Trading Spaces

Sue Miller

Bestselling author Sue Miller on her penchant for refurbishing, redecorating, and reinventing the concept of home

My husband once said of me that I’d never met a wall that couldn’t be improved by moving it. Too true. I’ve wasted probably a decade of my life mentally rearranging the spaces I’ve lived in – and then, all too often, physically rearranging them to boot.

It started with the first house I owned, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Half a house, really. Or rather, one side of a small double house — what the real estate agent called a “Victorian mansard cottage.” Two stories, slate shingles on the second, a three-window bay in the front. I bought it when I was thirty, a single mother otherwise destined, as I saw it, to have to move farther and farther away from friends, from my son’s school and my favorite shops and the streets I knew and loved, as the rents in our increasingly fashionable neighborhood steadily rose.

A friend had bought both sides of this sweet, funky house, and she asked me to think about buying the second half from her. She wanted someone she knew on the other side of the party wall, since she expected that she and whoever her neighbor was would be hearing a great deal of each other’s family life. (And after I moved in, we certainly did — a fact that I incorporated in my novel, The Senator’s Wife, where what is overheard through the common wall feeds a destructive curiosity on the part of one of my main characters.)

But at the time I told my friend I couldn’t even think of it. I was working in day care then, at a ridiculous salary. I had no savings, and I was sure there was no one I could turn to for financial help. I had no rich relatives, no moneyed friends.

You never know, she said. Try, she said. She’d wait.

So I started asking. Begging, really. The good news was that my half would cost $40,000 in that long-lost, pre-bubble world. The down payment, which was what I’d have to raise, was only $8000.


But lo and behold! As the angels were reported to have said, first came a loan from my impecunious but astonishingly generous parents – everything they had, savings and checking. Others acts of comparable generosity followed, and in the end, with a little help from my friends, including the one who co-signed my mortgage (no reasonable bank would have loaned me anything based on my own ability to pay), I moved in. I immediately began renting rooms to meet the monthly obligations. And also, as I walked around my little house – my house! – began to ponder how much nicer things would look without this wall here. And, hey! That one over there.

Those walls, I ripped out myself, initially unsure of what would burst forth when I bashed through the old horsehair plaster. Buckets of water? Zaps of electricity?

But no! There were pipes back there holding the water in! Wires conveying the electricity to the outlets! And so I began to learn, ass-backwards, how houses are made, how they work.

Later, when I could afford it, I paid others to do the demolition, the construction and rearranging. But such has been my pleasure in this remaking through the years that I’ve done it over and over. Since my second marriage 25 years ago, my husband and I have owned nine – count ‘em, 9! – living spaces, and made changes — some radical, some more cosmetic — in all of them.

This intense interest in houses, in spaces, runs deep in me — so deep it touches even my fiction. I’ve given it to the people I invent. Where my characters live, the spaces they inhabit, how those spaces are arranged — all these are important to me, and thus to those characters.

When I write my first drafts, I work in longhand, in lined notebooks. Almost all of those drafts feature, scattered here and there amidst the pages of words, floor plans of imaginary houses or apartments sketched by my sloppy hand. I need to see my characters’ living spaces drawn out in order to understand sight lines, sound lines: who sees what gesture from the stairs and suddenly understands life differently; who hears what comment from the hall outside the doorway and feels wounded. I want to tell you something about the people I invent by showing you how they live, where they live, what that looks like. Particularly for my female characters, the defining of their living spaces, the ownership of them, the sense of self asserted through them – these are centrally important. And it occurs to me now that I’ve made several of my male characters architects, just so they could share that interest.

As it happens, I’m about to move again. This last winter in New England almost did us in, and we decided we needed to make our lives easier and more comfortable now that we’re in our late sixties. Everything on one floor. High up, so there’s plenty of sun, even in winter. A building with a parking garage, with an elevator, with an agency to take care of repairs and keep the walk shoveled, the windows washed, the heat on.

And lo and behold again! We found it. All those things in a nearby condo. As it happens, it’s also beautiful. But best of all, it’s essentially raw space. This means that there’s work that needs to be done! Walls to put in place. What could be better?

We’ve bid on it, along with several other people, unfortunately. We haven’t heard yet who gets it, and we’re nervous. As a friend says, they don’t call it REAL estate for nothing.

Will it be us? Will we live happily ever after — as no one is allowed to in any novel of mine I can think of?

I’ll keep you posted.

Sue Miller’s latest novel is The Lake Shore Limited, just out in paperback. Her nine other bestselling novels include The Good Mother, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, and Family Pictures. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

2 Responses so far.

  1. avatar crystalclear says:

    Living in New England in the winter can be challenging and often times depressing as the sun can be an infrequent visitor.  I hope you win the bid on the sunny condo!  

    Our living spaces, I believe, are important to our well being.   For me, I must have lots of windows, shiny hardwood floors, plantatation shutters and bright, colorful fabrics.   Having finally completing my spring cleaning last weekend knowing this morning that there are no piled up dust bunnies behind the beds and on the baseboards, it gives me a feeling of extreme well being!

    Soon I will begin the task of getting estimates on updating my bathrooms and kitchen.  Ugh!  Knowing what lies ahead when the actual work begins I can envision the inconvenience, the mess and the endless dust not to mention workmen being around for days on end.   However, I will keep my eye “on the goal.”   Visualizing the finished product, hopefully, will keep me sane during the renovation.    At first I thought “we are too old for this project” but I quickly recovered.  

  2. I enjoyed this article. It makes me think that Sue Miller is as artful in creating spaces in which to live, as she is artful in creating her wonderful fiction.

    Susan Gabriel
    author of Seeking Sara Summers