Elena Bowes talks to bestselling author Erica Bauermeister about her recent memoir House Lessons. Bauermeister and her husband bought a wreck of a house in Port Townsend, Washington. The decade long renovation (much done by the family themselves) taught Bauermeister many lessons, far beyond how to use a power chisel. Her memoir explores how the house project helped renovate a marriage, a family and a life.
In college you read Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing and knew one day that was the kind of book you’d like to write. You were almost fifty when your first novel was published, and you’ve had bestseller after bestseller since. What did you need to learn in those intervening years before you could sit down and write your own novel? And what advice would you give other aspiring writers who are waiting for that moment to commit to being the writer they’ve always dreamt of being?
I spent most of my thirties and half of my forties writing memoirs, including an early version of House Lessons. None of them were ever published. Publishers (many publishers) told me that my books needed more perspective and didn’t feel personal enough. Interestingly enough, when I started writing fiction in my mid-forties, the main reaction I got from people was how personal my novels felt. I guess I told the truth better when I was making things up?
But in an important way, I think that’s true. Fiction was a safe way for me to venture into emotions I was hesitant to explore when I was writing about myself. I learned that truth lay in the deep, however, and when I finally returned to memoir, I wasn’t afraid to go there. And by that point I had the perspective I needed to take House Lessons from one person’s story to something more universal.
As for those early memoirs that weren’t published? I’m grateful they weren’t, because I wasn’t ready, on so many levels. But I am also grateful to them, because they taught me about the craft of writing, and so when I was finally mature enough to write the books I wanted to write, my skills matched the stories I wanted to tell.
Which is why I tell aspiring writers never to feel as if those rejected books aren’t worthwhile. They are your teachers. They are invaluable.
You’ve written four fiction novels and now a memoir. What inspired you to write a memoir?
The house itself. I could just feel the stories in it, and I knew that a renovation would supply even more of them. From the first time I saw the house, I wanted to write about it—I just didn’t know it would take so long to figure out how to do it right.
Your whopper of a fixer-upper took you more than ten years to move into. Knowing what you know now, would you do it all over again?
Absolutely. There is something immensely fulfilling about saving something that was once beautiful and bringing it back to life. It was what I needed at that time, and certainly what the house needed. But life has its own needs sometimes. The fact that we were able to end up here, however, falls into the category of the miraculous for me.
Any things you wish you had done differently?
Depends on what you are asking about… I am completely satisfied with the house as we renovated it, which is a real testament to our architect’s ability to navigate the needs of both the house and us.
On the other hand, I think there are always things parents wish they had done differently. I think that’s the advantage of writing the book fifteen years after the events occurred—being able to look back, with the knowledge that our children have turned into incredible human beings and we didn’t completely screw the parenting thing up. It makes it easier to acknowledge the times that we did.
In your Acknowledgements you thank Jennie Shortridge for suggesting you think about writing essays. Was that your process in writing House Lessons, writing one essay at a time until you had a book?
I love shorter, interconnected pieces (in fact, my first three novels are really interconnected short stories). I love how each chapter in that form is self-contained, and yet all of them speak to and enrich one another. With House Lessons I realised that interconnected essays would allow me to interweave my thoughts on renovating the house, and renovating our marriage and family, with a wide-ranging exploration of houses in general and how they affect us in particular.
What I find interesting is that when I am writing interconnected stories or essays, I rarely finish one and then go to the next. Instead, I work on all of them simultaneously for a while, until I can see the themes and through-lines of the whole book. Then I start finishing them up.
You blend academic curiosity about place and home with a memoir about renovating a house and what you learned along the way. You reference close to 60 books in your bibliography. Can you tell us how research plays into your writing process?
I love research. Almost every book I write, fiction or non-fiction, starts with a question I want to dig into. I love to discover intriguing facts and consider how they can help inform a fictional character or, in the case of memoir, provide insight into an event that actually happened.
In the case of House Lessons my question was how do our houses shape who we are? Over the 15 years between the time when we bought the house and when I wrote this last version of House Lessons, I had a lot of opportunities to research. I got to learn about everything from the history and culture of fireplaces, to superstitions about building, to the neuropsychology of hoarders, and the reasons why some of the world’s most iconic buildings succeeded or failed. I loved every minute of it.
Which was your most challenging chapter and why?
I think The Hearth, for the reasons I talked about in #7. That chapter is about an almost-disastrous experience that happened because we were approaching the house project (and our lives) in a way we knew was unwise: doing too much, too fast, not paying enough attention. It caused me to reconsider myself as a parent and to reconsider my definition of risk and safety. Those are not necessarily simple or easy things to write about.
Is your house at Port Townsend truly finished? Any more projects in the pipeline?
I thought we were completely finished, and then the pandemic hit, making so many of us look at our outside spaces with new eyes. Our project for the summer has been building a pergola that extends out over our patio. It creates the feeling of an outdoor room and offers a socially distanced gathering spot that hopefully will take us through the cooler days of fall.
In your Youtube video you touch on a few positive things coming out of COVID, the sense of community and people helping one another. Can you expand on that?
I hope we’ve learned many lessons during this time, and I hope we remember them later. Perhaps more than anything, I hope we remember how much we need each other, and how creative we can be in our efforts to keep in touch and keep our communities going. Booksellers have been amazing during this time—light on their feet, and a light for the rest of us. And I have had the opportunity to be a part of so many book club meetings (thank you, Zoom!). Interestingly, a good number of the clubs were formed as a way for people to stay in touch after the pandemic hit. I’ve talked with clubs where are all the members are from the same family, or live on the same street, or in the same small town. The joy they have in being together, talking about a book, is infectious, in the best of all possible ways.
I’m working on a new novel now, but I’ve learned not to tell too much in early days. Like I said, there are always surprises along the way…