By Brian Hieggelke
I live in a loft, in a printing factory built in 1883. Sometimes I daydream by gazing at a spot in our home, where perhaps an HDTV or a contemporary couch now sits, and wonder about that very space a century or more ago. What kind of workers perched there day after day? What kind of lives did they lead? What, if anything, did they talk about as they cranked out the original “Tarzan” novels and other fare?
This kind of curiosity drives Chicago writer Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, the delightful “The Hundred-Year House.” Zee, a troubled English professor, and her husband Doug, a literary scholar who’s having a hard time making progress with his exploration of a now-obscure poet’s legacy, have just moved into her family’s coach house on the North Shore, on a property that once served as an artists’ colony. What unfolds is something of a literary mystery with an original structure: Before long, we’ve abandoned Zee and Doug and their unanswered questions and visit the house in an earlier time, and then in another even earlier, each leap backward illuminating the narrative as we go. It’s a smart book, full of delicious turns of phrase and pieces of “found” documents, poems, letters, etc. that mesmerize once you’ve crossed its threshold.
Makkai grew up and lives a middle-class life on the gilded streets of the North Shore, a juxtaposition that informs her writing with a mix of insider and outsider perspective. The mother of two young children published her debut novel, “The Borrower,” in 2011 and will add a story collection featuring several of her “Best American Short Stories” winners, called “Music for Wartime,” to her list next summer. Not to mention her writings for Harper’s magazine and her work on a memoir about a grandmother she never really knew, one who’d been the leading lady of the Hungarian stage and a very successful novelist in that country back in her day. We had a lot to talk about when we had lunch.
Tell me the history of “The Hundred-Year House.”
Ten years ago I sat down to write a short story. And, as I said somewhere in the acknowledgements, it started as a short story about male anorexia, which has nothing to do with the book whatsoever now. But I had that idea, and I had this idea of these two couples in this coach house. If you ever drive all the way up Sheridan Road, you see those coach houses sitting up by the street and you’re thinking, “What an amazing, beautiful mansion,” and then you realize that’s only the coach house and the actual house is somewhere behind it. And it’s a weird relationship between those two houses. They were built for the chauffeur and to keep out the riffraff. All these houses were built right after the Haymarket Riots. Everyone was moving up to the suburbs; the Armours, the Fields, everyone. And so they all built these estates with these stone walls. And they all have a house for the chauffeur because it’s 1905, they have a car. And now no one has a chauffeur because you want to drive your own beautiful Porsche, right? So who lives in the coach house? It’s often the in-laws or it’s a nanny or they’re renting it out to a newlywed couple. So I put this story about anorexia in this coach house. And it was sort of incidental. I’d always wanted to write about one, so I started setting it there. And then I realized as I wrote the story that I was much more interested in the estate and the coach house than I was in male anorexia. So I abandoned the story for like eight years, and then I went back to it, trying to fix it as a short story, and I realized it was a novel.
Why male anorexia? Did that character survive into the novel?
Sort of. I think basically at the time I sat down to write this story because I was upset that someone a friend of mine was dating was a female who was clearly anorexic. And we kept trying to tell my friend, “She has a problem. Are you sure she’s okay?” We were watching what she ate. We’d go out to dinner and she’d have three oysters. That was her dinner; that’s all she’d eaten all day. We were all freaking out and trying to convince him, and he was so frustrated by it. I think stories that are born of frustration can be good ones. You have the crumb in your throat that you need to get out. So I sat down to write a story about anorexia, but of course I wanted to disguise everything, so I changed her to a man and then put all this other stuff in with it. But as the years went by, my friend wasn’t dating this girl anymore; my frustration had gone away, I wasn’t really that fascinated by the anorexia part of it. The person who was anorexic in the original story was named Steve. He’s not in the book at all. He became Case, the sort of preppy guy who’s living in the coach house with everybody else. Bad things keep happening to him—he tears his Achilles tendon. When I took the anorexia away, there wasn’t much left. So I decided to make him sort of a lightning rod and just abuse him horribly. Play out all my sadistic tendencies. It was funny—it took me a while to cut out that whole anorexia thread because it was what I sat down to write. It was hard to let go of. So it wasn’t until a pretty late draft of the novel that I changed Steve into Case and took away the anorexia thing.
Is that typical for you? Do you have piles of unfinished stories you keep thinking about? Or is it sort of unlikely that you went back to this one?
When I sit down to write a story, it’s unusual for me to abandon a story. Usually I’m able to work through after many drafts. Even if the story ends up in a really different place than where I started, I’m able to get it somewhere that I’m happy with that works for me. And this one, I really loved the story, I liked the characters I’d made, I liked the coach house, I liked the academic sabotage that I had going on—that was already in there. And it killed me that it wasn’t working as a story. It was so unusual for me to spend all this time and then just let it sit on my hard drive. Which I think was one of the reasons I came back to it. And I kept trying to make it shorter at first. I thought that was the solution because it was too long. It got shorter and shorter and shorter and worse and worse and worse and worse. And then I finally decided the whole thing needed to be a novel. And then at first I thought what is now the 1999 section was going to be the whole novel. That’s what I envisioned. And then it evolved from that.
