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.
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 whose current furniture is flush to the walls of her apartment as if being held at gunpoint, I come by this fetish honestly.”
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.
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. I wanted to create a feeling akin to the one I felt as a child, reading Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: “Five children and nine grown-ups pushed their way in—and oh, what an amazing sight it was that now met their eyes! They were looking down upon a lovely valley. There were green meadows on either side of the valley, and along the bottom of it there flowed a great brown river. What is more, there was a tremendous waterfall halfway along the river…” I, sir, am no Roald Dahl. But there is, in fact, a fountain in the lobby of my fictional club.
With few exceptions, writers must force themselves to reign in their descriptive tendencies, lest they wind up with five static pages about a claw-foot bathtub. The trick, especially when it comes to interiors, is in peppering signifiers without listing them. Too few? I don’t know where I am. Too many? Well, if I wanted to read a catalog, I would read a catalog. In the end, the visual impact of a space is not up to me but to readers. Readers who will set about correcting or replacing my images with versions of their own, with details of their own. Or, in the words of Maggie Smith’s famous poem, “Good Bones”:
“Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”
Other Interiors That Have Stayed With Me
• The lofts and artist’s spaces of 1960s Soho depicted in Rachel Kushner’s 2013 “The Flamethrowers” are as indelible to me as my first apartment.
• You can still smell the fireplace of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” burning, 150 or so years later.
• Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves,” published in 2000, is no one’s idea of functional interior design, but those rooms are nothing if not unsettling.
—Sloane Crosley lives in New York City and is the author of five books, including “I Was Told There’d Be Cake.” Her new novel, “Cult Classic” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), arrives June 7.
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