Writing and Real Estate

by Maggie Marshall

I write. I sell houses. I try to balance the two; it almost never works. Look up “writers with day jobs” on the Internet. I guarantee you will not find a single real estate broker among them, past or present, famous or obscure. You will find teachers and attorneys, accountants and insurance clerks. You will find T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and Bram Stoker and Frank McCourt, but you won’t find anyone who is selling houses while they’re writing literary masterpieces, or even bashing out pulp fiction.

That’s because the level of distraction that exists in having real estate as your day job is relentless; it allows no time for rational thought, or at least for thought that doesn’t involve contracts and mortgage brokers and closing attorneys, inspection reports and septic systems and due diligence periods. Being a real estate broker is the kind of job that makes it impossible to turn off your phone or your Internet connection for a couple of hours so you can write something other than MLS copy or an offer to purchase. It’s a terrible job for a writer, especially a writer who is writing a novel and needs to write on a daily basis. A writer who is instead relegated to writing in chunks of time on well-planned-in-advance writing retreats. Yet it is my job, and there are a lot of things I like about it. In the constant struggle to make it work there are definitely lessons to be learned.

For one thing, I find that one of my strongest suits as a writer is how strongly I write about place. Even when writing about people, I’m really writing about place. In the novel I’m working on, The Gondolier’s Wife, the setting is as much a character as any of the walking, talking souls that inhabit the story. To illustrate my point, below is one of many passages from the novel that gives setting center stage:

            The walkstreet was lined with small Craftsman bungalows, broken by the occasional flimsy sixties cottage. Even in the dark you could see the difference between the two—the sixties-built were more square than the old bungalows, with rusted metal awnings and aluminum windows and dingy ice cream-colored stucco coatings. In the dim spill from the moon and people’s garden lights he could make out the same landscape most of the other walkstreets boasted: wild looking English-style gardens interspersed with derelict yards of rocks and weeds, the latter of which were generally separated from the street by a chain link fence, some with ugly plastic ribbons running through them.

            But what was far more interesting on this particular street, precisely because it was so dark, was that he could see clearly into any lit window along the path as he walked. At this hour there weren’t many, and a few carried only the blue glow of a television, but occasionally he would encounter a tableau that reminded him of the lifelike museum dioramas he loved as a child. Instead of a mama bear rising up to claim sovereignty over cowering cubs or dinosaurs stomping through fern-laden valleys, the vignette would be a couple arguing opposite glasses of wine at a rustic dining room table, or a woman loading tomorrow’s school lunches into brown paper bags, or a snoring man in a BarcaLounger. A museum of lifestyles right in front of him.

Maybe this focus is my way of integrating the two sides of my brain, the real estate side and the writer side. Maybe it’s just that a sense of place called to me more strongly than any character in this novel when it was just notes on the back of an envelope. Place is what inspired the novel. It’s about one place in two different time periods, about how the past percolates up to more fully reveal the present, and about how a place can evolve until it’s virtually unrecognizable. Place can reveal more about a person than the person herself ever will. Place is my bailiwick, and I love writing about it.

I sometimes wish I were a short story writer and not a novelist, because selling real estate is really much more like a story collection. There are myriad stories, people at the height of their emotions engaging in what will likely be the largest financial transaction of their lives. I get to witness that, to act as facilitator and proxy therapist. I learn a great deal about my clients, all held in strict confidence. But somehow the rhythm isn’t right. I can’t think of a single time I’ve used anything from my day job in my novel with the exception of architectural details. My characters have been in play for a much longer time than my various deals. Writing a novel has a completely different rhythm, more like buying a very, very large house and slowly, meticulously filling it with beautiful things.

So I write when I can, filling up the house, room by room. The fact that this is made both possible and impossible by selling house after house somehow seems just right.

Maggie Marshall is an award-winning TV/Film writer and actress who has performed in regional theaters throughout the country as well as in Los Angeles, on Broadway, and in Dublin, Ireland. A move to Asheville, North Carolina brought about a career change to real estate broker and appraiser, in hopes that her addiction to houses might finance her addiction to writing. She is a member of Asheville’s Flatiron Writers and is a veteran of numerous workshops in the Great Smokies Writing Program. She has been a fiction contributor at the 2014 Tin House Writer’s Workshop, a fellow at the Hambidge Creative Residency Program, and a Writer-in-Residence at the Weymouth Center for the Arts. When she’s not selling houses she is working on her first novel, The Gondolier’s Wife, an excerpt of which has been published in the Great Smokies Review. She lives in West Asheville with her husband, Stephen Goldman.