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's 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: Oh, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, let's just lay out the basics of the plot line first. The main character is this British guy who is a little bit lost in his life. And he agrees to house-sit 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, by 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 friend, by physically inhabiting his space?
WILES: Well, 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. 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 the floors, I think they're - 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 then everything else came later. So I think Oscar 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.
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 his friend, about the flat. And he does so with these notes that he's left all around the apartment.
WILES: Well, everytime 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 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, Oscar's a bit of a control freak; a neat Nazi. And you know, as you said, 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. You know...
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 the 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. It's 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, if the - you know, if only their study was nicer, more tidy, than - you know, they'd 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'd cook every meal. But...
MARTIN: Have you struggled with that? Is there an example of that, in your own life - if you only moved 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 the 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. The - 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. And 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.
MARTIN: A gray carpet - which hides stains.
WILES: Well, in theory. I mean, the worst floor-cleaning accident I've ever experienced happened to the 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 - so 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.