Rebecca Makkai is the author of the new novel The Hundred-Year House. She also has written the novel The Borrower. She lives in Chicago and Vermont.
Q: Why did you decide to have the action in The Hundred-Year House go backward chronologically?
A: When I started writing this, it was all set in the present day (with the plot of what's now the 1999 section -- '99 still feels like the present to me, but wow, I guess that's historical fiction now).
I thought of leaving a lot of the mysteries of the past unexplored, a lot of questions unanswered. I was brushing my teeth one morning when I realized the narrative should actually go back into that past. And since I'd already written much of the first section, it seemed natural that this journey should happen in reverse.
I've always loved backwards narrations, from Martin Amis's Time’s Arrow to the backwards episode of Seinfeld -- and I was amazed at the things it allowed me to do with both dramatic irony and how information is revealed.
Q: Why did you set much of the book at an artists’ colony?
A: What's funny is that I made this decision before I'd ever stayed at one. Now I've done four stays at three colonies, and those experiences informed the book tremendously.
They have a fascinating sociology to them: these are places where we're living in little tribes, working and eating communally, and people form attachments to each other so quickly.
It's a bit like what happens on Survivor -- but, you know, with art and more clothing and you don't kick people out. And of course I wanted to write about the art world.
Q: How big a role does the theme of identity play in the book?
A: A huge one. There are a lot of false identities, and there's also a lot of self-reinvention. I've always been fascinated with that -- the ways someone might just start over with a new life.
Q: Which authors have influenced you?
A: For this particular project, I looked to Henry James, Shirley Jackson, and Daphne du Maurier, for the way they wrote about strange houses and possible ghosts. I also found the biographer Marion Meade tremendously helpful, for the way she writes about artists in the ‘20s.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm making final edits to my story collection, Music for Wartime, which will be released next July.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Hmm. If this book has made anyone who's not an artist curious about the world of artists' residencies, there are rare occasions when they're open to the public for tours.
And the gorgeous rose gardens at Yaddo are open year-round; you can see the fountain that inspired the one in The Hundred-Year House.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb