Jessie Burton Q&A: “What’s bugging me? The anxiety of social media”

The author talks Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the work of Jane Austen, and Schitt’s Creek.

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Jessie Burton was born in London in 1982. She is the author of three novels including “The Miniaturist”, which she wrote while temping as a PA at private equity firms. It sold over one million copies in its first year.

What’s your earliest memory?

Aged five, dipping into the kitchen treats tin. The pilfered treat was a chewy bar with a blue and white checked wrapper. I’ve been sweet-toothed ever since.

Who are your heroes?

In childhood, the heroes I had were older girls who’d had their ears pierced, or whose parents had allowed them to get their hair permed. They had slight acne, and wore bras and Impulse body spray. To me they seemed to have become themselves. My adult hero is Hilary Mantel, whose writing has lifted me through much.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. I was swallowed by it. I want to write like her. Across her fiction and non-fiction, Levy emboldens me. I was once in a play of hers, The B File. We performed in a tiny pub theatre in Camden and she turned up to watch, then invited us all to hers for dinner.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I am in awe of the intelligence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They can’t find a way to shame or discredit her, which is a huge thing for a woman in the public eye.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The work of Jane Austen.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century: the first strains of psychoanalysis swirling up with Klimt’s gold tiles; beautiful mirrored coffee houses and perfect hot chocolate; and world war not yet a reality.

What TV show could you not live without?

Schitt’s Creek. It is the only show I have ever watched where I howl with laughter and ugly-bawl by the end. Give Catherine O’Hara all the awards.

Who would paint your portrait?

Ideally, Francis Bacon, but he’s not available right now. Can you imagine that above your mantelpiece? Frankly, if anyone wants to paint me who also happens to be alive, I’m game.

What’s your theme tune?

“Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A long time ago, my parents would say, “Jess, you can only do your best,” and so far that has served me well.

What’s currently bugging you?

Not being able to sleep longer than five hours in a row. People’s aural thoughtlessness in public spaces. The anxiety of social media.

What single thing would make your life better?

Flushing my phone down the loo.

When were you happiest?

I am always very happy when I’m near my partner, Sam.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I don’t know the answer to that, because I wouldn’t be me.

Are we all doomed?

If the big companies responsible for the grossest carbon emissions don’t change their processes, things don’t look good from an ecological standpoint. But I think there is hope. Whether hope will actually do anything remains to be seen. 

“The Confession” by Jessie Burton is published by Picador

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries

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