Colleen Hubbard Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Colleen Hubbard
Photo: Amaal Said

Colleen Hubbard

An interview with Colleen Hubbard

A conversation with Colleen Hubbard.

Tell us about Housebreaking.

Housebreaking is contemporary literary fiction centered on a stubborn twenty-four-year-old woman who deals with a long-simmering family feud by dismantling her house and moving it, alone and by hand, across a frozen pond during a harsh New England winter. The novel will appeal to readers who like spare, stylish prose as well as eccentric and compelling characters—think Elizabeth Strout crossed with Ottessa Moshfegh.

What inspired the initial idea for your debut?

I read a Bill Bryson book about Shakespeare's life. In the book, Bryson describes Shakespeare's theatre troupe moving their entire theatre building over the frozen Thames. I thought the image—of moving a building over ice—was fascinating. I kept thinking about how it would work on a domestic scale, that is, moving a house over ice. Gradually the characters came together, starting with Del. I needed someone who was determined and willing to live on the fringes of society.

Also, I have a longtime interest in unlikely and very questionable passion projects. Several years ago, I wrote an article for a magazine about Dennis Severs, a gay American Anglophile who bought a dilapidated eighteenth-century house in Spitalfields in London and created a sort of living museum, which he inhabited for decades with no plumbing or electricity. Until his death, Dennis felt compelled to restore and maintain something, unlike Del's need to tear something down, but it's an almost inexplicable level of compulsion all the same.

Describe Del for readers. What motivates her?

Del is a high school dropout from a working-class farming family who, several years before the book begins, fled to live in a city with her gay father and his friends. She doesn't have any friends her own age and she can't keep steady work. She is a loyal friend and has no capacity for self- pity, but she does have a deep well of anger, and her life, up to the point when the book begins, has not been easy.

She can be impulsive, and that leads to a financial precariousness that sets off the book's main drama. She has very little money, no place to live, and has never had a real sense of ambition in her life. So she hatches a plan that is extraordinary, and sticks with it because she believes that she has something to prove to herself and to others.

Del dismantling her family home is described in vivid detail throughout the novel. What kind of research did you do about what goes into unbuilding a house? Did anything surprise you?

I interviewed Brad Guy, an architect who specializes in disassembling houses and reusing their materials, and who coauthored a book called Unbuilding. To me, the idea of a single inexperienced person deconstructing a house seemed extremely far-fetched and just within the realm of possibility, but Brad disagreed! He actually told me that my timeline was too long! Given the simplicity of the type of house that She hatches a plan that is extraordinary, and sticks with it because she believes that she has something to prove to herself and to others.

I was working on (which would have been built by its original owner), it was absolutely possible for someone to unbuild it, and faster than I had originally planned.

Why did you decide to set the novel in the late 1990s?

I was younger than Del in the '90s, but old enough to have memories of that time that I thought would add useful detail to the fictional territory. As one example, I remember seeing mainstream magazine articles about people with AIDS, and always feeling that the featured stories where you were supposed to feel sympathy were about people who were "innocent"—children who got the disease from their parents, or people who got it via blood transfusions, as if there was no empathy merited for people who got AIDS from sex or drugs, which is ridiculous.

Del is super relatable and the book effectively evokes a harsh New England winter. How did your own personal background influence the characters and setting in Housebreaking?

I grew up in a blue-collar town in central Connecticut. My great- grandparents were immigrant Polish farmers who settled in that area and grew potatoes and shade tobacco. Growing up, I was surrounded by disused farmland that was gradually being developed into suburban homes.

My family also had a sense of financial precariousness, and there was a period of time between the fifth and sixth grades when we moved to a temporary housing shelter and relied on welfare and food stamps. In my view, my friends had a sense of stability that I lacked, and I felt both ashamed of my circumstances and jealous of theirs. My perspective as an adult is quite different: I think there were complications in their lives just like mine, but they were invisible to me, as my problems were probably invisible to them. But at that time, I felt very alone and hard done by, and tapping into that feeling made it easy for me to understand Del. She doesn't feel sorry for herself, but she is angry about the injustice of her circumstances and how she and her parents were treated by their community.

There are a lot of complex and interesting secondary characters in the book like Tym, Eleanor, Auntie Jeanne, and Greg. Which of these characters was your favorite to write and why? Which was the most challenging?

Eleanor is inspired by a person I observed as a small child, who passed away a long time ago. Not so much her character or what she says, but her sense of style as being so outsized and not in line with her actual circumstances. This woman had a voice like Lauren Bacall and weighed about as much as a carton of cigarettes. Like some kind of 1940s screen star, she wore massive mink coats, big sunglasses, and red lipstick, and yet lived on a modest budget in an unremarkable subdivision in central Connecticut. It was fun to, in a small way, bring her back to life.

What has created this dynamic between Del and the rest of her family?

Money.

Del's relationship with Tym is beautifully rendered. Why was it important to you to write about Del's friendships with gay men?

I lived in San Francisco for ten years and many of my close friends are gay men who span in age from their thirties up through their sixties. It would be difficult to generalize a statement about those people or my friendships with them.

Tym isn't inspired by a particular person, but acts as a sort of counterpoint to the conventional lifestyle that is the aspiration of Del's uncle's family. Del doesn't feel sorry for herself, but she is angry about the injustice of her circumstances and how she and her parents were treated by their community.

Tym doesn't want to get married or even have a long-term partner; he's not interested in building up his retirement savings or having a job with growth potential. He doesn't own a car, and he's not in close contact with his family. He's happy sitting in the basement of his apartment building, doing drugs and listening to records by himself because he is very suspicious of anyone's taste but his own. He is urban, and free, but rootless, as opposed to the Murrows, who are suburban and suppress components of their identities to satisfy a community dynamic, but ultimately do support each other.

Even though Del is fueled by anger, the book is filled with quiet acts of kindness and generosity. Talk to us about that duality.

For me, that's just what life has been. Many people, including strangers, have been extraordinarily generous to me when I needed it. I've also experienced and seen things that just feel inexplicably unjust: people being cruel or thoughtless in ways that have caused real injuries to others. So I think that's what life can be at times: sliding between marveling at how kind and bighearted people can be, while also knowing that we can all be small and mean at times.

What do you see as the themes of Housebreaking?

The value of community and friendship. Resilience and empathy both to ourselves and to others.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Colleen Hubbard at BookBrowse
Housebreaking jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Colleen Hubbard but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Nicole Krauss

    Nicole Krauss

    Nicole Krauss is the author of the international bestsellers, Forest Dark, Great House, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Orange Prize, and The History of Love, which won the Saroyan Prize for International ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Housebreaking

    Try:
    Great House
    by Nicole Krauss

  • Ottessa Moshfegh

    Ottessa Moshfegh

    Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from New England. Eileen, her first novel, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. My Year ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Housebreaking

    Try:
    Homesick for Another World
    by Ottessa Moshfegh

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