The Rumpus Interview with Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai writes books for book lovers. She writes for readers for whom libraries are both a refuge and the center of cultural life. She writes for readers who dream of going to writing retreats in old country houses that are haunted. She started her novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House with such readerly fantasies and then turned them on their head.
Inspired by the trope of the madwoman in the attic, her latest book The Hundred-Year House offers a reverse chronology of the inhabitants of Laurelfield, a “haunted” house that was the site of an arts colony. The story is told in three sections that go back in time from 1999 to 1955 to 1929, ending with a prologue set in 1900. Violet Devohr presides over the inhabitants of the Laurelfield, both in the form of a massive oil portrait that hangs in the dining room during most of the story and, in the final section of the book, in person.
The story begins in 1999 with the Devohrs: Zilla (or Zee), a Marxist Literary scholar living in the carriage house owned by her wealthy parents, mother Gracie, and stepfather Bruce. Zee’s husband Doug is a scholar interested in the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony. When he pursues and finds archival material about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at in the twenties, the story begins to unfold in unexpected ways.
A rare writer of literary fiction who does not possess an MFA, Makkai had trouble finding people to participate on a conference panel dealing with the topic. She later offered a self-designed MFA program on the Ploughshares blog that included courses in “Self-Delusion,” “Envy Studies,” “Intro to Despair,” and “53 People Not to Sleep with at Breadloaf: An Overview.”Armed with a Master’s in Literature, Makkai teaches at Lake Forest College, Sierra Nevada College, and StoryStudio Chicago and is the recipient of a 2014 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Makkai and I discussed the evolution of this novel, which began as a short story about male anorexia.
The Rumpus: Where do stories begin for you—character, plot, image, first line?
Rebecca Makkai: A scenario. Like, what if someone walks into a diner that’s run by a cult and sees that one of the workers is a girl he used to date? I start with a “what if” and the characters come to me later. The Hundred-Year House actually started as a story of male anorexia. I had these two couples forced into close quarters in a coach house and the story expanded and grew in crazy ways until it was about other things. Other ideas came to life and became more interesting to me than the anorexia storyline. That said, the anorexia storyline was hard to let go of easily. It felt foundational, so it stayed until the late drafts.
Rumpus: Why did male anorexia capture your attention?
Makkai: I have always been fascinated by anorexia, like many people are. While I never had a full-on eating disorder, I flirted around the edges of it. It brings up fascinating questions of why we do this to ourselves, and how to help other people deal with it. The idea of male anorexia came out of the desire to change it up. In fiction we always look for things people won’t expect. It is juicer in fiction if we don’t go with the first thing people think of. When my students write the mean boss character it is usually a man with a BMW. I ask why not make it a woman or an immigrant. Even though I dropped the anorexia storyline, the starvation themes in the book come through in Violet starving herself in the attic and Doug writing about starvation in his children’s books.
Rumpus: So was this a case of following where the characters led and giving up control?
Makkai: I’m not sure I’d phrase it that way. Nabokov said his characters were his galley slaves, and that he told them what to do. There is an extent to which the characters feel more and more real as we write and we get a sense of how they would act. My role in the story is to push them and not follow them. My job is to be a malevolent Olympic God and throw things at the characters, make lightening strike, make big things happen. But my job is also to keep my imagination open as to what can happen and not stay locked into my first vision of the book.
Rumpus: You had an outline and plan, but which character ended up surprising you the most and how?
Makkai: You definitely still have to be open to surprise, if a character just does what you want all the time then something has gone wrong. I was surprised when the characters in the 1929 section ended up being bigger characters than I anticipated, like Zilla Silverman.
I can tell you which character changed the most. That was Case. He started out as a guy named Steve who was dealing with anorexia. Once I took the anorexia away in a late draft of the novel there was nothing for him to do. So I changed him from a sad sack to a cocky jerk and started making bad things happen to him.
Rumpus: The story unfolds in three sections (1999, 1955, 1929 and a prologue in 1900). How did you find this form? What approaches did you try before this?
Makkai: I wrote a short story that was similar to the 1999 section of the book. It ends with Gracie revealing something big about herself—that she isn’t who she says she is. I was going to leave it unresolved. I was brushing my teeth one day when I realized that I could go back in time and show what happened to her and the colony and the building of the house. I realized that there were layers to scratch through to see what was underneath.
I love the idea of a book that messes around with chronology. It became the form of the book, but the subject of it too—the role of memory, fate and foreshadowing in shaping who we are. I had so much fun putting together the puzzle of the book and reading it. This is the kind of book I love to read.
Rumpus: As you say, The Hundred-Year House messes around with chronology. What is it about the times we live in that makes non-linear narratives, like your book and A Visit from the Goon Squad, so acceptable and so appealing?
