To some effect, writing The Hundred Year House allowed Rebecca Makkai to live out her childhood dream.
“I wanted to be a historian when I was a kid,” she said in a recent phone interview. “But what I really wanted to do wasn’t dry research — I just wanted to be spooked out by old things.”
Turns out, you get to do that when you’re a writer.
Her newest book is about, you guessed it, a hundred-year-old house, at a place called Laurelfield in Chicago. In the story, the estate’s residing family offers the home’s coach house to daughter Zee and son-in-law Doug.
Zee, a Marxist literary scholar, detests her parents’ wealth. Doug doesn’t; he has his own reasons for wanting to live there. Fascinated with the building’s previous life as an artist’s colony, the out-of-work academic hopes to find artifacts from between the 1920s and 1950s. In particular, he seeks something by or about Edwin Parfitt, a famous poet who was once a resident. He thinks the house could be the missing piece to his book deal.
Of course, not everyone favors his poking around, particularly his mother-in-law, Gracie, who guards the old archives with odd vigor. The couple wonders — what is she hiding?
The novel was inspired by the ritzy old houses in the Chicago suburbs near where Makkai lives. Growing up, she had friends who lived in them, and when she was a teen, she babysat kids whose homes contained old secret passageways.
“Even now, I’m constantly in danger of driving off the road, because I’m always staring at these houses, thinking about the history of them,” she said. “In the Chicago area, old really is 100 years. In New England, that’s quite different — if it’s less than 200 or 300 years old, it’s pretty new. But there’s something about a place that’s 100 years old, whose original uses are long gone, its inhabitants long gone.”
There are elements of ghosts, secrets and spookiness in The Hundred Year House — for example, the ominous dining room portrait of Zee’s great-grandmother, who supposedly killed herself in the house. But as Makkai will explain during her reading at Gibson’s Bookstore July 30, it’s not really meant to be a ghost story.
“It’s the story of a haunted family in a haunted house, told in reverse,” Makkai said. “That makes it sound more of a ghost story than it really is. There is a legacy of a ghost in the house, and there are strange properties that affect people in really powerful ways, but it’s not a scary story that will keep you up at night.”
The book switches between 1999 (Makkai didn’t want characters to be able to Google), 1955 and 1929 (when the artist’s colony ruled the house). The abnormal structure required a 50-page outline before she even began to write.
“I realized I was introducing a lot of mysteries about the house and history that would have to go largely unanswered,” Makkai said. “But I realized I could jump down the rabbit hole and take people back in time. … I’ve always been fascinated by stories with messy chronologies, stories that ask you to put things in order yourself. And I love movies that work that way too.”
The book is Makkai’s second novel. Her first, The Borrower, earned stellar reviews when it was released in 2011; at that time she was already relatively known in the short story circuit. Her short fiction was chosen for for The Best American Short Stories from 2008 through 2011, and it regularly made appearances in magazines like Harper’s and New England Review. She holds a master’s from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and she taught at a Montessori school for 12 years before stopping to write full time.
This started out as a short story too.
“A short story that didn’t work,” Makkai clarified. “... In the northern suburbs of town where I live, you’ll sometimes drive by these estates — [the coach house] would have been a house for a chauffer or butler. ... But now you have grandparents living in them, young couples renting them, or maybe a nanny. Usually, though, it’s a different relationship.”
It became far too long; normally, a publisher won’t want a story that goes much over 6,000 words. Hers was 12,000.
“I kept trying to cut it. It would get shorter and shorter, but too much would become lost. It took me a weirdly long time to realize it needed to be a novel. I just couldn’t let go of it — it was my favorite thing I’d ever written!” Makkai said. “But it just wanted to be big.”
As seen in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Hippo.