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Q & A with Rebecca Makkai, author of the new novel The Hundred-Year House

1. Tell us a little about your new novel.

It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told backwards over the 20th century. We start in 1999 with Doug and Zee move into the grand estate’s coach house. (Zee’s mother owns the whole place.) Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.

Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

2. The Hundred-Year House is so different from your first novel, The Borrower (though in both you balance both the serious and the comic with such aplomb) - what was the inspiration for The Hundred-Year House?  Were there any novels (mysteries, for example) you were thinking of when you began drafting it? 

I did think a lot about books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca – ones that are more about rattled people than rattling chains. I love that space between skepticism and fear that allows so much to happen. It’s the same space where there’s room for us as readers.

These books weren’t the original inspiration for the novel, though, so much as touchstones. In the beginning there was no mystery at all, and no legend of a ghost. I just had this idea of two couples crammed together in the little coach house of a huge estate. And I wanted it to be a short story. (Oops.) As it grew into a novel, these other themes emerged and became the keys to the book: the artists’ colony, the ghost, the reverse chronology, the question of fate.

3. As alluded to above, you have such a graceful comic touch - who are some of your influences? (I was thinking at times of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Garrison Keillor...)

I will admit to something horrifically nerdy: There was a point in high school where I literally sat down and taught myself how to write funny. And I did this by studying someone I find much less funny as an adult, someone whose name I don’t really want to use because I think it would come back to haunt me, like someone will cite him as my greatest influence. He was probably a good one to study because of how formulaic his humor can be. I was able to pick up on some of the tricks – like putting the funniest word at the end of the sentence – that he used again and again. Not that being funny is a matter of some craft checklist, but there are craft decisions that can bring out the humor of the situation.

I like that you mentioned Dorothy Parker. I wasn’t thinking of her writing style specifically, but I read a couple of biographies on her as I was researching the 1929 section of the book (the one that takes place at the artists’ colony), and one of the things I loved was how miserable she was the one and only time she visited Yaddo. She stayed in her room and sulked the whole month. I’m not sure that any of her humor suffuses this novel, but I’d love to pretend so.­­

4. I remember seeing a Facebook thread on your page as you were working on this novel about sharing it with trusted readers, and I think you wrote at least a few drafts before you sent it to your editor.  How do you balance conflicting advice from your readers?  Is your husband, for example, the reader with the most clout?

Yes, my husband is definitely my earliest and best (and toughest) reader, although of course there are times I need to ignore him and go with my gut. I don’t normally farm out my drafts as much as I did this time, but because the book is so complex – and because it wouldn’t work well for readers if they couldn’t unravel the mysteries by the end – I needed to make sure things were clear to an average, intelligent reader. I sent an early draft to nine people, and only a couple of them were novelists; I wanted feedback that wasn’t just about craft but about the things people didn’t get, or the things that were too easy to get. It was the writing equivalent of “Here, taste this sauce.”

5. I think I read somewhere that you based the titular 100-year house on one you're familiar with - am I remembering this correctly?

Nope! But I did grow up in an area where a lot of the houses were built around the turn of the 20th century, and (without growing up rich, I hasten to add), I saw the inside of a lot of mansions. The house in the book is a patchwork of many different places I know, plus some rooms that are purely made up. I think it’s similar to the spaces so many of us dream: part of the house you grew up in, plus some hallway you’ve never seen, plus your ex-boyfriend’s mother’s kitchen, plus the entrance to your college dorm. And somehow it all makes sense to you.

6.  You have a short story collection, Music in Wartime, coming out next year and after that...if you don't mind telling us, what are you working on next/now?  

Great question. [Followed by uncomfortable, soul-searching silence…] I actually do have notes for the next novel; it has to do with the art world at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s. I’m waiting on the edits for the story collection, though, and busy traveling to promote The Hundred-Year House – and I think that’s fortunate, as I wouldn’t want to jump into the writing too soon. The first two novels both had a slow, oblique genesis, and I’ve never dealt before with that moment of “Here I go, sitting down to write the first words of my new novel.” Because I never knew I was doing it. So hopefully this enforced waiting period will let things germinate slowly, without a lot of pressure. 

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