You have this one story that started in this one place and then it became a longer story. And then you tried to cut it down and then you decided to make it a novel. Were you saving versions of these? Could you go back to the long version or did you have to rethink all that stuff? In other words, the long version—did it still exist for you? In the old days, you had paper. Now it’s a computer file.
So the short story was called “Gate House.” When I know I’m going to chop something, I save the original file because I want to know what was there that I left out. I don’t always save every draft of everything, but if I’m going to be excising a lot of material, I want to know what happened to it. So I had a series of files that were saved as “Gate House shorter,” “Gate House chopped,” “Gate House really chopped,” and then there was literally one that was called “Gate House eviscerated.” I tried to get it down to like four-thousand words. It’s been years since I’ve looked at those. They’re on this old computer. And I’ve decided that when all the publicity stuff is at a lull this summer, that’s going to be my sort of reward to myself. I’m going to go back and read the original story and see if I can find any one sentence that made it intact into the novel. I think I could tell you what scenes are in; there are one or two. But I’m really curious to look back and see the absolute first version. Everyone’s name was different. Even Zee was named Z. But it was just the letter Z. And I changed it later because I realized if this book appeared—as it has—in Canada and the UK, everyone would be calling her Zed. So literally every single person had a different name.
Is that unusual for you? Does the name become part of the character for you?
It is really hard to change a character name. It is almost as hard as if a good friend of yours said, “Don’t call me Will anymore. I want to be Billy,” and you just have to remind yourself. It changes their personality. But I think if you can let yourself do it when you’re writing, it breathes new life into a character. Especially if you’re giving them a name that had something, at least in your mind. So for me, turning Steve into Case—Steve was such a blank slate of a name, and he was such a blank character and there was nothing to him. He was just sitting there wasting away, being anorexic, no one could understand him.
Now Steve is the anorexic ghost who haunts the novel. No one knows about him.
I was telling the story and someone joked he starved himself away to nothing. He starved himself out of the novel. I even had a passage that Doug was thinking Steve was such a blank slate of a name. Steve could be a really nerdy name or a kind of frat-boy name or a really serious name depending on the person, but this guy was such a cipher, so the name really didn’t do anything for him. At a certain draft, I was looking at that and I was like, “What the hell is my problem? I gave him a really boring name, and it’s just making it worse that I don’t know what to do with this character.” So I literally looked around the library room where I was reading, and there were these two cases. One said Case One and one said Case Two. And I was like, “Okay, his name is Case,” which is not normally how I come up with things. But I liked it because it was such a weird, preppy name. And it had such unexamined character there—something I could do something with. And it sounds like such a North Shore name too. Like, “That’s not a name, that’s a word. Why would you name your kid that?” As soon as I changed his name, he came to life for me as this kind of really preppy asshole. It became easy for the house to sort of hate him, which is really what’s happening. The house is somehow out to get him because I hated him so much. So I started doing terrible things to him. The violent tendencies come out.
Where do you do your writing? You said in a library? Is this a library at home?
I really can’t write at home very much. I can only revise at home, especially if I’m under a deadline. I live up in the suburbs and there is a beautiful local library there that very few people use during the day. It has a lot of retirees sitting around reading the newspaper. It’s very peaceful. They’ve destroyed it now, but they used to have this garden room where all the books were about gardening. And I loved it because I’m so uninterested in gardening that there was no distraction whatsoever.
But you continued writing in a garden.
Right. All these beautiful books about plants, and I could get up and sort of read through them. And in fact, there is a section of the novel where someone is planning a greenhouse, and there is a lot of stuff about—it’s what seemed appropriate. But I could get up and walk around the room, and it wasn’t like walking around the periodicals room where if I pick up the newspaper, People magazine or whatever, I’m going to be sucked in and distracted. This is just, look at some pictures of rose bushes and sit back down to write. They destroyed that room, so now I write in the art room.
You write at the Lake Forest Library, near your home. Did you grow up in that area too?
My mom lived in Lake Bluff, so one town north of Lake Forest, much more middle-class, but very beautiful. My dad sort of lived all over the world. He was in Hong Kong for a long time, but then he settled down in Edgewater, like Sheridan and Bryn Mawr. So I would be at his place a lot over the summer and on the weekends. My soul is a city girl, and I’m up there. I get here every chance I get. I grew up in both but I went to school up in the suburbs.
So your parents were split up.
Yeah. They didn’t get divorced actually until I was ten, but my dad had been living in Asia for a lot of my childhood, so it was an interesting childhood.
You have one sibling, a sister, ten years older. Is she a writer?
She’s a musician. She teaches piano. She is very talented. She went to Oberlin Conservatory for piano performance and then didn’t pursue performance. But she is an amazing piano teacher. She teaches my kids and she’s really cool. Here’s the interesting thing: Our parents are both linguistics professors.
Both UIC. In the same department. Even for like twelve years after they got divorced because they both got tenure. And the department wouldn’t even move their offices. They had adjoining offices.
There’s a novel in there.
Or a memoir. I think that musician and writer are very logical offshoots of linguistics. It’s totally auditory. Music might even be more related to linguistics than writing is in some way. The structural components and the mathematical parts of it which are so much a part of linguistics. But my dad is also a poet, and his mother was a really well-known Hungarian novelist actually, so there’s this whole literary thing going on as well. It’s funny. I think they’re really similar.
Makkai—is that a Hungarian name?
