TORONTO - Claire Messud has flown into Toronto, just one stop on a lengthy book tour to promote her latest novel, "The Woman Upstairs." But this trip is a bit of a homecoming for the Boston-area author, who lived in her mother's birthplace from age nine to 12 before moving with her peripatetic family back to the U.S.
And it's the first time she hasn't had family to visit or a family home to bunk down in instead of a hotel room: her sister had lived in the city until moving to England, and last year, her late parents' Toronto apartment and their house in Napanee, Ont. —the site of many family gatherings over the years — were both sold.
"All my life, Canada has been a big part," says Messud, 46, who was born in Connecticut and spent her early years in Australia, where her father's work had taken the family. "And now I have nowhere to come for the first time in my life. So it's a bit strange."
She recalls how different her pre-teen years were compared to the more cloistered lives of her 11-year-old daughter or any kids her age.
"We're giving kids less and less autonomy when they're young. When I was nine, we lived up at Avenue Road and St. Clair and we would bike all over town and our mother had no idea where we were. We would be gone for hours," Messud recalls.
"Now if my daughter goes biking with a friend, I need to know where they're going and when they'll be back. So there's a freedom that's lost." But there's also "a worldliness that comes earlier — knowing all the brand names and the pop songs."
"So I feel that that precious time is being squashed somehow."
And when Messud was younger than her daughter Livia and her nine-year-old son Lucian are now, she had already chosen her adult vocation.
"You know, I don't really have a memory of ever not" wanting to be a writer, she says.
"I think when I figured out that the stories that we read at bedtime had been written by somebody ... and that was a thing that you could do in the world, just make up stories," Messud says, tittering in a way that seems a throwback to her childhood self, "that's what I wanted to do."
For her sixth birthday, Messud's parents gave her a "little kiddy typewriter because I'd said already that I wanted to be a writer," she says. "Basically the writing thing was all I ever wanted to do."
Her debut novel in 1995, "When The World Was Steady," was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Four years later, she published "The Last Life," about three generations of a French-Algerian family (her father was French Algerian). "The Hunters," a book of two novellas, came out in 2001, followed by "The Emperor's Children," a New York Times bestseller long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.
Messud's creative trajectory has been decidedly different than that of Nora Eldridge, the so-called woman upstairs in her new novel.
Approaching 40, single with no children, and teaching third grade in Cambridge, Mass. (Messud's hometown), Nora is a self-described "good girl," a dutiful daughter and friend, who laments her unfulfilled dream of being an artist.
Into her classroom comes Reza Shahid, an eight-year-old boy who enchants her, heart and soul; and into her life follow his exotic parents: Sirena, a glamorous Italian artist, and her Lebanese academic husband Skandar, who has brought his family from their Paris home while he takes up a Harvard fellowship.
Nora, whose late mother's nickname for her was Mouse, becomes friends with the flamboyant Sirena after Reza falls victim to schoolyard bullies. That friendship re-ignites Nora's passion for her art, though the subjects and scale — tiny dioramas of Emily Dickinson's and other famous women's rooms — are vapid and pale compared to her fiery friend's oversized multimedia installation entitled "Wonderland."
Nora designs her life around this friendship, clinging to the belief she is virtually a member of the family, fantasizing about the future, even long after the Shahids have returned home to the City of Light.
In the end, it is not art, but her enraged response to what she sees as the ultimate betrayal of that friendship, which defines Nora's life.
And Messud, has she at any time been Nora? Been the woman upstairs?
"You're always balancing whether you draw from life, how much you draw from life," she says, mulling over the question.
"There are lots of things that the book is about for me, but one of them certainly is about what is an artist? What does it mean to be an artist? What are the choices you make, the sacrifices you make, the delusions you have? And especially if you are a woman artist, are there any particular complications inherent for you, in part because of your gender?"
Even so, she believes each of us has a bit of Nora inside, because who doesn't have some unfulfilled dream or fantasy of what life could be?
"I know from the times when I've lived alone, it only takes me about 24 hours to turn into some version of the woman upstairs," she laughingly admits. "There's some feeling of detachment from the world that happens where the world inside your head is suddenly at the fore, and your social interactions are at some remove from what seems to be really going on.
"And I know for myself, it doesn't take long."
Unlike her protagonist, Messud is married — her husband is New Yorker literary critic James Wood — and has her children. But doesn't being a novelist also turn her into the woman upstairs any time she's working on a book?
"That's an interesting parallel. I hadn't really thought about it. But it's certainly true that I sit alone in a room and make up fantasies," she concedes. "I can't deny it, but (unlike Nora) I don't have the illusion that they're true."
That room of her own isn't in her house, but an office she rents in an old building that houses about a dozen other former Harvard fellows, among them poets, novelists, academics and composers.
She grins when asked if she keeps to a disciplined writing schedule.
"I never know whether I should lie, right, and say: 'Oh, I'm at my desk by 7 a.m. every morning, I'm there until bedtime and I never go to the bathroom and I don't eat anything.'"
Truth be told, Messud says she tries to get to her office most weekdays. But during the spring semester, her writing time gets truncated because she spends the first half of the week commuting to and from New York, where she teaches a creative writing course at Hunter College.
The book tour for "The Woman Upstairs" also means she has less time to work on her next project — something she started writing with her daughter Livia in mind.
"There's this whole teen/young adult fiction genre" that didn't exist when she was her daughter's age that are easy and pleasurable to read, Messud explains, "but they're also just seriously trashy."
"So I thought: what if I tried to write something that she might read but ideally is not trashy? It's actually harder than you think."
That's all she will reveal about her next book.
"I don't talk very much about," she says, pausing to choose her words. "I don't know, it seems like a jinx to talk about it.
"So we'll see. If I can finish it, it's 'And now for something completely different.'"