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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.
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."