both witty and astute."
"Review" by , "Ms. Messud has composed a comedy of manners, a satire on journalism and misplaced ambition, and a probing, sometimes poignant, drama about confused urban lives."
"Review" by , "The novel surprises in so many ways. Most notably is the way that the story gets more and more interesting as it progresses. By the final chapters it becomes a page-turner, something rarely found in novels without detectives or CIA agents lurking about."
"Review" by , "If occasionally the reader feels suffocated inside the Thwaites' privileged bubble, the pleasures of Messud's prose are enlivening....You will not learn how to live from reading The Emperor's Children, but you will recognize the pulse of real life on every page."
"Review" by , "[T]he novel, for all its evident flaws...demonstrates Ms. Messud's growing range as a writer, her ability to shift gears effortlessly between the comic and the tragic, the satiric and the humane."
"Synopsis" by , The Emperors Children is a richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune — about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way — and not — in New York City. In this tour de force, the celebrated author Claire Messud brings to life a city, a generation, and the way we live in this moment.
"Synopsis" by , A magnificent novel of fate and fortune — of love and friendship, family and secrets, of striving and glamor, disaster and promise — this is a tour de force that brings to life a city, a generation, and living in the moment.
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