It’s Hungarian, yeah.
It’s an unusual-sounding name.
It is, and it’s an unusual spelling. Of course it has two Ks. Before people meet me, they guess I’m Hawaiian. And then they meet me and they realize that’s not actually… Which is funny because now my dad lives in Hawaii. Hawaiian, Hebrew, Finnish are usually the guesses people come up with. But my dad was a refugee. He came over—there was the student revolution…
The Hungarian Uprising of 1956?
Yeah, he was a university student, took part in it, and then of course it was totally crushed. A lot of them escaped. Especially in Chicago and Cleveland, if you meet a Hungarian of about that generation, they’re almost all fifty-sixers. Their names were on the list. They either had to escape or they just really wanted to get out.
Is your mother from Hungary as well?
No, she was born in Iowa and grew up in Downers Grove. And then they met during their PhDs.
Did I see on Wikipedia that someone in Hungary is a movie star too?
My grandmother—my dad’s mother—was a very famous actress, mostly stage, because there wasn’t much of a movie industry in Hungary until after the war. But she was the leading lady of the Hungarian National Theatre. She was very famous. And then she did some movies later. But by the time the movie industry was there, she basically stopped acting and started writing. And I think her fame as an actress helped her writing career, certainly. But she became much, much better known as a writer than as an actress. She wrote about forty novels.
Did you know her?
So she came to the United States—she was allowed out once in a while for travel when a lot of people weren’t just because she was very high profile. I was born in 1978, and she came that summer to meet me and to visit my family. And that winter in 1979, she was run over by a bus in Budapest. She was in her sixties, I believe. So that was it. But I have forty of her novels sitting on my shelf. And they’re all in Hungarian, which I don’t speak.
Have they been translated?
Because of when they came out and the way the Hungarian publishing industry was, they weren’t getting translated at all at the time except into German and Italian. I feel like anyone can understand Italian. You just kind of look at it and make up words, so I can look at it and say, “Okay, I think she’s talking about someone eating a salad.” My father translated one of the books for me. It’s a very rough translation, so I’ve gotten to know her writing just through that. But I’m trying to research her life and also my grandfather’s life. He was a politician, so he had this whole different crazy story. I published a piece about them in Harper’s last summer, and I’m doing the research right now to turn that into a book. Sort of a memoir. But it’s funny—memoir means memory, and I’m basically dealing with something that I have no memory of, which is their lives as people that I didn’t know.
So it’s a biography with a personal connection.
Yeah, a personal biography. But I’m fascinated by her, and I think so many people are in this position where they had grandparents they didn’t know. Maybe grandparents who they had more in common with than with anyone living in their family which for me is definitely the case. She is the only other novelist in my family. We have a lot of other things in common too, personality-wise, from what I’ve heard. I was a theater minor in college. There are all these other things. But what’s unusual in my case is that I have forty volumes that she wrote sitting on my shelf, and so I think to somehow go about getting those translated and to research her life and to get to know her—I’m hoping there would be a readership for that in terms of people relating to the investigative instinct to try to get to know someone who isn’t there for you to get to know. And I have the tools to do it.
The combination of novelist and actor are very intriguing to just about everybody. But then to have it be your grandmother but not to really know her has a mystery to it.
Right. I have two pictures of her holding me as a baby and that’s it.
It brings to mind Sarah Polley’s recent film, “Stories We Tell.” It’s kind of a documentary, and it’s not quite at the same time, but it’s about her trying to reconstruct the lives of her parents.
It’s an obsession of mine in general. I think with “The Hundred-Year House,” this idea of delving into the past, the whole thing was the frustration we have in real life—that we can’t know, and we’re so desperate to know what happened. It’s this sort of wish fulfillment to be able to know it all.
“The Hundred-Year House” has a really interesting structure—somebody called it a literary scavenger hunt. It’s that reversal through time thing where the reader finds out answers to things that other people aren’t going to know. Unlike a classic mystery story where everything becomes revealed, here just the reader is finding out. Tell me about the genesis of that structure.
Like I said, the 1999 section was originally going to be the whole novel. And I was going to have this backstory of this house that had been an artists’ colony. And this story they were told by this woman about identity theft and this car accident—all this stuff that had happened in the fifties. And they were going to have these unanswered questions about this poet who had been there. Everything was basically going to be left unanswered which is the way it would be in real life. And there’s a moment toward the end of that section where someone says to someone else, “You realize you’re never going to know the whole story.” And that line is left in there from what I originally was going to leave the novel on. The moral of the story is: You can’t know. I was so frustrated with that. How unsatisfying is that? That’s what real life is like. We get these hints, and you just don’t get the video footage. We have all the clues and there’s just no reveal. I know this is a very strange comparison to make, but the O.J. Simpson trial—I remember at the end of it, it felt like we’d all been watching a movie. Like we’d been watching some crazy episode of “Law & Order.” The jury delivers its verdict and then you’re waiting. I think there was this collective moment of like, “Wait. We’re just not going to know.” We were waiting for a breakdown or a confession or, “Here’s what really happened!” There was nothing. And we still don’t know. Even if we think we do, we still don’t know. Of all things, I was thinking about this as I was writing. I was like, “Yeah, that’s what real life is like. Like the O.J. trial. You’re just never going to know.” But literature can be more than that. We can do something. We can jump down the rabbit hole. We can do something else with time and narration and chronology that we’re dying to do in real life. And literature can take us there. And what’s different—one of the inversions that I was trying to accomplish is that for a mystery story—a classic, think Agatha Christie—you have the detective who, by the final scene, has way more information than the reader. Because for an Agatha Christie novel or a classic mystery novel, if the reader’s figured out every detail by the end, it’s been a failure, right? And so we have all these red herrings. Maybe we think we know, maybe we have a theory, but there’s the moment when you know that the detective knows, but you don’t know what the detective knows. And the detective’s gathering everyone in one room. Or you have Columbo—I grew up on Columbo—Columbo’s coming back in the room: “One more thing…” “He knows something. What does he know? He totally knows!” And then the detective is the one who slowly reveals everything to us. And this is sort of anti-detective story. There are people who are trying to research the past, and we are the ones who know the whole story. No character knows nearly as much as we do. Which means that in a way we are the ghosts if you think about it. I have a place near the end where the ghosts are uniquely able to see the whole scope of history and are uniquely unable to tell what has happened, and that’s their punishment, that’s their fate. And that is exactly the position we’re in as readers which I thought was fun.
