Catherine Armsden's 'Dream House' is one she has occupied
By Lou Fancher
Quiet determination and a refusal to be walled in are the hallmarks of San Francisco architect-turned-writer Catherine Armsden. Her debut novel, "Dream House" (Yellow Pear Press, $25, 320 pages), tells the story of one family's homes but speaks volumes about family history and how it is shaped by place, space and physical circumstances.
Armsden, 60, was born in Boston and grew up in coastal Maine as the youngest of three sisters whose parents were a troubled, extremely volatile mother and a father who was a professional photographer living in denial of his wife's irascibility. Books were not a large part of their lives.
"My parents didn't read novels. My mother never read to us before bedtime," Armsden says. "She was overwhelmed by children, being strapped for money, marriage -- by life." Armsden read National Geographic magazines and nature stories in periodicals. She camped, swam, collected leaves and helped her father varnish the gunnels and oars of the family's sailboat. "We didn't get advice about school or professions, but Mom selected friends that were highly intellectual because she wanted us exposed to their ideas."
The mother who could sweep her into a raptured description of trees exerted an attraction that stood in stark contrast to her darker side. "She had no self-censoring or any idea how she impacted us. We were subjected to (verbal) horrors; she forgot we were little, impressionable people."
Her father was gentle but failed to shield Armsden and her sisters. "He was the softness that made it possible for us to live in the house. But he never protected us, which is a terrible thing." Perhaps in response to the chaos, Armsden found order and inner peace in the tactile pleasure of art, graduating from Brown University in 1977 to a job involving historic walking tours and urban architecture. In 1984, she earned her master's in architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She and her husband, Lewis Butler, co-founded the San Francisco-based Butler Armsden Architects. In 2000, Armsden left the firm to devote herself to writing full time.
"There were things I was attracted to in architecture that are qualities of writing. I loved working with my hands and initial meetings with clients that involved talking about what they were emotionally, psychologically attracted to. The process of writing, tweaking words and moving them around, feels meditative, like a drawing does."
Searching for surprises while making the pieces fit, studying the relationship of closed to open spaces, playing with scale, exploring the emotion of rooms -- these elements launched "Dream House." Largely autobiographical but fictionalized to fabricate a convincing narrative, the book tells the story of Gina, an architect whose childhood home and its contents she and a sister must divest after their parents have been killed in an auto accident. The house is an unimpressive rental -- the book's working title was "The Rental," until Armsden's writing group and others told her that wasn't commercial enough and she'd have to "turn up the volume" -- and operates as a pale backdrop to a forfeited, nearby ancestral home, "Lily House."
In a parallel to the author's real life, which includes genealogy traced to Tobias Lear, George Washington's private secretary, important but long-missing "Washington letters" drive the plot. The book's protagonist is haunted by suspicious thoughts about relatives who may or may not have absconded with the letters -- but Gina is primarily tortured by her family's secretiveness.
Similarly, after her mother died in 2006, Armsden's family found papers, including a map of the Battle of Yorktown, that belonged to George Washington. The map sold at auction for $1 million. "Think of it: My parents lived hand-to-mouth and ate tuna fish while sitting on a mountain of historical material," she says. "Gina is both me and not me. I've never had a panic attack or thought my son was kidnapped. (Both occur in the book.) Her emotional set point, eternally vulnerable, is like me." Vulnerability knocked on Armsden's front door during the seven-year period she was developing "Dream House." Diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease in 2009 after a two-year search for answers to explain why repetitive motions such as brushing her hair were increasingly arduous and walking was "like trudging through snowbanks," she says her first response was relief. "I don't have a tremor, so I thought it was ALS, which is a death sentence."
Instead, with medication, her condition is "not in the picture every minute" and has led her to a new community. "I connected with other YOPDs. They're inspiring. It gave me another interesting territory to explore."
Exploration has manifested in a series of recent blog essays that stretch beyond the specific condition to address universal touchpoints: doctors, either sensitive or obtuse; frustrations with diminishing physicality; the joy of finding acceptance and friendship. Armsden says the greatest rewards of writing are emails from readers who say the book has helped them to realize, reflect and often resolve conflicted feelings they've had about past homes and their families.
Armsden, who says she will "always be fascinated by walls," promises to continue to knock them down, should Parkinson's ever rob her of the ability to write. "I'll always have a creative outlet. I'll find a way," she says.