By Leslie Lindsay
An elegant, perceptive, yet powerful debut about what it means to belong, to search for self within the constructs of a home.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS| ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
HOME MAKING: A Novel by Lee Matalone (HarperPerennial, Feb 18 2020) is such an intangible kind of read–it’s not fully a novel, not fully a memoir, but somewhere between. And I really loved this hybrid-like approach. It’s told in first person and doesn’t exactly follow the traditional arc of fiction, but it more meditative, quiet, introspective like one might expect of a memoir. Having said all that, this is a work of fiction (of course, like all good fiction, it’s often mined from the ‘real-life’ of the author’s experiences).
The story starts off with a Japanese woman who runs away with a French man, becomes pregnant, then puts the baby up for adoption.That baby is adopted by an American family leaves Japan, and is raised with her adoptive family in Tucson, Arizona. This little girl (Cybil) grows up to become an ob/gyn, delivering babies while her own, a daughter (Chloe), is raised by her in combination with au pairs. The pace is relentless is the first quarter or so of the book, and told with a smart, razor-edge prose that is at once elegant and jarring. There are plenty of references to homes and design and architecture–esoteric quotes and notations–which I loved, but others may find distracting (I’m a super-nerd when it comes to design and architecture).
Now, Chloe is all grown up, living on her own in the hills of Virginia. She’s struggling–at times (simultaneously?) empowered, grief-stricken, healing. Her marriage is over and her estranged husband is dying of cancer. Can a woman live alone in a new-to-her house with a dog? Of course. Room by room, Chloe makes her new house into a home, painting walls, selecting furnishings, thinking about her ex-husband. And her friend, Beau is there to help. But he has a history–and struggles–of his own.
Ultimately, HOME MAKING is focused on powerful reflections on identity, motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, belonging, and searching for home within one’s self. Some of the turns of phrase are so lucid, so gorgeous, I ached to work on my own writing.
In the end, Chloe finds solace in the home, that in finding herself, the carefully curated exterior seems to flounder; she was no longer driven to make everything inside (the house) perfect, she relinquished control.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Lee Matalone to the author interview series:
Lee, welcome! So thrilled to chat with you about your debut. I always feel we are haunted into writing a certain story; that there’s a whisper or a coaxing of someone—or something—urging us to write. What was it for you in HOME MAKING?
There were a confluence of interests or hauntings that led me to write the book. One of those is this feeling that we— people in general— are expected to conform to stringent definitions of identity. I believe there is a pressure, at least within American society, to rally around a singular, distinct flag pertaining to origin or gender or race. As someone with a mixed race heritage, that expectation has always felt really impossible to me. That pressure can be crippling when it comes to feeling ‘at home’ in the world. That anxiety comes up in the book, certainly.
I read a piece recently you wrote in LitHub about how there’s a fine line between writing about family and memory and fiction, that sometimes it appears they meld together. HOME MAKING is very meditative and introspective. In many ways, it reads like a memoir, but is not. Can you talk about that, please? I think this also speaks to structure, too. Could you have written this as a memoir?
I could not have written this as a memoir because most of the book is not based in reality. While there are some parallels between my own life and the lives in the novel, most events, scenes and even characters I’ve invented wholecloth.
However, I will say that in writing the book I wanted to achieve the same level of intimacy that you often find in memoir or autofiction. That’s also why the book is primarily in the first person. I wanted that force of intimacy you get in those types of writings.
There’s a bit of mysteriousness and intrigue to the particular reading experience in HOME MAKING, almost a buoyant dream-like construct, sort of stream-of-consciousness. What is your process like? Are you plotter? Do you follow the pen? Can you give a little sense of the timeline for HOME MAKING?
I am definitely not a plotter. I wander toward a narrative. In regards to HOME MAKING, specifically, the book was sort of an accident. Five or six years ago, I had written a novella-length precursor to the “Chloe” sections that I eventually scrapped. It was kind of a warm up for HOME MAKING. Then one morning I sat down and wrote what is essentially the opening of the novel at my kitchen table. After further tinkering I realized that this new section and that novella were part of the same narrative, and that they needed to be developed into one singular story. I realized I had a much more nuanced narrative on my hands that required more pages. I never intended to write a novel.
I completely geeked-out over the architecture and design references in HOME MAKING. I’ve loved houses and homes for nearly as long as I can remember. In fact, I once thought about being an architect, but math terrified me. Was it this way for you, too?
Only in recent years have I realized that I should have maybe gone to architecture school. Being an architect was never something I thought real people did. But I was always interested in organizing domestic spaces— I am an obsessive cleaner and hunter of home treasures— and before and while I was writing this book I was reading a lot of design and architecture books— Le Corbusier and Tanizaki, for example. The novel was a way for me to explore these interests in a coherent way.
Shifting to motherhood…I felt your pieces of new motherhood were so astute, so palpable. Those early, healing days, that exhaustion. And there’s a strong passage toward the end of HOME MAKING where you say,
“You feel yourself becoming her [the baby]…maybe that’s why it’s easy to call women crazy, bipolar, mad, split personalities. We are carrying two people inside us at once.”
That’s so powerful. Can you talk about that, please?
I do not have children but my mother is an OBGYN and so I feel like I have a sort of intimate understanding of it, in a way. One thing she’s said that has stuck with me, a factoid that appears in the book, is that when a woman carries a child, some of the baby’s fetal cells can travel up from the uterus and into the mother’s brain. In other words a biological mother is always connected to her child, physically, literally, even after she gives birth. I think that is such a beautiful metaphor for the relationship between mother and child that speaks to the inextricable nature of that bond.
You’re a professor of creative writing. What might you want to impart to your students in their writing? How can they continue to ‘sharpen the saw?’ And how do you balance your own craft with the administrative pieces of writing and teaching?
As a creative writing instructor, I always try to emphasize the importance of the line. In many creative writing courses I’ve taken, as a younger student and an older one, elements of craft such as character and plot and setting were emphasized, but rarely was the necessity and urgency of the sentence, the word, stressed. That seems problematic to me. To me, the sentence should be the site of conflict. If your sentences aren’t expressing that urgency, that angst, then you are not going to get your characters to express that same level of conflict.
Like many other writers, I am easily distracted, so it is easy for me to do anything but write. But generally speaking, I feel that teaching is a gift that allows me to talk about books and writing with (generally) thoughtful and engaged people for hours every week, so teaching is in no way a hindrance to my creative work. I have plenty of time and energy to write— though of course that does not mean I always sit down and do the work. I can always find an excuse to not write.
Lee, this has been so fascinating and inspiring. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
It’s been lovely answering your questions. I appreciate you taking the opportunity.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this.
For more information, to connect with Lee Matalone via social media, or to purchase a copy of HOME MAKING, please visit:
I found the style or themes of HOME MAKING reminiscent of GOOD-BYE VITAMIN (Rachel Hong) meets THAT TIME I LOVED YOU (Carrianne Leung), with a touch of Pete Fromm (A JOB YOU MOSTLY WON’T KNOW HOW TO DO) meets Katharine Weber’s STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY. Some pieces of motherhood, particularly that dizzy new-motherhood daze reminiscent of Helen Phillips’s THE NEED.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lee Matalone is the author of HOME MAKING. She lives in South Carolina where she teaches at Clemson University.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. She has been awarded as one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of L. Matalone and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this].