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'The Burning Girl': Girls Who Make Each Other Who They Are


Claire Messud's "The Burning Girl" is a novel about two girls, Cassie and Julia, who make each other who they are. Cassie's the bold one who looks for rules to break. Julia is the voice of caution and conscience who'd like a little of Cassie's daring. We had one mind, as Julia recall, and could roam its limits together. They grow apart in middle school. Cassie hangs out with the more conspicuously popular crowd. Julia's hurt but becomes aware that Cassie is on the verge of disaster. Julia may be the one person to help pull her back.

"The Burning Girl" is the latest novel from Claire Messud, author of "The Emperor's Children" and other acclaimed novels. She's also taught creative writing and special programs at many colleges and joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLAIRE MESSUD: Thanks, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: What's the special intensity of being BFFs as youngsters?

MESSUD: (Laughter) You know, I think it's an almost ineffable experience. And maybe that's why I wanted to try to write about it. When you're a kid, and someone is your best friend, you almost don't need words. It's almost like puppies in a - frolicking in a garden or something. You don't articulate stuff. You just live it. And one of the things I fear that happens is you get - move into adolescence is a sort of self-consciousness and self-awareness that makes that unthinking intimacy less possible.

SIMON: Because you're thinking?

MESSUD: Because you're thinking, because you're aware of yourself in a way. And you're aware of other people and that each of us is different from each other - that we're not all the same.

SIMON: One of the many lines that that I treasure is when Julia recalls, laughter was the point of so many things we did together.

MESSUD: (Laughter) Well, it's certainly true. I remember laughing so hard as a kid.


MESSUD: That - I remember a friend literally falling off a chair (laughter)...

SIMON: Yeah.

MESSUD: ...Laughing so hard. And we do laugh as grown-ups, of course, but less.

SIMON: Cassie grows up believing she has a guardian angel.

MESSUD: Yes. Yes. She believes her father, whom she's never known, who she believes died soon after she was born - so she never knew him. And - but she believes he's always with her.

SIMON: Yeah. And is it fair to say that she gets a little bit obsessed in terms of trying to establish her father's identity, if I - can I put it that way?

MESSUD: Yes, absolutely. And I think, you know, for me, one of the things that the novel - that I was trying to write about is - one thing is that we all need stories to make sense of our lives. And we need stories about who we are and where we come from and how we fit in. And family stories are very important in our sense of identity. Even if we turn our backs on what our family is and rebel against it, we have a story about what our family is. And so for Cassie, having that sense of her identity involves having an understanding of her father and who he is. And as she finds her identity shifting in adolescence, she needs all the more to pin something down.

But attached to that - another thing I want to write about - is how much we make up. You know, we think that, as kids - you know, that kids make up stories and live in a sort of fictional place - but that as grown-ups, we tell the truth and live in fact. But, of course, the reality is we take the facts that we know, and then we fill in all the blanks. And what we fill them in with is invented. And that's true in all our relationships all the time, to a greater or lesser extent.

SIMON: Yeah. You're such a widely admired novelist. But may I ask, did a publisher or an agent say to you, look, this is too mature a story for the YA audience, but it's hard to get adults to read about middle schoolers, so what demographic are you going for here anyway?

MESSUD: My answer to that would be, I'm going for all readers. I actually - when I was growing up, and maybe when you were growing up, too, YA was not a category that existed. There were books about young people. There were books about older people. And there were children's books that were frankly written for children. But, otherwise, books were just for people. This is a book that is as much for a parent as a child, is as much for a teenager as a grandmother or a grandfather.

It's a book about what it's like to be alive and be human, I hope. For me, at least, and for the people - everyone around me that I know - these years are so formative and so central to who we become and how we interact with other people as adults in the world - that to see them as something only of interest to teenagers or adolescents themselves - I think that's just missing so much of reality. I often say to friends - I say, you know, if you're - when you're dealing with somebody and finding it hard, just think of them in middle school. Just think, you know?

SIMON: Ah. Ah.

MESSUD: And if you just actually picture somebody in middle school, and you sort of project back to their 12 or 13-year-old self, so much about people's behavior is explained.

SIMON: Without giving the story away, I was still left thinking at the end. No matter what happens, Cassie and Julia will always be important to each other.


SIMON: Might be years before they recognize it again but they'll always be important to each other.

MESSUD: Yes. I'm glad you felt that. And I think that relationships of that intensity, whatever they are and however they end - they define us and shape us and mark us. And those people remain important to us even if we never see them or speak to them again. And that's true, obviously, with romantic relationships, too. You know, you might feel it's not possible to stay in touch with somebody you used to love passionately. But whatever time you spent together was formative and is with you always.

SIMON: Claire Messud - her novel, "The Burning Girl." Thank you so much for being with us.

MESSUD: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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