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

Yesterday I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s inventive and engrossing second novel, The Hundred-Year House.  Ms. Makkai graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

In the Acknowledgments that follow The Hundred-Year House, you write, “This book started as a short story about male anorexia.” Given that beginning, which section of the novel, or which character, came first?

Rebecca Makkai Author photo (c) Philippe Matsas

Rebecca Makkai
Author photo (c) Philippe Matsas

RM: That short story was a small slice of what’s now the first (1999) section of the novel. There were two couples (Cameron and Z, and Steve and Miranda) living in a coach house. The fact that “Steve and Miranda” didn’t set Sex and the City alarm bells ringing should be a sign of how long ago this was… Cameron became Doug, Z became Zee (after I realized British readers would pronounce her name “Zed”), and Steve and Miranda became Case and Miriam. Steve was the anorexic, and Cameron – although he was working on ghostwriting children’s books, as he is in the novel – was primarily preoccupied with proving Steve’s anorexia to everyone else. It wasn’t a very good story.  

photo (108)How did the novel’s unusual structure fall into place?

RM: I set the short story aside for many years, and when I came back to it I realized it could be a novel – but I initially saw it all happening in that one time period. My own curiosity about what had happened in the past was what led me to open those doors and actually write about it… and so the backwards order of those sections was actually completely organic. There was a load of planning involved, it didn’t just come flying out, but the sections are ordered as they came to me.

At one point in The Hundred-Year House, there’s a distinction made between “haunted” houses and “haunting” houses. Is that a distinction readers are meant to make with regard to the characters, too?

RM: I suppose that’s true. As we go back in time and meet certain characters, it might become clear that they’ve been the ones haunting the previous sections of the book. And some characters are much more receptive than others to the haunting influence of the house (which often takes the form of ridiculous luck, whether good or bad). Case is a prime example, in the 1999 section – he’s like a lightning rod for the house’s energy.

Visual arts play an important role in The Hundred-Year House. How did you conceive of the different artworks?

RM: I wish I could be a visual artist—I have a lot of ideas for art—but my hands won’t execute what I see. So I have to settle for writing about it instead. Certain works in the book are modeled on real-life art, though; Zilla Silverman, an artist in the 1929 section, is partly based on Georgia O’Keeffe, and her works are similar to O’Keeffe’s.

Laurelfield was once an arts colony, and The Hundred-Year House is dedicated to Ragdale and Yaddo. Is the novel’s section about the arts colony drawn primarily from your own experience as a resident, or from research into early twentieth-century artists’ colonies, or both? Who are some of your favorite writers who stayed at artists’ colonies?

RM: I actually conceived of Laurelfield before I’d ever set foot at a residency. I started applying to them as I worked on this book not only because I needed the time and solitude to work (I have two small children) but because I felt like I needed to know that world better. I was not disappointed. And I was able to do a bit of research into the history of Yaddo while I was there, which informed the book enormously. In terms of who stayed at colonies… You’d be hard-pressed to find a major American artist of the last century who didn’t stay at an artists’ residency. There’s a library at Yaddo of books by past residents, and it’s basically just like a normal library. There’s practically no one missing.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

RM: My story collection, Music for Wartime, will be out next summer. And I’m working on a novel set in the Chicago art world amidst the AIDS crisis.

My thanks again to Ms. Makkai for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Makkai, and The Hundred-Year House, on Ms. Makkai’s website, www.rebeccamakkai.com. Follow Rebecca Makkai on Twitter: @rebeccamakkai

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An Interview with Kate Racculia, Author of Bellweather Rhapsody

On Wednesday, I reviewed Kate Racculia’s exuberant and delightful new novel, Bellweather Rhapsody. Ms. Racculia graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Bellweather Rhapsody? What was the writing process like?

Kate Racculia Author photo (c) Sage Brousseau

Kate Racculia
Author photo (c) Sage Brousseau

KR: I started writing Bellweather Rhapsody the summer my first novel, a coming-of-age-in-a-small-town story, was published, and I knew I wanted my second novel to be different: a mystery, one that paid homage to two of my favorite books of all time, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There would be multiple twisty plots and multiple characters, and they’d all be trapped together in a pressure cooker situation.

The idea for Bellweather’s particular pressure cooker—Statewide, a weekend conference for teenage musicians, held in an enormous, decrepit hotel—was born in the late nineties, when I, a teenage musician, attended the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) All-State conference, which was held at the Concord, a once grand, then crumbling hotel that was surely haunted. Even at the age of seventeen, I remember thinking: this would make an incredible setting for a murder mystery.

The writing process was very different from my first novel: I wrote the majority of the (extremely messy) first draft very quickly, and the novel began to truly take shape during a methodical revision process. I spent a lot of time in the Bellweather, getting to know these characters–enough time to solve their mysteries, as it were.

