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'Wooden Floors' Pack Hidden Thrill In Author's Debut

Oct 7, 2012
Originally published on October 9, 2012 1:24 pm

Housesitting is a delicate chore. It involves inhabiting someone else's home — their personal space, watching over their stuff — and sticking to the Boy Scouts' creed to leave no trace. That's pretty much the opposite of what happens in Will Wiles' debut novel, Care of Wooden Floors. It's the story of an already strained friendship pushed to the breaking point by a housesitting favor gone terribly, terribly wrong.

The main character is a Brit who's agreed to housesit for his former college roommate, Oskar, in an anonymous Eastern European city while Oskar flies off to California to save his marriage. While he's away, Oskar tries to maintain order in his flat by leaving precise instructions via strategically placed, passive-aggressive notes. The book has some suspense, some twists and, suffice it to say, something ends up happening to the floors. By the end, it turns into a thriller in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," which the narrator actually references.

Wiles tells NPR's Rachel Martin about where he found his inspiration, the intimacy of living in another person's home, and Oskar's obsession with order.


Interview Highlights

On how much a home reveals about its owner

"When we go into someone's flat or house, we're really seeing an extraordinary insight into their life. I mean, you know, it's the one corner of the planet that you've really been able to structure as you wanted. It's set up the way that it pleases you. What you do with your home, where you choose to live, and how you use the space tells you an immense amount about a character. You know, I mean, the obvious example is ... browsing through someone's bookshelves, but also whether someone is comfortable with things being untidy or whether they keep everything scrupulously tidy."

On why Oskar is so particular about how his things are taken care of, especially his wooden floors

"Well, [the wooden floors are] very expensive, basically, but the house is full of a lot of very expensive things — very expensive, nice things. But the floors — I think that when he was decorating the house, they were the basis of it, they were what you started with, the baseline for setting up his perfect home. He put in the floors first, and everything else came later. So I think Oskar feels that the floors are the foundation of the perfection he's managed to achieve in his home in this beautiful minimalist environment. But, you know, we don't think very much about what supports us, what's underfoot. What's underfoot is more important than we think it is."

On the notes Oskar leaves around the flat for his housesitter

"Every time [the narrator] finds a new note, it's as if Oskar has anticipated something that he's doing. If he's looking for cleaning products to clean something, then the note where he finds it will be berating him for damaging something or getting it dirty, if you see what I mean. It's anticipated why he might be looking for something. But also, Oskar's a bit of a control freak, a neat Nazi, and ... that's why he's leaving all these notes everywhere.

"I mean, when I started writing the book, I was sharing a flat, and obviously the note is the passive-aggressive bombshell of flat-sharing ... It is the weapon of mass destruction of sharing your home. And there's a very bossy, sort of know-it-all tone to the notes that really gets under the narrator's skin very quickly."

On whether housesitting helps the narrator find himself as a writer, as he had hoped

"No. I mean, that's kind of like essentially the moral of the story, if there is one. It's the idea that the perfect place won't make you the perfect person."

On what inspired the book

"The idea for the book came originally from a real experience. I was looking after a flat belonging to some friends of my sister's, and like Oskar's flat, it had beautiful wooden floors and two cats, and was, generally speaking, it was a very, very nice flat. It was in a foreign city. Nothing happened, I hasten to add. It was left completely intact, with everyone alive and well."

On the worst thing he's ever done to a floor

"The worst floor-cleaning accident I've ever experienced happened to a gray carpet and a bottle of soy sauce ... Soy sauce, if you leave it on for a while, does not come out."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. House sitting is a delicate kind of chore. It means inhabiting someone else's home, their personal space, watching over their stuff, maybe their plants, their animals and employing the Boy Scouts' Creed: To leave no trace. So when the owners come home everything is just as it was when they left. That is pretty much the opposite of what happens in Will Wiles debut novel. It's called "Care of Wooden Floors." It is the story of an already strained friendship pushed to the breaking point by a house sitting favor gone terribly, terribly wrong. The author, Will Wiles, joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much for talking with us.

WILL WILES: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, let's just lay out the basics of the plotline first. The main character is this British guy who is a little bit lost in his life. And he agrees to housesit for his former college roommate, Oscar, in a flat in an anonymous Eastern European city, right?

WILES: That's right, yeah.

MARTIN: And the narrator ends up learning a lot about Oscar about being in his home. I mean, he knows that this is a guy who likes order and structure in his life. But what does he learn about his friends by physically inhabiting his space?

WILES: Well, when we go into someone's flats or house, we're really seeing an extraordinary insight into their life. I mean, you know, it's the one corner of the planet that you've really been able to structure as you wanted it. It's set up the way that pleases you. And what you do with your home, where you choose to live and how you use the space tells you an immense amount about a character. You know, I mean, the obvious example is just browsing through someone's bookshelves, but also whether someone is comfortable with things being untidy or whether they keep everything scrupulously tidy. You know, all these things give extraordinary insights into character.

MARTIN: He, the narrator, has been given explicit instructions on how to take care of a lot of things in the house, but specifically the wooden floors. What's the deal with these floors? Why are they so important to Oscar?

WILES: Well, they are very expensive, basically, but the house is full of a lot of very expensive things, very expensive nice things. But these floors - I think they're - when he's decorating the house, they're the basis of it. They are what you started with; the baseline for setting up his perfect home. He put in the floors first and then everything else came later. So, I think Oscar feels that the floors were the foundation of the perfection he's managed to achieve in his home, in this beautiful minimalist environment. But, you know, we don't think very much about what supports us, what's underfoot. What's underfoot is more important than we think it is.

MARTIN: We should also note that Oscar's personal life is taking a downward turn. He is in California, where he's trying to work things out with his wife, which is why he needs the house sitter in the first place. And he's trying to maintain order to the best degree that he can in his life by giving these instructions to this friend about the flat. And he does so with these notes that he's left all around the apartment.

WILES: Well, every time he finds a new note, it's as if Oscar has anticipated something that he's doing. If he's looking for cleaning products to clean something, then the notes where he finds it will be berating him for damaging something or getting it dirty, if you see what I mean. It's anticipated why he might be looking for something. But also, Oscar's a bit of a control freak and neat Nazi. And, you know, as you said, that's why he's leaving these notes everywhere. I mean, when I started writing the book, I was sharing a flat, and obviously the note is the passive-aggressive bombshell of flat-sharing. You know...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I had a roommate, I have to admit, who was a note writer, yeah.

WILES: Exactly. You know, it is the weapon of mass destruction of sharing your home. And there's a very bossy, sort of know-it-all tone to the notes that really gets under the narrator's skin very quickly.

MARTIN: The reason that the narrator has come to this place was to free himself of some kind of weight that is holding him from tapping into his potential as a writer. Does he achieve that? Is this new geography liberating for him in any way, despite all those shenanigans that transpire?

WILES: Well, in an unusual and dark way there is a kind of element of liberation towards the end, but I think I'll have to leave the readers to discover that. He - no. I mean, that's kind of like essentially the moral of the story, if there is one, the idea that the perfect place won't make you the perfect person. Because he thinks that if he can, you know - and I think a lot of people think that, you know, if they had the perfect, you know, space to work then, you know, they'd be able to achieve so much more. You know, it's the, you know, if only their study was nicer, more tidy than, you know, they'll be able to work better, if the kitchen was, you know, all stainless steel surfaces, then, you know, they'd become a great chef overnight, you know, and they cook every meal. But...

MARTIN: Have you struggled with that? Is there an example of that in your life - if you only move to X city, things would have turned out differently or better?

WILES: Oh, always. I mean, I'm a hopeless procrastinator. I'm always putting off tasks, and a lot of that is, you know, down to thinking, well, yeah, but I can't possibly work if - before the washing up's done, or while my desk is untidy. You know, I just need to sort out this place and then I can, you know, get down to it properly. So, I think there's a bit of that.

MARTIN: We don't want to give away too much because there is some suspense and some twists and turns in the book. But I think it's safe to reveal that sooner or later something happens to the floors. And the tale turns into a thriller in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," which the narrator actually references. Was that your inspiration for this story from the inception?

WILES: Well, it's probably the most famous story ever written about floorboards, so it's...

MARTIN: So, there's that, yeah.

WILES: Yeah. No. The idea for the book came originally from a real experience. I was looking out for a flat belonging to some friends of my sister's. And, like Oscar's flat, it had beautiful wooden floors and two cats. And it was, generally speaking, a very, very nice flat. You know, it was in a foreign city. Nothing happened, I hasten to add. It was left completely intact with everyone alive and well.

MARTIN: Do you have wooden floors?

WILES: No. I have a gray carpet.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: A gray carpet, which hides stains.

WILES: Well, in theory. I mean, the worst floor cleaning accident I've ever experienced happened with a gray carpet and a bottle of soy sauce, but it wasn't the one in the flat that I have. Soy sauce, if you leave it on for a while, does not come out.

MARTIN: Ah, good things to know. All right. And we should mention, there are a couple of actually very interesting practical tips in the book about how to care for your wooden floors.

WILES: One or two, yeah. I found myself discovering more about the process than I ever thought I'd know anyway. But, there, some of that's passed on.

MARTIN: Will Wiles. His debut novel is called "Care of Wooden Floors." He joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. Will, thanks so much for talking with us.

WILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.