Claire Messud, author of "The Emperor's Children," is an American — but she's not.

She was born in Connecticut to a Canadian mother and a French father, then at age 4, she moved with her family to Australia, then to Canada. At 13, she attended high school at Massachusetts' Milton Academy.

For college she chose Yale, then did graduate work in English literature at Cambridge University in England. She married James Wood, a British novelist and critic, then they moved to the United States and now live in Massachusetts so that Wood can teach at Harvard.

Discussing all this by phone from Boston, Messud philosophized about not having a home. "You lose something in not being rooted, but you gain something by seeing the world differently. It's both a loss and a gift."

Because she was a high school student in Boston, "It feels like home. I haven't lived here as an adult, but now half my life has been in America."

Messud is transatlantic — as well as bilingual — and has a much more diverse background than most Americans, which can contribute much to literary art.

Probably few adults remember learning to read as a child, but Messud can recall "the eureka moment of being able to read without help! When I realized soon afterward that people wrote the things I was reading, I wanted to do that."

Messud links her writing to ritual. Not the computer, mind you, but for each of her published works — a collection of novellas and three other novels — she has used a high-quality fountain pen and a Clairefontaine notebook. The Clairefontaine Paper Mill dates back to 1858 and is best known for making the first school notebooks in France. (According to the manufacturer, the notebooks that Messud prefers are appreciated for "exceptionally white and ultra smooth vellum paper." They are sewn with linen thread and also have cloth spines. People who use fountain pens tend to like writing on really good paper — it never smears or bleeds through.)

"I think the ritual is linked to how you think," said Messud. "I have friends who can't think until they turn on the computer. When I finish a book, I always fear that I'll never write again. It takes a lot of time. You always think if you could just do something else — but nothing else makes me as happy."

Writing "The Emperor's Children" was a different experience from her other books, because she wasn't used to writing with small children around (Livia, 5, and Lucian, 3). "There are time constraints, I try to keep my nose to the grind stone. So there were bursts of inspiration but I was never looking too far ahead. It was about writing one chapter and then another, and many of the chapters are pretty short. A chapter sort of equaled the length of concentration."

Messud often struggles between sentences because she has a tendency not to finish a sentence. "I digress a lot — it's how I experience the world. I would like to write in a way that will convey that to the reader, but also I need clarity."

Each of her characters "has a bit of me in them — and a lot of not me. I take a strand of hair from one place and an eyelash from another, and then in Frankenstein-like ways, they get up and walk and talk by themselves. Without being fake. You can't make a character do something they wouldn't do. I feel like they're my cousins — but real. I'm just better at making things up. My parents said I had 'an overactive imagination."'

The publisher describes the book as "a dazzling comedy of manners," which is pretty close to the truth until the characters reach 2001 and experience 9/11 — then they change a lot. "We all feel the effects of 9/11," said Messud, "in an abstract or philosophical way. In a practical day-to-day way, we take off our shoes at the airport and all kinds of security things. It was a wake-up call in all sorts of ways to a reality we had not faced — not until it happened here."

Now that the book is finished, "It is a very odd feeling. The greatest feeling of satisfaction is when I'm working on a book and the end is in sight. No one else lives with these characters, these pretend people, then you let them go into the world and the book has a life separate from you. It's exciting — and you do it to have readers. But it's unsettling. It's like sending your children into the world."

Messud has started working on her next book but has nothing to say about it right now. "The most important thing is that yesterday was the first day of kindergarten for my daughter."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com