Bellweather Rhapsody is full of delightful (and never gimmicky) 90s touches. What were your favorite books and albums in the late 90s?

Bellweather RhapsodyKR: I was completely obsessed with the Beatles in the 90s; the third CD I ever bought was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and that sealed my fate. But if we’re talking 90s culture that was actually of the 90s, I listened to a lot of Barenaked Ladies and REM, Fiona Apple and The Cranberries, Garbage and Radiohead, and I read every Michael Crichton and Stephen King book I could get my hands on.

Like Rabbit, you were a teenage bassoonist, and according to your website, your bassoon was called Nigel. Did you and Nigel get together for a reunion tour while you were writing Bellweather Rhapsody? What kinds of research did you do for the novel?

KR: Alas, we didn’t! Nigel and I haven’t seen each other since June 1998, when I left him behind in the band room; he belonged to my high school. I bought a bassoon of my own (partially with graduation money) and played it half-heartedly during my freshman year of college, but that bassoon only ever felt like a rebound. It is, however, still in my closet, and one day I know I’m going to pick it up again.

As far as research goes, I read books on psychopaths and child prodigies, consulted with some experts (like my best friend’s dad) about which motorcycles were the coolest; went to a few performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra; and, because I believe in experiential research (i.e., doing the same things my characters will), I went to a firing range and shot a .38 special.

If Bellweather Rhapsody were a movie, what would the track over the closing credits be?

KR: I love this question so much, I’m going to answer it twice. I’d go with either David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (Bowie plays a key role in the book) or The New Pornographers’ “Moves,” which has a totally boss string intro. It depends on how you’d like your Bellweather movie to end: pensive and full of feelings, or with a driving beat?

What’s next on your writing horizon?

KR: I’m working on a big sprawling novel about diners and sea monsters and missing kids, stage mothers and office drones, tattooed ladies and rollerskating drag queens—and time travel—that’s most of all about family: the ones we’re born into, and the ones we find in the world.

My thanks again to Ms. Racculia for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Racculia, and Bellweather Rhapsody, on Ms. Racculia’s website, www.kateracculia.com. Follow Kate Racculia on Twitter: @kateracculia

An Interview with Darragh McKeon, Author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air

Recently, I reviewed Mr. McKeon’s haunting debut novel, All That Is Solid Melts into Air. Mr. McKeon graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

What first drew you to the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath as a subject for the novel?

Darragh McKeon Author Photograph (c) Ana Schecter

Darragh McKeon
Author Photograph (c) Ana Schecter

DM: I’m from Ireland and it’s quite a present issue there due to the work of an Irish charity ‘Chernobyl Children International’. Since the early 1990s, they’ve brought about 20,000 children from the area to Ireland for recuperation. Some of these children came to my hometown when I was a teenager and they were amongst the first foreigners I’d ever met.

As readers may know, you’re a successful theatre director. How did working in theatre influence the composition of All That Is Solid Melts into Air?

DM: I’m sure it’s influenced me in many ways I’m not even aware of, but primarily as a director you learn to observe. I’ve spent countless hours watching actors in a rehearsal room and gradually I probably honed my awareness of all of the elements that impact upon the work – rhythm, pacing, personality, anxiety, lighting etc etc. Every scene in theatre must carry a certain dynamic. When it’s absent, the scene has no life. Identifying the central dynamic of a situation is a useful ability to carry into novel writing.

photo (85)Your four main characters are a doctor, a child piano prodigy, a dissident-turned-steelworker, and a teenage boy living in a Belarusian village. With such disparate occupations and perspectives to consider, how did you go about conducting research for the novel?

DM: By reading. A lot. I didn’t research with any particular direction or strategy, just ingested anything I could find. I did eventually travel to Moscow for specific research, but by that stage the novel was near completion.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

DM: On a basic level, writing a novel is a process of accumulating sentences. So I try to read and re-read great sentence writers: DeLillo, Ondaatje, Andrei Makine for a start, as well as plenty of poetry.

In the essay included with All That Is Solid Melts into Air, “The Empty City,” you make it clear that the devastating effects of Chernobyl are ongoing. How can readers help?

DM: The problems associated with nuclear energy are so vast and complicated that it’s difficult to suggest a starting point. I would encourage people to donate to Chernobyl Children International. I’ve seen their work first hand and they really are a lifeline to people in the region.

What kinds of writing projects will you be working on next?

DM: Right now I’m doing a lot of reading, I’ll hopefully be starting on another novel in the near future.

My thanks again to Mr. McKeon for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about All That Is Solid Melts into Air and Darragh McKeon’s work at www.darraghmckeon.com.