Interview: January 9, 2014
Debut author Sonja Condit received her MFA from Converse College, where she studied with Robert Olmstead, Leslie Pietrzyk, R. T. Smith and Marlin Barton. Her novel, STARTER HOUSE, is a promising start, to say the least. It’s about Lacey and her husband, Eric, who discover shortly after moving in that something sinister lurks within the walls of their dream house. To save her family --- and her unborn child --- Lacey must discover the truth about the house and confront an evil that has lingered in wait for years. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Kate Ayers, Condit opens up about the real-life house (which she and her husband didn’t buy) that inspired the spooky one in her book and whether or not she believes in ghosts. She also talks about writing her most challenging character, why she enjoys hearing other people’s ghost stories, and, in plenty of tantalizing detail, what she’s working on next.
Bookreporter.com: Was there a particular catalyst for your debut novel, STARTER HOUSE? A news story or a derelict building that said “Write about me”?
Sonja Condit: Fifteen years ago, when my husband and I were looking for a house in this neighborhood, we visited a little Cape Cod and didn’t like it. We bought a house half a block away, and the Cape Cod was on my dog-walking route, so I saw it all the time and it was always for sale. People would buy it, live there for six months or so, and then leave. This went on for years, and I always wondered what was wrong with it. I think it’s been empty for a while now.
BRC: You were born in London, which is a historical hotbed of haunting tales, danger lurking in the foggy streets, and ghost-inhabited castles. Do you think any of that influenced you to write STARTER HOUSE?
SC: Our neighborhood was fairly new by London standards, not even a hundred years old, but our house was supposedly haunted. My mother said there was a baby crying. Now, most of the time we had an actual baby, so I can’t say how she knew which cry was real and which was the ghost. I never heard it. I fell in love with stories by writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, people like Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James; those stories influenced me more than anything else.
BRC: Most readers are intrigued by the idea of ghosts, but it remains up in the air for many as to whether they think ghosts are real. Do you believe in haunted houses?
SC: When I talk with people about this book, they often tell me their own ghost story. It’s surprising how many people have experienced something truly strange, and they don’t try to explain it --- they just say this is what happened to me. I’ve never experienced anything like that myself, but I love hearing other people’s stories.
BRC: Whether you believe in ghosts or not, have you visited any places that have unexplained events or sightings of ethereal spirits?
SC: In London, of course, you can hardly throw a rock without hitting a haunted house. I’ve been to plenty of historical places, Hampton Court, the Tower of London, and so on; my father lives in Finland, in the city of Savonlinna, where the castle Olavinlinna is heavily haunted. There are certainly places that have a feeling. They are all old, huge places. That’s why I wrote about an ordinary house. I wanted to see if I could make a ghost work in suburbia. My only nod to traditional haunted houses is that the numbers of the address, 571, add up to 13.
BRC: How do you create your characters? Take, for instance, Lex Hall. He’s quite a unique individual. Is he more fun to flesh out than a more “normal” person?
SC: I like to write in a very close third person, almost first person, so that the narrative is in the language of the point-of-view character. Lacey and Eric think of themselves as being very different, but they are the same age, educated in the same schools --- even though they use different metaphors and think different thoughts, they use the same language. So the third voice provided an opportunity to write something truly different. Not only an opportunity, but a necessity. If I had written a third college-educated rational character, that would have flattened out the differences between Eric and Lacey, and all three of them would have been the same.
I experimented with Lex. He needed to be very damaged, but his deficit is emotional rather than intellectual; he needed to be under pressure, just below the explosive point; he needed to know there was something wrong with him; he needed to know that people were disturbed by him. Technically, it turned out to be fairly simple. He doesn’t use names, except for Theo and Jeanne, the people closest to him. For everyone else he has a label (Uncle Floyd is the big dog, Sammie is the shiny girl, Harry is the old man, and so on), and his inability to use names alienates him from everyone. Also, he uses very short sentences with hard, guttural sounds. Whenever there was a hard "g" or a "k" available, I used it. If you read Lex’s chapters out loud, it should sound like you’re trying not to cry. It all comes down to rhythm.
