Interview: Jessie Burton on bringing her beloved novel to the small screen in The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist became a worldwide bestseller upon its release in 2014. It tells the story of 18 year old Nella Oortman, who comes to Amsterdam as the wife of Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. But as Johannes seems increasingly disinterested in being a husband, and his sister Marin rules the household along strict Christian guidelines, Nella finds herself alone and adrift in a world where appearances mean everything. When she writes to a mysterious Miniaturist to commission pieces for her wedding gift- an extravagant model of her home in miniature, the only household she seems to have any control of- she embroils herself in a haunting mystery.

BBC’s adaptation of The Miniaturist, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Alex Hassell and Romola Garai, will premiere in Australia on BBC First on February the 6th at 8.30pm. The book’s author, Jessie Burton, takes us through her thoughts on 17th century Amsterdam and adapting her work for the screen.

How much of a role did you play in the creation of the television program? How involved were you in that creative process?

I was involved to the degree that I chose the team that made the show based on their vision for the show, as did the producer. I didn’t write the script or anything like that, but I did have a Skype call with the Canadian-based screenwriter. He wanted to understand my ideas or my vision of the book so that he could know how to put that to page. I met with the actors on set and I consulted every now and then on some minor details, but really it was the case that I believe the actors and the director should be able to get on with it how they want, because it’s a different version of the same story. If I was an actor I would want to feel that the writer and the creative team trusted me to tell my own story. I was there as a sort of you know imminent presence but I didn’t really get my hands dirty if you like.

A lot of the dialogue in the show comes directly from the book. When you wrote the book originally, did you imagine it going onto the screen someday, or was that coincidental?

I didn’t ever write it thinking ‘This is going to be a TV show.’ My background is in acting, I used to be an actress, and when I think about the book I do see it, I do understand that there’s a certain theatricality to it, there’s a cinematic quality to it, which really wasn’t conscious but I think probably did come from my own experiences being a performer. When I was an actress I was always looking for characters who had interesting things to say and I wonder whether that sort of bled into the novel writing and also a belief that I have that dialogue is really important. There’s certainly coincidence there, rather than any deliberate stuff on my behalf, but then also, my background had an influence.

I’ve seen in some interviews that Anya Taylor-Joy, who is playing Nella, hadn’t read the novel before she took on the role. Was it strange for you and for the rest of the team, working with someone who was bringing a totally blank canvas to that character?

Yes and no. I gave her a signed copy of the book as a sort of little gift, but with the caveat that she didn’t have to read it if she didn’t want to. I think the thing is—look, no, it certainly didn’t worry me. Because I think when you’ve got a team of actors together telling a story what they’ve got to take is the script in their hand and the director looking after them, rather than the novel, because you can’t turn around and say ‘Well in the novel she said this.’ You’ve all got to be collaborating and on the same page literally of the script that you’re using together. Anya was cast because she was absolutely, whether she knew it or not, the embodiment of the spirit of Nella, you know, and there’s that unconscious element to it. She didn’t need to have read the book inside out, and I wasn’t worried about that at all.

One of the most striking things about the adaptation is the relationship that’s built on the screen between the three women living in the house, between Marin and Nella and the maid, Cornelia. Were you happy with the way the actresses brought this to life?

I was delighted, I honestly was, I couldn’t have asked for more thoughtful enthusiastic actors than Hayley Squires, who’s Cornelia, and Romola Garai (Marin Brandt) and Anya. They were really excited with these parts, because they were complex in that it wasn’t just the maid, the sister, the wife, these were women, who were nasty to each other sometimes, who had vulnerabilities, who had secrets.

Marin— Romola was just Marin. I just watched it and I thought ‘Oh my God, she’s so good, she just ‘got’ it.’ She understood it. I mean she’s an example of one of the actors who had read the book when it came out, but you wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between her and Anya when you watch it. She understood it very deeply, which was very gratifying for me.