Did you write it in the order it’s published—obviously you went back and changed things—but did it sort of unfold for you in the same way?
I did. It’s not that it unfolded in the same way, but I made a really conscious decision to write it in that order because I thought it would go better. So I’d already started 1999 when I made the decision to go back in time, and then I took about a year off to outline. I kind of screeched on the brakes. And this was around the time “The Borrower” was coming out, so I was busy with a lot of publicity and copy edits and everything like that, so it was a logical time to step back. But I spent about a year outlining in really meticulous detail because I wanted to write 1955 next, but I couldn’t write 1955 until I knew every detail of what happened in 1929. With one exception: I was staying at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, and I’d been working on the 1999 section. I’d finished it. I was really happy. And 1955 was next, but I had this feeling that, because Yaddo was such an inspiration for the book and because 1929 was going to be the section set in an artists’ colony, I wanted it to be born there at Yaddo. And I only had like two days left in the residency, but I felt like, “I’m going to write as much as I can and sort of get the vibe of the place and have this be the place where that section was born and then step back and do it in order again.”
One of the tricks of talking about this book is we don’t want to give away too much to people.
It’s so hard to talk about.
Without giving anything away, the section about the writers’ colony—those characters you wrote, were they based on a lot of real people for you? Would I go to an artists’ colony and run into the same characters?
Oh, for sure. Maybe even a little crazier. It’s one of those cases where if you write true to life, it’s going to come off as too crazy for fiction. A few of the artists were based on real artists of the 1920s in some way or another. So there’s an artist named Zilla Silverman who some people have had a pretty easy time identifying as Georgia O’Keeffe in terms of her personal life, her art—even the painting I’ve described that she’s working on is literally a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of the stack of oak leaves. She also has some Marianne Moore thrown in there with her. Originally, Marianne Moore and Georgia O’Keeffe were going to be characters in this section, and then I gave up on that idea. And a few others. I did a lot of reading biographies of artists in the twenties just to see what their lives were like. This is really fun—I read a lot of “Picture-Play” magazine from 1929 to get into the movie industry because I have this movie star staying there. It happened sort of by chance. For my research, I was just looking on eBay for magazines from 1929, and a lot of them were movie magazines. So I ordered those and fell in love with that world. I found some really interesting things about a lot of these European silent film stars who then had no career once the talkies started and this idea of what would happen to them. So Marceline Horn, that character, is sort of a composite of some different fallen starlets of the twenties. And then the others—I’ve done four artist’s residencies.
So you’ve done Yaddo. Ragdale?
Ragdale twice and Ucross, which is in Wyoming. You meet some crazy characters. This character is in no way based on this person, but I stayed at a residency once with a guy who wore his bathrobe everywhere, all day long, and so in the 1929 version, that gets changed to a silk smoking jacket or robe and he’s wearing it everywhere. But other than that, this character has nothing in common with this person I knew. And this person knows and it’s sort of obliquely mentioned in the acknowledgements, but I was really inspired at Yaddo by a performance artist who would do slow-motion recordings of sets of china breaking. He would throw teacups at things and record them and play them back at different speeds. And it would make music, basically. The sounds that it made—you could slow it down or speed it up to make different pitches. And I’d already been writing about this mosaic artist who used broken things in the 1999 section, so when I got to the twenties, I make a mention of an artist who is not even in the 1920s section, but who would break pottery and glue it back together. And that just sort of became more of a theme after seeing someone out there—he would smash things on this tennis court at Yaddo, and he’d be sweeping up constantly. Every time you’d walk by, he was sweeping. It sort of fed a theme that was already there. But there’s no way you could say this guy from New York is the same character as this artist that I have floating around—this female artist.
Exactly. What’s really funny is you don’t base anyone on anyone really, or at least I don’t. But everyone sees themselves in what you write. And they worry that they’re somehow…
I was kind of wondering as I was reading, “Are we going to get all the answers?” “Is there going to be a sort of, ‘Okay, here’s all the stuff you’re wondering’?” And there is, in part.
