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Rebecca Makkai Invites Readers To The Hundred-Year House

Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is new to paperback and finding a new group of readers. The novel is both darkly humorous and often chilling—with splashes of historical fiction and a kind of ghost story. Its unusual structure also strikes most readers right away.

“The novel really goes backwards,” she says. “It starts in 1999 and that’s the section that I thought was going to be the whole novel. I sat down and started writing that and had it outlined for a 300-page plot for that section. I was well into it. I’d done most of the work. The problem was—they were living in this house, they were really fascinated by its history. They hear this story about some things that have happened there in the past. Something violent that happened there in the '50s, then they’re really intrigued by the time when this house was an artist colony back in the '20s. But it was going to end on this note of, ‘Oh, well, we’ll never really know the history of this place.’ It was very unsatisfying. So, it finally occurred to me that I could go back and actually go to the '50s and go to the '20s, which meant that I needed to stop and outline and re-write and do a lot of work. But it was worth it. It was a lot of fun.”

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Credit Philippe Matsas/Courtesy of Viking/Penguin
Author Rebecca Makkai

Creating the world which her characters occupy was one of the greatest parts of writing the novel for Makkai.

“It was like doing fake research. Usually when we do research, we’re trying to figure out what happened. You get some answers, you don’t get other answers. I got to find out whatever I wanted to because I was the one making it up. You feel like a minor deity,” she says. “You’re able to pull all of these strings and make it be whatever you wanted. Of course I did do real research for the book as well, just to get the historical accuracy right. But that’s more about details, less about what happened in a certain place at a certain time.”

For the real research Makkai used a method recommended to her by a friend.

“I went on eBay and I ordered the Sears catalogs for 1929 and 1955. The Sears catalog had literally everything in it that you could possibly purchase that year. From clothes to furniture to what records were popular, what songs were on them. I did that. It helped a lot. I could pick out outfits for my characters. Half the time I wouldn’t describe them, but I could picture them better,” she says. “But I could also remember that in 1929 they sit down—it’s not on a couch, it’s not a sofa, so I was looking through this catalog trying to remember what it could be. It’s a davenport. That was the most enjoyable research for me.”

Attempting to capture the right atmosphere for the novel wasn’t easy at first and for a moment Makkai wondered how writers of the past handled situations that were similar to the ones that she was describing in her work. Her methods in seeking this out were, perhaps somewhat predictably, unorthodox.

“I’ll think back to the way a certain author will handle something and I’ll feel like, ‘Yeah, I should really re-read that. I’ll get the book, and I’ll have these five books that I want to look at and I’ll line them up on my desk and then I’ll never touch them. But they’re there. So, for this one, I had The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, I had The Haunting of Hill House, which is a favorite by Shirley Jackson. I Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier,” she notes. “What I was especially interested in was books where the house seems to be haunted or supernatural in some way but there’s also a logical explanation for it, where there’s never a ghost jumping out at us. There’s always some kind of rational explanation, whether it’s that the character is telling us that this is insane, or that a rationalist could go in and say, ‘No, no, it’s only the wind.’ Those were the books where I thought, ‘I need to learn from them, what they do.’ And I’d read them in the past but I just put them on my desk, and I’d like to think that the contents sort of seeped out through osmosis, somehow got into my computer. Probably it was for the best that I didn’t sit there and re-read them and then feel intimidated by what those people had done so well.”

This summer will see Makkai touring in support of two books—the paperback edition of The Hundred-Year House--as well as her short story collection, Music For Wartime, which comes out later this month. She looks forward to discussing those—and one other book—in the coming months.

“My first book The Borrower right now is an Illinois Reads pick. So, I’m going to all these events for The Borrower, which I published in 2011,” she says. “So, I’m talking about three books at once. Then people are going, ‘What’s your next book about?’ Honestly, I’m excited to talk about all of them. You work on a book so long in isolation. You’re waiting for the chance to discuss it with someone in the same way that you read a book in isolation and then you really want to find the friend that’s also read that book. Or this is why people have book clubs. You want to work out… ‘Can you believe that she did that? What was that part about?’ When I write a book, I’m waiting for that for four or five years, to be able to gossip about these characters with people. To be able to talk through this weird experience that I had inside my head for five years. So, I’m switching gears a little bit, and I think I’ll be talking about both books all summer.”

Watermark Books & Cafe will host author Rebecca Makkai for a reading and signing of her book The Hundred-Year House on Thursday, June 4 at 6:00 p.m.

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Follow Jedd Beaudoin on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin