Claire Messud looks back at her best-selling novel, one of the first set against the 9/11 attacks.
The Emperor’s Children follows a group of friends in New York in the months leading up to and after 9/11. Was it a response to the attacks?
At the beginning of 2001, I had started writing a novel about those characters in New York City. But even before our daughter was born in June, I had put it to one side, thinking I would get back to it. Then, obviously, it became impossible to get back to it. I had been writing a contemporary novel set in New York, and suddenly the world was a completely different place. At first, I couldn’t see the point of writing fiction. Several months later I thought, well, I have to start something else. After a couple of failed efforts, I realized that I had set myself a task, and the task was to write about these characters in New York in 2001, and this would have been part of their experience.
Would the book have been the same if it were set against an earthquake or a tsunami?
I think the man-made-ness of 9/11 is important. Everyone assumes the emperor in the title is this one character, Murray Thwaite. That’s possible, I guess. But, for me, America was the emperor. We had all been living with some idea of our blamelessness, with some idea of our innocence in the world. How could anybody hate us? Obviously, we’re not responsible, but we had to ask: Do we need to look inside ourselves and our culture and see if there’s anything to answer for? At the time, people said something along those lines and were pilloried. But if you look at some of the ways in which our society has changed in the past 10 years, that kind of soul-searching has gone on.
Your 2006 novel was one of the first to deal with 9/11. Did you wonder whether it was too soon?
I didn’t think so much about it. I wasn’t trying to make some big comment about 9/11. In my mind, it was almost a historical novel. I was just trying to capture something about what it was to be living in that moment and the way in which people’s lives were entirely changed in some ways and in other ways not changed at all. That strangeness – that everything is different, yet everything goes on – is part of what I was trying to write about.
This issue comes out September 11, and I’m curious how you’ll be marking that day.
You know, I seem to have agreed to be in a panel in Manhattan. I don’t know that my family will be with me. My daughter is singing in the church choir, and that’s here in Cambridge. Certainly, we will be aware of it all day. What are you going to do [with your family]?
We’ll watch some of the TV specials, but I think we’re going to go about our lives that day – I hope that doesn’t sound terrible.
That is the triumph, right? What is the greatest dark legacy of 9/11? It’s the fear with which our nation lived so intensely for so long. I think we live somewhat less intensely with it now. I feel like to go about your life and live it without fear is a triumph. For those young people in my novel, to be frivolous if they want to – that is the triumph. That is the triumph. That’s a free society.