Hayley is absolutely brilliant. we were so lucky with her, I mean here is a BAFTA nominated, highly in-demand young actress who brought humour and warmth as well to Cornelia. She doesn’t have as many scenes as the other two, but there she is. So yeah, I mean honestly, watching the three of them, it had me thinking maybe I should write another novel which is just the them going on adventures.

The theme of the empowerment of women at a time when they didn’t have a lot of agency is really strong in the book and also in the TV show, and it’s becoming more and more relevant in the climate that we are seeing now worldwide. One of the quotes that stands out is ‘Every woman is the architect of her own fortune,’ which is one of the things the Miniaturist writes to Nella. Is that a motto that you thought up for Nella, or is it one of your own personal beliefs?

A lot of the messages the Miniaturist sends Nella are actually 16th and 17th Century Dutch mottos: ‘I fight to emerge’, ‘Things can change’. It was actually ‘Every MAN is the architect of his own fortune.” That was a Dutch saying, which for me was a real reflection of the Dutch psyche at the time. But you could really say it’s a sort of universal message that we are responsible to a large degree for our own fates. I mean obviously there are many things that are out of our control.

After doing some research, understanding the women for all that we don’t know about their inner lives, I was supposing that they were perhaps getting a bit frustrated with always being in a domestic setting. Also, women at that time were beginning to move into the world of business and they married later than their other European counterparts and often worked alongside their husbands. Perhaps they would think ‘You know maybe every woman is too, we’re helping to build this Dutch glory, this Amsterdam, this grand city.’

And then after the book was written, after the success of it sort of exploded in my life, I became this bestselling novelist, which I had never expected, I did sort of realise, yes, I have sort of built this myself, because I’ve built it out of air, from my own imagination. I think we are. But it’s ridiculous to say to young women, or women, you’re in complete control of it, because we’re not, we have to operate in society and some things are out of our control and we’re battling on all fronts some of us, so I think it’s a good thing to aspire to, but I also think one of the other messages of the book, and the TV show which they keep, is we have to do it together. We have to look out for each other as well. It’s not as individualistic as that, so that’s also important to me.

Given that there’s not as much recorded history from the point of view of women historically, was it difficult for you to research what Nella’s life would have been like?

Actually, there’s quite a lot. Because the Dutch were so rich they had time to, sort of, employ people to document their lives, be it through paintings, wood cuts, engravings, poetry, but also there’s the nitty gritty like wills and inventories of households. You could kind of piece together details about marriages, those that were marriages of love, but also marriages of convenience, but also what women were doing, where these women were working. There was a French diarist who was shocked to discover that couples were holding hands on the street, and that women were walking unaccompanied. That’s why I have Nella walking the streets and the canals of Amsterdam on her own.

Yes, obviously there’s the big question of who writes your history. The dominant narrative voice of history has been white, wealthy men, telling us what is important to remember and how it all was. At some point you’re bringing your imagination and your educated guesses in and other times you find surprising nuggets of history and fact that are actually true. So it wasn’t really really easy – not every book of Dutch history has ‘this is what it was like for women’ but women are very present there, they’re just not the ones writing it down and speaking it.

The world that you’ve created of 17th C Amsterdam is very insular. Everyone is encouraged to dob on their neighbours, and they are very concerned about appearances. Nella is given her sister in law’s bedroom because it has the best view—of her. They want people to be able to see her. Why did appearances matter so much to people at that time?

I think it was because it kept everything like clockwork. If you go to Amsterdam you see these huge glass windows and they don’t have curtains— it’s still the same. So you can be walking down the canal, and you’ll look in, and ‘oh look, theres that person having dinner.’ I saw one woman, her bed was against her window and she was sleeping— it was just really weird. I think at that time, mutual surveillance was encouraged by the church and the guilds to keep everyone in line. If you had civil disorder, you had a diversion away from keeping the city running, therefore keeping the city wealthy, so there was this kind of anxiety over appearances, because if you had a healthy normal home, you had a healthy normal state and country.

So everyone was kind of colluding. There would be neighbourhood watches. Where in the show, and in the book, there are Burgomasters, you would also have your mini-Burgomaster who would be in charge of your street, and if anyone did anything wrong, like ‘oh we think he’s beating his wife’ or ‘she’s a shrew’ or ‘this kid nicked my loaf of bread’, you’d go to him, and tell on your neighbours. I think it was probably quite an uncomfortable situation, which is why Marin is so anxious that everyone sees that Johannes is now married to this young, fertile-looking girl. It’s literally keeping the fabric of society together . They just didn’t want anarchy because it would literally mean they had fewer dollars coming into their bank accounts.

You mention the Burgomasters there. Can you give us a bit of an overview of who they were and why they’re so important?

They were a group of men who were like our Town Mayor crossed with our MPs, crossed with our Prime Minister really, they were the authority. And they had the weight of the guard behind them—so they didn’t have a police force, but they had the civil guard, the militia— and they could make or break you, and that’s what they try to do to Johannes. They were the judiciary and the strong arm of the law as well. In charge of keeping the peace, because this was a republic, there was no king or queen, as such, so they were the ones in charge.

Petronella Oortman was a real person and her dollhouse is on display in the Rijksmuseum. But this isn’t a biographical story. Was it a conscious decision that you made not to change her name, and did you have to seek any permissions from living family members to write the story?

Well, I liked the name Nella, so when I found out that her name was Petronella Oortman, I just thought ‘Oh that’s a great name.’ At the time, this was like 2009, I was a PA. I was just writing the story and I didn’t think ‘this is going to be a published book.’ I was just merrily writing it and I didn’t have access to archives to find out who the real Nella Oortman was. I knew that she’d been married before, it said that on the thing [the plaque on the dollhouse], and she’d buried one husband and buried a child, but actually do you know what— I didn’t know that when I wrote the book.

So I just decided I’m going to make her 18 years old, because for my fictional character I needed her to go on this journey from innocence and go towards experience. It wasn’t until I finished the book and then it got an agent and blah blah blah, that I found out she actually had been married twice, and that Johannes Brandt was her second husband, and I was really glad I didn’t know that, because it would have totally changed Nella’s role within the book. As far as I know, she didn’t have any heirs herself because she died in real life before her husband. So I just, you know, for all intent and purposes, literally just used her name, and no family have come forward and said this is our family, because I don’t think they had any kids.

For a story where so much hinges on secrets, was it hard to keep spoilers for the TV show under wraps, given that the book’s now been out for more than three years?

People are pretty good. I mean I’m pretty well practised in not telling or giving anything away because I’ve done so many events around the book. I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but here in the UK readers of the book are quite respectful to people who haven’t read the book. People are pretty good. So yeah, it wasn’t problematic at all.

It’s been a big 12 months for TV adaptations of books—we’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace for example, and now The Miniaturist. Do you feel like adaptations of books have to be extremely faithful to their original texts? Or are there changes that you’ve seen made in the show that you think improve on the original?

I think if you’ve got an original piece of material that’s very much loved by readers then you are running a bit of a risk if you decide to radically alter, or remove a character, say, or change a character’s journey really dramatically. I think that really damages some kind of fabric of the original material that you’re working from. But if you’ve got interesting ideas about casting, or about cinematography, or the music, or something like that, I mean that kind of thing is up for grabs to be iconoclastic about the way that you present the original skeleton of the book. Generally I think they work, not when they’re ploddingly faithful, but when they take the essence of the book and bring it into life in a new medium.

If you could have played any character yourself, which one would you have wanted to be?

I think it has to be Marin, because it’s quite rare that you get to be that rude as an actress, and also to have your softness as well. I think it’s quite a fun part to play, and it’s always fun to be a villain. She’s not a villain, but for the first, you know, third of the book, you think wow this woman is such a cow, and then you understand the psychology behind it, this sort of protecting neuroses she has towards her brother, towards herself, and then ultimately towards Nella as well. She’s also the most fun, with her obsession with herrings, but also with loving her luxury dresses so yeah, I think Marin.

The Miniaturist premieres on BBC First at 8:30pm on Tuesday February 6th. The novel, including a new TV Tie-In edition, is available now through Pan Macmillan Australia