By Leslie Lindsay
A meditation of space, home, and what it means to be a mother, a wife, and a writer in this transformative memoir.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Can a home be cathartic? I think so. Can a home teach us life lessons? Absolutely!
I know we’re not supposed to fall in love with a book based on its cover but O.M.G.! And the title: HOUSE LESSONS: Renovating a Life (Sasquatch Books, March 24 2020)…AND it’s a memoir? Sold.
Erica Bauermeister is the author of mostly recently THE SCENT KEEPER, but has written other books, too. HOUSE LESSONS is her first memoir. This is a tale of love and family, hope and potential, all arising quite literally from a pile of junk. The 1909 American Four Square sat in eccentric Port Townsend, WA, not even for sale with the author and her husband stumbled upon it and knew it was ‘the one.’
Previously owned by a hoarder, Bauermeister and her family go about purchasing the home and cleaning it out, rebuilding the foundation, and renovating the interior spaces. It’s about finding potential in the physical and metaphorical walls of our homes, about marriage and family, roots.
Told in a mesmerizing memoir-in-essays, and braided with practical and psychological information about houses, homes, design, room placement, and more, I thoroughly enjoyed the literary exploration of architecture and interiors. Bauermeister’s style is easy, lyrical and flow-y, much like her fiction. I loved the connections between myth, folklore, superstitions, history, and construction of a home. Also, the interior art/sketches and quotes were my heart. The fact that Bauermeister was a former Realtor also endeared me to the story.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Erica Bauermeister to the author interview series:
Erica, so glad you could join us! This book has my heart in so many ways. We once lived in a 1920s two-story Colonial I adored. Next door, an American four-square. There’s something special about old houses, and so I think this might have been your jumping off point for delving into this story, but maybe not? Can you tell us what inspired you? And why now?
I love old houses, always have. I don’t know if it’s the details that you rarely see in new construction these days, or the stories they hold, or the need they so often have to be taken care of. What I do know is that it is deeply satisfying to bring a house back to life. I have to admit, we chose one heck of a project when we bought a house with a rotten foundation, roof, windows, electrical and plumbing systems. Add to that the 7.5 tons of trash and I have to wonder what we were thinking. It sure is beautiful now, though.
I completely appreciate how you liken the process of renovating a house to renovating a life; the implication is that both are cathartic. Can you talk about that a bit, please?
A renovation means to work with the design of the original house, as well as the current owners’ needs, and come up with a solution that is seamless, and satisfying to both. When you apply that concept to a life or a marriage, it means to respect the original design, while also addressing changes that need to happen. It means looking closely, listening carefully, and approaching the process with respect. That’s my kind of catharsis. It’s quieter than the sledgehammering kind of catharsis – which I highly recommend also.
I love, love the side-notes about homes and design, construction and architecture peppered throughout HOUSE LESSONS. It reads a bit like narrative non-fiction and brings a new layer to the traditional memoir. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
It was. I wrote this memoir 3 or 4 times over the years – I’ve honestly lost track. The first few times it was a straight, chronological memoir. But as the years went on, I realized that even more than the stories, what I was really interested in was the theoretical and psychological aspects that ran like an undercurrent throughout the experience. I wanted to dive deeper, explore the events in a more universal light. My friend Jennie Shortridge said:
“why don’t you write the book as essays?”
and suddenly everything clicked. I loved the idea of each essay/chapter exploring not only an event, but the larger context that framed it. And I loved the idea of making each chapter its own beautiful and self-contained thing that would still read like a narrative story when they were all put together.
One of the sections I flagged in HOUSE LESSONS was the concept of genius of loci—I’m paraphrasing here—but what I think it means is: there’s a place we feel most comfortable (geographically) in the world and when we’re there, we just ‘know.’ For you, it was Port Townsend. For me, it was NOT Minnesota. Haha. Can you tell us more about this genius of loci concept?
Genius loci is the spirit of a place – and I’m a firm believer that we connect, or don’t, with that spirit. Flying over Seattle for the first time, I knew in my soul that I belonged in the Pacific Northwest. And that was true even though I’d grown up in California, far away from evergreens and cold saltwater and rain. What makes that moment of recognition happen? I think it’s the magic that happens when all the favorite bits and pieces of our lives — experiences, memories, books, movies, relationships, colors, smells, you name it — connect with a place that meets so many of those needs.
“Bauermeister’s tale of architectural renovation is a window into the nuanced connection between our human lives and our physical dwellings—a relationship that is poetic, visceral, familial, sometimes irrational, and always grounded in love.”
–Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Mozart’s Starling and Crow Planet
The house in Port Townsend…it became your refuge in a way, starting first as a place you’d retreat from kids and managing the day-to-day of a household to collaborate with builders and contractors on the renovation and then, it became your sanctuary for creation with the addition of your writing shed. I like how art and writing return us to ourselves, to our eternal home. Can you expand on that?
One of the things I enjoyed about writing HOUSE LESSONS many years after the events occurred was the way that distance allowed me to understand the narrative arc of my life. It wasn’t until I was looking back that I realized how important the art of renovation was to me during that time when my kids were needing me less and I was wondering who I was. The renovation gave me a chance to engage my mind creatively, philosophically, theoretically. I loved it. And then later, after the kids were fledged, the house gave me a place to really come into myself as a writer. I called it the emptiest of nests, where anything could happen. And it did.
We have a cultural myth of the mother who gives up everything for her children. What the house in Port Townsend taught me is that I am a better mother when I am also an individual and a writer.
Speaking of writing, how did—or does—the process differ for you writing fiction versus nonfiction/memoir? What did you hope to gain? And what might you offer those who might like to shift genres from time to time?
I originally wrote memoirs – about being a young mother, about living in Italy, about renovating the house — but they were all rejected. I was told they weren’t personal enough or didn’t have enough perspective. When I turned to fiction, readers often remarked how personal my writing was, which I found funny in an ironic kind of way. But somehow, writing about other people allowed me to go places I couldn’t or wouldn’t go as myself. I didn’t write about my life specifically, and yet I learned so much about it through writing fiction.
When I returned to memoir to re-envision HOUSE LESSONS, I came with a willingness to dive deep that I’d learned through fiction. And I also came with perspective, as the events I wrote about had happened almost twenty years earlier. Both those things made a huge difference.
I think it’s great to shift back and forth between genres – and I’d throw in poetry, and research for that matter. It’s good to shake things up and look at your topic from another perspective.
I love the idea of hiding things in walls. There’s a very poignant scene in HOUSE LESSONS where you talk about the history or hiding objects, photos, letters in the walls of the house. What will future generations/renovators find in the Port Townsend house?
There’s a story I tell in HOUSE LESSONS, about a time when we were waiting to get our roof replaced. No other progress could happen until we had the roof, and we waited and waited for weeks. Finally, one day I found myself alone in the house and I just said out loud: “what do you want?” And then I remembered I had promised the house I’d put something in the wall for future owners to find. So I went home to Seattle and got photos of everywhere our family had lived and been happy and I put them in an envelope with a note for whoever found it.
The roofers showed up the next day.
I like the idea of someone, someday, many decades from now, finding what we left.
Erica, this has been so fascinating. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. What might I have forgotten to ask? For example, what three things can you not stop talking about?
Three things I can’t stop talking about:
- Little America on Apple Streaming. Beautiful vignettes of immigrants’ lives in America, taken from real life. Hopeful and empowered stories, with great plotlines. Written and directed by a wide range of people of all different colors and ethnicities. This is what television can look like.
- Reese’s Book Club. Okay, not just because it changed my professional life when Reese chose The Scent Keeper for her club. But more important than that, I am impressed and delighted that she has chosen to use her celebrity to highlight other women’s stories. She is sharing her power with women authors and bringing interesting female characters into film. She is proof that women do not have to wait for someone to open a door. We can make doors ourselves.
- My granddaughter. Because, granddaughters.
Artistic image of book covered designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1
For more information, to connect with Erica Bauermeister via social media, or to purchase a copy of HOUSE LESSONS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Erica Bauermeister is the bestselling author of four novels: The School of Essential Ingredients, Joy for Beginners, The Lost Art of Mixing, and The Scent Keeper, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick. She has a PhD in literature from the University of Washington and has taught there and at Antioch University. With the exception of two years in Italy, Bauermeister has lived in the Pacific Northwest for nearly four decades, and her children proudly say rainwater runs in their veins. She is a founding member of the Seattle7Writers and currently lives in Port Townsend, Washington, in the house she renovated with her family.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
I hope you do!
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, and the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this spring. Leslie has been awarded 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.
~Updated, 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming this Spring from Woodbine House~
LOVE IT? SHARE IT!
#memoir #houses #homes #renovation #remodeling #oldhomes #PortTownsend #art #writing #alwayswithabook #Wednesdayswithwriters
[Cover and author image courtesy of Sasquatch Books. Artistic image of book covered designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1]