BRC: Your main character, Lacey, is a teacher, on maternity leave during the course of the story. She mentions her “noisy boys” often. Apparently, she has a knack for dealing with the troublesome students. As a teacher yourself, is there anything of an autobiographical nature to this? Might any of your students have been a model for Drew? Or perhaps he is a blend?
SC: I mostly teach college students; students at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities are high schoolers, but I don’t have them in classrooms, only lessons, which are one-on-one. So I never faced the kind of classroom management situations that elementary-school teachers do, but I have the greatest respect for them. Imagine trying to maintain order and teach 25 six-year-olds!
BRC: Lacey and Eric seem happy at the outset, but the presence in the house wears on their relationship, and they begin to say some pretty awful things to each other. Do you think they would have descended into such ugly arguments had they chosen a different home?
SC: There’s always going to be some kind of stress on a marriage. They’ve been through quite a bit already, with Eric’s parents’ company’s financial collapse and his father going to jail, and then law school and the first few years of teaching are both extremely challenging. The problem was, they’d come through all that, and they were expecting things to be easy. Still, those ugly arguments were bound to happen sooner or later, no matter where they lived. That’s one of the challenges of a young marriage. They’re both still growing up, and there will be trouble.
BRC: Along those same lines, do you think the core strength of their love is what ultimately helped them to triumph?
SC: I’m not so sure they triumphed. Lacey certainly felt it as a loss; she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, which was to save everyone. Many of the decisions they made "for love" were bad. Lacey decided to protect Eric by not telling him what was happening, and then when she told him, it all came out at once, and there was no way he could believe it. When he went back to the house to reconcile with her, he arrived at exactly the wrong time. They both had a capacity for selfless action, though, and that helped them more than their attachment to each other. Lacey was willing to sacrifice herself rather than pass the house on to some other family; at the end, Eric was able to put his pride away and trust what Lacey was trying to tell him. Still, as their author, I can’t guarantee they’ll still be married in 10 years.
BRC: Also, do you think the age at which the spirit inhabiting 571 Forrester Lane died influenced his strength? In other words, is it your belief that youth has more rage?
SC: I think that the simplicity of his desire helped him hang on to the house and stay active in it. He wanted his mother. Nobody ever wants anything with the strength of a lost child who wants his mother. It’s a primordial force.
BRC: When you’re not writing, teaching or playing the bassoon, what do you like to read?
SC: I read everything. I just finished IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson and GODS IN ALABAMA by Joshilyn Jackson, and am just about to start WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE by T.C. Boyle; and I saw an interesting-looking book on the history of servants the last time I went to the bookstore, so I’ll have to pick it up next time. And there’s a new book by Elizabeth George, also on my list of things to read in the next couple of weeks.
BRC: When did you start writing? Has it been a long-time passion or something recently acquired?
SC: I started writing as a child, and through my teens and early 20s I wrote about a book a year. Each one, while I was writing it, I thought it was the best thing ever, and then afterwards I realized this didn’t work at all and I threw it away. There must have been between 10 and 15 failed novels. Those aren’t really failures --- that’s practice. I stopped writing for many years after my brother’s death, and started again a few years ago with two more failed novels. I could never work out how to take a first draft and make it better. My husband told me, “You know, you can learn that. You can get a degree.” I laughed. There’s no such thing as a degree in creative writing! Turns out, there is. So I did the MFA in creative writing at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, and it was great --- I learned exactly what I needed to learn.
BRC: And, of course, we want to hear about what you have in the works at this point. Will it be another ghost story or something entirely different?
SC: I’m close to the end of the second draft of a new book. This is a family mystery with a ghost in it, set partly in South Carolina and mostly in Finland. A girl has to go back to the ancestral home in Finland because her great-aunt has disappeared and her great-grandparents now have to be put in a nursing home, so the family is celebrating one final midsummer in the house. On this journey she begins to realize that the imaginary friend of her childhood is not so imaginary (and perhaps not friendly), as she and her cousins discover the body of the local Lutheran priest whom the great-grandparents buried under a woodpile in 1939. And I already have some ideas for another one, gathering moss in the back of my mind; that one won’t be a ghost story, for a change.