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?
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.
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