Last week, just before the Printers Row Lit Fest, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Rebecca Makkai, author of The Borrower (Viking, 2011), about her forthcoming novel The Hundred-Year House (Viking, 2014) which is set on Chicago’s North Shore. Read on to say what she had to say about the inspiration for her new novel and the North Shore’s influence on it, the importance of the arts and artists’ colonies like the one in her book, her influences and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): Though I think your book [The Hundred-Year House] is interesting overall, what really piqued my interest, as someone who lives on the North Shore, is that the book is set there. So I’ve been wondering what your inspiration for the book was and how the North Shore itself may have been an influence — which it seems to have been. I certainly know that, just in describing the premise of the book to a few people, there’s definitely been this parallel drawn between Laurelfield and Ragdale, the artists' colony in Lake Forest.
Rebecca Makkai (RM): Yeah. I grew up on the North Shore. I think that I sort of have a conflicted relationship to it. There’s a lot of beauty there. It’s tremendously rich culturally, but I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider growing up there. I grew up in a very wealthy area and my parents were college professors. They weren’t wealthy. They certainly weren’t impoverished, either, but there was a disconnect. I still live in the suburbs, and you pass by these incredible estates with all of these layers of history. I’ve gotten past thinking about the money part of it — because I think it’s just something you have to accept — and you think about politically, but maybe not so much for my writing right now. I’m fascinated by these houses where, though they may be only a hundred-years-old — and in Europe or even on the east coast, that may not seem so old — but for this area there’s something about the beauty of these houses, the way they’ve been preserved and the layers of history there. You’re not just looking at it in 2014, you can picture the way the space was used in 1928 or in 1960. I really wanted to write about one estate through time. Ragdale was certainly an inspiration. I stayed there a couple of times, but the house that I’m writing about is explicitly not Ragdale, because Ragdale became an artists’ colony in the 1980s. This house that I’m writing about was an artists’ colony from the 20s to the 50s, so there’s a very different history.
AD: I mean I only knew about Ragdale in this very general way, but I know that it definitely came to mind for me as well.
RM: Yeah. People apply to go and stay there for a month at a time. There are visual artists, musicians, choreographers, writers and poets. You’re just working for 16 hours a day, but then you’re socializing too, and you get to revel in the company of other artistic people. You get to bounce ideas off of them and things like that. It’s an amazing place.
AD: It sounds like an incredible opportunity, and, in your book, Laurelfield really seems to have provided that type of opportunity to the different artists who passed through there over the decades.
RM: So, Ragdale was an architect’s own home. It belonged to Howard Van Doren Shaw, who was a great Chicago architect and a part of the Arts & Crafts movement. This was his own home that he built — I think it was their summer home. The family was very artistic. One of his daughters was a famous sculptor in her own right. People gathered at this house. So, when one of his granddaughters was in possession of this house, toward the end of her own life, she had decided that this is what it should become, because it already had that history to it. There are a lot of artist residencies in the country — I’ve done a few of them — and behind almost every one of them there’s some kind of an eccentric millionaire whose home it was and there’s always this story to it.
AD: Which is one of the things that would make it a perfect setting for a story.
RM: I think you get into that tension between art and commerce. I think there’s always that tension for artists, but you’re specifically talking about this one space and whether it will be used by wealthy people or whether it will be used by artists and why and how. It externalizes that sort of internal conflict that I think is there for a lot of artists, or is just there in our culture.
AD: As with Laurelfield when Gamaliel (a.k.a. “Gamby”) Devohr announces that he’s coming down to Laurelfield and all of the artists kind of suspect he’s coming because he doesn’t understand the colony and wants to shut it down.
RM: That’s it. At one point in the novel, in the 1920s, these artists are really fighting for this place’s survival They’re in the unfortunate position that the house still technically belongs to the eccentric millionaire — or his son — and so he has the power to shut them down for the sake of money for his family, just by not understanding what the place is, what they do and why that’s important.
AD: And you could say he comes at it from a very different viewpoint.
RM: Yeah. He’s sitting there, asking them these questions about what they do, and it’s clear that he doesn’t understand why they need the space or why it’s important. He really doesn’t understand art itself.
AD: I guess that there are all kind of people, but you would think that, at the very least, someone would understand the value that exists in art in all of it’s forms, the value of having a place like Laurelfield that artists can come to in order to do their work.
RM: And with most of these actual colonies, the amazing thing is that they’ve come from some kind of eccentric millionaire or other, but it’s someone who really got it. It was someone who really wanted this to be their legacy. Sometimes it was because they themselves were artistic, or perhaps they had artists in the family. In one case there was a residency started by someone whose daughter was a dancer, but she died very young, and he wanted to do this in her honor. So, that’s usually the story, and it was fun to make up a version of that story, where the son of the original benefactor has come into control of it and — just one generation removed — does not understand.
AD: Which, when you think about it, is just astonishing. I certainly appreciate art in all of it’s forms, and art of all sorts comes out of there. So, as someone who does appreciate the arts — whether it’s literature or music or theatre or whatever else it might be — it’s hard for me to conceive of someone who doesn’t appreciate it.
RM: Plenty of people don’t appreciate the arts, or don’t understand why they need financial support. You look at the way people try to shut down the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] every four years, when it’s campaign season, like clockwork. Thankfully it never works, but it’s something that I think people find easy to attack. They forget that it’s the basis of culture.
AD: And art is just a huge part of life. Even if you don’t have this extensive, encyclopedic knowledge of the arts, I think there are certain things that we all appreciate that come out of it, which I suppose is why I find it so shocking when someone can actually argue in favor of defunding those types of programs or when they don’t understand the importance of art.
RM: Right. They don’t understand that when they look around they’re seeing design, or that when they hear music they’re unaware of what went into that, or that what they are watching when they watch TV was written by writers.
AD: I have to say I found the whole structure of the story to be pretty interesting. It’s connected, but you find out the whole story little bit by little bit, going further and further back. You find these different kinds of connections and piece the whole puzzle together.
RM: It’s certainly not the only story that has ever been told backwards, but I was trying to do things with that which hadn’t been done as much, where the reader is almost a character in the novel. Often, in a novel, it’s a character who learns things and puts the puzzle together. In a detective novel, you have the detective. In a love story, you have one of the people in it figuring out the love story. This is a story where the reader is really the only one who can put together the pieces of this puzzle, because of the way it’s told backwards in time. We start with these people in 1999 who are trying to understand the story of the house, but they’re never going to have all of the pieces of the puzzle, whereas we will by going back in time. It was really fun to write that way, for one thing. I had to plan everything before I could write anything. To write 1999, I had to know what happened in 1929, but since 1999 comes first in the book, I wanted to write it first to have the right flow. It was fun. It was sort of like a giant Sudoku puzzle. Kind of penciling things in and then figuring out what you need to do and undo before you even begin.
AD: You also get these little slices or glimpses of life and what it may have been like to be in those positions back then — back in the 1950s or 1920s. I mean there certainly still is inequality in 2014. Women are still paid less than men for the exact same position, unfortunately. But, you really do get this slice of life, as far as what life was like back then. Take the dynamic between Grace and George, for instance. She seems to feel that she has all of this knowledge but cannot really use it. When she had, George seemed to have felt embarrassed by her. It’s clear that she feels trapped — or, more specifically, trapped in her marriage to him.
