Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer. 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 second novel The Hundred-Year House, was published by Viking/Penguin, 2014. 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. Visit her here.
NAW- Tell us about your book, THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE. How did you get the idea for it? How did you come up with the title?
It’s the story of one large estate north of Chicago – and the family that lives there – told backwards over the twentieth century. In the 1920s, the place was an artists’ colony, and when the novel starts in 1999 there’s someone living there who’s trying to research that time. He finds more questions than answers… But as the narrative moves back to the 50’s and then the 20’s and finally to 1900, readers do get to solve the mysteries of the house.
I suppose the title is rather literal; the house is turning 100 in 1999, when the book starts. I went through a lot of more cryptic titles (like The Happensack – which is also the name of an artwork within the story), but ultimately they weren’t doing anything to represent what the book is. I needed a title that would tie everything together, not confuse someone.
NAW- Given that the book touches on so many diverse themes, tell us about the research that you carried out.
There was a lot of historical research involved, especially for the 1955 and 1929 sections. I had a lot of fun reading old magazines that I ordered off eBay, and I also managed to get copies of the Sears catalogue from both those years. They’re invaluable research tools – basically compendia of every single thing available for purchase that year. And they help you with the names of things: That’s not a couch in 1929, it’s a davenport!
NAW- Your novel has a very unique structure with stories where the narrative moves back in time. How difficult is it maintaining such a structure?
There were times when it felt like one of those arcane logic puzzles: If Joe lives next door to Zeke but not to Ann, and is more than three years younger than the person married to Daphne… I had to do a ton of outlining at every step, and I was terrified of consistency errors. It was important to me that I write it in the order it appears – that is, backwards – and while that probably made the writing slower (I couldn’t write 1955 until I’d planned out every detail of the 1929 that would come next, for instance) it probably saved me a lot of headaches in the end. And it was fun. I love books with interesting chronologies, and in many ways I was writing the book I wanted to read.
NAW- What can readers expect from THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE?
It’s a book that will reward a close reading. There are a million little details (and even some big ones) that you might miss if you skim it casually. But for the close reader, I can promise that all the mysteries laid out in the first half will be solved by the end. And I can promise humour and intrigue and romance and ghosts.
NAW- Tell us about your other works.
My first novel, The Borrower, is about a small-town librarian who inadvertently kidnaps a ten-year-old boy (or is kidnapped by him, depending on the way you look at it). It’s a much more political book than The Hundred-Year House, but it has some of the same voice.
My story collection, Music for Wartime, will be out next July. The stories are connected by those themes – music and war – and it asks, as a whole, what the role of the artist is in a violent and unstable world.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I wish I had something really interesting to say here, but I do what almost every writer does when not writing: teach writing, travel to promote my writing, answer emails about my writing, and take care of my kids. Oh, and yoga.
NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?
At this point, I’d say my top three (in terms of both inspiration and admiration) are Nabokov, Shirley Jackson, and Tom Stoppard.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
I’m reading The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. My family is Hungarian, and I’m fascinated by her story of Hungarian expatriates at the start of World War II. And in my car, I’m listening to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s hard to read her without feeling like you’re living entirely in her world.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
After the final edits are in on my story collection, I’ll be plunging into the third novel – set in the 1980s art world, against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis.