Audrey Burges’s debut novel, The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone (Penguin, 2023), centers on 34-year-old Myra who, due to a childhood accident, rarely leaves her Arizona attic. Instead of interacting with the real world, she spends her time furnishing a miniature, magical house, and blogging about the process. When her mother’s overspending causes their home to enter foreclosure, Myra decides to use her blog to generate income in hopes of saving her home. Across the country, Alex Rakes discovers Myra’s blog and notices his Virginia house bears an uncanny likeness to the minuscule mansion. Through emails, Alex and Myra discover personal similarities, including dashed parental expectations and a reluctance to face their deepest fears. Even as they grow closer, their pasts and buried traumas threaten to keep them apart.
Burges is a writer, attorney, and mother in Richmond, Virginia. Burges’s satire and short fiction have appeared in McSweeney’s, Pithead Chapel, Cease, and Cows. Her work has been shortlisted for numerous prizes, including the Smokelong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest, Slackjaw Humor Writing Contest 2021, and the Fractured Lit Ghost, Fable and Fractured Fairy Tale Prize.
Jill Witty recently spoke with Burges about how this novel came to be, the intersection of motherhood and writing, and how she returned to creative writing after many years away. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jill Witty: What is the literary family tree of this novel?
Audrey Burges: My all-time favorite author is Barbara Kingsolver, and my all-time favorite book is The Poisonwood Bible. Her mastery of voice among very different characters; her descriptions of objects and settings that enlarge your understanding of the characters. The one that sticks with me is a platter painted with forget-me-nots and covered in plantains. The platter gets broken, and she describes the act of the plantains sliding off the plate. There’s a stickiness to her language that I have aspired to as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer.
I’m a collector of details, and richly described details are like catnip to me, so writers who really invest a lot of detail into their storytelling are the ones I respond to. Erin Morgenstern in The Night Circus, Sarah Addison Allen in The Sugar Queen, Helene Wecker in The Golem and the Jinni. There’s not one author I was trying to model myself on. Ultimately, I think I wrote the kind of story I like to read.
JW: How did you end up writing a novel about a miniaturist?
AB: It was the fall of 2020, during the pandemic, and I was craving something different and fun. Like everybody else, I was on social media all the time, and one of the rabbit holes I fell down was people who built miniatures from kits. I loved one in particular, a “book nook” with working lights, fireplaces, and books. That sparked an idea for a reclusive miniaturist. It was always going to be a love story, but I originally imagined it as a light-hearted romantic comedy, with a meet-cute, where she was going to be shy and he was going to be outgoing. I started writing without an outline, without an idea beyond that, and about 1,200 words into the book I wrote a scene that changed the concept completely.
JW: Which scene was that?
AB: It’s a scene where we see Myra as a child. She’s gotten the mansion into the attic and she’s trying to rearrange things. She sees the reflection of her own eye in the mirror, and the reflection winks, but Myra doesn’t know how to wink. That sentence came to me fully-formed, and as soon as it happened, I knew it was a different book. I’ve never had that happen before, where the story goes where it wants and I have to strap in and try to keep up. The characters came out talking; they were sitting next to me and talking to me through the whole thing.
JW: One of the themes in this book is how an attachment to objects can become a vessel for our feelings toward people. Did that idea come from your life?
AB: Some elements were drawn from my life. Grandpa Lou is not my grandfather, but when Lou buys Vienna sausages in bulk and gives the lot to five-year-old Myra as a gift, that happened to me.
I think for Myra, her attachment to the minuscule mansion is a double-edged sword. Your deep love for something that other people might not understand can separate you from the world or it can be the thing that brings you into it. Myra had more of a connection to the world than she wanted to admit. At the time I was writing this, we were in our bubbles. We didn’t know whether it was safe to bring packages inside. Everything about the world outside, that had previously been a given, suddenly seemed very scary, too big to manage.
JW: What was it like for you, as a mother of two young children, trying to write a novel during the pandemic?
AB: In the early days of the pandemic, writing felt like the only escape I had. My older child was trying to participate in online school at a little table two feet from my work desk. My younger child watched endless episodes of Bluey and Blippi and anything else that would keep him occupied. After a couple of months, my parents started taking the kids for the afternoon, and that’s when I’d squeeze in my work meetings. Outside of those hours, I was attending to complicated legal work at the same time that I was fielding requests for snacks, crafts, and trips to the science museum—or anywhere outside our house. Everything felt divided—attention, relationships, parenting. I felt like I was doing an awful job at everything. Writing, when the kids finally collapsed at night, or when I got up in the wee hours of the morning and the house was asleep, was the only thing I felt like I could control. It saved my sanity.
JW: Now that your kids are back in school and life has returned to a relative normal, what does your writing schedule look like?