RM: Yeah. This was the 1955 section. Honestly, one of the things that was interesting to me was that in writing about the 1920s, there was much more freedom and equality than in the 1950s. It was a reversion, and I think we tend to think of it as it was always like it was in the 1950s, and then suddenly in the 1960s everyone discovered equality and sex and drugs and everything else. In reality, when you look back at people in the 1920s, they were doing things that would shock us today. When I started reading some of these biographies of artists in the 20s, and just the acceptance of something like homosexuality, it was way beyond where we would be again until something like the 70s or 80s. The 1950s were this really regressive, repressive time. At that point, I’m also writing about my smallest cast of characters. It’s really just a few people in this house in the 50s. It’s this newlywed couple and he’s tremendously abusive to her and others, so she’s very much trapped, but I also think that she’s trapped by her wealth. She feels like she has to keep up appearances. She’s trapped in this mansion. If the house weren’t so big, she wouldn’t be as isolated. So I’m also interested in the ways that money can be a burden and can be isolating, especially for someone like her who has never known anything else, and maybe doesn’t even realize how much she’s trapped by it.
AD: It certainly shows you the other side of things. This family has a considerable amount of money, by any standard. So for anybody who is under any sort of impression that money is a solution to all of their problems, money can also create problems.
RM: And growing up in the wealthy suburbs I saw and still do see a lot of absolute misery and isolation and the same things you see anywhere. When they do studies about happiness as it relates to money, up until the point where you have enough to eat and clothes to wear and a place to live, it’s very directly correlated. If you don’t have something to eat, you’re going to be miserable. However, once you have your basic needs met, it just completely levels off. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that when you get to extreme wealth, happiness drops off again, because you have all kind of other paranoia and concerns and don’t know whether to take people at face value when they say something to you. You’re in the public eye more. There are all of these other stresses.
AD: And, at a certain point, I think it really can become a bit like chasing your own tail. Just as there are people who don’t have as much as you have, there will always be those people who have more than you do, materially speaking. You know, some people really seem to have this feeling that they could always have more, that they could always be making more. Where does it stop?
RM: Yeah. Many wealthy people don’t feel that they have enough to be secure. For instance, I was just reading something that says if you were to ask someone with a billion dollars how much it would take for them to feel secure, it’s always just a little bit more.
AD: And I think it really comes down, at least in part, to who your reference group is.
RM: That’s it. What’s funny is that I think that artists do this with success. I’m sure Shakespeare felt insecure. I’m sure he was looking back at someone, a contemporary or a ghost, and feeling completely inadequate. I think that for art, though, that sort of ambition is helpful. It’s the reason I don’t sit around watching stupid television all day. That’s the reason I work. You’re just constantly taking stock of what you should be doing next. How do I stay on top of my game? Who’s inspiring me? How do I get to that level? So I think it’s very helpful, whereas with making money, the next level of money isn’t actually going to do you any good. For me, working harder on my novel will do me some good.
AD: Right, because that pushes you to do better than your previous best. It’s really competing against your own self.
RM: Right. You’re competing with yourself to get to whatever next level there is, and the thing is there is always a next level. The moment that you are satisfied with your art would be a very bad moment. Your taste level should always be one step ahead of your execution level. If it weren’t, you’d stagnate completely.
AD: This whole thing actually reminds me of something I saw online a while ago. I listen to a lot of This American Life and there was this video that sort of talks about just that. I guess you could say that it was aimed at recent graduates, but I think it’s still relevant and relatable for a lot of people.
RM: Oh, was it Ira Glass talking about how everything you make is going to sound terrible to you at first? Yeah. He was sort of talking about the same thing. The gap between your taste level and where you are. He’s especially talking about how, at the beginning, the reason that you want to do this is because you have good taste. It’s going to take a long time to get there. I guess what I’m adding to that if anything is that it should continue through your career. Hopefully by then you know not to give up. It’s just coming to expect that evolution constantly, where you won’t be satisfied with what you just did, or even what you’re doing now, because you always are looking a step ahead.
AD: Another aspect of your book that I found interesting is the whole ‘haunting’ thing. There’s this whole idea that the house is haunted by this ghost, and what was of particular interest to me is this idea that perhaps it isn’t a ghost from the past, but rather a ghost from the future that is pulling everyone forward to this sort of inevitable destination.
