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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.

OnMilwaukee.com: 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.

Part of me had really hoped to finish the novel before we sold the house and moved on, but the truth is that once we moved out of the house and to Milwaukee the novel became much more easy to write. There's something about getting away from the true source of any story that liberates your imagination. So I don't think the book would have been the same had I stayed in Ann Arbor to finish it.

OMC: So coming to Milwaukee provided inspiration in some way, even though the novel is set in Michigan?

VL: The novel has a lot to do with the ways in which race and class shape and are shaped by our homes and neighborhoods, and Milwaukee -- like all great American cities, I suppose -- illustrates those concerns everywhere you look. I am fascinated and inspired by the distinct flavor of each Milwaukee neighborhood, and by the ways people identify so closely with their neighborhoods here. Whether it's Riverwest or the East Side, Walker's Point or the Third Ward, Milwaukee residents seem very loyal to their neighborhoods -- sometimes identifying themselves with their neighborhood even more than the city itself.

Discovering this phenomenon definitely shaped my work on "Dream House." The book deals very specifically with the ways old neighborhoods change over time. Socio-economic factors like gentrification, racism, urban sprawl, crime or neglect can make a neighborhood seem alien to its previous generation of homeowners. And what then do those homeowners do with the pride and loyalty they once felt for the neighborhood they helped build? Our neighborhoods are extensions of our homes, and our homes are extensions of the most intimate parts of ourselves.

OMC: I imagine you are excited to have your first novel published and in such a big way?

VL: Of course! It's all very surreal. I walked past Schwartz Books on Downer the night the book came out, and I was shocked to find "Dream House" filling a whole window! This is every writer's dream, but it's one that you never quite expect to be realized. You expect to have to hunt down your book in some back corner of the store, on a shelf that's ankle-high. And even that would be a fantastic thrill! The truth is, thousands of devastatingly beautiful books get written each year and never get published. So any publication at all feels like a blessing and a fluke. I'm aware that a lot of luck -- and the generosity of strangers -- is involved. That's overwhelming.

OMC: It certainly must be rewarding to see starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus...

VL: It's very flattering. Book reviews are so hard to write; it's a tremendous challenge to distill a long, complex narrative into a few brief paragraphs of description and to express a sound and interesting opinion about it without giving away the story. So just the notion that someone sat down and put that kind of effort into considering and writing about my novel is moving and flattering.

OMC: How did you react to the news that Schwartz is closing? Your event there will be among the last, sadly.

VL: After 82 years in this tough business, Schwartz is one of those rare independent booksellers that built such a strong and vital local presence that it became famous nationwide. Local bookstores like Schwartz play an irreplaceable role in developing a vibrant community of readers and writers, and the prospect of Schwartz closing is incredibly saddening for me, for Milwaukee, and for what it suggests about the future of bookstores around the country. I feel honored to be able to read there on Feb. 19, but very sad that I'll be one of the last to have that honor.

I was relieved, though, to hear news that the Schwartz on Downer location will reorganize as Boswell Books, and that the Mequon location will reorganize as Next Chapter Bookshop. I have high hopes for these stores, and I hope that our community will welcome, value, and support them with our business.

OMC: Are you working on a follow-up yet?

VL: I am! I am working on a collection of short stories called "Separate Kingdoms" that will be published by Harper Perennial in 2010.


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