Monday, May 4, 2020

My First Time: Margo Orlando Littell

The First Time My Life Imitated My Art

In 1889, Oscar Wilde claimed in an essay, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I found this to be all too eerily true when I began researching and writing my novel The Distance from Four Points. I set the novel in a fictionalized version of my hometown, an impoverished former coal-mining town in the Appalachian foothills of southwestern Pennsylvania, and many details of my setting are drawn from life: blighted homes, neglected commercial properties, a sweeping, general abandonment of anything approximating decent real estate. Decades ago, my hometown had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country—now a quarter of the (small) population lives below the poverty level. That collapse is reflected in the once-grand homes now crumbling along the main street of town. My novel is, in part, about aggressively negligent small-town landlords; I’m drawn to ruined homes, especially the ones who’ve held onto shadows of their former beauty. Old woodwork, original stained glass, intricate pavers visible beneath the weeds. My novel was inspired by these relics. Art imitating life.

The protagonist of my novel, Robin, becomes a small-town landlord when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with nothing but a handful of “investment properties” he’d blown their savings on. She has a fraught relationship with one particular ruined house, and ultimately finds herself involved in its restoration. She encounters squatters, destructive tenants, month after month of missing rent payments. She becomes a member of a landlording group full of men whose moral code of squeezing tenants for every penny she can’t abide, but who offer her a path to survival she believes she has no choice but to follow.

It’s a grim setup, and Robin doesn’t get a lot of mercy from me for most of the novel.

It was a fun book to research. To shape my descriptions of the rentals Robin inherits, I scoured photos on Zillow and Craigslist, amazed at the lack of care landlords took when listing their properties. Laundry piles, overflowing garbage, obvious damage to walls and windows—what you see is what you get, they were saying. Don’t bother us, we won’t bother you. During a visit to my hometown, I had a realtor take me through some available properties, and I witnessed the neglect firsthand. Though most of the properties seemed uninhabitable, tenants were either living there or had only recently moved out.

And yet. Some of the historic homes—enormous houses that had been split into badly maintained triplexes—beckoned. Beneath the grime and grit, they retained some of their old glory. The house at the heart of my novel was based on an actual house in my hometown, a particularly tragic beauty. Red brick, with a round turret from ground to attic, the pointy peak long missing, the windows in the round turret rooms broken and boarded. It was just a block away from my parents’ house, and I’d admired it my entire life. This house happened to be on the market while I was researching my novel, and I was able to go inside for the very first time. There was woodwork; there was original stained glass; but the smell of cats and garbage was physical, the neglect and destruction total. The house was destined to be condemned and, eventually, demolished. I was grateful for the chance to have seen it, and the new details inspired my work on the book.

Then two big events turned art-imitates-life upside down: a landlord friend bought that house, intending to flip it; and, a few months later, I joined in as an equal partner. The moment my name was added to the title, I became a small-town property owner, just like Robin. Fast forward through an extensive restoration process, and an unsuccessful attempt to find a buyer. Instead of selling the house, we rented it out—and voila, I was a landlord, just like Robin. Our first tenant bounced all her checks and refused to leave, becoming a squatter. In my novel, a squatter lives in the fictionalized version of this house. Many tenants lied on their applications, an egregious trick that was both humiliating and enraging, and I found myself getting counsel from my hometown’s most notoriously negligent landlords—just as Robin finds herself aligned with the local landlords who are harder and less merciful than she could ever be.

Every novel requires immersion: into setting, character, and story. I’ve dreamed about characters, fallen in love with them, heard their voices in my head. This time, this novel, was different. Deeper. My life inspired the art, consumed what I created, and then spit it back out as a new reality. I assumed the same burdens as Robin, trod the same fraught path, and now feel the same tight grip of anxiety that she does on the first of each month when the rent—again, again, again—fails to be paid.

I gave Robin a happy enough ending. Until I somehow find a buyer for my property, however, my landlording story will go on and on and on.

Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novels The Distance from Four Points and Each Vagabond by Name, both published by the University of New Orleans Press. Each Vagabond by Name won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal, was longlisted for the 2017 Tournament of Books, and was named one of fifteen great Appalachian novels by Bustle. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, Margo now lives in New Jersey. She is on Twitter and Instagram and her website is

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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