Thirty-four-year-old Myra Malone blogs about a dollhouse mansion, with legions of fans who breathlessly await every blog post, trade photographs of Mansion-modeled rooms, and swap theories about the enigmatic and reclusive author. However, there is something about the Mansion that even Myra herself doesn’t understand—rooms that appear and disappear overnight, music that plays in its corridors. Across the country, Alex Rakes is shocked to recognize his own bedroom in a picture of the Mansion. Searching for answers, Alex begins corresponding with Myra. We had the honour of chatting with Audrey Burges about her fascinating debut, The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone.
“Once upon a time, there was a house.” This is such an interesting opening. Do you picture different houses when you are in different moods, or do you always have the same answer to this question?
Yes, I do picture different houses. This is mostly because I grew up in under-construction structures. When my parents weren’t teaching, they were building or remodeling. Every house we lived in was either partly or entirely built by them. So I loved buildings, and lumber yards, and the snap of a chalk line. I noticed the way a house felt when it was incomplete versus when it was finished. In my usual experience, when a house was finished, that meant that we were moving. This actually inspired my next book, A House Like an Accordion, but it also impacted the Minuscule Mansion and its ever-changing nature. The places that sheltered me were ever-changing, too.
And do you ask people around you this question? Have you gotten very different answers?
I’m delighted by how often people share this information without me even asking. I had someone just today tell me, “Just so you know, it’s got a pink roof. I just know.” I wanted there to be as many different Minuscule Mansions as there were readers to visualize it.
Have you ever had a dollhouse? What would be essential in your dollhouse?
I never had a dollhouse, but I adapted. My mother was (and is) an amazing crafter, and she would make clothespin dolls for me, much as Trixie did for Myra. She also made an entire farm – barn and animals and trees and fields – by hand-quilting them. My dolls spent time there, and in my brothers’ Skeletor’s Castle, which unfolded like a dollhouse. Sometimes I used my bookshelves as the floors of a house, and made furniture out of rocks. I was a very indoorsy kid!
With 3 different timelines, how did you keep track of everything to make everything fit together so perfectly? What was the writing process of Minuscule Mansion like?
When I began writing this book, I intended it to be a lighthearted romantic comedy. There would be a miniaturist, and a viral website, and a meet-cute. That was as far as I’d gotten when I started writing. Then, at the end of what’s now the third chapter, an eye winked in a mirror. The moment that happened, I knew two things immediately – first, that this was a very different book than I’d thought. And second, I knew the entire background of that wink. After that, the story came out fairly linear. About 60,000 words in, I went back to see the breadcrumbs I’d left so I could carry them through. But it was really the characters’ interactions that drove the writing.
Myra suffers from agoraphobia and she has become a bit of a recluse. How did you decide whether to be more “stick” or “carrot” when encouraging her to step out of her comfort zone?
I read a review before the book was released that said of Myra, “I just wanted to SHAKE HER.” And I could relate! I think her reclusiveness came a lot from the fact that I was, myself, quite shut in at the time (like the rest of the world). It was a strange mix of frustration at wanting to go out, and absolute terror at the idea. Myra’s sense of the world as too big, and too much, was very familiar. I approached it with her the same way I did with myself: “yes, we’re not 100% sure what’s safe, and we’re not going to be sure for a while, if ever. So maybe getting on a bicycle and letting the wind ruffle through your hair is an incentive, yes? You be fast and be distant. If you stay indoors and do nothing, that’s going to be worse than what might happen outside.” Those were the kinds of speeches I would give myself, and I could picture Diane trying (and failing) to use.
And were you worried that readers would grow impatient with her?
I knew that they would! Because I did. I just hoped that they would think of her as worth the investment, as I did, to see her through her growth.
You also explored many other great themes in The Minuscule Mansion, such as how “creating a world full of minute detail made the world outside seem more manageable”. How should readers convince themselves this is the case, instead of thinking details would overcomplicate things?
Details are liberating. They’re a huge part of my writing process, because they often pop out as some innocuous-seeming thing that turns out to be immensely significant. I’m the kind of person who thinks a lot about a lost earring in a parking lot. I notice everything about it – its hook, what it’s made of, whether it’s been driven over. I think about the person who lost it, and what it meant to them. Last week, on a walk, I came across a necklace in the street. A big chain with a dragon’s skull. It had been a little crushed. I picked it up and put it on a bench in the hope that its person would find it. I don’t think I would have bothered to pick up a simple length of chain – it was the detail that caught me. It doesn’t overcomplicate; it connects. Details like blossoms on blackberry canes mean the story can loop back to the fruit later. All stories start with the bud.
And finally, the lesson that “perfect” and “good” are not enemies is very important. Did this lesson apply when you were writing The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone?
Yes! That blog entry came in my subsequent revisions, and it was partly a reminder to myself that the book itself would never be perfect. Nothing is. And that was part of what I loved about Alex, too – the mismatched details that would make some people reject a piece of furniture were precisely what attracted him. Everyone in this book – really, in all my books – is imperfect, and a little broken, in a way that winds up helping them fit where they’re meant to be.