Lee Matalone, HOME MAKING

Lee Matalone, HOME MAKING

Zibby Owens: I’m on Skype today with Lee Matalone who is the author of debut novel Home Making. Her writing has been featured in LitHub, The Rumpus, The Offing, and Denver Quarterly. She is currently a lecturer at Clemson University and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

Welcome, Lee. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lee Matalone: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Home Making is about?

Lee: I’m generally terrible about talking about my own work, but I’ll do my best to offer some sort of coherent summary. The novel follows these three characters who are on these individual yet intersecting journeys, if you could call it that, to figure out how they fit into the world. One of those characters is Cybil who is born in occupation-era Tokyo to a young Japanese woman and this French solider. They have this brief affair. This child is produced. Then this baby is subsequently adopted and brought to the United States by an American general and his wife. One thread of the novel follows Cybil from childhood to adulthood. The next major character is Cybil’s daughter, Chole, who the narrative follows as she’s trying to remake a home in the wake of her marriage dissolving. I’ll try not to give more away than that. Then there’s Beau who’s Chloe’s best friend. He’s shepherding Chloe through this period of time in which she’s grieving. At the same time, he’s trying to reconcile his own romantic failing and rekindle this relationship with a man from his youth. All three characters are really united is this quest, I suppose you can call it, to isolate some sense of identity or belonging, however romantic that notion may be.

Zibby: How did you come up with this? How did you come up with the characters? How did you come up with their relationships to each other? Honestly, the scene at the orphanage in the beginning where the baby is reaching out and grabs the American general and that changes the trajectory of basically everyone in the book, it’s stayed with me. That’s so visual. I didn’t explain that well, so maybe you want to take that and run with it.

Lee: I can talk generally just about my interest in the space making and house aspect of things. I’ve always been really interested in how we construct spaces, which sounds lofty. Really, I’m just interested in putting houses together. I’ve always enjoyed that sort of domestic activity. I’m really good at cleaning things or finding things at antique stores and thrift stores and making them work in a home, and cooking. Thinking about the conversations we have in these private spaces around a table or in our bedrooms, those things have always been fascinating to me. In the germination stage of the book, I was reading a lot of architectural theory and books on aesthetics. I was reading Le Corbusier and Bachelard, this book The Poetics of Space that pops up overtly in the novel, and then Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I was just immersing myself in these ideas.

At the time, I was also really interested in the work of this artist, James Turrell, who talks a lot about perception. His medium is light specifically. I was living in New Orleans when I started writing the book and took a few trips to Houston where there was one of James Turrell’s sky spaces. For anyone that’s not familiar with them, they’re structures. The one in Houston at Rice University is built on a small hill. There’s this seating oriented beneath this flat ceiling with a square cut out. It brings the sky down to your level and alters your relationship to space. He talks a lot about how we create these realties that we live in and that perception is really an important aspect of how we exist in the world. I was really interested in that idea of creating our own realities, especially as it relates to our homes and the spaces we live in. I think our homes and how we configure them say a lot about who we are and what we value. The books on our coffee table say something about us. How we arrange the plates in our cabinet say something about us. We really do construct these little worlds and realities. I think that’s really rich fodder for fiction.

Zibby: I’m hoping that the way I arrange the stuff inside my pantry cabinet says nothing about me because you don’t even want to look at the food, oh, my gosh. Plates are okay. Plates are stacked. That’s pretty simple, but…

Lee: Pantry.

Zibby: Yeah. I loved how you structured the book in that in the beginning it was more about the characters. Then you went into each room. Each chapter is named after a certain room. The theme of making your own house, per the title and everything, coursed through everything. Really, it was just this stage on which you had the characters’ lives play out. How did you come up with the idea for the structure of it and also the alternating viewpoints of the different characters?

Lee: The alternating viewpoints and the structure of the book as a whole has really evolved significantly over time. Before I started working with my agent, each character section was presented in full before moving on to another character’s section or life. For example, the Chloe section was one novella-length piece. The dining room chapter would lead directly into the kitchen chapter which would lead directly into the next chapter. You got a full character in one big chunk. Then my agent really helped me to establish this structure and make this critical structural choice in weaving the narratives together. I realized how much richer Chloe’s narrative or Beau’s narrative is or are when you take them as these pieces, these threads that are sort of interacting with one another. You see how their concerns are really of a piece. I think there’s a certain universality to this idea of making a home that we all sort of want to do that. All the characters are trying to do that in their own way. I think that woven structure really conveys that message. As far as the rooms individually, I’m not sure where that exactly came from. It just felt organic and an appropriate way of engaging with the ideas, like your romantic relationship, a bedroom, the bathroom you share with your significant other, these sort of ideas and things you think about in those rooms. It just seemed like a natural way of broaching these subjects by engaging with the rooms themselves.

Zibby: You seem like a total pro in terms of all the thought that went behind it and the research. Yet this is your debut novel. Did you just decide, I want to write a novel? Where did this even come from in your life?

