Monday, February 16, 2009

Yes, I'm Interrupting One Interview for Another--Valerie Laken Discusses Dream House

When we moved into our house three years ago, my friend John did some research on the place and gave us the owners going back to the 1930's. We actually know the couple who lived in the house in the late eighties; it's a good story for another posting. The family who lived there before us left Milwaukee for a job in Baltimore. But it was a family in between that was the story that stuck most with me. I was told by neighbors that the wife was hit by a car in the neighborhood, and the husband in his grief moved nearby, and then finally to Florida.

Imagine if one of the stories about your house something like that, or maybe even murder. That's the basis for Valerie Laken's new novel Dream House. Set in Ann Arbor, it starts with Kate Kinzler buying a house to renovate with her husband, only to find that a terrible crime has taken place there. What she doesn't know (as opposed to us all-knowing readers) is that the perpetrator Walker Price is just out of prison for serving his sentence and still rather attached to the place.

Laken is appearing at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue this Thursday (February 19th) at 7 PM. I asked her some questions about houses and stories and she was gracious enough to reply.

Daniel: I love how the house on Macon Street is almost like a character in the story. The "house as character" looms large in literature. Is the house based on one actual place in Ann Arbor? Don't give the address away here, but imply that people might find it out if they attend!

Valerie: The house in the book is very much based on my old house in Ann Arbor. About two weeks after we moved in, a neighbor stopped by and told us that a murder had once occurred under our roof. This was not exactly what we'd had in mind when we bought into the romantic This Old House vision. What's worse, our neighbor didn't actually know how or when the murder had occurred. So we spent those first several weeks imagining worst case scenarios, seeing blood in every carpet stain and bullet holes in every cracked bit of plaster. This was pretty far from fun. Eventually another neighbor told us a more complete story about the crime, and though it was disturbing, it struck me as a terribly moving, tragic, honorable story, one that completely reshaped my view of the house. Instead of feeling frightened and ashamed of our home's past, I came to find it oddly inspiring. And the seeds of that story began to grow in my imagination, eventually blooming into this novel.

Daniel: Many of your characters are trying to reshape their pasts, and yet they can't get away from them. It's not exactly that they can't grow up, but more that they are stuck and can't move on. It's almost like the story addresses the internal issues of the characters. So I ask-what came first here, the story or the people?

Valerie: One of the clearest records of our past is our home, which stores all our old stuff, both physical and psychic. The way we have lived in the homes of our youth shapes the way with assume we should -- or should not -- live in the homes of our adulthood. Even if we want to do things differently as adults, our homes are also powerful shapers of habit. Many of our best and worst habits start at home, and so if we want to change our ways, that often means breaking with the traditions of our home and family, which is a powerfully difficult thing to do. On some level, yes, the book is peopled by characters who want to break with their pasts, but they discover the pain and difficulty inherent in that desire.

Daniel: There is also some physical and psychological abuse that shows up in several characters' pasts. It recurs enough to make me think this links to the book's central themes. Does it?

Valerie: First and foremost, I was interested in the ways that homes can be both nurturing and damaging. I think most people have at least some personal experience that bears that out. Whether someone is losing their home to foreclosure or seeing an interstate built in their back yard, our homes can really test our limits, and problems at home rattle us at our core. Obviously domestic abuse, whether physical or not, is one of the clearest ways our homelife can damage us, so it seemed natural for that pattern to emerge in the book. The book was built around the central domestic homicide incident, but it seems to me that a violent event of that magnitude would not often emerge in a vacuum or in a perfectly calm, safe environment. To place a murder in the middle of a book with no other significant violence would seem implausible to me, as well as dramatically unbalanced. So there is a slight thread of domestic violence running through the novel. I actually believe that most family members, in reality and therefore in fiction, do damage to each other sooner or later; it's an inevitable part of loving and living with someone. But I think that the kinds of damage that get done, and the ways that family members react to that damage and work to heal or avoid it, reveal a lot about the family.

Daniel: One way I like to think of your novel is that it's a thriller without an enemy, and by this, I'm comparing it to Andre Dubus III, not Tom Clancy. There is conflict, but it's driven more by misunderstanding than by good and evil. What's your take on this? Were you planning on going this route or did it just happen? Or best of all, do you totally disagree with me? If so, how would you describe what you're writing?

Valerie: Yes. I don't really believe in villains. To me a villain is a flat character, someone unequivocally bad, and I just don't find that approach to humans very truthful or interesting in life or in fiction. A close match between characters who are all somewhat flawed and somewhat beautiful usually strikes me as more dramatic, unpredictable, and authentic. When I read about people doing terrible things in the news, my reaction as a writer has to be "What would compel someone to do that?" That's the main mystery a writer has to try to solve. A writer's job is just to try to carve out a way to make humans more comprehensible to one another. I tell my writing students to think of the way Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. I think we would all agree that Lecter is unequivocally bad, but what made him so deliciously frightening in the film was the fact that Hopkins didn't approach him with the dismissive attitude of "How evil," but rather, "How interesting."

I don't want to ask all the good questions. You can still find out if Laken writes in the morning or the afternoon!

Valerie Laken is a faculty member of the English department at UWM. She has degrees from Iowa and Michigan, and was won the Pushcart Prize, two Hopwood awards, and honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. Once again, she will be appearing at the Downer Avenue Schwartz store this Thursday, February 19th, at 7 PM.

1 comment:

Becky said...

How intriguing! "Dream House" Sounds like something I would definitely love. I am just finishing up a great murder novel myself... "Threshold" written by Bonnie Kozek. I have found the writing to be razor sharp, extremely unsettling, yet impossible to put down! However when I have finished reading "Threshold" I am definitely going to find and read "Dream House." I am so glad I stumbled across this site!