Q&A: Rachel Simon

The author speaks on renovating homes and relationships.

Photo by Luigi CiuffetelliRelationship experts cite renovating a home as one of the most stressful experiences a couple can share. In her new memoir, Building a Home with My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love (Penguin Group, 272 pages), Delaware-based author Rachel Simon doesn’t dispute this reality. But she does remind us that it’s also an opportunity to grow individually and as partners—and to fall more deeply in love. Simon’s last book, the bestselling Riding the Bus with My Sister, led to a career as a professional speaker in the disability community; with her insights, she might just become an inspirational speaker on relationships, as well.

MLT: Part of your new memoir is built around the theft of your laptop. How damaging was that experience?
The book opens with a burglar breaking into our house and stealing my laptop. The incident led my architect husband, Hal, and me to resolve our longstanding conflict about our row house: I wanted to move; he wanted to stay and renovate. We chose renovation, which then set us onto a powerful journey—him with design and construction, me with my heart, mind and spirit. The laptop fades in importance after the first couple of pages, with this exception: I really treasure my personal relationships, and the loss of my address book prompted me to look, all over again, at how much those I love mean to me. Thus, I began an inner journey where I re-evaluated how I repaired—and could still repair—broken relationships, which I called my “Search for Life Purpose 2.0.”

MLT: What triggered the connection between renovating a home and repairing relationships? Did the process force you to confront painful memories?
Each phase of the construction process naturally set off a new examination of different people I’ve loved and lost—and, with luck, become close to again. The design phase, when Hal did the drawings, made me look hard at our difficult path to marriage, which happened only after 13 years together, then six years apart, and then a fresh and wonderful romance. Packing up my mementos to move off-site brought back my memories of friends long gone from my life, as well as the friendships that survived. Demolition forced me to confront suppressed grief about my not having had children. Building a stone wall in our back yard dovetailed with my need to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which was complicated by the fact that she disappeared for six years when I was growing up. In the end, I looked at—and took action on—all the most important bonds a person can have: spouse, parents, siblings, self, friends, and even my spiritual relationship with God.

MLT: What surprised you the most about the process or the final product?
I was most surprised by the beauty and mystery and magic of the design. Throughout the construction, I’d forgotten that Hal had created a new house on paper, and that our contractor was getting us to it. The day it was finished, I walked around the house in a state of euphoria, realizing how magnificent Hal’s ideas had been and how solid the construction.

MLT: What are some of the ways your relationship with Hal has evolved through the renovation experience?
If two people love each other and are willing to allow each to learn and grow through a long, arduous process, the result is a deeper appreciation for qualities in oneself and the other that hadn’t been seen before. Hal came to see me as a stronger and calmer person than he’d expected, and realized he gained strength from that. I came to be more appreciative of his ability to accept me for who I am, even when I’m looking at drywall going up while thinking of the meaning of life. In other words, he didn’t laugh me off the job site, whereas other people might have.

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MLT: Was there a “worst moment” between you and Hal during the project?
Most of the experience was full of love between us, and moments where I had epiphanies about love in general. But because a renovation involves the world of nails and hammers as well as one’s inner life, there were hard moments that were prompted by the work itself. The first was when a disaster struck: a gas explosion blew up part of the house. I wanted to be angry, but Hal, who’s Buddhist, was calm—and as a result, I felt out of sync with him. The other hard moment came when we were painting the third floor and had a huge fight about a color he’d chosen. Both of these clashes resolved in satisfying and profound ways, with my coming to understand even more about love.
MLT: How would you describe the journey of writing a memoir, particularly one that follows a bestseller?
It’s challenging to find the right story to follow a success. I wrote and then set aside two books—a memoir and a novel—before I embarked on this one. The delay was also affected by my schedule; I’ve spent much of the past several years traveling around the country. This new book was mostly written on airplanes and in hotel rooms, which was actually easy, since I write by hand.

MLT: What is the most meaningful advice you can offer aspiring writers?
Write a lot. I recommend seven hours a week to get started. I also recommend that aspiring writers develop their own standards by thinking of all the books they’ve ever loved and seeing what those works have in common. And I urge them to have reading periods where they focus on contemporary writing in their area of interest, so they get new ideas about form and style, as well as what publishers like. I have lots of information for aspiring writers on my website, rachelsimon.com.

MLT: What does it take to be a good storyteller?
This answer could take days to say. The simple version is: Draw them into the world you’re writing and keep them entranced until the end. If it’s fiction, make everything credible, even if your world is made-up. If it’s nonfiction, omit the excess. And remember that learning to write well is a long process, like building a house or examining the soul, but the journey has much to offer, and the destination is worth it.

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