Lee: I never decided consciously to write a novel. I thought, as a writer, I would never write a novel. If you look at my other work, I write really short things. I really like the short, micro-length work and what that can do. It was really an accident that this happened. I have never, certainly, renovated a home or even owned a home. It’s more of an idea that I would like to engage with one day in a real way. I was just, like I said earlier, just thinking about a lot of these things and obsessing over them. Then it grew from a story into a novella into a novel. It sort of felt inevitable, which I think is a healthy way to write a novel. I don’t know. It never felt forced. I wasn’t trying to write a novel. It just happened.

Zibby: Excellent. Let’s talk a little more about the book. There’s this one long quote that I just have to read, if you don’t mind. This is in the chapter from Ayumi. Your quote is, “For those that didn’t have happy childhoods, there are two ways to parent, if you choose to enter Motherhood.” You put that with a capital M. “You can hammer into your own child the lessons you were forced to learn, spanking the way you were spanked, refusing to dote the way your parents refused to dote on you to show the child that the world is cyclical and that you don’t deserve anything better than what you yourself got from your mother and father. Or you, the parent with the unhappy childhood, can say, I’m going to give this child everything I didn’t have. And you will commit entirely to this thing. You will give everything to this child, to this role of Mother –” capital M — “even at the expense of your own personal gratification and independence because what matters is showing your child that not all people are hopeless, that things can be good. They can. You can choose this second option because you understand you can never forget the childhood you were delivered.” Wow. Talk to me more about this passage and where this idea of taking your childhood into your parenting came from. I know you don’t have kids of your own. Where did this whole thing — because you have a lot about conscious decision-making as a mother. And why the capitals?

Lee: I think this is an idea that I sort of assembled from observing my own parents and the way that they were parented and then the way that they parented my brother and I. My mother’s adopted. I think the child who is an adopted child or someone who is adopted has a unique perspective on motherhood or parenthood. I talk about motherhood a lot more in the book than about fatherhood, so I’ll just say motherhood here. That relationship or that dynamic was always interesting to me. Then I think my father similarly had — not similarly, but in his own way had a difficult relationship with his parents. I just gleaned that mothering and parenthood was never something that you just fell into. There are choices to be made. Whether conscientiously or not, I think we decide to parent a certain way — we, humans, not me. As you said, I don’t have children.

I saw parents who had poor childhoods or difficult childhoods either parent in a sort vindictive way or a sort of iterative way, like, “Things need to continue on this pattern because I was treated this way. I will continue to act this way.” This is the model of passing down from one parent to another. Then maybe on the other side of things, a parent who will parent in a merciful way, like, “I want to make this better. I want to show my child that you can have a happy childhood and grow up and have hope.” In the book, I made it a little bit more black and white than in reality for the sake of fiction. It’s an idea that’s really compelling to me, the ideas we inherit from the way we were parented and how we can pass those on in our parenting styles to our children. You’re a mother. I don’t know if it’s fair to ask you, what is compelling about that concept to you? Can you relate to that?

Zibby: I can absolutely relate to that because I’m always like — even something as simple as eating, my mother used to hide chocolate chip cookies on a higher shelf so I couldn’t reach them. Now we have cookies for breakfast over here. Do you know what I mean? Things that she restricted, I want to make sure I never restrict. Some of the things are conscious, yes. The things that hurt you, you overcompensate, perhaps, in not doing the same things. I’m sure I’ve made other mistakes that my kids will then compensate by doing the opposite with their kids. I agree. It’s a cycle. The importance you gave to the mother with the unhappy childhood and the decision to parent a certain way, I don’t know, I just thought that was really cool. It’s nice to have a literary interpretation of my everyday life, so I liked it.

Back to this homemaking aspect of the book, Chloe, who’s the daughter who then grows up and has her own story, the novella, she doubts herself and her ability to make a home, which I think also a lot of people can relate to. She thinks, “Some women do this all their lives, iron, rear, sweep, wash, fold, brush, wipe. For the entirety of their adult lives, they make homes. They make other people. They make families, but no one talks about how difficult it is. I don’t think it’s any easier for a woman with a pretty husband and a pretty six-year-old daughter. Beneath the prettiness, we are all a mess. We are all struggling. We do not know how to make a home.” Is this how you feel in any way? I know you’re not aspiring, necessarily, to create this in your life right now, but do you think we’re all a mess? Do you feel like you’re a mess?

Lee: I think that we all have a lot more going on than we make it seem like, perhaps. I think that the domestic realm is just a really rich arena for engaging with a range of issues. I remember as a younger writer, talking with this novelist. She’s a fiction writer. She writes stories and novels. Her first book was really about these stereotypically masculine issues of work and violence and things like that. It was much celebrated. Then she spoke about having a child and after that how her life became breastfeeding and the typical things that have to do with the domestic life and how she as a writer felt sort of crippled by the fact that maybe her new life wasn’t rich enough for fiction or something. I thought that was really an interesting idea for a female writer to grapple with. I empathized with that a little bit as well. Obviously, I’ve come to terms with it and began to understand that these are really rich sources for fiction and for narrative and that our lives are extremely complicated. Even when we invite someone over to our house and how we present ourselves when we open the door and how we engage at our kitchen tables, these little mannerisms that we share in the things that we do in our homes are really complexed and nuanced and worthy of digging into. I don’t mean messy, necessarily, the worst way, but just messy in that it’s complicated and yes, this word I keep using, rich.

