What inspired you to write Dream House?
Dream House began with a bout of nostalgia when I was visiting my parents at the rented house in Maine where I grew up. For the sixty-one years they lived in the house, my parents had wanted to buy it, but the landlord wouldn’t sell. The house was small and unremarkable, but sited in an extraordinary location overlooking a tranquil cove that opened to the ocean. That day, sitting on my childhood bed looking out the window, it occurred to me that soon, I would lose that exquisite view. I grabbed a notebook and began to write. What I discovered as I wrote was a deep longing for the qualities of my childhood landscape, 3000 miles from where I was living in San Francisco.
My nostalgia inspired the book’s main conflict: Gina, an architect of other peoples’ house dreams, is searching for home. Gaston Bachelard’s intriguing sentiment from The Poetics of Space, which opens Dream House, seemed to anticipate the story I would write:
Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and not to dreams.
When you’ve lived somewhere that’s captured your heart, you measure everywhere else you live against that place. I’ve been fascinated by what my residential architecture clients have wanted from their houses. Some are building a dream, a departure from what they’ve known, or an artistic statement; others are motivated by nostalgia for the past. Working with them, I’ve felt the immense power of houses. I began asking the questions that would inform the heart of the book: with a new house, do we start fresh or try to catch the essence of houses that were the containers of our first dreams and memories? How can we re-establish—with shape, color, light, scale, materials, landscape—the important sensory equilibrium we remember? Is it more satisfying to start over? What makes a house feel like home? Compelled by these questions about what our houses mean to us, I became determined to find the story that would allow me to explore them.
You frame the chapters of Dream House with quotations by thinkers who have written about the relationship of houses to people’s interior lives. You quote architect Christopher Alexander: “The structure of life I have described in buildings—the structure which I believe to be objective—is deeply and inextricably connected with the human person, and with the innermost nature of human feeling.” Could you tell us a little about how this idea defines Dream House?
There are moments in which the house in Maine and Gina seem to be one and the same. At the very beginning of the novel, we see the house tired, empty, in limbo, not belonging —all feelings Gina is having after her parents’ death.
Our houses harbor the best of nurturance and the worst of injury; in them, I believe we are at our most powerful and powerless. We talk about how our families have shaped us, but how we share space with that family has also been deeply affecting. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard discusses the dialectics of inside and outside, describing the walls that divide them as “painful on both sides.” This assignment of feeling and psychological response to walls sparked my thoughts about their divisiveness and porousness, the adjacency of rooms that make young Gina a forced witness and later, anxious and hyper-vigilant with her own children. The power of her childhood house— both negative and positive—holds her in a tight grip. Her investigation of its physical structure triggers an emotional breakthrough that in the end liberates her and lets her move on.
One of the fascinating sub-plots of the story is that Gina’s family is descended from the personal secretary of George Washington. Toward the end of the novel, a packet of letters is discovered hidden in the house. They are enormously important historical artifacts, letters between Washington and Jefferson. Where did you come up with this idea?
This sub-plot was only partly a product of my imagination, as I’m descended from a number of American historical figures, including Tobias Lear, who was George Washington’s private secretary. There was a real, documented mystery about missing correspondence between Washington and Jefferson, which I solve in my novel. In reality, what actually happened to the letters remains unknown.
My grandfather spent years documenting the ancestry he was so proud of. He was, in my mother’s words, “obsessed.” My mother’s family lost whatever money they had during the Depression, but they were indoctrinated with the “importance” of their pedigree and the historical artifacts they had inherited. When my grandparents died, the extent of the family treasure trove revealed itself to my mother and her siblings. I was in high school when they were making an inventory of the many boxes of stored documents and unearthed one of the original twenty-five copies of the Declaration of Independence. No one knew until that day that a document of this significance was among the possessions, and the sale of it helped to pay for my and my cousins’ college educations.
Dream House tries to capture how possessions can tear families apart. Our houses are the private battlefields for this particular kind of war that I think has especially afflicted East Coast WASP families. The sense of entitlement and self-importance that comes not from what you’ve made of yourself, but from your lineage and what you possess, is a hallmark of this social class. The mindset has become more diluted with every new generation as family estates become more widely dispersed and we grow more distant from our illustrious ancestors. And, hopefully, this change also reflects a positive shift in our values.