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Family And Real Estate In Novel ‘Model Home’

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Aired 9/29/10

A real estate deal goes bad in Southern California and a family is torn apart. We'll talk with author Eric Puchner about his new novel "Model Home."

Eric Puchner will be signing copies of his novel "Model Home" tonight at 7:30pm at Warwicks in La Jolla.

Maureen Cavanaugh: In America, failure is not an option. But what if you do fail? What if you put all your eggs in one basket, throw the dice and come up empty? What happens next? That's the question writer Eric Puchner explores in the novel 'Model Home.' Not only does this story set in 1980s California seem to foreshadow today's real estate meltdown, but it also examines how the shame of failure affects a smart, funny and unprepared family.

I’d like to introduce my guest, author of “Model Home,” Eric Puchner. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC PUCHNER (Author): Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now your book came out at a time when the real estate market imploded and launched the country into a recession. Did you feel as if you had predicted the future a little bit when the recession hit?

PUCHNER: Well, I wish I could take credit for that and say that I was brilliantly prophetic but actually I started the book before the whole subprime loan disaster…

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

PUCHNER: …really hit.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

PUCHNER: But one of the things I wanted to tackle in the book is – I mean, the economy was starting to take a downturn when I started and we have a tendency to think of these things as sort of isolated occurrences that we were completely unprepared for but one of the things I wanted to explore in the book just in terms of economic disaster is that we don’t learn from our mistakes.

CAVANAUGH: And even though it happened on a broad scale to us just a couple of years ago, just seeing how it affects one family, realizing that, you know, everything that they thought was going to happen is not going to happen, is really sort of a microcosm of what a lot of people have had to go through in the last couple of years.

PUCHNER: Yeah, and actually, you know, the patriarch of the book, one of the main characters, is a real estate developer and he makes a disastrous real estate development out in the middle of the Mojave Desert and the whole family ends up living in a deserted gated community and, well, you see that all the time now if you drive out into Antelope Valley and areas like that, bedroom communities.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the Ziller family who is at the heart of this book.

PUCHNER: Well, there is Warren, who’s the father and he is the one who made this disastrous real estate investment and at the beginning of the book, his car gets repossessed and over the course of the book, of the first half of the book, many of the family’s things are being repossessed and he, rather than face the facts and tell his family what’s happening, he actually lies to them and tries to pretend that it’s not happening. And then there’s Camille, who is the mother of the family, who makes educational videos with names like “Earth to My Body: What’s Happening?” for the public school system. Then there’s Dustin, who’s 17 years old and about to go to college, and his sister Lyle, who’s 16 and kind of misanthropic. And then there’s Jonas, who’s 11 years old and, for a reason you’ll have to read the book to find out, he dresses all in orange for the first half of the book.

CAVANAUGH: Like a carrot.

PUCHNER: Yes, like a carrot.

CAVANAUGH: Now I read that your father’s life experience was part of the inspiration of this book. Can you talk about how that informed your novel?

PUCHNER: Yeah, I mean, he was – I would say he was – The character of Warren actually bears no resemblance to my own father except for the fact that we were downwardly mobile in the same way and we moved out to – we moved out from the east coast to California. My father was chasing this American dream that turned out to be an illusion and he ended up losing all of his money.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So, in a sense, at least part of that chasing a dream and not catching it is part of your own personal experience.

PUCHNER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Now “Model Home,” as we said, is set in California. Your book seems to be very specific to this state, to actually Southern California. What were you interested in exploring about this California lifestyle, what it perhaps represents.

PUCHNER: Well, I’m fascinated by Southern California. And, again, you know, I spent my teen years here. And one of the reasons I set the book in the eighties in Southern California is I’m really fascinated with the rise of the gated community and particularly the exurbs, those communities that are sort of on the outlying areas of an urban center, and the fact that people are willing to commute two hours each way to get to work to chase this dream of owning their own home and what that means and what that does to our sense of community and all that. So I was interested in sort of the rise of that phenomenon which began to occur in the eighties in full force.

CAVANAUGH: One of the fascinating things about the book are the teenage family members. You talked about Dustin and Lyle, for Delilah, that’s her whole name, they adapt to California very differently, those two teenagers. Talk about the contrast between the two.

