An Interview with Jessie Burton

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • August 22, 2014

Why not go with an author who effortlessly guides us through the mystery of 17th-century Amsterdam? Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist is a haunting debut novel.

An Interview with Jessie Burton

In The Miniaturist, Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam in 1686 to begin her life as the wife of wealthy trader Johannes Brandt. She’ll share this life and home with two servants, a sister-in-law, Johannes’ beloved dogs, and a tiny miniature cabinet, a replica of her new home that seems to know everyone’s secrets. Here, author Jessie Burton discusses the novel.

How is it that “pity can be boxed away, but hate cannot”?

I felt, in the particular instance I wrote that sentence, for that particular scene, that the hatred felt was a more immanent emotion, perpetual, easily accessed, and always just below the surface. Pity was more spontaneous, triggered by a moment in hand. Pity is more passing; you don’t exist in a sustained state of it, you take it out of a box, and then, when the moment has passed, you put it away again. Sometimes, hatred can feel a little more intrinsic.

You write: “Risk always craves certainty, even a city founded on risk.” Why?

In the novel, I describe the city of Amsterdam as having been built on risk, but now, as a state, craving certainty. What I wanted to imply was Holland (but Amsterdam in particular) had taken many gambles in the 16th and 17th centuries to get to its position of power and wealth. It had literally shored itself up from the sea, it had undertaken foreign wars, set up trading posts on the other side of the world. Now it wanted to protect all that accumulated bounty. Power was being ceded away from the merchants and explorers from the Dutch East India Company, who had been on the front line, as it were, to the pen pushers in the State Offices, the civil servants who counted the pennies. There was a bit of a struggle over this, because merchants felt that risks still had to be taken, that the goodly burgomasters of Amsterdam were sitting fat and complacent on their gold and not thinking about the need for trade and aggression. In short, that they just didn’t get what was required to stay on top. On a more abstract level, I wanted to infer that sometimes when everything is too unknown, all you want is a bit of stability — and when everything is down too pat, all you want is a bit of adventure. It’s the tension between the two extremes. You get to one point and then start craving the opposite.

What was the catalyst for this story? Did you know the history of Amsterdam?

I was in Amsterdam on holiday in late 2009, when I visited the Rijksmuseum. It was there that I saw this gigantic cabinet house. Built in 1686, commissioned by a real woman called Petronella Oortman, it was breathtakingly beautiful, an immense decorative object full of such intricate detail. When I discovered that it was an exact replica of Oortman’s real house, and that it cost the same as a full-blown house to build and furnish, my story-telling antennae started to twitch. She had imported porcelain from Japan and China, Italian marble, silk screens, and Venetian glass. But she couldn’t use any of it. It was, to me, a hint at a lack of control in real life, a retreat to a shrunken, domestic interior to express what she couldn’t in the social world in which she had to exist. I knew nothing of Amsterdam, so I took to my books, researched paintings, read wills and inventories and lists of debts. I even used a recipe book from 1671.

Nella hears her mother talk about dignity, but believes that “dignity is so uncomfortable.” With their high stiff collars, heavy dresses, and patterns, wasn’t all life uncomfortable in 17th-century Amsterdam?

Possibly. But some people lined their dresses with sable and squirrel fur for added comfort and luxury. Who says that when the door was shut on the outside world, they didn’t unloosen their stays and remove their ruffs? 

“When you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide, forgiveness is everything.” How did Johannes become so forgiving?

I don’t think he’s that forgiving of himself. He knows himself, and that’s not the same thing as being self-forgiving. He’s the most self-aware of the bunch. You could argue he acts selfishly, and therefore understands quite sympathetically how others are selfish, too. He knows perfection is impossible. He knows what recklessness is; he’s epicurean because life is short. He is kind because he is wise. He knows what it is to have to have secrets. It is not solely because of himself that he is forgiving, but because he is more open-minded than most.

“Young bride in her low level of constant dismay,” is a description of Nella and, in some ways, maybe every bride even in the 21st century. Would you agree?

Nella is being married to someone she doesn’t really know, who is twice her age. She is doing it to save herself. When the marriage begins, her groom completely alienates her. Perhaps you could apply that to contemporary situations around the world, but I have to say, if you are getting married — and you have a choice about it — but you find yourself in a low level of constant dismay, then why on earth are you doing it? I’ve heard weddings are stressful, and I’ve also heard secret confessions that they were not the best day of a woman’s life. So perhaps the parallel remains.

Food reminds Johannes that he is “capable of delight,” and maybe it’s a wonder we’re not all obese. Delight is something that we all ought to experience, and often. What delights you in this story?

Friendship, solidarity after a path of thorns, new beginnings, a clasped hand in the darkness, a moment of gratitude, a glimpsed hope that understanding can begin.

Does having a miniature replica of our real world give us any more understanding of it?

I would hesitate to say yes. I think, if anything, they merely display our continued powerlessness, how control is an illusion. Nella thinks the miniatures will be her way to tell her story, but then it begins to feel like her story is being told for her. She has to fight back to take control, because even the miniatures are hiding their meanings.

How is it that the miniaturist is so sure-sighted?

Because she watches closely. Because with her acute observation, she employs educated conjecture and intelligent imagination, and people start dancing to her tune, without realizing it was their tune all along.

Marin, the sister-in-law of Nella, seems very strong-willed, decisive, and sure. Why is it that a woman like her is generally the unhappy character in literature?

Because they are so seldom permitted an outlet for their talents, and their proscribed roles in society are narrow. Invariably, they live in a system that does not require, value, or reward their presence, and thus they become frustrated and depressed. They are called “strident” instead of “engaged” and “knowledgeable.” Marin’s will only seems “strong” because it was not normal for women to let their self-authority loose. She just has a free will, like all human beings. She is no more bossy than her brother Johannes, but she sometimes comes across a little spikier because she has to take more risks to be heard.

I seldom notice the time in a story — that a chapter begins in 1699 or 1987. Do you write with the organization or burden of time?

For plot reasons, which I won’t reveal here, time had to be carefully monitored. The book has a tight internal engine, three months through winter of 1686 to the new year of 1687. At one point, though, the whole plot took place over 12 months. I am not good at telling the time or remembering months. I work better in seasons, in describing the weather. I find time quite a burden and end up slipping through it quite a lot. The more important part for me, of the five parts which divide the book, is the Bible quotes.

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