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, Follow Rebecca Makkai on Twitter: @rebeccamakkai

Recommended Reading: The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

photo (108)Like Proteus, the mythological figure invoked in one of her character’s poetry, Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House* twists and turns, refusing to be confined to any one genre or style. And like Proteus, The Hundred-Year house refuses to tell the future; instead, it charts a way through the past.

The story begins — or rather, ends — with Zee and Doug, a married couple who’ve come to live in the carriage house that belongs to Zee’s mother, Gracie and stepfather, Bruce. Zee, a self-professed “Marxist literary scholar” (as a former-ish academic myself, I loved the intradepartmental sniping at Zee’s college), and her mother Gracie are Devohrs, members of a wealthy Canadian family that built an estate called Laurelfield near Chicago, one hundred years before Zee and Doug’s arrival. One of the Devohrs, Violet, is said to be a ghost who still haunts Laurelfield; a huge oil portrait of Zee’s great-grandmother still hangs in the house.

For about thirty years, Laurelfield was an art colony, and it just so happens that one of its major residents was the poet Edwin Parfitt, the subject of Doug’s research. Doug hopes that access to Laurelfield’s records will force him to finish his book, so that he can get a teaching job, instead of surreptitiously ghost-writing a series for middle-school girls. But there’s a catch or two: Gracie’s none too keen on allowing Doug to kick up dust in the attic, and Bruce’s son and daughter-in-law arrive and upend Zee and Doug’s attempted domestic bliss.

More than enough material for a novel there, right?  Yet Ms. Makkai gives us more: another section follows giving us scenes from Laurelfield in 1955; then another section about the arts colony in 1929; and a brief prologue set in 1900. Each section is written in a different style, and reveals a bit more of the Laurelfield puzzle, which is so tantalizing that I won’t say anything more about it.

Ms. Makkai’s writing is lively, engaging, and crisp, and her pacing is sublime. As I read The Hundred-Year House,  I was caught between the impulse to keep turning pages, impatient to learn more of Laurelfield’s secrets, and the inclination to pause over each page, to note a particularly well-crafted sentence or a telling detail. It’s a marvelous novel, and highly recommended.

Tomorrow: An interview with Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.