PUCHNER: Sure, well, actually with these characters, I mean, I usually when I’m writing, I don’t really know who the characters are when I begin and they begin to take shape in – over the course of the writing process. But with Dustin and Lyle, I had a very specific idea in mind, which was I wanted to capture the ambivalence I feel about Southern California. And I almost split myself like an amoeba and Dustin represents everything that I love about California. He loves Southern California, he’s a surfer, he’s, you know, mildy popular, he in an aspiring punk band. And then Lyle represents everything I sort of despise about Southern California. And she – Well, despise is putting it harshly. But she’s just as – is a real fish out of water. She’s moved to Southern California from Wisconsin and, you know, and she goes to the beach and tries to get tan like all of the, you know, Stephanies in her class. She gets horribly, horribly sunburned because she has sort of Germanic blood. So – so that was a very conscious decision on my part.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, too, you know, one of the things about reading this book is you see in the first half of the book, as you explained, more and more of the Ziller’s possessions seem to just disappear in one way or another, and the father makes excuses and they’re all accepted by the teenagers pretty readily. And I’m wondering, is that – is that because they have a great deal of trust in their father or they’re just so completely disconnected as teenagers sometimes are?

PUCHNER: Yeah, I think the latter. I mean, they’re so wrapped up in their own concerns and the sort of, you know, vicissitudes of being a teenager, emotional vicissitudes, that the rest of the world is sort of almost beyond their ken and so when the father says this to them and confesses what’s going on, they have their own problems to confess, and sins to confess as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now much of what happens in this book is pretty awful. I mean, it’s tragic. And yet, at the same time, it’s written in a very, I’m not going to say light, but almost a bouncy way in some parts of it. There’s a lot of humor in this book. How did you balance those two extremes?

PUCHNER: Well, it’s tricky but it’s something I’m very interested in. And, yeah, certainly parts of the book are comic and I really, you know, I see the tragic and the comic as being two sides of the same coin. You know, when we laugh at something it’s often because we’re laughing at the absurdity of life and when we cry at something, it’s because we’re crying at the absurdity of life. So it’s something I’m very interested in, this sort of conflating – conflating those two extremes.

CAVANAUGH: One of the funny parts of the book is the character Dustin. He is in a garage band and they’re trying to get, you know, the name for the band and they go through this whole list of band names. They come up with Toxic Shock Syndome. Where did you come up with that idea?

PUCHNER: Well, actually it was my wife’s sister’s idea for a band. She thought it was – it was a rather good name, I think, and I just thought it was very funny because, you know, they’re trying to come across as this sort of badass, punk band and they come up with a name which is this disease. And so that has repercussions over the course of the book, and actually I found out after I’d written the book and published it that there was a real punk band called – named Toxic Shock in Southern California at the time, so I hope they’re not deeply offended by this group.

CAVANAUGH: Well, does this come – there’s a lot about the band and the garage band, and what was your experience with music as a teenager here in Southern California?

PUCHNER: Well, it was an incredibly important part of my teenage upbringing and I was, you know, I used to go – I grew up in the suburbs but I would go into Hollywood and see punk bands and it was a huge part of my identity and it was a way of sort of divorcing myself from, you know, Southern California and beach culture in particular. And I found a real sense of community – community there, so…

CAVANAUGH: So this is – so this is drawn from that.

PUCHNER: Much of it is drawn – much of it is drawn from that, and some of the crazy parties that are in the book are certainly.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Eric Puchner and his new book is called “Model Home.” This is your first novel. What kind of feeling does that give you after you’ve – you’ve written so much, you’ve written short stories but this is the first novel.

PUCHNER: Yeah, I mean, it’s – You know, I thought that I was a born short story writer…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

PUCHNER: …and short stories are certainly my first love but when I started the book and I started writing the novel, I’d just had my daughter and she was quite young. I didn’t have much time and I had this real sense of purpose and momentum with the book, and I loved writing a novel and I loved living with these characters for years and watching them take shape before my eyes. And it was a wonderful experience and now to have it out in the world and have people reading it and writing me e-mails, I mean, it’s, yeah, it’s terrific.

CAVANAUGH: And, as you say, living with these people for years because that, actually a lot of critics have said, and that is part of the novel, you get to know these people because you obviously know them intimately. How connected do you feel to the characters in “Model Home?”

