Sense of Place:

The history of one house

Laurelfield holds a wealth of history, stories from the past and present all reside within its walls. Now, we want to know the history of your house…

Share the history of your house; tell us about its past secrets, guests and ghosts. Share your story with us on Twitter @WindmillBooks #HundredYearHouse or email windmillcomps@randomhouse.co.uk and you could win your very own copy of Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House.

 coverimage

Rebecca Makkai on writing her novel The Hundred-Year House

The Hundred-Year House is, I hope, a success as a novel. But before that, it was an utter failure as a short story.

Sometime around 2004, my husband and I were visiting my in-laws in Connecticut, and – through some combination of errands and work – everyone but me had left the house. Eleven years later, with two young children, I would be beyond thrilled to find myself with an empty day in an empty house. But back then I found it daunting. I’d had one story published, and the idea of spending a day – a full day – writing still felt a bit indulgent, like spending the whole day taking artsy photographs of my feet. I sat on the porch, though, and put in the longest, most intense day of writing I’d ever experienced. The next day, riding that momentum, I wrote more.

I wound up, no surprise, with the longest story I’d ever written. Certainly not the best. It was a winding, lopsided thing about two couples who’d moved in, together, to the coach house of a large estate near Chicago. It was a story about academic sabotage, male anorexia, adultery, ghostwriting, jealousy, and money. In other words: far too many ingredients. If you’ve ever tried to double a recipe but used the exact same cooking bowl you always use, and you’ve found yourself unable to stir the stuff without sloshing it out onto your counter, you know the feeling. Too much stuff. Not enough space.

There’s an obvious solution, right? Get a bigger bowl. This wasn’t a short story; this was a novel. But I was still working on my first novel, The Borrower. This couldn’t be a novel. I already had one of those. All I’d admit to myself was that at twelve thousand words, it was far too long to publish. I put it aside.

Over the next few years, I kept going back to this overgrown monster of a story again and again. It was called “Gatehouse” then, and by 2009 my computer was full of files labeled “Gatehouse, shorter,” “Gatehouse, chopped,” “Gatehouse, 10k words,” and “Gatehouse, eviscerated.”

One major problem: The more I cut, the worse it got. And not only because I was taking out the good stuff, but because the more I worked in this world the more I wanted to turn new corners in it. As it turns out, I was less interested in male anorexia (that part is completely absent from the finished book) than in the estate itself, its history. What if the house used to be a artists’ colony back in the 1920s? And now suddenly it was a story about this artists’ colony too, and the mysterious poet who had once stayed there. What if one of the women in the coach house was also an artist? And now the story was concerned with her art, collages made from detritus and broken dishes.

It wasn’t until I broke up, briefly, with my first novel that I admitted to myself that “Gatehouse” wanted to be longer, that it needed room to grow. I spent a month planning it out – we had a lovely little affair – and by the time I returned to The Borrower, I had a road map for how this story could become a whole world. Over the next couple of years, as I edited and published my first novel, I thought about the book that was slowly becoming The Hundred-Year House.

But it wasn’t done growing. Some recipes, when you leave them on the counter in their barely adequate bowls, stay put. Others have yeast in them. You come back and discover them creeping across your kitchen like The Blob.

When I came back to this book, I found that it was no longer content to remain, as it once had, in the year 1999, in the days counting down to Y2K. The story was now insisting on traveling back to 1955, when a cataclysmic accident changed the ownership of the estate, and to 1929, in the heady days when the house was still an artists’ colony, and when its future hung in the balance.

I had my work cut out for me. But I didn’t have a long afternoon to write – I had a couple of years. I no longer saw writing as a guilty pleasure. This was my job, the best job I could ever wish for. I wrestled the dough back onto the counter, and began.

 

 

More sense of place articles

Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Meet Windmill Books

Windmill is the online home of literary publishers Windmill Books, William Heinemann and Hutchinson. Part of Penguin Random House UK.