It felt like a logical move to make for this particular book. I wouldn’t have done that for every book. But because we’re zipping around in time, and because for this section there’s sort of what I think of as an Olympian viewpoint, we’re up above watching, maybe even messing with people and able to see the whole scope. It felt natural and like we’re going to be given little glimpses of the next twenty years and some sense here of what happened. It’s remarkable to me even though I’ve given that much, some people still haven’t been able to figure out the whole story. You’ll see reviews online where people will say, “I finished the book, and I had no idea what happened.” It’s just a couple people though. It’s literary fiction. I’m assuming pretty close readers, pretty intelligent readers. And I think for most people, they absolutely get it. They might even get there before the narration gets there and have that satisfaction of those pieces clicking into place themselves before it’s confirmed by the narrative. Since it’s not a classic mystery, I could have left things hanging. But I felt like it’s a complicated enough narrative.
After I finished the first section of the book, the 1990s section, when I realized that we’re probably not going to come back to these characters, I was kind of like, “Oh, now I’m not going to know…” We sort of resolved one series of questions, but the questions about the present are still left very much up in the air. And I think that’s sort of an interesting game you’re playing with the reader there.
I definitely am asking people to take a leap of faith, and I realized as I was putting this together, I might lose five percent of my readers at that moment when they realize that we are leaving Doug and Miriam behind and we’re moving to the fifties and we’ll never see them again. At the same time, we do actually see them again at the end of 1929. We find out things that would really change their fate, and we get a sense of what would happen. Which is sort of the payoff. It’s like, “Thank you for sticking with me. Here’s your reward.”
It’s funny because by then though you don’t care as much about them. You do care a lot by the end of that section, but now you’re caught up in this. Each time there’s this set of characters…
I think for many but not all narratives, the arc is a character’s arc. It’s Brian’s story and we’re going to follow him on his journey, and his fate is our fate for this novel. We’re going to be happy if he’s happy. And this, although it’s still a character-driven novel, we’re still in people’s heads, we’re still caring about these people, the arc I’m asking readers to invest in is the arc of the whole house, not of the individual people necessarily in it. That that’s not where the payoff is going to be. It’s the house’s story. It’s not Doug’s story, it’s not Grace’s story, it’s the house’s story. So you’re going to have to be sort of broken up from these characters a couple times to move on.
Have you had people respond to the idea of a house’s story? Obviously people with new houses aren’t going to make that connection, but anybody that’s lived in a place that’s old must wonder once in a while.
I was on tour this summer in New England and I’m talking to people in Connecticut. They were like, “That’s not that old. My house is three-hundred-and-fifty years old. So you’re saying it’s a new house.” But for those of us in the Chicago area, a hundred years—that’s about when some of the oldest surviving stuff was built.
It was a very different world.
Very different. Just long enough ago that we really don’t have the records necessarily or not everything was photographed, or if it was, it was just one or two cryptic photographs. We don’t really know what happened. Hopefully, even if people haven’t lived in a house like that, maybe they went to college somewhere where there was the building that was the first building of the school and it’s old, and you have to have that question if you’re a curious person sitting in this classroom and the school was founded in 1850 and someone was in this exact plot of air. “What was happening and why can’t I see it?” Or they’ve traveled somewhere like that. I think everyone has felt that at some point in their lives somewhere. Especially in the Chicago area, so many people’s homes are just about a hundred years old, especially if they live in the city—things that were built after the fire—that you get this sort of instant interest in the book. “Oh, my house is a hundred-and-three-years-old!” And of course I say a hundred years—the hundred years in this book are 1900 to 2000.
Now it’s a hundred-and-fifteen-year-old house.
Exactly. It’s so funny—I keep talking about the 1999 section in interviews like, “In the present day section…” I have to stop myself.
Is 1999 when you started writing it?
It’s not. I probably started the short story in about 2004. But the reason I moved it back—two reasons. One was I just didn’t want the characters to Google stuff. It really would have burned a hole in the plot.
Pre-9/11 was a different world.
They could look some stuff up on the internet and they do, but they don’t have all the information at their fingertips. They can’t look up all these photos of the Devohr family and see the way that we could even five years after that. So I made the decision to put it somewhere in the past, then I was sitting there thinking about what exactly the time would be, and I remembered that I’d always been dying to write about Y2K and about the people who over-prepared for Y2K. Not quite what I’m writing about with Bruce, this character, because he has endless income to invest in Y2K, but thinking about the people who quit their jobs and moved to Wyoming and built a shelter. And gosh, aren’t you going to be a little disappointed, honestly? You’re preparing for the apocalypse, but are you going to be really sad when it doesn’t come? Bruce—it’s no financial skin off his back to prepare for Y2K the way he does—but he’s obviously devastated it doesn’t happen.
Doug is a blocked writer. Was that…
Oh, that’s a good question. Was I suffering from writer’s block? I always knock on wood, sacrifice a goat whenever I say this, but I’ve really never been blocked as a writer—I may get blocked on a certain story, which I was in this case. I just hit a wall, and it was like, “I don’t know what to do in this case.” But there’s always something else that I could be working on. I always have something on the back burner where, if I was stuck, it’s like, “Okay, the novel needs a month vacation. I’m going to write this short story that I’ve been planning.” Ideas are not my issue. I have many issues, but writer’s block is not one. But it much more came out of—really, I grew up on “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Sweet Valley Twins” and these other series sort of books that I was always really fascinated by. It got to the point where I realized how they were written and was still reading them, knowing they were terrible and knowing that they weren’t all written by the same person, knowing there was a formula to them, but I still loved them. I would read them with one eye on the plot and one eye on trying to guess what was happening behind the scenes. That was one of the things that originally was in this first short story. The first line of the original short story was—his name was Cameron, it didn’t used to be Doug—but the line was, “Cameron worked in secret whenever Zee left the house.” And it was the idea of this guy, originally he was supposed to be writing a novel—an adult novel, a very serious, literary, adult novel—but when Zee left the house, he was working on this “Friends for Life” series of children’s books. The more research I did into the way those are written in that world, the more obsessed I became with—I love the idea that they send you what’s called a bible with all the facts in it. And I’m sure now it’s a computer file, but it was this binder. But the idea of a stuck writer—it’s funny because it felt very essential to the story for me, it felt very organic to who he was as a character, but I really questioned that decision just because so many writers write about stuck writers because they themselves are stuck writers. And so many writers write about academics and English departments because they themselves—where now I teach a little bit at Lake Forest College and a couple other places—but when I wrote this I didn’t. So I’m going, “I’m writing about these two things—the stuck writer and the English department—that other writers write about because that’s all they can think about, and for me it’s not my world, but I’m drawn to it for this particular story.
Is there any commentary there about the current vogue for young adults?
I don’t think so in that I started this in 2004 and I think Harry Potter was certainly big, but YA hadn’t really taken off. And I was really thinking back more on the series that I had read in the eighties growing up. I think an inordinate number of really literary adults grew up on this kind of shlock as kids. I thought maybe there is something to it—this desire to deconstruct what you’re reading. And for that reason—I have young kids, and I try to give them good literature, but my six-year-old got into “The Magic Tree House” books and those are so formulaic and there are like a hundred of them, and she can’t get enough of them. And I’m all for it because she’s clearly getting something out of it. She loves them. They’re better than “The Baby-Sitters Club” that I grew up with. I think they’re all written by one person, for that matter. I think they do something to your brain; they’re hard-wiring it for literature. A formula is something valuable maybe to learn, that then you can see the deviations from the formula.
I remember my kids—they read a lot, but they also had, and maybe your kids have done this too, but they would get a movie when they were really young, and they would watch repeatedly. The same movie over and over.
I’ll say it’s not an influence on this book, but “Clue” was the movie I watched thirty-five times the year I was ten.
It’s probably in there somewhere a little bit.
Yeah, the house, the characters…
You’ve got this really complicated plot that’s moving in reverse order, you’ve got I don’t know how many characters overall—a lot of characters. Did you have a system for keeping track of everything, like was there a gigantic whiteboard? “This gets revealed in 1999. This gets revealed in here.”
I wish I had a giant whiteboard. I had about a sixty-page outline is what I had. It was fun. I use the word “outline,” and it sounds so dry to people as if I’m using Roman numerals or something. It’s more like a map, a document that was sort of a…
It was a story bible.
Yeah, exactly. In the same way Doug receives the “Friends for Life” bible, I wrote myself a “Hundred-Year House” bible. That is actually a good way to think of it. I had, in that document, calendars, timelines. For every character, I needed to know when they were born just to be able to do the math on where they’d be in different times. Cultural events, it’s all that stuff plus just the outline of: Scene One, here’s what’s going to happen; Scene Two. Which I had to work out before I could write anything. And then the other thing that I did was, I was doing a residency at Ragdale up in Lake Forest, and when I got there, there were these huge pads of paper in everyone’s room. And I sat down and I drew every floor of both houses and the grounds three times over. Once for every era. And then I had all the furniture, all that stuff. I had to work that out. But I also had who was where in different times. I would draw little people. Which is so fun. It felt like playing. It’s what I would do for fun as a kid. I would take graph paper and draw my dream house. I got to design my mansion according to my specifications. I was still catching things though, up until the last round of copyedits in terms of continuity. Inconsistencies. I have this bear statue in the woods that would have been built in the late fifties, but I accidentally, in a late draft, have someone go for a walk in 1955 and pass the bear statue. And I caught that and freaked out like, “Oh my god, what else is in here that I didn’t catch?” So I had to read the whole book three more times.
Have your readers found anything?
Not so far. Don’t tell me if you do. There’s a typo on page three, but that’s all I know about. That’s what kills me, because any book is going to have a typo, but you hope it’s on page eighty or something. It’s literally on page three, which is the second page of the book. It kills me. But it’s not a stupid typo. Anyone could read over it and know what I meant. It’s not like I used bad grammar or something.
There’s this one passage very late in the book, and you write, “What should be so troublesome about two women walking the path? Only she can’t shake the feeling the photographs have existed all along and waiting in a canister for a thousand years. The people have lived their whole lives just to end up in these positions to hit their marks like dancers.” And I remember reading that and thinking, “Is that the thesis of the book?”
In some ways.
Did you think a lot about time, that whole idea of time as a continuum?
Yeah, I would say it’s one of the proposed theses of the book, if that makes sense. That Zilla Silverman, this artist, who’s having this thought. But Zilla is the one who really unravels the mysteries of the house more than anyone, or at least comes up with a really compelling idea of what the house is doing, which is that it’s—instead of haunting from the past, it’s haunting from the future. And it’s pulling people toward their fates like a magnet. And what people feel when they’re there, they identify as some kind of ghost of the past. And maybe it is. And she puts it together that maybe that is Violet, that original ghost, because Violet herself was pulled toward a future she couldn’t avoid. So maybe the way she haunts is to pull people toward a future they can’t avoid. So she comes up with a sort of cohesive idea for the house. Other people come up with other ideas for the house though. In 1999, Zee has the idea that there’s something wrong with the house. That it’s a house that rejects certain people and likes certain other people, and that might be equally true.
You hear this idea of a sick house once in a while, or a sick building. These buildings have this almost physicality or organic quality to them.
Exactly. At the same time, you can read it as a total skeptic and say, “There’s nothing going on with the house whatsoever. It just happens to have had a bunch of crazy people living there over the years who have strange ideas about the house.” I think it’s a proposal maybe about chronology and time, at least in the way they work in this one house, which is that perhaps we are driven by the future as much as by the past, or more so, in ways that we can’t predict. And I think there are philosophies and religions that would embrace that as a worldview. I grew up—this is another weird part of my background, but both of my parents were also astrologers—so I grew up with all kinds of interesting ideas about fate and sort of predestination.
Astrologers, not followers of astrology?
And is that something they shared even after the split up?
No. And I was raised Christian, but astrology somehow resonated with me more as a child, and it was more a part of my daily life. And it’s something I’ve struggled to shake off as an adult in the same way that people who grew up Catholic can never really become un-Catholic.
So what sign are you?
A Taurus. I was born an hour into Taurus. Here’s the thing. I grew up so into astrology that the idea of one horoscope for a whole month of people is like, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. You have to look at the exact second someone was born.” In my mind, I’m not dismissing it as ridiculous because, “Ack! Astrology!” It’s like, “That’s not enough astrology.” And at the same time, I completely don’t believe in it, but just like the Catholic who went through twenty years of Catholicism, I can’t undo it.
It’s in your code.
And maybe in some ways this book was a way of trying to work through some of that. This idea of free choice versus fate and chronology and predetermined outcomes and the ways that certain people might be blessed or cursed and the ways certain people might click together or be ill-suited in ways that are beyond their control. I think that is very much a part of my worldview and part of what I am—I think any book is an attempt by the author to dissect his or her own brain. It’s cheaper than therapy, working through stuff. For me, this was the part of my own brain that I was trying to figure out and reconcile some things, and I don’t think that I necessarily came up with any answers. If anything, I think I came down on the side of, “Yeah, it’s all spelled out ahead of time. It’s all fate, the stars, god or gods, whatever it is.”
I don’t think astrology is in the book at all, is it?
It’s not. There are tarot cards, there’s a lot of stuff about the Greek gods. Edwin Parfitt writes about mythology. And there are the ghosts and fate and there’s all that stuff. But I don’t think—beyond maybe a metaphor here or there—that there’s anything about the stars.
The book’s been out a month. How’s it doing for you? Are you happy with the way it’s being received?
I’m really happy. In this day and age, you get reviewed on two levels. You have the professional reviews and then crowd-sourced Goodreads, Amazon reviews. And the thing about Goodreads and Amazon, there are many, many people who pick up a book for the wrong reasons when it’s not the book for them. They pick it up because Goodreads was doing a giveaway and they only want to read speculative, sci-fi, futuristic stuff, and they’re reading this and going, “This is not what I like.” And at the same time, there are incredibly intelligent people out there who might be smarter than some of the reviewers working, who have these really insightful reviews. So the crowd-sourced reviews for any book are going to be all over the place.
Do you read all of those?
I do not. No, not at all. You get a sense. There are times when I have to link to my Amazon page for something or I have to check my own ISBN number. I never shop at Amazon, but I use it as a search tool, and I’ll copy my ISBN number off of it. I had to do this yesterday. And you kind of see they’re all over the board. Well, of course they are. And you glance, and the one-star ones are like, “I couldn’t figure out this book. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.” And it’s like, “Yeah, it was probably not the book for you.” And after a while—you know this is my second book, and of course that happened with my first book too, and so you can start to predict, “You know, there are going to be people who don’t like this.” And I can probably guess ahead of time why someone wouldn’t like this book. With my first book, it was really political and it was really liberal, and there is a certain type of person who’s just not going to relate to that. It’s not useful or healthy for anyone to read those on a regular basis. And I have at least one friend who pasted the URL for the Amazon page into a note on her laptop so she’d never have to go to that page to link to it anywhere. She could copy and paste from the little pink post-it note on her desktop, which is very smart. But then the other level is the critical reviews—the newspapers, the magazines, the radio—and I’ve been really fortunate that in almost every case, the reviewer has really gotten it. And gotten it sometimes on levels that I didn’t get it myself. Like I was saying, in some ways a book is always an examination of something that you don’t understand about your own psychology, and just in the sense that if I paid the money to go to a therapist and told them all this stuff instead, they’d probably have some insights for me about what I just said.
So the critics are your therapists is what you’re saying.