RM: Yeah. In the same way that we read it always knowing what happens in the future — we read 1955 knowing what’s in store, we read 1929 knowing what’s in store — the house is haunted by the ghosts of the future rather than the past.
AD: Yeah. I just found that so interesting, mostly because it does run counter to so many of those other ‘typical’ ghost stories out there. And I think that sort of gets at the feeling that Case has when he arrives at Laurelfield. He feels their luck has changed since being there. So, perhaps the house is sort of pushing them to where they’re ‘supposed to be.’
RM: Yeah. So that the house wants certain things — that it wants a certain future, so it’s going to manipulate people to get there — is one possible interpretation.
AD: Some of it could be a series of unfortunate events or circumstances, but I think that some of it is also that people do things that get them in certain undesirable situations. At the same time, it’s easier to blame an inanimate object, than to recognize that perhaps you are making these choices that may be leading you to these perhaps undesirable places or these undesirable conclusions.
RM: I think one of the things that I wanted to play with was that there’s a certain point where we just accept fate and luck and we’re driven by ourselves and by the whims of the universe. But, there’s a certain point where if you have enough good luck or enough bad luck, you can’t help but question what’s going on. If luck is even, we just assume it’s luck. If luck comes down hard, on either one side or the other, you start to feel like someone is out to get you or that you’re blessed or whatever it is. I think at the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they’re flipping a coin. I don’t remember if it comes up heads or tails, but it comes up the same every single time, and this sort of starts the play. There’s this weird discussion of how this could be, if there’s the same probability of that happening as anything else happening. In [The Hundred-Year House], in the 1999 section, we have Case who — it was fun, actually, as an author to just be completely sadistic to him. He tears his Achilles tendon, he’s attacked by a swarm of bees, his car blows up.
AD: Basically, it starts to seem that anything that could go wrong for someone will go wrong for Case.
RM: Right. Then you have characters like Gracie, in 1999, who, if you look at their trajectory in life, and the way she’s been able to basically live her life deceiving a lot of people without ever being caught, it’s the same amount of extraordinarily good luck.
AD: When you think about it, it really is amazing Gracie got away with what she got away with.
RM: Well, I was playing with a little bit of a supernatural element there, too. I think if I were writing a more realist novel, I think there are certain things I would not have tried to get away with. There’s this sort of magic charm on the house, where things happen that don’t happen elsewhere.
AD: Who would you say are some of your influences? What are some of your favorite books or authors?
RM: One of my favorites and one of the biggest influences for The Hundred-Year House was Shirley Jackson. Most people know her from the short story The Lottery. A lot of people have to read it in high school. It’s a weird short story. All of her things are weird, but her novels are extraordinary, particularly The Haunting of Hill House was sort of an overt influence on The Hundred-Year House. In the 1999 section, I had a professor teaching a course on ghost studies, and originally there was this long discussion in her classroom on The Haunting of Hill House, and then I pulled it out because it was too much. I love Shirley Jackson. She also has a book called We Have Always Lived in the Castle that’s just weird and dark and really cool. It’s interesting, because the writers that I admire are not always my direct influences. I adore Alice Munro, but you’d be very hard-pressed to find traces of her in a novel like this. Vladimir Nabokov is one of my absolute favorite writers of all time, and I don’t even know how to use his influence. He’s impacted me. I want to take something away from him and use it in my own craft, but if that’s happened it’s invisible, because his stuff is so stratospheric. It’s hard to take some little idea and use it yourself, but I do adore him. There are a million writers I adore, but with most of them I haven’t read everything they’ve written, because I want to read broadly rather than everything written by one person. So, I’ll have books that I just absolutely love but it’s hard for me to say they’re one of my favorite authors, because I’ve only read the one book — or one book and a story.
Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House, will be available from Viking/Penguin on July 10, 2014. Her first novel, The Borrower, is a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Her short fiction has been chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, Ploughshares, and New England Review.