Lauren McBrayer's 'Like a House on Fire'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 29, 2022
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author Lauren McBrayer
author Lauren McBrayer

2022 is already proving to be one of the queerest ever in terms of literature, including fiction, non-fiction, and poetry titles. If it's not already on your reading list, by all means, add lesbian writer Lauren McBrayer's debut novel Like a House on Fire (Putnam, 2022).

Set in the gay mecca of San Francisco, Like a House on Fire seemingly begins as straight as can be. Merit and her husband Cory are the parents of two young sons. Itching to get back to the working world, painter-turned-architect Merit takes a job at a respected firm run by exotic Dane Jane. They hit it off instantly and before you know it, Merit and Jane's working relationship becomes a friendship, and then something much more.

McBrayer deftly handles the subject matter and readers are sure to find themselves rooting for the main characters as they embark on their potentially treacherous journey.

Gregg Shapiro: I'd like to begin by thanking you for opening your debut novel Like a House on Fire with an epigraph by lesbian poet Mary Oliver. Please say something about what Oliver means to you.

Lauren McBrayer: Oliver means everything to me. Her poetry alone has been such an influence in my life in the way it so beautifully integrates the sacred and the ordinary. With precision, curiosity, and humility, Oliver captures the singular experience of being both a body and a soul moving through time and space. And then there's her personal life.

Oliver's forty-year relationship with Molly Malone Cook, which, by Oliver's account, started with a love-at-first-sight moment and grew into something strong and true and utterly unshakable, resonates so deeply with me. Merit and Jane's relationship, as readers will see, starts with a similar electric shock of chemistry and builds into a deeply intimate partnership that takes them both by surprise. The poem "I Did Think, Let's Go About This Slowly" captures their relationship perfectly and it delights me every time I see it on the opening page.

Like a House on Fire burns, if you will, with a multitude of emotions, including humor. How important was it for you to include that energy in the book?

I knew instinctively that this story would live and die on its tone. It couldn't be clinical and cerebral, but it also couldn't be melodramatic. What Merit and Jane experience together is both transcendent, and also quite ordinary—that's the remarkable thing about love. It contains within it so many other emotions. Excitement. Desire. Pain. Fear. Hope. Anger. Disappointment. Joy. My task, then, was to try to capture a tone that was both serious and playful, and the humor was essential to this balance.

I also wanted to include an element of absurdity, particularly when it came to capturing Merit's experience of modern marriage and the intense emotional load she carries as a wife and mother. There's a quote from Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls that I thought of often as I was writing this book: "You have to laugh at yourself because you'd cry your eyes out if you didn't."

Early in the book, there are hints of queerness: the San Francisco setting, Jane's line "The only people who understand us are gay men" in chapter three, Jane's dead gay brother Frederik in chapter four, and lesbian couple Regina and Allie, and Merit's childless lesbian college friends all in chapter five. Was this a way to set the stage for what was to follow?

I didn't think of it as foreshadowing necessarily, but more of a way to normalize queerness. While Like a House on Fire is surely a coming-of-age story for Merit (albeit in mid-life!), I didn't want it to be a fish-out-of-water tale.

So, I made the choice to give my characters a slew of privileges most gay women don't have — including this backdrop of queerness that makes it "no big deal" for them to find themselves in a lesbian relationship in this particular time and place. While this isn't the lived experience of many LGBTQ+ people, it was my own experience, and I wanted to give voice to it here.

Please tell the readers something about the inspiration for the story of Merit and Jane.

At the beginning of the writing process, I would've answered this question very differently than I would answer it now. Back then, I would've said that one afternoon, while I was on a beach weekend with a group of women I didn't know very well, Merit and Jane announced themselves in my brain and demanded that I pay attention to them.

At the time, I didn't see myself in Merit at all. I couldn't have fathomed that her struggles were in fact my own, which I'm grateful for, because it gave me the unfettered freedom to take her wherever she needed to go. Now, on the other side of the writing process, I understand that Merit and Jane showed up in my mind exactly when I needed them to answer questions I didn't yet know I needed to ask and that their arrival was a perfectly-timed gift. Not only did this novel light me up creatively, it also gave me the space and the permission to explore my own fears, disappointments, and desires, sparking my own journey toward self-discovery and truth.

Jane is Danish. What is the significance of Jane being from Denmark?

I knew Jane wasn't American from the moment she showed up in my mind. I chose Copenhagen as her home because it felt like the opposite of Merit's own upbringing in the Florida panhandle.

author Lauren McBrayer  

I'm glad you mentioned Merit's panhandle roots. She had a religious upbringing, and her parents are still devout. Merit also makes an effort to include prayer and church in her life.
The simplest answer here is that I am a person of tremendous faith and it felt natural for me to give Merit a connection to the Divine.

On some level, I was trying to do the same thing with faith that I was attempting to do with queerness: that is, to sort of de-sensationalize it. We tend to be black and white with our thinking; a person is either religious or not, gay or not, when most of us are somewhere on the spectrum. I suppose I was trying to put a lot of grey into this novel and avoid the absolutes.

What can you tell the readers about your approach to writing sex scenes?
Wish fulfillment can be a great driver of story [laughs]! Their sex scenes were definitely an outlet for me, particularly since I was writing them in the heart of quarantine in 2020, when I was coming to terms with the state of my own marriage and asking questions about my own sexuality during a completely isolating global pandemic.

At the same time, for these very particular characters, the seeds of their sexual connection were present at their very first meeting, so by the time I got to the moment in the novel when they cross the line into physical intimacy, it felt natural and organic for me to take them there.

Without giving away too much, the surprise ending is handled with grace and strength. Did you know from the beginning that this was how the book would end?
Not by a long shot. My initial thought was that Merit and Jane would have one hot night together and then realize that sex ruins friendship and "de-transition" back to being just pals. The story obviously did not ultimately unfold that way!

As for the ending, the last five pages of the book — the surprise ending you're referring to — didn't exist until the weekend before my agent took the book out on submission. I'd completed the manuscript without an epilogue, which would have been a very different resolution. And then that weekend before we went out with it, I felt this little nagging voice inside me telling me "it doesn't end that way."

So, I gave myself permission to write a different conclusion to the story, just for me. I wrote it in one sitting, with very little pausing or editing, and when I finished it, I knew I had to include it. There have been several edits of the manuscript since then, but I don't think a single word of the epilogue has changed.

Like a House on Fire is very cinematic. If there was a movie version of your novel, who would you want to play Merit, Jane, and Merit's husband Cory?
Such a fun question! Robin Wright is unequivocally Jane in my mind. I also love the idea of Kristen Bell and Dax Sheppard as Merit and Cory. Who wouldn't want to watch that incredible trio [laughs]?

Do you have another book project in the works?
I do! I'm working on a novel, loosely structured around the key moments of Maureen Murdock's The Heroine's Journey, about a woman who dismantles every aspect of her identity in order to reclaim the truest aspects of herself. It's a more philosophical story than Like a House on Fire and incorporates aspects of Greek mythology and Jungian psychology and indigenous spirituality, which is challenging and so much fun.

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