Sure, it’s hard to afford that first home. But rehabbing the neighborhood crack house – isn’t that a bit extreme? Matthew Batt did exactly that and claims the process made him a better husband and writer. Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe recently talked to Batt about his renovation project and Sugarhouse, the memoir that came out of it. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
Q: You bought a onetime crack house, an utterly unloved property no one else wanted. Why?
It was 2002 and properties were coming and going almost on the same day. When we found the crack house in question, it was at least a blank slate. It was the kind of place we went into and with really active imaginations it was possible to see that we could make it a home, both for its sake and for our own.
Q: You evoke Thoreau in your memoir and say that you find home repair to be “essentially American” and “perfectly democratic.” What do you mean by that?
I think it’s kind of in our American DNA, that pioneer spirit where you have to be self-reliant. We Americans collectively, whether we’re a red state or a blue state kind of person, believe that we are best at being on our own, and that means that you have to be pretty intrepid when it comes to problem solving and finding a safe and stable place to live.
Q: Is there a morality to it? Did home repair make you a better person?
I hope it made me, if not a better person, at least a better husband. The thing I learned most is how important it is to really listen to your spouse. What became clear is that pretty much everything involved with home renovation is a metaphor. Jenae [Batt’s wife] brought up a set of these cool but really expensive drawer pulls that she wanted to use as curtain binders. My first reaction was, “That’s kind of ludicrous. Sure, it might work but that’s going to cost a lot of money,” and then I listened and I realized that this is important – it’s about who she is and who she wants us to be.
Q: You were also working toward a PhD in English and writing while you were renovating the house. Which was the bigger achievement – getting the degree or fixing the house?
The home was definitely the far greater educator. [But] I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn as much in the home renovation process had I not been enrolled in that degree program. [One time] I found myself very much needing to turn in an essay the next day for workshop. I sat down on a Sunday night to write and I literally had to shove away power tools and little scraps of wood and paint samples in order to find a space for my laptop. And I began writing about a hardwood-floor-laying workshop that I had attended the day before and it just unlocked something in me, gave me permission to write in a voice that sounded more like me than anything else I’d ever written. I think probably that without both of those things neither could have happened as well.
Q: You and your wife just moved to a new house. Is it also a fixer-upper?
Yeah, I’m afraid so.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.