Susan Coll on her novel 'The Stager,' social satire and rabbits

Susan Coll on her novel 'The Stager,' social satire and rabbits
Susan Coll will read from her novel "The Stager" at Vroman's on Wednesday. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Lauren Shay Lavin)

At the center of Susan Coll's new novel, "The Stager," is a faux Tudor home up for sale in the DC suburbs, a family and a bitter pet rabbit named Dominique.

After being named Vice President of Transparency for a large corporation, Bella has to move her former tennis pro husband, Lars, and their 5th grade daughter, Elsa, to London, and sell their home. Enter the stager, whose job is to rearrange and fix up and depersonalize people's homes because "statistically, staged homes sell faster and for more money."


Coll's dark humor comes through when the stager quickly realizes she is in the home of her former best friend. With growing questions of relationships, sanity, and the whereabouts of the rabbit, the novel has the makings of a social satire.

Coll, the author of several novels including "Beach Week" and "Acceptance," later made into a television movie, chatted with us by phone from her home in Washington, DC. She will be reading at Vroman's Wednesday at 7 p.m.

What initially intrigued you with the world of staging?

The idea for the book stemmed from my own experience selling my house years ago. The Realtor insisted that I bring in a stager to make it ready for sale: to depersonalize it and freshen it up.

The experience of having a complete stranger come into my house and start rearranging pictures, furniture and rugs—and also the idea of a stranger having that kind of access to one interior life—seemed like good material for a novel.

It seemed like a rich vehicle to tell the story of somebody coming into a very personal space and creating havoc. As a comic novelist, I always have an eye out for the darker, comic possibilities and this seemed like a great narrative device to me, especially thinking ahead to the idea of: what if the stager was actually somebody who had her own agenda or had no boundaries?

Most of your chapters alternate between the point of view of Elsa and Lars, with a  few chapters in the point of view of the stager and even Dominique. Why did you choose not to write any chapters in the point of view of Bella?

That's a great question. I had originally written in the point of view of Bella and then I decided I was less interested in her telling her point of view. It seemed to me better to leave that out.

And yet, because I needed to be able to tell certain parts of the story to establish certain narrative facts that I was no longer going to be able to tell once I dropped her point of view, that inspired the whole idea of having Lars have an omniscient point of view.

So for me, the real comedy of the book, started with the decision to drop Bella's point of view.

Was one character's voice easier for you to capture than another's?

Strangely, Lars' voice was easy to capture. I think because I was able to really let loose and explore different realms with that wacked-out point of view.

I found writing in Elsa's voice the most challenging. It may just be that everybody who looked at it—all of the readers I asked to help along the way—had wildly different opinions on whether I had appropriately written in the voice of a young girl. So I kept changing her age, adjusting the language and really fussing with it.

You currently live in D.C. What is it about the D.C. scene that is so fun for you to poke at?

I had not lived in D.C. before I began writing, so I came here with almost an anthropologist's eye. This whole area was very new to me and it was the first place that I had lived as an adult—it was the first place I ever bought a house. It was my first experience of adult life and rearing children in the suburbs.

I think because it was all so new to me, I just had a fresh eye.

Between Bella's job title of VP for Transparency, Lars' obsession with light and Eve's job of creating illusions of what a home can look like, it seems you have an interest in appearances and the way in which things are revealed.

It's funny, my first talk about the book was here at Politics and Prose where I work. During the question and answer session, somebody who had read one of my earlier books pointed out that I had similarly created a way to have the main character play with appearances. In that book, the protagonist was a scrapbooker and she was always mucking around with the family photos, Photoshopping certain family members in and out.

I hadn't even made that connection, but I think that is something I'm very interested in—the way that we define the way we live and the way we put together our homes, trying to make statements about who we are.

One of your seemingly more sane and honest characters is the family's pet rabbit, Dominique. You ultimately give the reader a look into the voice and point of view of Dominique. Why was that something you chose to include in such detail?

Initially, the rabbit was  just a sidebar element to the story. I had heard a story from a friend who had a pet rabbit that was destroying her house and had, in fact, chewed through an electrical cord and the freezer, therefore, was disconnected and the house had begun to smell. Initially I just threw that in.

But as the book went along, Dominique suddenly inserted himself as a force. And as I struggled with the novel, I began to realize that the rabbit running away just lends itself to the really logical thread of the whole story: the act of the family pet running away is the trigger for everybody falling apart.

I was trying very much to scale down the story because I have a tendency of over-plotting. One of my first rejection letters 12 years ago said, "how nice to find a novel with too much going on, instead of too little going on."

So the idea of having this all built around the event of a family pet running away is what caused me to focus on Dominique. And then in the last third of the book when he really inserts himself in a crazy fashion, that was almost like a magical writing experience for me. He just started speaking. I let him have his way.