Jessie Burton, author of acclaimed debut novel The Miniaturist, talks to Sammi Jane Pay about her experience of living and working in London.
Congratulations on your book The Miniaturist! It must have been very exciting having 11 publishers in a bidding war over it! Where in London would be your favourite place to celebrate your success?
‘Thank you so much! I think my most favourite place to celebrate would be the Bar at the Gilbert Scott in King’s Cross. They do a cucumber gin cocktail called the A-Pear-itif and it is so good you could drink five.’
What places in London inspire you most, creatively?
‘The V&A Museum has been a favourite place to explore for me since I was a little girl. There are so many hidden rooms and strange artefacts. So many stories! I also like going to see the Victorian portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. I don’t know why, particularly – I just think the expressions on their faces are so varied and not as stuffy as you might imagine.’
What is your most vivid London memory?
‘Covent Garden Flower Market at five in the morning to buy blooms with my mum. I also acutely remember going to Denis Severs’ house in Spitalfields when I was 15. It’s a Georgian house with ancient foundations, and every room is candlelit, decorated as if its historic inhabitants have just vacated it. I have other memories that are probably vivid for the wrong reasons, and they usually involve Camden.’
What makes London unique?
‘I just love it. It has always been a city in a state of flux, of expansion and change – and this seems to make it eternal. It’s enormous, so there is such variety of life. It’s messy, it can be cacophonous and tranquil, and for such a big city, its inhabitants are friendlier than you think.’
Who is your favourite Londoner?
‘I’ll say Samuel Pepys. Thanks to him, we have such a vivid account of London life in the late seventeenth century.’
What do you think is London’s best kept literary secret?
‘Joe Orton’s defaced library books at the Islington Local History Centre.’
What would you recommend everyone in London do at least once?
‘Get that boat up the Thames! Seriously, I’ve done it about four times, and you see all the changing faces of London.’
How do you think The Miniaturist‘s heroine, Nella, would find 2014 London?
‘Oh, I think she would LOVE 2014 London. She’d be out there, having fun.’
The Miniaturist is often described as a feminist novel. What does the term feminism mean for you?
‘Feminism means for me the continual challenging of both invisible and visible prejudices against women and girls in society. This spans gender stereotyping in toys all the way up to social disadvantages vulnerable women face thanks to governments pushing a patriarchal, straight, white and usually male-biased agenda. It is the exploration of what it means to live equally in society, of invisible biases, of the nature of authority, of how we listen to women’s voices in the media, how we portray women’s experiences, and how this will benefit future generations of women – and men.’
How do you feel about the portrayal and representation of women in the media generally?
‘Well, whilst I acknowledge that there are some portrayals out there on TV and film that depict women who do have agency, there are an awful lot of crap roles women have to play compared to the more nuanced – or at least, authoritative – stuff men get to have a go at. I saw a trailer for a season of BBC Original Drama and there was one shot of the brilliant Sophie Okonedo playing a barrister – as if someone had thought, oh that will tick all boxes. But all the other moments of authority were men standing on cliffs looking brooding, men jumping through windows, men saving screaming women, men having fights. The voiceover even said: “Boys will be boys” for crying out loud! We have some superlative actresses at our fingertips, and I bet loads who are still undiscovered because the parts haven’t been written for them – but televisual representation of girls and women is still, to my mind, very reductive and conservative.’
Who is your biggest inspiration in life, and why?
‘Louise Bourgeois. She worked. She enjoyed herself. She was honest.’
What do you miss most about London when you’re away?
‘The diversity of people. The fact you can find green spaces and exciting things to do.’
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
‘I’m writing my second novel, Belonging, set in 1930s Spain during the civil war… and 1960s London.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is out now (Picador 2014)
‘A fabulously gripping read that will appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch. Burton is a genuinely new voice with her visceral take on sex, race and class. Burton writes great complex female characters.’ (The Observer)