AB: I do a lot of drafting in the breaths and spaces between other things—thumbing passages into my notes app on my phone while waiting to check out at the grocery store, or getting as many words on the page as I can while my kids are in ballet. To a certain extent, the fact that my writing time is so limited makes it more productive; on the rare occasions that I have a few days that I can spend writing, I keep meaning to write, but it doesn’t happen. And while I do a lot of it while my kids are asleep, I am exceptionally fortunate that my husband takes on so much with our kids and our house. When I’m in a writing zone and muttering plot points under my breath, he jumps in and takes over so I can keep that momentum. And my kids are also very supportive, especially now that this first book is tangible and something they can hold. They’ve been so sweet about it, and so excited, to finally see a result from Mommy being glued to her keyboard at all hours.
JW: How have your children reacted to seeing the book in print?
AB: The first time they saw the book’s cover, they asked my mom to help them make a miniature of it. Then, as soon as the books arrived, my daughter  put one in her backpack. She keeps it with her at all times and rereads it at school because she loves people to ask her about it. My son  keeps his copy in his room and uses my bookmarks for all of his books.
JW: Early in the book, Myra’s friend Gwen tells her, “You don’t pay much attention to other people. Even when they’re right in front of you. It takes a lot to jump over your walls, and I think your mom got tired of trying. She’s been lonely a long time.” I felt so sad, both for Myra and her mother! I think our society tends to fault mothers when a child’s upbringing goes awry, but not give mothers credit when their children go on to greatness. What is your opinion?
AB: Society really does fault mothers, and parents generally. When terrible things happen, people have a natural tendency to try to deconstruct it, to figure out the whys and hows. When you go back all the way to the beginning—well, there we are, aren’t we? Our absence, our presence, the past choices we did and didn’t make, all come to define a present we never foresaw. And I do think you’re right that there’s much more of the “boy, this mom/dad/formative relationship really screwed things up for this person, didn’t it?” than there is “look at this successful, terrific human being. Someone in their earliest days really did things right.” I think no one wants to admit how little control we have over what our children become, because they are their own people with their own paths. But that doesn’t mean the effort to mold that future isn’t important. It’s the attempt, and the love behind that attempt, that makes the difference.
JW: Your main characters have emotionally or physically absent mothers. How do you think such an upbringing affects them? And why was it important for you to include characters with absent mothers?
AB: I think that the absent or fraught nature of maternal relationships impacted these characters by depriving them of an early anchor point. It’s hard to define yourself when your earliest relationships don’t give you a framework. I did not set out with an intent to have absent mothers as a theme, which is contrary to my own life and experience. My mother is incredible—both my parents are—and I give them lots of credit. I may have watched too many Disney movies as a kid, where being a mother is almost always a death sentence!
JW: You’ve said elsewhere that you always wanted to be a writer. What made you decide to try writing fiction, after so many years away?
AB: I became a novelist because of NPR and Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, which they cover every year at Thanksgiving. My mother started making that when I was a kid, and I still make it every year. One year, NPR called for contributions about Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, and I thought, “Could I ever write the heck out of that topic!” It was the first time I’d written creatively in 20 years. I submitted a piece, and 24 hours later, I received an email saying NPR loved it and they wanted me to read it on air. Of course, I told everyone I knew. The next day I received another email saying they’d changed their minds; they had decided to go a different direction with the story. So, I cried, I felt really stupid, but when I started thinking about it, I realized, the first thing I’d written creatively in 20 years had been accepted by National Public Radio. Maybe that means something.
That happened in October, and NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] was coming up, and I decided to try it. I wrote 63,000 words in three weeks. And that was the first book. After writing that first book, I started reading about what to do next, and I learned about building an audience. I decided to try to get published by places I like and that I read, so that’s why I started with McSweeney’s.
JW: How did you find your writing voice?
AB: Lots and lots of rejection. I write so fast, and I would submit (short pieces) so widely, that I got accustomed to being turned down. When you start having successes and working with editors, you recognize what works and what doesn’t. For instance, early on, I had a bad case of “last word-itis,” a zinger sentence that I’d put at the end of a piece. Three editors in a row said, “I really loved this piece until here. I think we should cut the last sentence.” Now, whenever I find myself thinking, here’s the last sentence, that’s usually not the last sentence. You start to develop an instinct for what sounds like you and what doesn’t.
Another way to hone your voice is through cultivating relationships with other writers who have good instincts for what you’re trying to do. You gradually learn which feedback to listen to and which feedback not to act on. In the beginning, it’s tempting to do anything people tell you, but then you wind up with a “Frankenpiece” that’s not you.
JW: What’s up next for you?
AB: I’ve written three novels since that one. Hopefully I’ll be able to share more news soon.