Author muses on art, life and love

By Stephen Jewell

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Author Jessie Burton
Author Jessie Burton

"What does it mean to be somebody else's muse, and do you feel like you're being harvested and used?"

Author Jessie Burton is pondering what it means to be the source of somebody's artistic expression "because that's what writers and painters do: they kind of eat people up."

There are several such inspirational figures in The Muse, the follow-up to Burton's bestselling 2015 debut The Miniaturist. Alternating between 1967 and 1936, The Muse charts the lives of its two main characters, Odelle Bastian, an aspiring poet who moves to London from her native Trinidad, and Olive Schloss, a frustrated painter living in rural Spain.

"A lot of people in the book are muses to each other," says Burton. "I suppose they derive strength and creativity from each other. To me, a muse can be a very powerful thing, although I don't have a fixed idea of a muse myself. It's quite a romantic notion, which I'm trying to blow apart slightly because for a lot of creators, it's more about lots of hard work and graft rather than a spark of genius."

Admitting that, "I don't think anyone could have anticipated what happened," Burton claims the biggest hurdle to finishing The Muse was trying to find room in her hectic schedule after the success of The Miniaturist. That book has sold more than a million copies in 34 countries and has been optioned for a television series by the makers of Wolf Hall.

"I just told myself that I wasn't going to try and replicate anything, as I just have to write the novel that I'm writing now," she says. "In some ways, it was quite easy to detach myself from that, because what happened with The Miniaturist was so sort of galactic that I knew it was surely impossible to have that happen again."

While The Miniaturist centres around a 17th century dolls' house that eerily reflects its owner's own residence, a mysterious painting lies at the heart of The Muse.

"I'm interested in the power of creativity and the need for imagination as we try to make sense of the world and enjoy it," says Burton. "That's like the underlying connector of both books, along with my interest in female friendship and relationships, self-determination and the creation of identity, and the sense of belonging in an unorthodox home."

Relocating from the West Indies five years previously, Odelle arrives in Britain full of expectations before inevitably becoming disillusioned as she is forced to make ends meet by working in a shoe shop. However, her fortunes begin to change after she is offered a job as a typist at a prestigious London art gallery.

"Her voice was pretty much present from the moment I started writing," says Burton. "I knew I wanted her to be this sparky, dynamic outsider, who also has connections to London and Englishness but in an offbeat way."

Much as if she had been raised in New Zealand or elsewhere in the Commonweath, Odelle's preconceptions about the "old country" are derived from books she read.

"It's something that I read a lot about, mainly from the West Indian experience, with this utter Englishness that they were given in their education," says Burton. "She would have been educated in the 1940s, and probably had posters of Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth on her walls. It was this idea that England was their second home, and that the Empire embraced them. They were basically fed propaganda because, of course, the reality when they got here was very different."

From shop assistants refusing to place change into her hand so they don't have to touch her skin to more blatant verbal abuse, Odelle is made to feel anything but welcome by her fellow Londoners.

"She thought she was going to be swimming downstream with everyone else, and then found that she was reduced to just her skin colour," says Burton. "She's very bright and educated, but she was brought up to think that England was her back garden. She's full of ambition and determination, but then she hits a brick wall for five years, and her pride gets dented and she starts worrying she's just miserable and rotting away. She's not a pragmatist like her best friend Cynthia, who is just getting on with life because she can."

For all her cynicism, Burton maintains that Odelle is essentially an idealist. Burton says she always finds the greatest cynics are also secret romantics and Odelle is like that, but she sets the bar high for herself and any achievements come at a cost.

Despite living three decades apart, Odelle has much more in common with Olive than just their similarly sounding first names. Burton sees them as different personalities, but naturally creative women.

"Olive has a far more spoiled upbringing in one way, but it was also a much lonelier upbringing than what Odelle has enjoyed with her family and friends. "They also both want to make art, and they both want to work and find real life very nourishing, although sometimes it gets in the way of their creative process".

Raised in Wimbledon but now living in Forest Hill in southeast London, Burton enjoyed the opportunity to explore her hometown's not too distant past.

"My parents have always said that the Swinging 60s kind of passed them by," she laughs. "They were just coming out of the hangover of the post-war years in the 50s, where everyone was broke and there was no money or any joy. They had to make their own joy, but while there's this impression that London was like Carnaby Street and Austin Powers, the reality wasn't quite like that. I wanted to show a more work-a-day London, and the book is a kind of love letter to my city as well."

- NZ Herald

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