Courtney Miller Santo’s House of Secrets



No, don’t going looking for it — the peculiar house, overlooking the Mississippi River, that you think must have inspired Three Story House (Morrow) by Courtney Miller Santo.

“It doesn’t exist,” Santo, who earned her MFA at the University of Memphis and who teaches creative writing there today, explained. “But I knew I wanted to set the house on Memphis’ South Bluffs, so I just drove around, looking for a place. The spot is actually an empty lot, which made it every fiction writers dream: to think maybe it is a place.”

Readers of Santo’s second novel — the first was The Roots of the Olive Tree — have good reason to think such a place does in fact exist, because the author has done such a scrupulous job describing it, but the house has certainly seen better days. When Three Story House opens, it’s set to be condemned, and it’s up to a national soccer star, Lizzie (who grew up in the house), and her cousins Isobel (from California) and Elyse (from Boston) to see to it that the house stays right where it is after getting a year's worth of repairs.

The year is 2012, and these three 28-year-olds could use some personal repair work as well. Lizzie’s been sidelined from an Olympic-tryout tournament while recuperating from knee surgery. (And she still doesn’t know the answer to a family secret: the identity of her biological father.) Isobel, a former Hollywood tween star in a TV sit-com, is wondering about her own stalled acting career. (And what was the background to her parents’ failed marriage?) Elyse is mourning the loss of the love of her life. (And what’s worse: The guy is marrying Elyse's younger sister.)

Three major stories, then, drawn from one very extended family — the same extended family readers first met in The Roots of the Olive Tree and that readers meet again in Santo’s early short story, which is appended to Three Story House. That story fills us in on the Arkansas man and complicated family history that led him to build his three-story house on the South Bluffs in the 1920s.

The house was what’s known as a “spite house,” built, yes, out of spite and to inconvenience or irritate the owner’s half-brothers in Memphis, who have warehouses crowding what was the Tennessee Brewery on downtown’s Tennessee Street. Santo does more than focus on that one neighborhood, though. Her canvas in Three Story House is the whole city, and it’s a sight to see: Memphis in the hands of a novelist who didn’t grow up here, but she has nothing but good to say of her adoptive home.

Memphis a music town? Santo certainly wouldn’t disagree. But she sees it as more: a storyteller town, as she explained in a recent Q&A.

Spite houses … I’d never heard of the term until reading your book. They’re all over the country, and they’ve been an interest of yours for a long time.
Courtney Miller Santo: My interest started in college, 20 years ago, during a weekend trip to Alexandria, Virginia, where I saw the Hollensbury House. That house is the kind of thing that just lodges in your brain. Anything about spite houses I’d file away and think: I’m going to write about this eventually.

As writers, we’re fascinated by what goes on behind everything. You think about these strange houses and then think: grudges, family discord, the worst of human nature, which makes the best fiction.

“The Roots of the Olive Tree” came out only two years ago. Sounds like “Three Story House” was fairly easy for you to write.
It wasn’t easy at all! I basically rewrote Three Story House three times. Everyone says second novels are really hard, and they’re not lying.

You’ve dedicated the book this way: “For my twenty-nine cousins who somehow manage to be the least alike and most alike of any group of people I know.” Did you draw, then, from your own extended family for the characters in “Three Story House”?
I did not, but in that absence, I drew on what was going on in my life at the time. I just altered it. My daughter, for example, has been playing soccer for the last six years. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex watching little girls play. No way was I going to write this book and not have soccer in it. That part of the writer’s life bleeds naturally into one’s work.

But I’ve also been fascinating by stories about people who aren’t who they think they are. You go through life thinking you’re one person, and, turns out, you’re not that person at all. How does that knowledge change you?

A major subplot in the novel concerns a crew from Los Angeles who arrive in Memphis to film Isobel, Lizzie, and Elyse reality-show style. Those scenes aren't based on firsthand experience?
No, I just have a weird obsession with reality television, and my brother did work a little in Hollywood. He told me that those shows are, basically, all garbage. Though our family dream has been to get on America’s Funniest Home Videos, and this summer we did. My husband was trying to install this thing in our garage, and it fell down. The video’s just a minute or so.

From the details in “Three Story House,” you must be pretty familiar with older houses and renovating them, especially the setbacks and unexpected costs.
My father has never purchased a house that was new. Every house of his has been from, like, the 1910s, 1920s. So I spent my childhood helping my dad — using a putty knife, sheetrocking, crawling under the house, working on wiring.

So, when I was growing up, we were all roped into figuring out what the insides of a house looks like, which not a lot of people have done. We didn’t have the money to call in anyone, so you fix it yourself. I have vivid memories of knocking a big hole in a wall during a tantrum — plaster and lathe broken. I was told, okay, we’re going to fix that now. I had no idea how, but I learned real quick.

Reminds me of your character Isobel and her father, who arrives late in the novel.
That relationship is very much like my father and me. Plus, I have two sisters and a ton of cousins. The dynamics of those relationships: I know what it’s like to live really closely with others who are very much your own age. And they’re still a big part of my family. Cousin mania continues!

Both of your novels are perfect for book-club discussion. You must enjoy that added connection to readers.
I absolutely do. I love going to book clubs. With The Roots of the Olive Tree, I probably went to 30 clubs in the Mid-South and through Skype. I think book clubs are where so much of our nation’s intelligence and heart are, especially the women’s clubs. Every club I’ve been to is reading interesting, challenging books. So book clubs are alive and well. There’s smart conversation. And there’s food! There’s no down side. Plus, authors are so accessible now. It’s easy to get that direct connection to readers.

Do you have a third novel in the works?
I do. It’s now with my agent. And I’m still finding myself interested in the idea of place and houses. The new one has another special kind of house. And all of my books, I think, will trace the roots back to Anna, who’s in The Roots of the Olive Tree and who’s the great-great-grandmother in Three Story House, with characters in the new book all related. There’s just something about the way I learned to tell stories — sitting around the dinner table and everybody, no matter how they’re related, sharing stories.

Stories crowded with characters.
I'm one of seven siblings and have 29 cousins. I can’t imagine a world that’s not hyper populated.

You’ve done a great job capturing contemporary Memphis — its people, its neighborhoods, its seasons.
I was really excited to set this book in Memphis. The city has a reputation as a music town, but Memphis is really a story town. Music and writing: It’s the same well. It all comes from the place of storytelling. That ability to tell a story musically is the same well that authors draw from.

I’ve been in Memphis almost 10 years, and I feel like I can use the landscape now. It may not be an insider’s perspective, but that’s okay. The house in Three Story House is a little off too. •

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