By Leslie Lindsay
What happens when that traditional path of marriage-mortgage-baby-takes a different path? That’s what Vikki Warner shares in her (mis) adventures of a landlady in her debut memoir, TENEMENTAL.
I adore old houses. I’m entranced by memoir. So when I stumbled upon TENEMENTAL (Feminist Press, June 2018), I knew I had to read it. Vikki Warner and I are just about the same age–she was twenty-six in the early 2000’s, had a bit of a nest-egg and was trying to figure it all out. And so she bought a house. An old house. In Rhode Island. She was single.
At just about that same time, but in Minnesota, my fiance–now husband–and I purchased our first home together. Also old. But not a three-family flat. It was a single-family home and I was overwhelmed. When I think about Vikki doing this herself, on a much grander scale, I am thrown into a full-on panic attack.
I’m a landlady.
I’m responsible for a big, busted house and the people who live in it.
Here’s a book about what that’s like.
Suddenly, I am responsible for two stories, a giant yard, and plenty of old-house problems. Meanwhile, across the country, in Rhode Island, Vikki is responsible for a rotating cast of characters/tenants, expensive repairs, and navigating adulthood while trying to pursue a writing career.
Vikki is a delightfully wry writer, with plenty of grit, feminist leanings, and a DIYer-mentality one has to applaud. Life isn’t always perfect and houses aren’t at all. Nor are the people who occupy them. I felt enamored to her lovely Italian ‘grandparent’ neighbors and sensed such anxiety when she’d describe the problems this old house endured (burst pipes and all).
TENEMENTAL is a memoir at heart–we get a glimpse of Warner’s journey, her childhood and even her love life–TENEMENTAL a journey of growth, adulting, and learning to appreciate life’s imperfections via an old house.
Please join me in welcoming Vikki to the author interview series.
Vikki, it’s a pleasure! It’s not exactly novel to write about an old house (but gosh, I love books featuring them). TENEMENTAL is not *just* an old house and it’s not *just* a memoir. Can you talk a bit about how you came to write this story? Was there something nagging you? Was it the house?
Leslie, thank you so much for having me. And thank you for sharing your own story of twenty-something homeownership!
You’re right that writing about an old house is nothing new—the overconfident home-buyer up against a stubborn, difficult, frustrating—but also lovable—house makes for an irresistible premise. When I began working on the proposal for Tenemental, I looked and looked and didn’t find another memoir about a woman buying a multifamily home, fixing it up, and living in it while also renting to tenants. That meant I had to do it! As I put more work into the project, I felt surer of it than I’d been about any creative endeavor.
My house, of course, is not alive, at least not in the way we usually define the word. But it is a character in Tenemental—a source of constant anxiety that also enfolds me in its reassuring safety. It is not alive, but it contains many lives, and the thrum and twitch of those strange lives held together under its roof gives it a nervous energy. I wanted to capture some of that in Tenemental.
I also felt driven to figure out just what made me take on this job—not only to buy the house, but to stick with it through 14 years (so far) of various mechanical failures, demoralizing tenant crises, break-ins, a big ol’ recession, and a health problem that turned out to be a life-changer. It seemed the house could be a useful filter, a prism through which I might see life more clearly. Though ultra-challenging, writing it was a relief, a safety valve letting off some of the tension that had long built in me.
I’m so curious to know more about the house itself. Can you remind us when it was built and who you purchased it from? Had it always been a three-family flat, or had it once been a large single-family home? I keep envisioning the house on the cover, but is that indeed what it looks like?
The house looks just like the illustration on the cover! That is due to the genius of my friend Mandy McCorkle, who did the illustration and cover design. She lived in Providence for a long time, so she really nailed the essence of our old triple-deckers—down to the discarded mattresses, slight crookedness, and faded paint.
My house was built circa 1912. (I’ve nicknamed it PennHenge—as I write in Tenemental, why should only country estates get names?) It’s always been a three-family flat: my neighborhood exploded in population around that time, welcoming thousands of Italian immigrants. Space was coveted and funds were limited, so families shared space. It’s good old-fashioned working-class housing, originally built to house people who went off to work in the mills every day. Simple, staid, and beautiful, it keeps doing its job even after a hundred years of intermittent abuse and lack of investment.
The guy I bought the house from was a small-time flipper. He bought PennHenge for something like $160,000, made only the most essential improvements to it, and sold it to me for $257,500. Far from being a showplace at move-in, the list of needed repairs only got longer when I learned just how nakedly in need the place was.
“Hilarious and down-to-earth…Warner provides a rare glimpse of life as an emotionally present landlady…A wild ride through the Great Recession and into the anti–environmentally conscious era of Trump. Heartfelt and fascinating.”
Much of the narrative—and your experiences with PennHenge—is about survival. There’s a piece somewhat early on that reads, “Like the hardy sailors in my mind, I pictured myself struggling through the storm, persevering to face the next crisis. Sometimes that’s what life is, and it’s not as bleak as it sounds.” Can you expand on that, please?
Well, I don’t want to be overly dire about the challenges I’ve faced as the owner of PennHenge. Having this house in my care has always been, and will always be, a signifier of my privilege. These are not life and death crises. But everything’s relative, and in those old days of just having moved in and being paranoid that something might go wrong, a frozen pipe and flooded basement was the worst of my old-house fears coming true. When it happened, though—when I actually found myself swishing through several inches of dirty water in the cleanup phase—I had a moment of clarity. This emergency had happened; in all likelihood these emergencies would never stop happening. Best to avoid freaking out, and just deal with it.
I went calm. I cleaned up the water, getting into the rhythm of it. I called a plumber, who fixed the problem. Turned out, all I really needed was a bucket, a Shop Vac and a credit card, and it was handled.
That realization changed how I dealt with emergencies (real or anticipated) forever. I do still experience moments of screaming house-related anxiety, but now I can more easily throw them aside and just do the task.
All along you’ve resided in the attic apartment of PennHenge. Not all landladies/lords do. In some sense, it’s a bit like running a B&B but with longer-term residents. How does this sets you apart and does it make for better tenant-relations?
Being an owner-occupant is important to me. It signifies trust between the tenants and owner. It means we know each other. I’m a real person to them, and they to me—not just names on a rent check. To be worth doing, for me this landlady gig needs to be personal. I have zero interest in just making money through this house—I’m seeking to give people a safe and comfortable place to live, and to live in peace here myself.
Owner-occupancy is a crucial tenet of anti-gentrification. If you live with your tenants, you’re more likely to be on the same level. You share space; you understand the neighborhood. I’m not living in a McMansion across town. That means I may be more sympathetic to tenants’ needs: I’m not going to wait a month to fix a bathtub. I’m not going to kick anyone out for a minor infraction. I’m not going to raise the rent sight-unseen every year.
Running the house this way doesn’t result in 100% trouble-free relationships—we are humans, after all—but it helps. I like to be able to give people a bit of a break in an area of life that is notoriously fraught—finding affordable housing and being able to settle into it long-term. I won’t say no one’s ever abused that policy—Tenemental goes into detail on some of those mishaps. But more often, tenants have really appreciated the ease of living here.
Did you ever have thoughts of just throwing in the towel, walking away? And how did you move beyond that? What about in writing TENEMENTAL? Did you ever think, ‘screw it—I’m not writing this?’
Yes, I’ve had my moments of wanting to sell and get the F out of PennHenge. Those moments mostly came during the 2008 recession, though, so I would have lost a lot selling at market value at that time. Really, though, those threats were pretty idle. I never became so truly fed up that I seriously considered putting the house on the market.
Same goes for writing Tenemental. For me, writing on this scale was an unprecedented challenge, every step of the way. I’m not a “natural” writer; I don’t turn out pages and pages just to experiment. I like to have a solid plan, a vision that I follow as closely as possible. And all the while I practically have to attach my chair to my butt to stay in it. I’m very distractible. As I got further along, though, it did gain a wonderful momentum that almost felt separate from me. How amazing to finally feel that elation!
But then you had these lovely Italian grandparents next-door. I would be lying if I said I didn’t somehow feel nourished by them, too. I imagined Angelo bringing *me* little basil seedlings and talking with me over the fence. Did you ever learn more about them—like why they stayed when everyone else started moving away?
I sometimes regret that I didn’t work harder to get closer, in a real way, with Angelo and Fiorella. Our communication was difficult due to a language barrier, and I admit that I let that stop me many times from asking the next question or sharing something about myself. The old ways of my neighborhood are secretive—I never figured out if my neighbors were withholding stories of their past because they just didn’t want to talk about difficult times, or because they didn’t feel like conjuring the right words, or something else.
I will try to let it be enough that we had such sweet times talking about our tomatoes and the dirt that collects in a head of escarole and the dog and how the car is always broken. It was so lovely to feel the gentle, unexpected affection that rolled off of them; to kiss Fiorella’s cheek and receive her rough hugs.
You’ve done a lot—personally, professionally, and with the house. What’s next on your to-do list?
I work as an acquisitions editor for Blackstone Publishing, which has a three-decade reputation as a top independent audiobook publisher and has more recently begun publishing in print and ebook. I love my job, and it provides me with more than enough to fill my time right now.
I would like to write another book. I’m turning over rocks in my brain, looking for the right topic.
I’m still living at PennHenge, where some renovations are just starting up—that’s going to be another focus of the next few months.
What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
I think we covered so much here, Leslie! Thank you for the thoughtful conversation.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of TENEMENTAL, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Vikki has worked as a copyeditor, resume writer, proofreader, and arts writer. She has written for BUST, The Boston Globe, Zagat, The Providence Phoenix, and other local/arts publications. Her work appeared in The BUST DIY Guide to Life. She has an M.A. in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College. Vikki has worked in the audiobook field for more than ten years. She now works as an acquisitions editor for Blackstone Publishing.
Vikki’s debut memoir Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady (Feminist Press, 2018) is a testy love letter to her house, her tenants, and her Providence, Rhode Island neighborhood. Kirkus Reviews called it “refreshingly original reading,” and O, The Oprah Magazine picked it as a Top Book of Summer in the July 2018 issue.
Here’s a profile of Vikki and Tenemental in the Providence Journal, and another in Providence Monthly. And here’s Vikki’s list of her favorite memoirs by women with unconventional jobs for Electric Literature.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Feminist Press and used with permission. Roofline image retrieved from V. Warner’s website on 11.10.18]