Makkai: Modernism prepared us for absorbing non-linear narrative in a way that we hadn’t done before. You can really see the influence of this on movies. A movie like The Sixth Sense starts at one time and then jumps ahead several years, offers a patchwork of scenes where ghosts from the past are present, and then jumps back in time so that we are able to re-see a bunch of those scenes with a new understanding of what we are seeing.
Rumpus: What examples did you look to when crafting the book in reverse order?
Makkai: A big one was Martin Amis’s Times Arrow, about a man who experiences life in reverse. We gradually understand things as the story goes along. Another was Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia. I also thought about the backwards episode of Seinfeld, which was hilarious. It showed me that people could enjoy stories told this way and I took some courage from that.
In a way, we actually narrate our own lives in reverse. We look at the past in way that makes things seem inevitable. We say, “It had to happen this way or I wouldn’t have met my husband.”
Rumpus: The characters, particularly Zilla, argue that rather than haunting us the past “hurtles us toward specific and inexorable destinations.”
Makkai: The reverse chronology allowed me to raise lots of questions without going on about free will and predestination in a philosophical way.
I was also playing with the idea that if the characters in the story feel like they are being tugged by invisible forces, they are—because the invisible force is me. As the author, I’m yanking them around, haunting them and moving them to different destinations.
I run a novel writing workshop in Chicago and I am constantly reminding my students that they need to have huge things happening in their stories. We all avoid conflict. Be Zeus—have lightening strike! Make things happen that will have interesting repercussions for your characters.
Rumpus: How does The Hundred-Year House play on the trope of the “mad woman in the attic.”
Makkai: It is all through the book. In the 1955 section Gracie is reflecting on Jane Eyre. In 1999 Miriam is making a mosaic of Manderley. Not only are there characters who are preoccupied with mad women in the attic, they are actually working in the attic themselves.
One classic element of the ghost story is the presence of a skeptical character that sees the ghost, someone who can serve as an avatar for the reader. The character Zilla in 1999, who is teaching about ghost stories and ends up going crazy, serves that function in this book. I want the reader to question reality by the end.
Rumpus: One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the way certain characters from different eras have experiences that echo each other. Was this a conscious choice or did it emerge in the writing?
Makkai: Really conscious. I had a sixty-page outline. It was a giant Sudoku puzzle to get all these pieces to fit, to make sure the echoes would occur, and to make sure I knew exactly what would happen to the characters.
I put characters in the same spaces. I had them share obsessions. Several of them were obsessed with broken things. I put them on parallel or diametrically opposed paths. Across time the characters have similar experiences that they think are unique. There isn’t a creaking door or a face in the window, but layering the characters in the same place over time shows the power the house has over the characters.
Rumpus: You mentioned that in your book “characters have similar experiences that they think are unique.” Do you agree that literature functions this way—offering universal experience through particular detail?
Makkai: The moments all of us love the most are when we see something we believe to be true to ourselves articulated, but we were unable to articulate it. I was sitting at my computer today peeling an orange. I dug my thumb into the peel and there was that invisible spray of moisture from the peel. I want to put that in a book. It is a sensory experience with the strong smell and the feel of piercing the skin that we have all had, but don’t have words for.
You want your reader to say, “I know that thing.” When that happens, the reader attaches to the work and the character that perceives the experience and the character becomes a stand-in for the reader in the book.
Things need to be specific to appeal to readers. My undergraduate students often write vague stories about a generic protagonists and say they feel it needs to be vague so everyone can relate to it. As readers, we look for specificity to make the experience universal.
I talk about how when they watch the Olympics there are Russian swimmers and Canadian swimmers and Chinese swimmers. Then NBC finds the one Russian swimmer and tells his story. The reporter goes to the swimmer’s hometown and talks about his life. Then when the students watch the race they really care what happens.
Rumpus: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Hundred-Year House?
Makkai: This story grew like a crystal for me, in every direction. I struggled with wanting to include too much backstory. At one point, the book was in the 110,000-word range. I had to do a lot of cutting to get it down to around 90,000. I would create alternate outlines and go for long walks to avoid killing off characters, but ultimately I killed them. I ended up combining two characters, which helped.
Rumpus: When it comes to revision, how do you choose what to cut, especially with such a long manuscript?
Makkai: I did many revisions of my own along the way and one big revision requested by my editor. The 1999 section was more than half the book and my editor wanted it cut by a third (a sixth of the entire book). I did this by seeing if I could combine scenes. If one scene had an argument and another a discovery I would try putting those together. When I look at the book now I’d never know that certain scenes were Frankenscenes.
I also went sentence by sentence and cut out words. I set word cut goals, like cut 500 words by lunch. I knew dead weight when I saw it and I went in with my scalpel and removed it. The general rule is that anything that can go should go. At the time there were things that were difficult to part with and I can’t tell you what they were.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Makkai: I have a short story collection titled Music for Wartime coming out in July of 2015. The stories are connected by those themes, music and war, and although it’s almost entirely fiction there’s also some personal family history mixed in. I’m tremendously excited about it.