An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, Author of The Hundred-Year House

Rebecca Makkai portrait

Photo credit: Philippe Matsas at Opal

Author Rebecca Makkai lives outside Chicago with her husband and two daughters. Described by Richard Russo as “a writer to watch, as sneakily ambitious as she is unpretentious,” her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine‘s choices for best fiction of 2011. Her short fiction has been chosen multiple times for The Best American Short Stories, and her stories have appeared on NPR’s Selected Shorts and This American Life.  Her writing has also appeared in journals such as Harper’s, Tin House, and the New England Review, and she blogs regularly for Ploughshares

Her latest novel, The Hundred-Year House, comes out next week, and she will be reading at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, July 16th at 7 pm

Set on Chicago’s North Shore, The Hundred Year House is both “a love story and a ghost story, as well as a meditation on the power of art to bring people together by breaking down boundaries and even the most guarded of family secrets.”  The story goes through several generations of inhabitants living in a historic mansion that once housed the Laurelfield arts colony. Filled with surprises, twists, and wonderfully original characters, The Hundred-Year House has been called “a mesmerizing story of self-reinvention that delights on every page” by Charlie Lovett and “a funny, sad and delightful romp” by B.A. Shapiro. Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal have all given the novel starred reviews. The narrative is so delicately and imaginatively woven together, so skillfully built, that by the time you reach the end, you want to turn back to page one and start the book all over again.

In advance of her reading at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, Rebecca Makkai talked to Dead Darlings about craft, about inspiration, and about information she uncovered while researching The Hundred-Year House, such as the curious death of a famous 1920s actor or a faded starlet’s botched suicide attempt on a bed of roses or the ingredients of historic cocktails.

91xauOwH+vL._SL1500_Your novel, The Hundred-Year House, offers a thoughtful rumination on the ways in which we are influenced, affected, and even haunted by the past. From the beginning paragraph, and the line “We can’t all afford to be ghosts,” there is immediate tension, and you establish so much about what will happen in the novel right away. Could you talk about opening sentences, and what your goals are with the first paragraph or page of a novel?

Obviously you want to hook someone on the story. You want the person standing there in the bookstore not to be able to put it down. But ideally, the first few pages are also a guide for how to read the book. They’re telling you what world we’re in, but beyond that – there should be lines throughout the text that a reader might look back at with greater understanding after finishing the book. As an example: near the beginning of The Great Gatsby, Nick says that “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope,” and to me that line is a key to some of the later parts of the book, the idea that knowledge and possibility are somehow at odds. It’s a line that changes meaning as we go, that means something totally different once we realize Gatsby’s delusions. For me, that line about who can afford to be ghosts was aiming at the same effect. The book winds up being, in part, about the cost of living a second life, the cost of reinvention.

At what point did you know the book would start where it does?

This project actually started as a (terrible) short story, and although the first pages were entirely different, the inciting incidents were the same: a couple living in a coach house when a second couple moves in; and a guy secretly ghost-writing books for a children’s series. It was a story about male anorexia (something that’s completely absent from the novel), and it was set in the present day. But I liked the compression of four people in too small a space, and I liked that one of them had an embarrassing secret. A lot of what you’re doing in the first pages is building your pressure cooker. Although the story was a failure, I liked the pressure cooker enough to keep it.

At what point did you know where it would end, without giving away the ending?

Years later. Once I realized the narrative had to go back in time, I knew we had to wind up, even if just briefly, back at the moment when the house was first being built. And the final lines came to me before I wrote that section, which was nice – I had something to aim for.

Your novel is structured as four interwoven stories told backwards, though it begins and ends by referencing Violet. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way? How does telling it backwards heighten the tension of the mystery while weaving together all of the elements? Because of this structure, I wanted to start reading again from the beginning as soon as I reached the end to find all of the clues I had not seen without hindsight.

I guess it is indeed the kind of book that asks to be read twice, maybe in the same way that you have to watch The Sixth Sense twice to have truly seen it. And I hope that doesn’t scare people away, because it’s already such an egregious thing to ask people to bear with you for 300 pages. I do think, at least, that it makes sense when you only read it once. It’s not like Ulysses or something where you have to read it multiple times just to decipher it.

After it turned from a short story to a novel, I was still going to keep it all in 1999. There’s a mystery raised – of whether someone really is who she says she is – and I was going to leave it unresolved. At some point I realized it would be more fun for us to jump down the rabbit hole and go back in time to see if she was telling the truth. And soon that backwards narration became the key thing about the book, both thematically and structurally.

Michael Cunningham has said that the novel’s job is to say things are more complicated, which is certainly true of the characters and the setting in The Hundred-Year House. In the book, communication is always fraught, and there is even a line about everyone speaking another language at the colony, “Here was someone speaking nothing but dance, and someone else speaking paint…And what were they trying to express but the inexpressible?” How do you think the issue of their not speaking the same figurative or literal language and their inability to translate their thoughts clearly for one another leads to tension in this novel?

Occasionally there’s humor to their speaking at cross purposes, but often there’s tragedy. In the 1999 section, the miscommunications move the plot forward; in particular, Doug learns much of what he does about the house because his mother-in-law thinks, from the way he phrases things, that he knows more than he really does. In the 1929 section, which is where that line comes from, the miscommunications are maybe less plot-driving and more thematic. All these artists are at the colony because they hope to express things through art, and yet some of the most basic things – like that fact that two of them are in love with each other – go tragically unspoken. Of course what tension really means (at least in fiction, I never took physics) is the energy between two things at odds with each other. We often find tension between characters who want different things, but there’s also a tension between what’s said and what’s meant.

What about the characters’ crossed desires? How do the miscommunications and misunderstandings that inherently rise between individual perception or desire when living with other people inform this novel?

Well, I think they inform all good fiction. The founder of Wrigley gum apparently said, “When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” The same is true for fiction: every character needs to have a desire, but if their desires are completely in sync (I want to give you this money, and you want to take it), we don’t have much tension or plot. That said, of course in this book the misunderstandings and crossed desires are heightened because they’re a major theme of the book, and because I crammed everyone together into one house.

You are writing about both a biological family and a formed family, the colony, living in one house at different time periods. The house itself seems to give structure or meaning to these people, influences their trajectories, because they have gathered there. Could you talk about how you see the house as a frame for the novel?

I see the house as having two main functions: It forces everyone together, and it carries the weight of history. There’s something really nice about having a limited space, one that focuses the action and also traps people together. In each of the three longer sections, people are stuck there in some way, much more than they would be in a normal house.

And then of course it’s an unusual house, one with mysteries and tragedies that drive the characters. There always needs to be something pushing on characters so that they’ll act in ways they wouldn’t normally act; in this case, that thing is often the house itself.

How do you see the role of physical objects and the setting in terms of developing a novel, which is about the psychological development of the characters? In your book, the house itself seems to have a psychology.

I love the idea of a sort of magical object in fiction – a dramatic object, like we all learned about in English class, but one imbued with an energy beyond its role in advancing the plot. An object that seems to want things or have its own journey. I have a few of those in The Hundred-Year House… Most of them are art, either made by the characters (the bear statue in the woods) or by someone else (like the jade monkey that we see in all three sections). And some of them are traditional symbols of luck, like the plagues of ladybugs, rabbits, and acorns that show up in the three sections respectively. In those cases I was playing with the ways we interpret certain things as signs, the ways we give them meaning beyond what they actually are.

Then there’s the house itself, which is also art in the sense that we see (at the end) the moment it was envisioned and planned. Part of me wishes I could have made the house as alive and ominous as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, but then I was going for something a bit more borderline. And I’m not as smart as Shirley Jackson.

It also seems to be a novel that says we can never really know the whole story. You chose to tell the story from the third person point of view. How does that choice reflect the bigger theme of the limits of individual perception?

There’s someone in every story who knows the most about what’s going on. It might be the narrator or a major character, or it might actually be the reader. Sometimes that’s because the narrator’s understanding is limited (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a fabulous example), and sometimes it’s because the reader is the only one who has access to multiple points of view. I wanted to play with that, and I also wanted us to be the only ones with access to multiple time periods. It’s something we’re denied in real life: I’m typing this in a coffee shop in a building that’s nearly 200 years old, and I have so much information at my fingertips (I mean, there’s Wi-Fi!), but one thing I absolutely cannot see is what was happening right here in 1918 or 1867, or even yesterday. In real life, not only are we never truly able to know each other, we’re never able to know anything but the present moment. Experiencing art (reading, watching a movie) is one of the only ways we can simulate this kind of understanding, this synthesis of different viewpoints or different times. It was fun writing in the 3rd person. My first novel was in 1st; after that, 3rd felt like flying. An early reader described the viewpoint as “Olympian,” and I loved that idea and tried to amplify it. Especially towards the end of the 1929 section, we’re sort of soaring through time and space.

Can you talk a bit about your process in terms of writing the poems or songs and incorporating the artistic works of imagined artists such as Miriam or Parfitt and how these artifacts work almost like other characters in the book? 

