From unknown actor to best-selling novelist, Jessie Burton is still coming to terms with fame, she tells Hannah Stephenson
Just three years ago, Jessie Burton (below) was a struggling actress and unpublished writer, who could not have imagined what it would be like to become a bestselling novelist.
The Miniaturist changed all that.
Her story of a young woman in 17th century Amsterdam, who is given a miniature replica of her home by her new husband and begins to see the dramas of her household mirrored in miniature, attracted a frenzied bidding war, which ended with Burton clinching a a six-figure sum deal for her debut.
She can remember the day “it all went crazy” at the London Book Fair.
“I was still temping in a hedge fund and was sitting on a fire escape as my agent was texting me, saying, ‘Brazil want it, Hungary, Bulgaria, America have three conference calls for you and want it in this publishing house’. It was mad.
“I’m quite an anxious, cautious person, and I was nervous because it was uncertain territory. I was worried about whether I could match up to this adulation and attention. I was quietly proud of myself but also scared.”
Since then, The Miniaturist, published in 2014, has been translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than a million copies worldwide.
Today, the 33-year-old still can’t quite believe how it happened, or the media attention that followed.
“When I was Christmas Number One and was made Waterstones Book of the Year, that was incredible. I got letters from people saying, ‘I only read one book a year and I’ve read yours twice in six months’.
“On a more glamorous level, I heard that Martin Scorsese downloaded it onto his Kindle. That’s kind of mad.”
But Burton remains pretty grounded, and still lives in the same one-bedroom flat in South-East London.
Her second novel, The Muse, explores London’s Trinidadian community in the Sixties through the life of its Caribbean protagonist, would-be writer Odelle Bastien, who gets a typing job in an art gallery and embarks on a relationship with a young man who has inherited a mysterious painting, which her boss believes is a masterpiece by a Spanish artist.
The mystery of the painting’s provenance is slowly unveiled in the novel’s other time frame, Southern Spain in 1936, at the start of the civil war, and Burton’s dual narrative reflects hidden creativity in both literature and art.
Her interest in the Spanish Civil War — she studied Spanish at Oxford University and lived in Spain before going to the Central School of Speech and Drama — and colonial legacy sparked the idea, although Burton had no idea when she started writing it that she’d have such a tough act to follow.
“It was quite a pressure. Not so much in that I had to replicate the success of The Miniaturist, I never worried about that because every book is different. My job is to write a story that I think readers will love.
“But my identity and my sense of self was fractured slightly by the unexpected success of The Miniaturist, so that made it harder to be sure of myself, in a paradoxical way.
“Now, I feel like school’s out for summer because I’ve written it, even though I’ve got six months of promotion,” she adds, laughing.
While the success of The Miniaturist might seem simple — bidding war, sale, overnight success — in reality, it was a bit more complicated.
She says she was quite shocked by the attention she received after her debut.
“It’s an utter privilege talking to readers, but it takes a lot of mental absorption and energy. I did 18 months of events and press non-stop. I can’t really remember 2015. It didn’t make me doubt my creative abilities, but it took a lot of physical and mental energy. It takes a lot of brain calories to write a novel.”
The TV rights of The Miniaturist have been sold to the production company which made the award-winning Wolf Hall, and Burton is executive producer, although she sees her involvement as limited.
“I’ll be meaningfully consulted, but if I throw my toys out of the pram, they’ll leave me in the pram. I’d love to be in it, but not as one of the main parts, maybe just a sugar seller in the corner, or a crone in the market place.”
Now that she’s a literary success, however, she suspects her acting career may be over. The world of writing seems to be a lot more welcoming to me than the world of acting.”
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