Yeah, that’s it. Maybe it’s not so much writing the book that’s the therapy, it’s the really smart critics who can look at it and be like, “Here’s what she was saying.” “Oh man, that’s my worldview. I didn’t know.” I’ve been really thrilled with the reception this time. It’s been really good. Knock on wood. Because if I say that this time, I’ll be eviscerated the next time.
So are you working on another novel now?
First of all, I have a story collection coming out next summer. No one is excited about a story collection, but I’m excited about a story collection. It actually has some pieces of my family history in it, mixed in with the stories. There are stories that I’ve been working on forever that I feel really strongly about, that have been published and anthologized and have sort of this track record to them or history to them that is really fun to then put them all together in one place and see them speak to each other. It’s been a fun part putting them together. So I’ve been working on editing that. And then, like I said, I’m trying to write some non-fiction about my father’s parents, which should be interesting. I don’t know that that will be the very next book that comes out after the story collection because of the amount of work that is involved that is probably going to involve a lot of travel to Hungary. And with young kids, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. But then I do have the idea for the next novel. And I’m staying at Yaddo again in January, so if I haven’t really gotten fully rolling at it by then, I will there. It’s only two weeks, but two weeks of uninterrupted time should really be enough to get the ball rolling.
You have two kids?
Yeah, six and three.
So you’ve published both of your novels with young children?
Do it all at once, right?
And the book tours. They came with me on part of the book tour this summer, which was crazy.
You grew up in Chicago and in the suburbs. Where did you go to high school?
I went to high school at Lake Forest Academy.
When did you start writing? When did you know, “I’m going to be a writer”?
That’s a good question. I think eighth grade. I was writing all along. Like I said, my father is a poet. My mother was always writing something—textbooks and things like that. And this was in the days with the typewriter going in the house, and the typewriter was very loud. It was the loud electric typewriter, and there were always two of them going. There was just writing constantly as I was growing up, and I think it never occurred to me—I had all these plans of what I was going to do. I was a kid. I was going to be a farmer or an architect or whatever. But I was always writing, and I think it just never occurred to me there were people who were not writers. That that wasn’t part of everyone’s life. And then I think at the point when I realized that most people stopped writing at a certain point in the same way that most people stop drawing at a certain age, I realized that I was not one of those people. I think right around then I wrote something that I was really happy with, and my teacher responded to really well, and that was just sort of it. That said, for someone who always knew I was going to be a writer, I took a really unusual path. I don’t have an MFA. I went right into the workforce after college. I didn’t move to Brooklyn.
What did you do?
I taught elementary and Montessori school for twelve years, which was wonderful.
Is that how you met your husband?
No. So I have a graduate degree, a masters in literature from Middlebury College. And the way they do their masters programs is in the summer, you go for five summers. At Middlebury, they have foreign language masters programs at their main campus, and then they have the school of English. You get a masters degree in English up at the Bread Loaf campus which also is where the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is. So we met there. We were both teaching during the school years, but we had this opportunity in the summer to go and study, and we met there.
Is he a writer as well then?
Nope. Not at all. He is a great editor. He teaches high school English and is someone who easily could have made a career in publishing and has that really critical eye, but uses it to help eighteen-year-olds be better writers. And me. He is my first reader. And he is also my toughest editor out of anyone that I deal with. He has the highest standards, which is very useful.
You’ve spent most of your life on the north shore of Chicago but you don’t identify as that.
I know. It’s funny. I have a lot of good friends there, my kids go to school there, and I’m friends with their friends’ parents. I think it’s a really weird situation. It’s a community that I feel I know very, very well. I’ve been there longer than a lot of other people who live there. I grew up there. But there’s a certain way that I’m sort of permanently outside of that culture because of where we live, because we’re not millionaires, because I’m a writer, honestly. There are some creative types up there, but for the most part—people have very good taste, they appreciate the arts—but mostly they’ve made money on banking or things like that. It’s so interesting, especially writing this book, people in Lake Forest are really intrigued by it. And it’s been written up in all of the Lake Forest things, and it’s like, “Oh, a Lake Forest writer.”
It’s set there.
And I am. So I can’t say that I’m not. I’ve lived there for thirteen years, I grew up one town north. But any writer who is not slightly alienated from his or her environment is up against a problem. The position you want to be in is part of things, but not really. You need to be on the outside looking in. So maybe it’s perfect. I’m comfortable, I know people, I know where everything is, I know all the traditions, but there’s just this sense of remove that I don’t feel at all when I come into the city.
What was your first published piece?
That’s a good question. It was a short story in the Iowa Review. Just about exactly ten years ago, spring of 2004. It is actually a piece that has undergone a ton of revision since it was published, but it will be in my short story collection, which is really fun to be able to say that it’s in there.
The story collection, called “Music for Wartime,” is coming out next summer?
It’s going to be next July. They’re going to do paperback of this in May and then story collection in July so that I can kind of tour for both at once, which is smart. Otherwise, for a story collection I might not get a tour at all.
And your books must sell okay.
They’ve been selling pretty well.
Rebecca Makkai will be reading with Cristina Henriquez (“The Book of Unknown Americans”) at the Harold Washington Library Center on September 9 at 6pm, and at the Bookstall in Winnetka on September 18 at 7pm. On September 10, she’s teaming up with Renee Rosen (“Dollface”) for Speakeasy Night at City Lit Books, since both books are set in part or wholly in the twenties.