October 21, 2014

Rebecca Makkai

History in the house
Interview by
Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is an appealing mix of archival mystery, ghost story and historical novel. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt set in a former artist’s colony, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place. I was able to catch up with Rebecca at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books.
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Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is an appealing mix of archival mystery, ghost story and historical novel. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt set in a former artist’s colony, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place. I was able to catch up with her at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books, where I attended a panel that featured Makkai, Maggie Shipstead and Bret Anthony Johnston discussing the nature of time in their novels. Afterward, Makkai and I settled in for a coffee at Frothy Monkey, a cozy spot down the street from the Festival and a perfect place to discuss books.

How is the book tour going so far?
The book came out in July, so the proper book tour happened over the summer—I was going to bookstores in July and August. This fall I’ve been going to festivals and conferences—it’s really extended the touring time. I’ve been doing about one event a week, either going to a festival, visiting a college creative writing program or being in conversation with another writer at a bookstore. I don’t know if this true, but they say if sharks stop moving, they die. I kind of feel like that. But I love traveling and seeing new cities and meeting new people. Especially other writers.

The fun thing about something like the Southern Festival of Books is that you get to meet other writers that you might just be Facebook friends with and you already have lots of talk about, plus seeing old friends of course.

The Hundred-Year House takes place in three very distinct times. What kind of research did you do?
The year 1999 I remembered very well. That’s the year I graduated from college and I had very specific cultural markers for it. What I did for the 1920s and 1950s was I bought a lot of magazines off of eBay. I was reading novels, listening to music and watching films from those periods too, but magazines really show you what people are talking about, worrying about, what was on their minds. I also got Sears catalogs for those eras, which was an amazing reference, not so much for ambience but for details, especially what things were called. For examples, sofas were called davenports.

Laurelfield, the estate in the book, is both a private home and an artist’s colony. Is it based on a real location?
I knew I wanted to write about a house that had been an artist’s colony before I actually ever stayed in one. But I was tremendously inspired by staying at Yaddo. I could have imagined what that life was like but I never would have got the vibe or the details right. I also learned a lot about how visual artists worked, which was important to the book. The dedication in my book is for, but not about, Yaddo and Ragdale.

Laurelfield is its own place, but its history is very much inspired by Yaddo, which has been an artists colony since the 1920s. But the physical aspects of Laurelfield are very much like Ragdale. Early on in the research I realized I needed to map out the floor plan of both the house and coach house in Laurelfield. In fact I had to do both floors of both houses three times—for every era. So I had six huge pieces of paper and I drew it all out. Very badly.

I love the idea that it is sometimes only luck that ensures that a document or manuscript makes it into the archival record. Have you ever thought about writing a biography yourself?
No, never. But the one thing I am working on which is nonfiction is about my father’s parents, who had really interesting lives in Hungary. My grandmother was a novelist and wrote about 40 books. My grandfather was a politician and a member of parliament and was both on the right and the wrong side of things politically. I am fascinated by them. I wrote a piece about them for Harper's last summer, and some aspects of their stories, partly fictionalized and partly not, are used in my next short-story collection.

What are you working on now?
I am doing final revisions on a book of short stories called Music for Wartime, coming out in July 2015. It feels really good to be getting it out into the world.

I am also beginning to think about a novel that will be set in the art world against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and a little bit of Paris in the 1920s, although I won’t be moving backwards in time again! More that there’s an older character in the book who remembers back to that time. I am doing a lot of thinking and brainstorming though, I haven’t written anything yet. But I’ll be at Yaddo this January and hope to get started then. 

Get the Book

The Hundred-Year House

The Hundred-Year House

By Rebecca Makkai
Viking
ISBN 9780525426684

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