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'I don't know how I coped with all the attention ... it made me anxious and worried, which is sad'

Published 16/07/2016

Runaway success: Jessie Burton won New Writer Of The Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards
Runaway success: Jessie Burton won New Writer Of The Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards
Miniature fan: Martin Scorsese downloaded the book on his Kindle
The Muse by Jessie Burton is published by Picador, £12.99

Jessie Burton was blown away by the mammoth success of her debut novel, the Miniaturist. The actress-turned-author talks to Hannah Stephenson about juggling the joys and angst of success, and the influence behind her second book, The Muse.

Just three years ago, Jessie Burton was a struggling actress and unpublished writer, who could not have imagined what it would be like to become a bestselling novelist.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 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'," she says.

"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," she says.

"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.

"I was working to promote The Miniaturist and touring and writing The Muse, and I didn't really have time to stop and notice how much my life had changed and how I'd got this new career and these new adventures and duties, but not necessarily the experience, understanding, time or energy to handle it all," she says.

"I don't know that I coped that well in the first half of last year. I was anxious and discombobulated by it all.

"The only thing that saved me, was writing and working, and having my friends and family who knew me from before, so it wasn't just 'Jessie Burton the writer'.

"It manifested itself in terms of anxiety and worry, which is really sad, but I've since spoken to other people, and I read a piece by Hilary Mantel who said that winning the Booker is a crisis."

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."

She's cautious when she reflects on how the new-found success has changed her life.

"It's still early days, but it's expanded my horizons of the possibilities of work, and what I can make a reality. I've always been a dreamer and schemer of plots and plans, and I have more opportunities than I had three or four years ago.

"Money always helps, but I live in the same one-bedroom flat that I lived in before The Miniaturist was published. I come from a family who've worked all their lives.

"I'm not used to having unending funds. I'm a worker. I'm more comfortable than I ever was, but I need to write more books."

Burton - whose father Edward is a retired architect-turned-ceramic restorer and mother Linda is a retired teacher - grew up in Wimbledon. She pursued acting after university, with limited success.

"I was highly ambitious and demanding on myself, and I wanted to play bigger parts on bigger stages and it wasn't happening," she says. "By the age of 27, I'd waited 12 months for a job and I was struggling to find joy in it."

Her main source of income while "resting" was as a PA in the City.

She temped for eight years after leaving drama school, which kept the wolf from the door. She also attended a creative writing course run by literary agent Curtis Brown.

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"

  • The Muse by Jessie Burton is published by Picador, £12.99

Belfast Telegraph

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