For a while I actually had this idea of getting poet friends to write entire poems as Edwin Parfitt, and then sending them out to literary magazines and seeing how much I could get published as him, as some kind of weird extension of the book. Then I realized I didn’t really want a lot of journal editors hating me. It was fun, though, to write small fragments as him (it helps that he’s seen as outdated), and also to imagine Miriam’s writing and art. There were so many imagined artistic oeuvres in the book (the movies of Marceline Horn, the horrible fiction of Marlon Moor, the art of Zilla Silverman) that I felt a bit Borgesian. (And by that I don’t mean that I felt genius or Argentinian, but that I loved describing art that does not actually exist.) Nearly everyone in the novel is making art of some kind, and their art is as important – and often more lasting – than their actions.

The book’s publicity references your time working as a babysitter for elite families on the North Shore of Chicago, which I imagine influenced the creation of the fictional Devohrs. But I wonder more specifically what inspires Grace’s story? Amy’s? Violet’s? Zilla’s? Could you talk about how you develop your characters when writing a novel?

I actually grew up on the North Shore, my parents were college professors, and we were comfortable, but I would spend a lot of time in these outrageous mansions either because my friends lived in them or because I was babysitting. But I think that influence was very much one of place rather than character. I’ll often imagine real settings when I’m writing (Laurelfield in my mind is a kind of Frankenhouse made of a lot of different places I know), but characters aren’t that way for me so much.

Once in a while I can identify where some small part of a character came from, and pretty much the only one I can do that with in this book is Grace. My mother’s mother grew up in an enormous house in London, Ontario; she moved to the US for college and stayed for love. But she married a wonderful person and lived a happily middle-class life (her brothers ran the family business into the ground until all the money was gone) and apparently my grandparents survived the Depression mostly on peanut butter. She’s no more Grace than Hillary Clinton is Grace. So that’s as close to inspiration as I get – basically one or two non-essential details about one character. It’s not that my characters come to me fully formed, but what I do with them is largely instinctual and unconscious.

Could you talk about the role of side characters like Case, Bruce, Cole, Gamby in developing main characters or the plot itself?

“Side characters” is a good term for them. It’s not that they’re minor – I think of minor characters as having no arc – but that their arcs aren’t the main point. And this novel has a lot of characters, many of whom are peripheral. They all have to be essential, though, to justify their inclusion. Since we’re not into those arcs for their own sake, we’re looking for the ways they affect the main characters. Sid Cole, for instance, without even realizing it, pushes Zee over the edge in 1999. We see him again in 1955, when he’s again on the periphery, and this time he’s the reason for Grace getting into a car with George, which is a terrible idea. And once again, Cole has no idea what he’s done. If side characters are really going to be tied into the story, it needs to be through cause-and-effect; they need to make the world different for the people we really care about. This was a big part of outlining for me – brainstorming the different ways I could keep sewing people like Cole back into the story.

How much research did you do for this novel? How does research influence or inform your novel writing process?

My research this time was mostly historical. I went on eBay and bought the 1955 and 1929 Sears catalogues – the best tool ever, recommended to me by a fellow writer. I got some 1929 movie magazines that were helpful for imagining Marceline Horn, my silent film star. And there were a million things I needed to fact-check, like what the train would have sounded like in 1900. If I were writing genre historical fiction, I’d assume that my readers were partly in it for the ambience, for what they could learn about the past. Since this book falls more under the rubric of literary fiction, I felt my job was to let those details emerge only as I needed them. I will say that my research into the cocktails of 1929 was hands-on. And fun.

What interesting fact or story did you uncover while researching that you could not include in the manuscript?

I know so much gossip about the movie stars of 1929 now! The great thing about reading 1929 issues of Picture Play is you get totally wrapped up in these stories – it’s like reading Us Weekly – and then you realize you can just go on Wikipedia and see how their lives turned out. I became fascinated with Lupe Velez, who was kind of like the Sofia Vergara of the 20’s. Her life was more like a Kardashian’s, though. So I looked her up, and she died in a really awful way. She tried to commit suicide on a bed of roses, but she messed it up and died with her head in the toilet. And Ramon Novarro! Oh my god. He was beaten to death with a silver dildo.

(I think I get a prize now, right? For working the word “dildo” into a serious literary interview?)

Which dead darling that you cut in revision, in terms of a scene or a character, was the most difficult to edit out and why?

