In Valerie Laken's first novel, Dream House, a couple with a troubled marriage buys a fixer-upper in hopes of repairing their relationship. Instead, they discover the home was the scene of a murder.
Just like the couple in the book, you and your husband bought a house and discovered that a murder had been committed there. How did you react?
LAKEN: We went from room to room and imagined, Maybe it happened in here, or maybe in here. It was like a real-life game of Clue. Did it happen in the kitchen with a candlestick? Or was it in the living room with a knife? We weren't superstitious, and we never for a second thought our house was haunted, but it was still troubling.
When did you decide to turn your experience into a novel?
LAKEN: A neighbor told me that an 18-year-old boy committed the crime and then ran to the corner store and said to the owner, Call the police, please. I just shot my mother's boyfriend. I thought, What kind of a young man would commit murder and then turn himself in and have the manners to say it that way? That stayed with me. The seeds of the story grew in my mind and evolved into this novel.
What advice would you have for those trying to sell a house with a checkered past?
LAKEN: There is something deeply gratifying about taking a broken-down, overlooked house and restoring its dignity. Other people might feel differently, but for us, part of the charm of an old house is the knowledge that it has a distinct and irreplaceable character that's worth respecting and preserving.
You write about houses as though they are living.
LAKEN: I think houses do have lives. When they get older they sag, and you love them anyway. There are different generations of houses, each with entirely different aesthetics. More than just having lives of their own, houses alter our lives when we live in them. For example, different floor plans necessitate different ways of living.
What's your definition of a dream house?
LAKEN: A dream house is a place where we can truly be ourselves. But I think that more often, a dream house is thought of as being the perfect house. Kate, the character in my book, suffers from having come from a perfect house, yet she feels incredibly imperfect. She is so conditioned by her upbringing that she finds herself repeating that procedure of trying to make her home perfect rather than making it a place where she and her husband feel they can be themselves.
The novel ends with the story of an immigrant moving to the United States. What significance does that have for you?
LAKEN: Americans have gotten used to the idea of moving every so often to a bigger or a better house. We're willing to give up our home, no matter how many great years we've had in it, if we believe life will be better with a third bathroom. It seems sort of frivolous, but really it's an act of incredible courage and flexibility-and it's a fundamentally American characteristic. We're a nation of immigrants, of people willing to give up the only home we've ever known and move great distances in the hopes that our new home would be better.
Critics have remarked that your book is so well-constructed, it feels like a house. Do you think of it as a structure?
LAKEN: I often talk about writing in terms of homebuilding or structure. First you have to frame it out; you throw up a few walls and get the basic structure in place. You certainly don't start hanging paintings until you have a real sense of whether the structure itself is sound. And then you layer in more detail, more detail, and finally you have a finished house.
Was the housing bubble bursting while you were writing?
LAKEN: I finished the novel before the brunt of the real estate crisis and the foreclosures started happening. But certainly there is a flip side to what it means to acquire a home and invest in a home and derive real pride and wealth and satisfaction from having a home. What does it mean to lose a home, and how devastating can that be?
Your sister, a real estate broker in Belvidere, Ill., recommends your book to her colleagues. Why do you think your novel speaks to real estate professionals?
LAKEN: Obviously, houses are core to our families, as one of our most intimate spaces. A home is one of the most central and pivotal features of our lives. And real estate pros, I think, understand that better than anybody.