Urmston Book Shop is a fantastic independent shop in a suburb of Manchester run by Frances and Peter. I discovered it because friends of ours live in Urmston and were adamant that I had to visit. I’ve been spending a fortune in there ever since and was delighted when I found out that they host author events. So far, I’ve seen brilliant events by Rachel Joyce, Anna Hope and, on Wednesday night, Jessie Burton.
On arrival at the shop, we were treated to drinks and nibbles – miniature macaroons, buns and cakes – made by the talented Cath (@craftystarcakes) who had also made a miniature version of the book shop including figures of Frances and Peter, Jessie signing copies of The Miniaturist and a shopper you might recognise.
Jessie began by telling us about how The Miniaturist came about. She said she was becoming frustrated as an actress and spending more time working as a PA in the city than acting, so she wrote her first novel and sent it out to agents. She realises now that it wasn’t fully finished but she received some positive feedback and that was enough for her to keep going.
In 2009, she went on a trip to Amsterdam that would become the catalyst for The Miniaturist. During the visit, she went to the Rijksmuseum and saw the dolls’ house that belonged to Petronella Oortman. Jessie described the house as beautiful and intricate – there are rooms that you can’t see in it – but it was when she looked in the guide book and discovered that the house cost the same as a real house to build (£5–6 million) that it became really interesting to her. Why would anyone spend that much money on a dolls’ house? Jessie saw it as a symbol of power but one that comes with a lack of control over real life.
As Jessie began to research, she saw how this fit with life in Amsterdam at the time the house was being constructed. The 1680s was a corrupt period. The Dutch had the first global empire and the first multinational company with the VOC (the Dutch East India Company). This led to a disparity between surface life and private life and piety and hypocrisy. These tensions led Jessie to an idea: Petronella arrives in Amsterdam with a birdcage. She pushes open the door to the house; the interior is dark and grand. Standing in the shadows is another woman. There will be a power struggle between the two.
Jessie said she looked at a lot of paintings from the time – she described Amsterdam society as early Facebookers, documenting their lives in paintings and – for the very rich – replicas of their houses. The paintings showed characters who are unable to operate in wider society. Marin – the other woman in the scenario above – understands the compromise people make to survive – and even though Amsterdam was a more liberal city than most at that time (women could walk the streets unaccompanied and widows could run their dead husband’s businesses), there were still elements that had to remain hidden. Jessie posed the core of the book as a question: Can you control your life and if you can’t, how do you handle that?
We were then treated to a reading of the chapter, ‘Barge’. I use the word treated because Jessie’s a joy to listen to. Afterwards, questions from the audience were taken. Jessie was happy to talk about elements of the novel as well as the writing process.
How much time did you spend in Amsterdam?
Two trips that added up to just over a week. The second, she returned with a list of things she needed to find out. She did say ‘the internet’s a wonderful thing’!
Is it strange to think that the first trip’s had such a big impact on your life?
Jessie said that she was delighted and thrilled and glad that it was worthwhile, although she would’ve written the story anyway because she had to. She told us that the Dutch can be suspicious when foreigners set books in their country – what do you know about it? – but they love it and at the launch there, they had a lute player who played songs that had been composed based on events in the book. ‘Thanks, house!’
Was it a light bulb moment (seeing the house)?
It was when she bought the guidebook and saw how much it cost but that led to a struggle over four years to write The Miniaturist.
How soon after seeing the dolls’ house did you get the image of the two women?
Soon afterwards. Jessie then described how she felt she was writing her two selves – she’s now 32. She had a long journey finding out how to write it and initially she had the same scenes from both Nella and Marin’s viewpoints which she thought was really clever until she realised how long it was!
She also told is that Marin began as a 2D Mrs Danvers type character but that she became ‘enamoured’ of her. ‘I love her!’ [I do too!] And that Cornella was originally two maids but she ‘did a Vidal Sassoon and took her into the shower’ (Why take two bottles into the shower…).
Originally there were over thirty characters and Jessie stripped that back to seven.
Are you characters like those you found in your research?
No. Jessie said there’s very little documentation of the African Caribbean experience. They appear fetishised in paintings, so she used that to consider what if they were taken seriously?
There were little things she discovered and used, like some of Cornella’s recipes come from The Sensible Cookbook. However, the story was key and the research had to be a trigger rather than the dominating factor.
Why did you not choose a first person or dual narration?
First person would’ve been too strong a stylistic decision. Other characters needed to be opened up to the reader but two voices would dilute it. Jessie said that finding the narrator had been trial and error and she’d written from Johannes’ and Cornella’s viewpoints too before deciding what the book needed.
What made you conclude the book the way you concluded it? (No spoilers.)
Jessie said she wanted Nella to be a miniaturist too, to take control of her own fate. The miniaturist is a godlike element and a catalyst for change. Agnes’ experience with her is terrifying and painful, while Nella finds it empowering.
Originally the miniaturist was more elusive and the reader discovered little about her, but her editors challenged her on this. She also had a friend who read an early draft tell her to ‘Be a bit braver. End on a minor note.’
Jessie also revealed that in earlier drafts the miniaturist was a man and a love interest for Marin.
Who are your literary influences?
I don’t think I write like anyone, she said, but she loves the writing of Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood, Siri Hustvedt (for her exploration) and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.
Her favourite book as a child was A Traveller in Time by Alison Utterly.
What does Johannes think of Nella?
It’s not a conventional marriage and initially, Jessie had made him a bit colder. But he loves and respects her; she lightens up his life. He’s quite trapped and has had this compromised marriage, arranged by his sister, to protect him, but they do have genuine conversations.
Jessie said that if Johannes and Marin were in the modern world, she would be the CEO of a company, and he the PR taking customers out on the yacht!
Did you find it very emotional writing the book?
‘No. The act of it is hell sometimes.’
If it was made into a drama would you like lots of input?
Yes, but she thinks if you sign it over you have to let go of it. She’s toyed with writing the screenplay but it’s a completely different skill. She cautious of letting go of the rights and has been told it needs ‘TV time with a film budget’, which is hard to get these days. Jessie did reveal that she’d like Cate Blanchett to play Marin.
Are you doing a US tour?
Yes. Boston, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, Kansas (Not sure if she was joking about the last one, check her website!)
Jessie then talked about being the only Brit at the Book Expo America, book fair where she felt like Hugh Grant!
Have you found the reception different in different countries?
Jessie said that it was the editing process that she really found different. Both lovely but in different ways: her UK editor would use the conditional, ‘Do you possibly think…?’ while her US editor was more direct, ‘WE NEED THIS’, ‘WHY HASN’T THIS HAPPENED YET?’
She also revealed that she never thought she’d get to the point where she couldn’t write it anymore but she did during the editing process. She knew it was right.
There’s an analogy between the writer and the miniaturist, do you think like that?
Jessie thought that was something that comes to the reader on reading and that she knows how many struggles and doubts she had along the way.
Will you do an audiobook because you have a fantastic voice?
Do you have an idea for the next book? Is it historical?
Jessie revealed that she’s written 30,000 words of it. It’s a dual narrative about an artist who disappears in disgrace from Andalucía in 1937 and how that affects two women’s lives, the other in London in 1967. It’s called Belonging.
Jessie then spent time signing books and chatting to everyone before being presented with this beautiful cake made by Cath. (Take note writers, this is what you get if you do an event at Urmston Book Shop and I can vouch for Cath’s cakes, they are delicious.)
It was a great event. Jessie was full of passion for her book and, as you can see, very open about the process of writing a best seller (it was #3 in the hardback charts on the day of the event). I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Belonging which I’m sure will be every bit as fantastic as The Miniaturist.