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January 2, 2012

Michael Lee West on REBECCA

Posted by Katherine

Michael Lee West is the author of six novels including GONE WITH A HANDSOMER MAN, CRAZY LADIES, MAD GIRLS IN LOVE, AMERICAN PIE, SHE FLEW THE COOP as well as a food memoir CONSUMING PASSIONS. She lives with her husband on a farm in Lebanon, Tennessee with three bratty Yorkshire Terriers, a Chinese Crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap was the inspiration of a character in MERMAIDS IN THE BASEMENT. Here she talks about how Daphne DuMaurier’s REBECCA made her want to become a writer.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive.”

When people ask how I became a writer, I blame it on my sickly childhood, a book-lined room, and Daphne Du Maurier’s fondness for old mansions. When I was a young girl, my mother sent me to Girl Scout camp. After a day of caving, I spiked a high fever and couldn’t breathe.  The doctors were puzzled. They took my mother aside and asked if I had been exposed to tuberculosis. X-rays and skin tests finally determined that I’d contracted histoplasmosis, a rather common malady in middle Tennessee.

Fearing that my brother would catch the disease, my mother sent me to my grandmother’s house in the piney woods of Mississippi. My Mimi’s home didn’t have servants or sweeping views of the ocean, but its cozy warmth and smells of fresh baked bread were healing forces. I spent a rainy morning in Mimi’s book-lined study --- a rare treat because my mother did not purchase books and borrowed them from her friends or the local library.

On Mimi’s shelf, I found a tattered copy of REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier. I curled up in the window seat, and for the next few days, I entered the world of Manderley. I could see Jasper, the spotted Spaniel dog, as he followed the unnamed narrator around the stone mansion, the sinister housekeeper, Danvers, lurking in the shadows. I could feel the warm, sandy grass as I walked down the path to the sea. When the narrator walked down Manderley’s secluded driveway, I was right behind her. When she sat down at the dinner table, I lifted the linen napkin and ran my finger over the ornate, monogrammed R.

In real life, apparently Daphne Du Maurier was a bit of a house stalker, one of my favorite vices. Her young mind was shaped by two English estates.  The first, Milton Park, was located in Northamptonshire, and Daphne spent the summer in the lavish gardens. Later, Hitchcock would use Milton as the inspiration for Manderley’s interiors.

The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done….

But it was the second house, Menabilly, that shaped Manderley, along with other fictional mansions (MY COUSIN RACHEL and THE KING’S GENERAL).  Daphne would walk around the ruined house, and while she mentally refurbished the manse, her writer’s imagination was firmly engaged. Using words, she constructed a hybrid of Milton Park and Menabilly, and a house with another M-name was born: Manderley. Daphne constructed the grey stones, soaring ceilings, and windows with glimpses of the water.

I recovered from my illness and returned to Tennessee. But part of me stayed in Manderley. My mother forbade me to become a writer, and I ended up with a B.S. in nursing. I also became a seasoned house stalker. I would walk around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, and boldly ask the owner if I could see their home. Oddly enough, these kind souls never refused.

But years later, when I began building fictional worlds, I came back to REBECCA. Fictional houses became just as important as my characters --- in fact, the houses became characters. The white wooden farmhouse in CRAZY LADIES was fashioned after my Mimi’s house. Writing as Piper Maitland, I designed an Italian vampire’s villa in the thriller ACQUAINTED WITH THE NIGHT. My favorite is the pink Spencer-Jackson House on Rainbow Row. It belongs to the fictional world in GONE WITH A HANDSOMER MAN and the soon-to-be-published sequel, A TEENY BIT OF TROUBLE.The heroine, Teeny Templeton, inhabits this house, but she has an uneasy relationship with it: the décor is a bit formal, and the walls are lined with oil paintings of pissed off women.

In real life, I will soon move to a farmhouse, mainly because I fell in love with the winding driveway. It’s far from the sea, but the setting has already sparked my imagination. Just last night, I dreamed of Manderley.