As I mentioned before, this started as a story about male anorexia. The character who became Case (although he started as a Steve) was the anorexic one, and Doug was trying to get everyone to understand that there was a problem. Even though it seems silly now, it was so hard to let go of that, because it was the foundation I’d built the story on; I’d sat down one day, long ago, to write a short story about anorexia. And after I took it out, Steve made no sense as a character. It wasn’t until I changed his name to Case (sad admission – I literally looked across the library and saw a case that said “Case 3” and was like, “That’ll do”) that I could let go of his past and turn him into someone new and interesting and not anorexic.

We’ve talked before about how you ask your students to play a game of Jenga as a writing exercise, in terms of revision. Could you talk about that idea and this teaching method? 

You could think of that anorexia element as one of the bottom blocks of the Jenga tower. It felt so scary to take out because it had been foundational. What I do once with each of my novel-writing classes is have my students line up around the table and each pull out one block from the tower – like normal Jenga – but then after a few turns I start yelling at them. I’ll be like “YOU CAN’T TAKE THAT BLOCK BECAUSE IT’S SO PRETTY!” “YOU CAN’T TAKE THAT BLOCK BECAUSE IT’S THE FIRST ONE I PUT THERE AND IT’S MY FAVORITE!” The point being that they have to tune me out and do it anyway, the same way they’ll have to tune out their own voices saying basically those same things. (This is normally the point where someone knocks on the door and goes, “Um, could you keep it down?”)

There are so many moments of wry humor in both of your novels. It seems to be something consistent between The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower: the witty, sharp observations of people, their habits, and culture. Can you talk about how you view the use of humor in terms of character or plot development in your work? 

I don’t really think about humor as I’m writing. What I’ve realized over time is that I’m incapable of writing a story that isn’t sad in some way, and I’m incapable of writing something straight, with no humor. I’ll set out to write something heartbreaking and people will tell me how funny it is; I’ll set out to write something hilarious, and it will be depressing as hell. My writing is all over the place in terms of theme and time period and point of view, but if I have a voice, maybe it’s in that weird combination. I read one of my short stories once for This American Life, and when it aired they’d put perfect music behind it that was somehow both jaunty and sad. I think that would be the appropriate soundtrack for most of my work: jaunty and sad. I wish that particular music could follow me around to every public reading I do.

A large part of the novel takes place during the time that Laurelfield is an artists’ colony. You’ve spent time at Ragdale, Sewanee, and other residencies and conferences, so I wonder what you find creatively in those places in terms of writing and your work.

Conferences are one thing – schmooze-fests and a lot of fun – and residencies are another. I’ve been in residence at Yaddo, Ragdale and Ucross, and I’m heading back to Yaddo this winter. They’re strange, magical places that tend to bring out the extremes in people. I’ve seen people evolve artistically, and I’ve also seen someone have a nervous breakdown. John Cheever apparently said of Yaddo that it’s like a monastery by day and a cruise ship by night, and I think the description is apt; you have to be okay with extreme solitude and also intense, almost tribal socializing. (I mean tribal in a very literal sense. You bond with people in a way that I think must have evolutionary roots in our history of living in small, communal groups.)

For me, there are two other elements to these places. One is the history. At Yaddo, I wrote in a studio where Sylvia Plath had worked. You’re sitting in these chairs at dinner that have been there from the beginning, and you think about the list of whose stayed there (Langston Hughes! Aaron Copeland!) and you start doing the math… It’s extraordinarily inspiring. The other thing for me, much more mundane, is that I have two young children, and I would not get much written at all if I didn’t have these opportunities for intense production once or twice a year.  

What is your most dreaded reading question? What is your favorite reading question?

Really, any question is fabulous if it means someone cares about your book. But I do get frustrated at extremely vague questions like “Tell us about your process.” The more specific (like these!) the more interesting. My favorite questions are always the ones I haven’t been asked before. I’m not sick of my own answers, and I learn new things about myself and my writing by answering them.

You can ask Rebecca Makkai your own craft questions when she reads from The Hundred-Year House on Wednesday, July 16 at Brookline Booksmith

3 comments

  1. Cynthia Johnson

    Nice interview, Margaret, you seemed to have drawn her out in a way that revealed her writing process. I’m interested in seeing the structure of her new novel and how it works. On face value it seems counter intuitive, but very intriguing.

  2. Thanks, Cynthia! Rebecca’s responses are so thoughtful and also inspiring in terms of my own writing and revision. The structure of her book works so well, but the full power/reasoning of the choice are most evident in the end. In some ways, it couldn’t be structured any other way. I’ll be interested to hear what you think after you read it.

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