PUCHNER: Oh, I feel incredibly connected to them and, you know, so much so that when they started to do bad things or make mistakes, I was cringing inside but I just had to watch them make those mistakes and do them. And so, you know, there’s a wonderful Turgenev quote where someone asks him how his writing day went and, you know, I may not have the character correct but he said, oh, you wouldn’t believe what Bazarov did today. And that’s sort of my – that’s sort of the ideal to shoot for is that you – your characters, you know, take on lives of their own and they do things that you don’t expect and surprise you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as a lot of writers get involved in books about families, what is it about families that draws writers to explore them?

PUCHNER: Well, I mean, families are such a perfect microcosm of the human experience. You know, the one thing that’s wonderful about families is that you have these sort of disparate personalities that are forced to live in the same house together and you love them because they’re family but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you like them. And so that’s something that I – I’m deeply interested in.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things that’s been said about this book and, again, I agree, is the fact that even though there are terrible, terrible problems presented in this book, there are no easy answers given. There’s no sort of wrap it up and, you know, people sort of move on past the clouds, as they used to do in the old thirties movies. Was that hard for you to leave some of these things basically open and unresolved?

PUCHNER: It was hard. It was hard. Of course I wanted everything to work out…

CAVANAUGH: Well for them, right?

PUCHNER: …peachy keen for the Zillers, you know, because I had become so attached to them. But, you know, I also wanted to write a book that I felt was emotionally true. And, you know, at least in my experience the – that’s – sometimes things work out and often things don’t work out.

CAVANAUGH: Now this book has been out for several months. What are you working on now?

PUCHNER: Well, I’m writing short stories again, and I’ve also actually written a memoir piece about my father that’s coming out in GQ magazine, so shorter things. I – I have another baby and so I, sort of out of both a desire to return to the shorter form but also out of necessity, I’ve been writing shorter stuff. But I also have a novel that’s – that’s in the back of my mind to eventually…

CAVANAUGH: Do you – can you move easily between the memoir format and fiction?

PUCHNER: I wouldn’t say easily. You know, they’re quite different. They’re quite different. And, you know, I enjoyed writing the memoir but, you know, one of the really challenging things about memoir is taking your real life experiences and making them shapely and beautiful and work as a – and have a narrative arc and all that stuff that you look for in a piece.

CAVANAUGH: And keeping them true.

PUCHNER: And keeping them true, yes. You can’t, you know, you can’t lie. You can’t lie. You can’t even exaggerate.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, with a new baby in the house, when do you get a chance to write?

PUCHNER: It’s hard. I used to have a very strict routine where I’d wake up and write for, you know, four or five hours a day but I also have a, you know, a tenure track teaching position as well. So I just write when I can. You know, Raymond Carver used to have to sneak out to the garage and write in his car and I know how he feels these days on – I pretty much have two days to work, and I spend all day working. But it’s a challenge.

CAVANAUGH: How do you turn that on, that creative side of you? Because, you know, you go through – I’m not saying that teaching isn’t creative and the other things you do is not creative but you need a – you need to focus on a certain aspect of your mind to be able to write creative fiction. How do you do that, you know, in the garage or out in the car or in the spare moments that you have to do it?

PUCHNER: It’s hard because you’re not always feeling inspired and sometimes the last thing you want to do is sit down to write but, at least in my experience, the best thing to do is to sort of, you know, salvage any kind of routine that you can and stick to it because inspiration certainly isn’t going to strike if you’re listening to iTunes. I mean, you have to be sitting in front of your computer and you have to be waiting and you have to be working for inspiration to find you, so it’s really important and I, you know, I have my little routines. I mean, I always have my coffee mug and I’m always listening to Bach’s cello suites for some reason, when I write, and that helps sort of trigger things for me.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Well, you have something else to do tonight, and that is you’re going to be signing copies of your book “Model Home” at Warwick’s in La Jolla. I want to thank you for taking some time out from a busy schedule to talk to us.

PUCHNER: Thanks so much for the terrific questions.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Eric Puchner and he is author of “Model Home.” And he will be signing copies of his book at Warwick’s tonight at 7:30. If you have questions or comments, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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