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UWM's Valerie Laken is on her first major book tour for her debut novel, "Dream House." (PHOTO: Rodney Ranken)

Laken lives the dream with her first major novel

More than ever, Milwaukee is home to authors recognized on the national scene. The latest is UWM Create Writing teacher Valerie Laken.

She's not a Milwaukeean by birth, but Laken is a confirmed Midwesterner who has quickly come to be smitten by the city's charms. And, even though her debut novel, "Dream House," published in hardcover last month by HarperCollins, is set in her native Ann Arbor, across the lake, Laken says Milwaukee definitely affected how the book turned out.

As she traverses the country on her first major book tour, Laken took some time to tell us about herself, her novel and her relationship to Milwaukee.

She returns home to read from "Dream House" at Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue on Thursday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. Admission is free and it is among the final events at Schwartz. Can you tell us about your road to Milwaukee?

Valerie Laken: Before moving to Milwaukee I lived all over the globe: Moscow, Prague, Krakow, Madison, Iowa City and finally Ann Arbor, Mich., where I went to grad school for Slavic Literature and then Creative Writing. But I was born and raised in Rockford, Ill., and had several relatives in southeast Wisconsin, so I was familiar with this area and knew that Milwaukee had a lot to offer.

When I took a job in 2006 as the Writer-in-Residence at Carthage College in Kenosha, my husband and I decided to move to Milwaukee from Ann Arbor, and I commuted to Carthage from here. When a job opened up in the UW-Milwaukee's Creative Writing program, I jumped at the chance to settle into the city and stop commuting. I'm much more of a pedestrian by nature, so it's great luck to be able to live and work on the East Side, and I really love the atmosphere and the people at UWM.

OMC: Did you write "Dream House" here?

VL: I started "Dream House" in Ann Arbor but finished it here. The novel tells the story of a young couple whose lives are upended when they discover that the historic fixer-upper they've just bought was once the site of a gruesome murder. The book interweaves their story with the story of the man who committed the murder and has recently been released from prison. It turns out that he actually grew up in the house and is devastated by the fact that his family lost the house after he was incarcerated.

The truth is, the basic kernel of the novel is based on what actually happened to my husband and me: We bought a hideously decrepit old house in downtown Ann Arbor while I was in grad school, and two weeks after we moved in, a neighbor came over and told us that a murder had occurred in the home.

The rest of the novel is fiction, but the house in the novel is a pretty close representation of the house we were actually living in while I wrote it, and sometimes I felt a bit claustrophobic living in that house both in real life and in the imaginative space of all my writing hours.

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