The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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Rebecca Makkai Talks Ghost Stories, Old Houses, Mad Men and More

by Tiffany Quay Tyson with enormously helpful contributions from Lighthouse instructor Jenny Itell, whose literary ghost story knowledge never fails to impress.


Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s recently released novel, The Hundred-Year House, was described by Megham Daum at the New York Times Book Review as the “precocious love child of John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire and a rousing game of Clue.” Her debut novel, The Borrower, won high praise from critics and readers alike. Her short stories have been anthologized in four consecutive (!) editions of The Best American Short Stories, and her blog posts for Ploughshares often leave me wiping coffee, post spit-take, from my computer screen. So I’m delighted that she took time to answer a few questions in advance of her upcoming Fly-By Writer’s Workshop visit November 8-9. (Tickets are going fast! Get yours now.)

The Hundred-Year House is told in reverse, starting with the most recent inhabitants of an large_The_Hundred-Year_Houseold, possibly haunted Illinois mansion and moving backward. You trace people through time, and also objects, allowing readers fun aha! moments of discovering how a thing—a jade monkey, say, or a painting—came to be in the house. Can you talk about the novel’s structure? In what order did the stories of The Hundred-Year House come to you?

It started as a short story, one set in the present day. There’s a long, boring saga involving my abandoning the story, coming back to it, etc. until finally it was a novel set entirely in 1999. I’d outlined the whole thing and drafted most of it when I realized it was deeply dissatisfying to stay in the present, not to be able to dive back and solve some of the mysteries of the past. This gave me a couple more years of work, of course, but it was a blast, outlining the 1955 and 1929 sections, and planting those objects that would have their own histories. Once I decided to move backwards, I outlined everything simultaneously before I wrote more — kind of like filling a whole sudoku puzzle in with pencil before committing it to ink.

Zee, one of the of the first characters we meet, is a Marxist literary scholar but finds herself teaching a seminar titled “The Spirit in the House: Ghosts in the British and American Traditions.” You give nods to several classics, including Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. When working on your book, were you inspired by some of the books Zee talks about? Which ghost stores are your favorites?

At one point, I actually had Zee’s entire course reading list written out. If anyone ever needs me to teach a college seminar on ghost stories, I basically have the syllabus ready to go. I kept a few books on my desk for inspiration as I wrote, although (this is typical of me) I never opened them. I just wanted them to sit there, and maybe somehow magically soak into my desk. The Turn of the Screw was one, and actually James’s The Aspern Papers was an even bigger inspiration. Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca was there, and of course Hill House. I actually hadn’t read that last one until I was working on the book, putting together Zee’s fake syllabus. I sent out a Facebook status asking for people’s favorite literary ghost stories, and that one topped the list. I count it among my favorite books now. I’d like to claim it as an inspiration for The Hundred-Year House, but I’m not going anywhere near what Jackson does in terms of psychological disintegration or actual haunting.

During one section of The Hundred-Year House we’re introduced to a colorful group of characters living and working together in an artists’ colony. The characters feed off one another in pursuit of creativity, but the communal arrangement also causes a lot of disruption and distraction. How does this translate to your writing life? Do you work better in solitude or as part of a larger community, or some mixture of the two?

I’m not sure that they’re disrupted and distracted by the living arrangement, so much as by the threat of the colony’s closure and the invasion of the house’s owner. And even so, they’re getting a ton of work done — which is what I’ve always witnessed myself at artists’ residencies. I’ve done five different stays at three different residencies, and in each case it’s absolutely monastic during the day — you never see a soul — and then at night it’s convivial, a welcome change after a day of solitude. You learn a tremendous amount from being with other working artists and seeing their struggles and work, and exchanging ideas. For me, at least, it’s an ideal arrangement.

This summer, you wrote an essay for Salon about the wildly popular series Mad Men and the influence of John Cheever on the world that Matthew Weiner created. In it, you make this wonderful comparison: “Cheever’s stories often end not with action but in a tangential and meditative fugue; Weiner’s episodes end with music, arguably the filmic equivalent.” What makes an unresolved ending work? What makes it satisfying?

I would argue that in both those cases — Cheever and Weiner — they are indeed offering us resolutions, just not the ones we saw coming. To take as an example my favorite musical ending of a Mad Men episode — Betty guiltily eating ice cream while “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” plays in the background — what we’re being given is irony, grief, a statement on immaturity, and an assertion of stubborn innocence, all at once. All of these speak back to the episode and wrap up its themes (well enough for what is, after all, a chapter in an episodic story). Just not in any predictable way. Contrast that with an old-school sitcom where plots A, B, and C are tied up and reflected on in neat succession — and yes, it’s far less resolved than that. It’s also much more interesting.

Are there other television series that you find as compelling as “Mad Men,” or nearly so?

Honestly — not many. I’ve found a lot of the series that have been heralded recently as having great writing (Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, and True Detective to name a few) to be horribly overwritten and heavy-handed. It’s like listening to a singer add 53 extra notes to the national anthem just to show off… It ruins the song, and it’s not good singing. I know this makes me sound like a horrible snob, but at least it keeps me from watching too much TV. The one exception to this is Girls, which I find quite subtle in its writing, and always unexpected. You never know, ten minutes from the end of an episode, where it’s going to land.

On the more lowbrow end, the other shows I love are talent-based reality competitions. (Not the singing ones, but Top Chef, Project Runway, even Shark Tank.) I know they’re completely contrived and edited and unrealistic, but there’s something so compelling, at the end of a long day or writing and editing, about watching other people struggle artistically. And seeing Tim Gunn come in to save the day.

While you are the author of two successful novels, you’re also a prolific writer of short stories. You’ve had several stories chosen for The Best American Short Stories anthologies. When you begin writing, do you know right away whether you are working on a short story or a novel?  I feel like there are numerous sections in The Hundred-Year House that could work as a short story, while still working beautifully as part of the larger story. Do your short stories ever morph into novel-length projects? Or, have you ever had an idea for a novel that you later realized was better in story form?

As I mentioned, The Hundred-Year House did start as a short story — and I’ve had one novel idea that I eventually wrote as a story instead. Outside of those, though, I can usually tell pretty accurately what I’m setting out to do. It depends largely on the size of the idea, the complexity of the issues at stake — is this something that demands a 300-page treatment, or something I can do in 20 pages?

Finally, Lighthouse Writers Workshop is located in the Milheim House, a 120-year-old house that was once a family home and is now the gathering spot for a bunch of writers. I can’t help but make comparisons to Laurelfield, the house at the center of The Hundred-Year House. Do you feel especially attuned to ghosts after writing this book? Will you tell us if you believe our house is haunted?

Oh, I’ll totally tell you! I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or not — which was probably the right mindset for writing The Hundred-Year House. I don’t tend to believe in them until I’m alone at night in an old house… and then suddenly I absolutely do.

About Tiffany Quay Tyson

Tiffany Quay Tyson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado. She was born and raised in Mississippi. THREE RIVERS, her debut novel, was a Colorado Book Award finalist and a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction. She is a 2016 Amtrak Resident. She is currently working on her second novel.

5 comments on “Rebecca Makkai Talks Ghost Stories, Old Houses, Mad Men and More

  1. andreadupree
    October 31, 2014

    Terrific interview, TQ and Jenny! I’m so impressed by Makkai’s process–let’s call it the Sudoku Technique. I always knew those weren’t a waste of time… (and ditto Project Runway and Top Chef)

  2. Terry Everett
    November 2, 2014

    Thanks, Tiffany. I’ll put this novel on my to-read list. You’ve done a great interview.

  3. Jenny Itell
    November 3, 2014

    Great interview, Tiffany! Thanks! Now I’m extra excited for Makkai’s visit!!

  4. Pingback: Lit Matters: Tips for Reading Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE | The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

  5. judithsaragelt
    January 20, 2015

    Well done, Tiffany! Love it when you do follow-ups with visiting writers! Much to learn, so thanks!

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