From The Wall Street Journal:
DURING MY SENIOR year of college, I took a literature class called The English Country House, which focused on dumbwaiters and dining rooms from Woolf to Waugh. The class is responsible for my fluency in oh, say, wainscoting. At the risk of belaboring the point? I went to a liberal arts school. But what appears to be a rarefied entry point into the literary landscape is actually a portal into the Great Hall of any novel. Once you start paying special attention to where novels are set—not just their country or cultural moment but the minutiae of where our heroines and heroes lay their heads—their narratives open up in new ways. After the characters have gone, you can still stroll from room to room, an unpaid housesitter grazing her fingers along the wallpaper.
So many of the canonical examples of fictional interior design really do come from the British, who like to inhabit etiquette minefields stuffed with generational trauma, class issues and chintz (“Bleak House,” “Howard’s End,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Remains of the Day”…Jane Austen takes the prize for Pemberley alone). Contemporary British authors are also unavoidably good on the subject (I’d gladly entrust Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollinghurst or Zadie Smith with my blueprints).
But there is no shortage of memorable interiors scattered across all literature. Both as a reader and as a writer, I have always gravitated toward fabricated design (by which I mean not just imaginative design but the actual, literal fabric of it; see also the Jenny B. Goode tapestry pillow that Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” clutches as he nurses a cocktail). I find such details, which purposefully but slyly speak to the time in which the characters live, move a story along as much as they pin it in place.
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In the Glasses’ apartment in “Franny and Zooey,” “not only were the furnishings old, intrinsically unlovely, and clotted with memory and sentiment, but the room itself in past years had served as the arena for countless hockey and football (tackle as well as ‘touch’) games, and there was scarcely a leg on any piece of furniture that wasn’t badly nicked or marred.” This is no mere décor. It is, to employ a cliché, another character. The first image that pops into mind when I think of that particular book is of Franny, staring up at the ceiling. I can see the apartment as she sees it, fill in the gaps. Just like when I think of “The Great Gatsby,” I am struck less by Gatsby’s infamous green light than by the first sight of Jordan lounging on a sofa, curtains billowing behind her, “extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little.” I know that divan. I can run my fingers over the upholstery. I can also tidy the bookish disarray of “Giovanni’s Room,” ascend the crumbling steps of Manil Suri’s apartment block in “The Death of Vishnu” and feel the deep, deep anti-Craftsman sentiment of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
As someone who spent her childhood sleeping in an 8-by-8 bedroom of a small house and whose current furniture is flush to the walls of her apartment as if being held at gunpoint, I come by this fetish honestly. I have now lived in New York City for over 20 years, and I still think the height of luxury is the exposed back of a sofa. Once you can afford a 360-degree view of your own furniture, you get to worry about aesthetics. Writing fiction gives a person such as myself the opportunity to imagine my way into whatever space I like with whatever budget I like. In short? It gives me the chance to really go to town.
My first novel, “The Clasp,” begins in a mansion in Miami and ends in a 16th-century French château. But for my new novel, “Cult Classic,” I did a full gut renovation, turning a derelict synagogue on the Lower East Side into a sleek cultlike club. The design details are not explicitly named, but I know that those are lighting designer Lindsey Adelman’s chandeliers dangling from the ceiling, Danish designer Jens Risom’s chairs and Scalamandré wallpaper in the bathroom. And because the synagogue is less a manifestation of my personal design dreams as it is satire, the tray of bottled water in the conference room is that of a “branding studio” where I once took a meeting. The drinking straws are striped. Very Instagrammable. And there’s a room with nothing in it, save for an amethyst geode, an image I swiped from a self-serious spa that I went to once.
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But is this what I want people to take away from my novel? Danish side tables? Not really. What I hope a reader remembers is how the design unfolded alongside the plot. So much is kept secret from our heroine, her access to information and her access to space are intertwined.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal