Warren Ziller moved his family to California in search of a charmed life, and to all appearances, he found it: a gated community not far from the beach, amid the affluent splendor of Southern California in the 1980s. But his American dream has been rudely interrupted. Despite their affection for one another--the "slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville" they share at home--Warren; his wife, Camille; and their three children have veered into separate lives, as distant as satellites. Worst of all, Warren has squandered the family's money on a failing real estate venture.
As Warren desperately tries to conceal his mistake, his family begins to sow deceptions of their own. Camille attributes Warren's erratic behavior toan affair and plots her secret revenge; seventeen-year-old Dustin falls for his girlfriend's troubled younger sister; teen misanthrope Lyle begins sleeping with a security guard who works at the gatehouse; and eleven-year-old Jonas becomes strangely obsessed with a kidnapped girl.
When tragedy strikes, the Zillers are forced to move into one of the houses in Warren's abandoned development in the middle of the desert. Marooned in a less-than-model home, each must reckon with what's led them there and who's to blame--and whether they can summon the forgiveness needed to hold the family together. Subtly ambitious, brimming with the humor and unpredictability of life, Model Home delivers penetrating insights into the American family and into the imperfect ways we try to connect, from a writer "uncannily in tune with the heartbreak and absurdity of domestic life" (Los Angeles Times).
A Conversation with Author Eric Puchner
Q: How did you come to write Model Home?
A: I started thinking about Model Home when I was still finishing my collection of stories, Music Through the Floor. I wanted to write something about my late father, who lost all his money when I was a teenager and ended up living in the Utah desert, a casualty of the American dream, but up till then my attempts at approaching his life directly hadn't worked out. I'd spent two years on a short story about the end of his life, and could never get it right. He was a difficult, tragic man, and I didn't have the distance to turn the story into something shapely and sympathetic. So I took a big step back and came up with the Zillers, a family that bears no relation to my own, and was able to write much more convincingly, and empathetically, about my father's plight. Along the way, I became increasingly interested in the lives of the other characters I'd created, so much so that the children in some ways end up hijacking the book.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, too, was an anecdote a friend of mine had told me, about a man who came home from vacation one day and lit a cigarette before opening his front door, and his house exploded. He'd left the gas on for days. My friend's wife was the first on the scene, and in fact saved the man's life by rolling him in a blanket. It was such a potent, disturbing image--so haunting in its suddenness, in what it says about the precariousness of home--that I couldn't get it out of my head.
Q: Why did you choose to set the novel in Southern California?
A: Well, it's a place I know well, having spent my teen years in the South Bay. But I'm also fascinated by the place itself and in particular the phenomenon of the exurbs outside of L.A.-- the fact that so many people have voluntarily moved to the desert, to which they're not ecologically suited, content to spend half their lives on the freeway in order to have a larger home. The subculture of desert subdivisions, with their verdant, New England-y sounding names--Green Valley Springs, Gulls Landing--fascinates me.
Q: Where do you begin when you're developing a character and a voice? How did the individuals in the Ziller family take shape?
A: Sentence by sentence. I view the first draft of a novel or short story as purely exploratory--I'm trying to figure out who the characters are, what their histories are, how they'll react to a specific turn of events and go on to cause or prevent others. It's a gradual process. I think of character as being more or less inseparable from attitude: if you can figure out how he or she observes the world and communicate that to the reader, then the rest of the details will evolve organically from that. Sometimes, if you're lucky, a character's attitude and voice will announce themselves from the very first sentence you write: Lyle, the daughter in Model Home, was an example of this. As soon as I wrote the beginning of her first point-of-view chapter--"Lyle's mother had to drive her to work, a universe of suck…"--I knew exactly who she was. Other times it takes several drafts: for example, I knew that Jonas, the youngest Ziller boy, dressed all in orange, but it took me a couple drafts to figure out why. The goal is to keep writing until the characters take on lives of their own and begin even to disobey your wishes.
Q: You write that the Zillers "have every reason to be close but are as distant as satellites." Did you set out to portray a family with this particular dynamic? What do you think lies at the heart of their distance?
A: I think one of the reasons families remain such fertile material for writers from Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Alice Munro, is that you basically have a group of people forced to live in close proximity, forced to share a bathroom and a dinner table, to love one another's faults, despite the fact that they may not have any true affinity. This is doubly poignant in children, I think, since they're often very close as kids and yet sometimes find as they get older that they're very different people, with very different takes on life. After all, you don't get to choose your mom or dad or big brother; love, when it comes to family, is one big blind date. I think this is the bind that the Zillers face: they love each other, but don't necessarily know how to live together.
