LONDON (Reuters) - Jessie Burton thought small when she wrote her debut novel, but much to her surprise it’s been sold in 30 countries and, during one heady week in August, shifted more copies than J.K. Rowling’s recent offering.
“Unless you were a complete maniac you’d never expect that,” she told Reuters.
“The Miniaturist” is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, a world of water, dank mists and suppressed feelings, and tells of a young bride, Nella, whose wedding gift is a cabinet house - an exquisitely crafted miniature replica of her own house.
A bit like Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”, it seems to have struck a rich vein with a clever plot premise backed up by scrupulous research.
To date it’s sold 31,453 hardback copies overall, Burton’s publicist said, compared with 58,147 for “The Silk Road”, written by Rowling as her alter ego Robert Galbraith.
Finding her marriage loveless, Nella pours her desires into constructing a miniature life, which takes on a supernatural quality as it mirrors her own.
The book was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s real cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
“The miniatures up close are amazing, the skill in shrinking something so beautifully but you can’t get at it: it’s out of your reach,” Burton said.
The 31-year-old Burton, after stints of child acting, read English at Oxford and drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She talked to Reuters about what inspired her foray into literature.
Q: What so intrigued you about the house?
A: Nella’s house is filled with the paraphernalia of everyday life: china, cots, screens pots and pans. Many of the artifacts are things which have not survived in actual size, so to social historians it is invaluable. It describes a life.
Q: The Oortmans were real people, but you haven’t used their lives. How come?
A: It was only my Dutch editor that told me that Nella buried one husband and a child, then married again. I was very glad not to have known that. The only thing I wanted to take as a character was the doll’s house. Historical accuracy is important in terms of how they behaved, what they ate, but no one can know how those people truly thought.
Q: In your own mind how far does the supernatural foretelling of the miniaturist character go?
A: The miniaturist for me is a question of perception and what people want to believe. Cornelia the maid is highly suspicious, whereas Nella sees her as benign. I don’t believe there’s an objective reality, we all construct our own stories to make sense of our lives. The miniaturist could be simply a highly perceptive observer, but she’s deliberately ambiguous. How much is Nella jumping to these suggestions because she can’t bear to take control of her own life?
Q: What is the appeal of the Nella character for a 21st century woman?
A: I didn’t intend to write this character with a 17th-century crust inside a modern girl, but what she has is spirit and determination; she can be judgmental as many 18-year-olds can be, and makes mistakes but yet she learns. People are sympathetic to her willingness to adapt. She’s a survivor.
Q: How did you create the watery city so well?
A: I set it in winter on purpose - mist, light and dark, the play of the visual. The Dutch were so obsessed with the water, and their relationship with it. The sea had twice flooded their land to great damage, tens of thousands of people drowned.
Q; Who are your three favorite authors?
A: Of all time? Charlotte Bronte, Hilary Mantel, and Margaret Atwood. Q: You were an actress - what have we seen you in?
A: Not much. I did a lot of theater work. When you see an actor on stage and you truly don’t know what they are going to do next, it’s exciting. I learned that what a character doesn’t say is as important as what they do say.
Q: You are digitally savvy. Is that important for authors?
A: Although we use social media so fluidly, and even ignorantly – I don’t think we’ve got the measure of what it means. For many people, our virtual lives are becoming as valid and solid as our real lives. Perhaps if Nella had had Twitter she wouldn’t have been so concerned with her miniature house.
Q: Will books be here in 50 years?
A: Oh yes, definitely. I think the physical book will be clung to harder than people think.
Editing by Michael Roddy and John Stonestreet