Zibby: I guess if lives weren’t complicated, we wouldn’t have all these great books. If everybody just had a perfect, simple life, there’d be nothing fun to read about and talk about. This one sentence struck me as just so sad, when you have this couple moving into their first home and building it together. You say, “Part of building a house necessitates living in denial that it could ever fall apart.” I feel like you just took a sledgehammer on the housewarming party, housewarming happiness. It’s pointing out that half of people get divorced on the wedding day or something. It’s a sad reality. How do you come to terms with the fact that people are always making homes and yet…what happens?

Lee: I think building a home is a great metaphor for building a relationship with someone. In similar ways, you can’t buy a house thinking about all the work you’re going to have to put into it. Otherwise, I feel like no one would ever do it, and same way with a relationship. You can’t go in thinking about the potential for abandonment and all these things. At a certain point, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can’t. You have to just go into it being hopeful. I think it’s an appropriate metaphor for relationship building. I guess I don’t see it in a totally bleak way. It’s more like you just have to be optimistic.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s true. I guess it’s how you go into it. Can you give me a little more background about you? Where did you grow up? How did you end up where you are now? And your education, how writing came into it and just how we ended up on Skype together today, sort of.

Lee: I did grow up in Virginia. I grew up in the suburbs of DC. I studied at the University of Virginia. I actually didn’t really start writing in an active way until probably my freshman or sophomore year of college. I went into university thinking I would go into politics. I was an IR major and then made this shift to English. I took a creative writing workshop. Then it just took on a life of its own, I suppose. I did somewhat of the traditional route. I did do an MFA in Louisiana, which I finished actually a year ago somehow. I took some time off, about five years. I was living in New Orleans and New York City and meandering about for a little bit. That’s sort of what took me to this place now.

Zibby: Excellent. Now that you’ve written this first novel — first of all, so you got an agent. How did you end up with your agent and all of that?

Lee: Since I was in undergrad, I’ve just been publishing stories. I have a website and had a story up there. My agent found it and found my email and reached out to me. It was the most fortuitous way of things working out with an agent. We talked. It just seemed to be a really good fit. She’s a really great editor. That was really important to me in working with an agent and not just someone who would find the book, package it and sell it, but someone who would actually engage and really understand what I was trying to do with the work. Kiele Raymond, she’s really great. She found me, and we’ve been together a year and a half or something like that.

Zibby: How do you feel about the book coming out? I know it’s a long process.

Lee: It’s anxiety-inducing, to say the least. I’m trying to be grateful and excited at the same time, but the gut reaction is just fear.

Zibby: Are you working on anything else now?

Lee: I am working on a few different things. I’m working on stories. I’m working on a longer nonfiction book project, but that’s at a very early stage. I’m just trying to prepare for the book launch in February. That’s occupying most of my mental space, for better or worse.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? You’re making it seem pretty easy. It sounds, in a way, like it organically unfolded. Then the agent came to you. Now you have this beautiful novel that’s coming out. What was the hardest part? What part did you really struggle with along the way? Give me some of the pain that went into this.

Lee: I don’t mean to make it seem easy. I’ll say I was very lucky and that a lot of this process is luck, honestly. The painful part of it is just writing for years in a vacuum and thinking that no one will ever read anything. Writing’s not exactly the most lucrative career path. You’re just working away in a room by yourself for years on end. You feel sort of like a madwoman. Then one day, it may or may not click. It did click for me. To go back to your original question about advice for younger writers or aspiring writers, I would say that you just need to write consistently and take any advice you get with a grain of salt. Especially now, there’s so much out there of craft essays, but then the Twitter conversations and then people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, when you should publish, what magazine you should get published in, and all of this. It can be really overwhelming. It was for me as a younger writer. Oftentimes, it made me feel like I didn’t fit the mold and therefore would never be a real writer, whatever that means. I think just trying to ignore as much of that as possible, taking what you find useful and being open to criticism, certainly, but also just writing and believing in what you do and keeping at it, and also reading, reading a lot, reading as much as possible. That’s probably my best advice for writers.

Zibby: Just one other question on something you mentioned, that your mother had been adopted. When she read this book — has she read this book? I shouldn’t assume.

Lee: Yeah.

Zibby: Yes, she has. How did she feel about it given her own experience?

Lee: It was a conversation I had with her. I took some elements from my life and her life and put it in the book. I was nervous about that. My mother and I have a really good relationship. I think you’d have to ask her how she feels about it, but probably a mix of emotions like I have about the book. Overall, she is very proud of me and of the work and, I think, happy with the product. She’s not angry at me, in other words.

Zibby: That’s good. It’s always good when our moms are not angry. That’s always a good day. Great. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lee: Thank you so much. It’s been great. It’s an honor.

Zibby: Sure.

Lee Matalone, HOME MAKING