Q: Lyle and Dustin represent two distinctly different varieties of teenage experience. Which is closer to your own?
A: That's an interesting question, because I consciously created them as two sides of my own teenage identity. Growing up in the South Bay, I was like Dustin in some ways: I surfed, I was mildly popular, I went to Hollywood on the weekends to see my favorite punk bands. Like Dustin, too, I longed to be part of the fringe but felt trapped by my own clean-cut, upper middle class identity. But I was also bookish, like Lyle, and secretly hated yahoo beach culture, and got sunburned all the time because my natural habitat is somewhere north of Hamburg. In many ways, I think of Lyle as being my true surrogate, which is odd given that she's a 16-year-old girl. But part of me loved Southern California, and part of me hated it, and I wanted to create two characters who embodied both sides of this ambivalence.
Q: The novel offers a bittersweet portrayal of parenthood and the familial closeness that eludes Warren and Camille. You became a parent while you were working on the novel; did this inform your perspective on Warren and Camille's relationships with their children?
A: Absolutely. I knew that having children would impact my writing--I assumed negatively. What no one told me is how much insight it would bring to bear on parenthood. Certainly Warren's love for his children, his almost fanatical devotion to Dustin and the heartbreak he experiences when he perceives this love being rejected, stem in part from my own experience as a father, from being so besotted with my daughter and imagining what it will be like when she gets older and to some degree, inevitably, rejects me. The same is true of Camille's relationship with Lyle, I'm sure. But the general atmosphere in the Ziller household has much more to do with my own parents' troubled marriage than anything I've experienced as a father.
Q: The characters' awkward and ironic wordplay is a great source of humor: the band names Dustin and his friends create, the slogans on Lyle's t-shirts, the titles of Camille's educational videos, the coining of awemuch. How do you come up with these? Is there a lot of linguistic fun around the Puchner dinner table?
A: Well, my daughter Tess is certainly fond of neologisms. It's one of the great things about being a parent, getting back in touch with the malleability of words. "How o'clock is it?" she'll ask, which I love. She's a budding storyteller, too. She told me this story recently: Once upon a time, there was you. The end. I think Beckett would be proud of her.
The name of Dustin's band--Toxic Shock Syndrome--was actually something my wife's sister came up with. She'd always thought it would be a good name for a band; personally, I was attracted to the fact that it sounds tough, but is actually a disease you get from wearing tampons. It would be like naming your band Human Papillomavirus. I found out recently that there was a real punk band named Toxic Shock in Hermosa Beach around the time I'm writing about: a total coincidence. I hope they're not offended.
Q: In the novel, home ownership is, to a certain extent, the embodiment of the American dream. Warren wants it for himself, but also markets his real estate venture with that dream in mind. Both end in disaster. What does this say about the dream itself?
A: Well, that's a timely question. I think that dream is pretty much lying in tatters right now. The idea of owning a home as something we're entitled to is so ingrained in the American consciousness that it's hard to see it for what it is: a false desire, in the sense that it won't end up solving our problems and may even deepen them. To a certain extent, developers and mortgage lenders prey on that desire. And, as I've mentioned, the sacrifices we're willing to make for this dream--accrue enormous debt, spend half our lives on the freeway, live in the middle of the desert--are also what led me to write the book.
Q: How did you arrive at the title Model Home?
A: Not easily. At different points the novel was called The Cost of Living, This World is Not Your Home, and The Land of Underwater Birds. When I mentioned the last title to people, they either swooned or burst into uncontrollable laughter. Finally I was having dinner with a friend of mine, also a writer, who suggested Model Home for a title. I fought it at first, but in the end it was too perfect to resist. When a book of uncollected Mavis Gallant stories was published recently under the title The Cost of Living, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I hadn't gone with my first choice.
Q: What are you currently reading and loving?
A: I've been reading story collections, probably because I'm working on stories myself again. I just finished the new Alice Munro collection, Too Much Happiness, which is terrific. She's a genius, I think. I also just read an advance copy of Richard Bausch's forthcoming collection, Something Is Out there. He's in top form--a beautiful, dark, moving book.