Ayear ago Jessie Burt on was an unemployed actress. No wher novel The Miniaturist, inspired by a Dutch museum exhibit, is outselling JK Rowling. By Margarette Driscoll
As an unemployed actress, Jessie Burton turned her hand to writing and is now rivalling JK Rowling.
One of the charms on Jessie Burton’s delicate silver bracelet is a typewriter, a gift from a friend to celebrate her book The Miniaturist. Not that Burton needs a good-luck charm – a year ago she was an out-of-work actress, temping as a PA to make ends meet. Now her debut novel, published last month, is at No 5 in The Sunday Times bestsellers list and is outselling JK Rowling (in her guise as the crime writer Robert Galbraith) at British book retailer Waterstones. The chain’s head buyer describes it as the “must-read book of the summer”.
Critics have called The Miniaturist “atmospheric, gripping and compelling”. Her publisher expects it to appeal to fans of Tracy Chevalier and Donna Tartt. A bidding war at last year’s London Book Fair won Burton a six-figure advance. The book has been sold to the US and Canada and is to be published in 29 languages.
Burton spoke to us on her whistlestop publicity tour around Britain before departing for Norway, the US and China.
“It’s taken a while to absorb what’s happening because it’s been overwhelming,” she says. “You just don’t have any expectation of this and never would unless you were some sort of egomaniac or
‘You don’t have any expectation of this and wouldn’t unless you were some sort of egomaniac’
narcissist… It got so crazy that I was lying awake at night wondering if I’d have any friends left because they might be jealous. Everything that was familiar seemed to be shifting, but actually they were happy for me and could express it more easily than I could myself.”
The Miniaturist, set in Amsterdam in 1686, tells the story of Nella Oortman, a clever girl from an impoverished family in the countryside, who is married off to Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Arriving on foot from the cow-dung village of Assendelft, Nella finds the atmosphere in his opulently furnished house is chilled by more than the mist off the Herengracht canal – she is intimidated by Johannes’s haughty sister and baffled by his emotional distance.
Nella’s only comfort is her parakeet, Peebo, and an extraordinary gift from her new husband – an exquisite dolls’ house, an exact replica of their own home. A miniaturist she engages to help her
furnish the dolls’ house starts sending items that have an uncanny ability to foretell the secrets beginning to unravel in the real house.
Burton got the idea for the novel on a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with her boyfriend, the actor Pip Carter. One of the museum’s key exhibits is a tortoiseshell-clad ‘cabinet house’ formerly owned by Petronella Oortman, a wealthy merchant’s wife.
Starting in 1686, Petronella furnished the house with miniature porcelain from China and commissioned cabinet makers, Venetian glassblowers, basket weavers and artists to make items for the house, eventually spending as much as it would cost to buy a substantial home in the city.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off it: I stood in front of it for about an hour,” Burton says. “When I discovered it cost as much as a real house I was astonished and intrigued that someone could spend so much on something essentially inutile.”
When she started writing she knew nothing about Oortman herself: “Nella Oortman and Johannes Brandt were real and they were a married couple, [but] the main character I took from their story was the house.”
The Miniaturist is dedicated to Burton’s parents, Edward, 71, an architect-turned-porcelain restorer, and Linda, 70, a retired teacher. Their wonderfully understated reaction to her success has kept her feet firmly on the ground. “They are proud of me, of course. Every so often my dad will say, ‘Well done, Jess, well done’, but you don’t need people blowing trumpets for you all the time, do you? They are quiet and bookish and cultured, very low key, the last people to be impressed by material display.”
The family car is held together with string, she says, and the toilet seat with gaffer tape: “Dad’s had the same watch for about 30 years. Mum’s had to work hard to persuade him it needs a new strap.”
She was brought up in Wimbledon in southwest London, an only child and state-school girl who won a place at Oxford, and then studied drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her ambition was to be “a famous actress – properly famous, for doing great work” but the reality of auditions and rejections proved dispiriting.
She reckons she earned about £300 (about Dh1,850) from acting in the year before her book was sold. Although temping brought in steady money, it was deeply unfulfilling. “So much of making a career in acting depends on luck,” she says. “When you’ve come up through a system in which, when you work hard you get the grades and get the place [at university], that’s a hard reality.”
It was probably a good preparation, though, for the notoriously uncertain English in a rural secondary school. The new book will be another atmospheric thriller, in which the secret life of an artist who disappeared in disgrace in Spain in 1937 is uncovered as his work is exhibited in London in 1967.
It was only recently that Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, was bemoaning the fact that JK Rowling’s “little story about wizards” had distorted the truth about writers’ earnings.
On average writers struggle by on £11,000 a year, down from £15,000 in 2005.
Burton has bucked that trend and already used some of her advance to put down a deposit on a flat.
“Everyone says, ‘Ooh, she’s going to be a millionaire!’, but they don’t pay you all the money at once,” she says. “I don’t feel much different – yet – but I know how lucky I am. It shows something magical can still happen.”
‘My parents are cultured and very low key; the last people to be impressed by material display’
world of publishing. She sent her first three chapters and synopsis to a number of agents. Some rejected it; some probably never looked at it.
Juliet Mushens, the agent who took her on, receives 150 unsolicited submissions every week.
Burton has already started work on a second novel, set partly in Spain, where she spent a year as a student, teaching
Burton says she realises how lucky she’s been to get her book published