Great reads

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

Friday - - Contents -

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

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