An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, by Evan Allgood
July 28, 2014
Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery, a comedy, a drama, and (rarest of genres) a well-written page-turner. It traces the history of a spooky literary estate named Laurelfield; as the reader moves forward through the book, he or she moves backward in time, from 1999 to 1955, then to 1929 and 1900. (The first three sections read like novellas; the last is a brief epilogue.) I spoke to Makkai about that counterintuitive structure, the differences between writing her first and second novels, and which book she’s reread the most.
I already said I have no idea! Here’s what I can reconstruct: I wrote a short story called “Gatehouse” somewhere around 2004, and it was about two couples crammed together in the coach house of a large estate. One of the men was anorexic, and the other man was the only one who noticed, but no one would listen to him. I put the story aside for a long time, because it didn’t work – but I liked that idea of the two couples in close quarters, and the strange relationship between the coach house and the main house. Years later I realized it should be a novel – and then it just sort of grew like a crystal in all directions. The anorexia stayed in there for quite a while, until I finally realized it had nothing to do with the rest of the book, and it needed to go. That was difficult, because it was the reason I’d started the project to begin with.
You also say that this book is for—but not about—Ragdale and Yaddo. Were you anxious about setting this story at an arts colony? Afraid the people at these colonies might think some of the characters or details were based on them?
Fortunately, I think everyone I stayed at those colonies with knows that I was pretty far into the writing by the time I ever met them. There’s one exception: an artist at Yaddo did amazing things with broken pottery, and I hope he does recognize himself in an artist named Alma Nellis, whose work is mentioned, although we never meet her. Beyond that, I can’t control what people think. With my first novel, I literally had someone ask if the guinea pig in it was based on their child’s imaginary friend. (It was not.)
What was the biggest difference between writing this book and writing your debut, The Borrower?
The historical research was definitely a change. But more importantly, I knew what I was doing this time. I’m still happy with the way The Borrower turned out, but as I drafted that one I was really groping around in the dark and I wasted a lot of time. This time it wasn’t easy or anything, but I had some sense of what it was supposed to feel like at least.
How or why did you decide to move backward through time instead of forward? What pitfalls did you have to watch out for with this kind of structure?
The first section (the 1999 one) came to me first, and I originally thought that was the whole story. Then I realized I could and should go back in time – so the story came to me as it appears in the book, as a series of doors opening backwards. It felt organic to write it that way. The difficulty was in the details, in making sure that a statue built in one section was still there in the next, that people were the right ages at the right times. I had a sixty-page outline, which included calendars and timelines and historical events. I had hand-drawn maps of the house for every time period. It was like some kind of sick Sudoku puzzle.
What if anything did you read or watch for inspiration?
I read a few books written in the ’20s – notably some Fitzgerald – and I read some modern biographies of artists in the ’20s. I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and I thought about – but intentionally didn’t reread – The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, and Jane Eyre. I thought about the backwards episode of Seinfeld a great deal. I didn’t let myself watch Mulholland Drive, and I still haven’t seen it.
The word “ambitious” is getting thrown around a lot w/r/t this novel. Did you make a conscious choice to write something bigger after/than The Borrower?
It’s not that I sat down saying “What can I write that’s impressive?” – the project just presented itself to me – but it did feel right to try something more overtly ambitious. Although The Borrower had a lot going on under the surface, there’s a very surface way to read that book. With this new one, I think people can’t help but notice what went into writing it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but I probably did have more fun with it overall. I liked the challenge.
As soon as I finished The Hundred-Year House, I went back and reread some sections. Do you reread a lot of books, and did you go out of your way to write something that would be more rewarding the second (and third, etc.) time around?
I love stories that you have to stop and rethink at a certain point. The feeling I had at the end of The Sixth Sense – replaying the entire movie in my mind – is, I think, a great one. I was actually worried about it, though. It’s already such an outrageous thing to ask people to stick with you for 300 pages, and to present them 300 pages that ask to be read twice… maybe that’s too much. But since the book has been out, people have been talking about rereading it like it’s a good thing. If nothing else, I wanted it to stand up a second or third time. I didn’t want any inconsistencies, anything that would make the fabric fall apart the second time through. And once I realized what kind of book I was writing, I did start throwing things in there that you couldn’t possibly appreciate unless you’d already read the whole book. I wish I had more time to reread things, but I feel so constantly under-read that I rarely manage to. The adult book I think I’ve read the most is The Great Gatsby, and it never gets old. It’s not my favorite book, but it’s the one that changes the most with each rereading. I hope my life is long enough to fit it in five or six more times.
Do you believe in ghosts?
No. But if I’m alone in an old house at night, I don’t not believe in ghosts.
Photo credit: Philippe Matsas at Opale.
Evan Allgood is deputy editor of Trop. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter: @evooooooooooo0.
Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House (2014) was called “stunning: ambitious, readable, and intriguing” by Library Journal. Her first novel, 2011’s bestselling The Borrower, has appeared in nine translations and was chosen as a Booklist Top Ten Debut. Her highly-anticipated story collection, Music for Wartime, will appear in 2015. Her short fiction was featured in The Best American Short Stories anthology in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, and appears regularly in publications such as Harper’s, Tin House and Ploughshares, and on public radio’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca teaches at Lake Forest College, Sierra Nevada College, and StoryStudio Chicago. Her website is www.rebeccamakkai.com.