Memory and Lyrical Interludes: An Interview with Rebecca Makkai – Michigan Quarterly Review
An Image of Rebecca Makkai set over a cover image of her book "I Have Some Questions for you"

Memory and Lyrical Interludes: An Interview with Rebecca Makkai

I had the experience of encountering Rebecca Makkai’s work for the first time this summer. I burned through her latest novel, I Have Some Questions for You, which came out last February, in one breezy May morning. 

The propulsive novel follows Bodie Kane, a film professor and podcaster, as she returns to the boarding school she attended as a student to teach a course. While there, she finds herself drawn to the past, in particular to the story of her roommate Thalia Keith’s murder, which occurred while they were students at the school. After finishing it, I picked up Makkai’s third novel, The Great Believers, and quickly devoured it as well. The Great Believers, unlike I Have Some Questions for You, is not a mystery novel. Rather, Makkai serves readers a gut wrenching chronicle of the AIDs epidemic in Chicago and its modern ripple effects. 

I was struck by how different the two books were. Makkai is not a writer who circles the same material over and over, revisiting the same obsessions over the course of her career. She is a builder of diverse fictional worlds. Aligning her four novels and singular short story collection: rich, honest prose and vividly drawn characters. Makkai has a gift for drawing readers into her inventions and making them wish they could remain, no matter how devastating or tragic the circumstances. 

Her work has been recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation, the LA Times, Best American Short Stories and others. I Have Some Questions for You is a New York Times bestseller. Her last novel, 2018’s The Great Believers, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  

Makkai sat down with MQR after giving a reading at the University of Michigan as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series. This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.   

Courtney DuChene (CD): Last night during your talk at the University of Michigan you were speaking about how there’s multiple origins for I Have Some Questions for You. What was the thing that came first?

Rebecca Makkai (RM): That’s hard to say. I always have many, many things percolating, and they come together. I’m not the kind of person who walks down the street and has a sudden flash of inspiration, and then there’s a book. 

I think what happens is writers feel compelled to make a mythology for their book. They have to come up with an origin story, because that’s what everyone wants. I think 90% of authors fake or exaggerate these stories because that’s just what people need to hear. People want the story to be like, I saw this painting, and I thought, what if… and then there’s the idea for a book.

In reality, the process is more like, well I’ve had a million ideas forever, and some of them came together, and then I threw half of them out, and then it went in this direction. I can’t really tell you what happened, what came first. For years, the possibility of a boarding school novel was there. For a long time, the possibility of writing something true crime-related was there. Various other elements of the book were just there forever, and things started to converge.

CD: I’m the kind of writer who percolates as well. So I appreciate your honesty in saying that the idea for I Have Some Questions for You has been percolating for a long time.

RM: The book that I’m working on right now — I’m not going to say what it is — but it’s a very specific topic, and I literally have no idea where it came from. It was something I’d always been interested in, but not as a writing subject. I was driving for about 45 minutes to have lunch with a friend. By the time I got there, I said to my friend, “What if I wrote about this?” 

But I don’t remember what happened in the car. I don’t remember if I heard something on NPR. I don’t remember if I saw something, I don’t remember if my mind was wandering. I have no fucking idea. When this book comes out, I think what I probably need to do is write the essay about that and be like, I don’t know. Here’s my essay, but I don’t know, and I refuse to make up a story. I’m too crotchety to do it.

Also, I don’t think it helps people to hear that. Because then writers are waiting for the flash of an entire book to come to them, when that’s not how things really happen. 

CD: Coming back to the book, you mentioned that one of the things you were interested in writing about is boarding schools. They have the diversity of a responsible small liberal arts school, you said. I really love the depiction of the teenagers in this book. They’re so varied, they’re so diverse, they feel so real. How did you approach writing teenagers?

RM: I’m so glad. Thank you. I have two teenagers now, but when I started the book, neither was a teenager yet. At the school where we live, I don’t really interact with the students. We live in an apartment that’s connected to a dorm, but I am not employed at this school. I have zero reason to go through that door. 

My experience with teenagers has a lot more to do with me as an author being brought in to visit various boarding schools or high schools or colleges, and working with those kids for a couple of days, or just presenting to them in a seminar. 

When I decided I was going to send this character back to this school in the present day, I knew I wanted to show the contrast between those generations. The contrast between today’s teenagers and the kids I went to high school with, or the kids that my character would’ve gone to high school with, is dramatic. There’s no way around that. In so many ways, they’re better people than we were. They’re so aware. 

They also overthink everything. These younger characters almost talk themselves out of being helpful. They’re still awkward, even in their painstaking earnestness, but they’re lovely people. That was a lot of fun. 

I had to make a small enough group that readers could keep track of everybody, but that wasn’t hard to do. Bodie, my main character, teaches two classes. For her film class, I decided they’re going to be a faceless mob. Then the podcasting class is going to be a very small group, and we’re going to actually know these kids, and some of them are going to become important.

CD: How did you approach this interesting interplay between past and present that Bodie is experiencing in the book?

RM: I think that’s life. No one’s living in the present. We’re always living in some combination of the past and the present, maybe the future. I think all of my work is concerned with the passage of time in some way, and the layering of different eras — the time that’s on your mind, which is not necessarily the time you’re in now.

This is not my first time in Ann Arbor, right? I’m walking around and I’m going to think about the previous times I was in Ann Arbor. Where I am is going to dictate stuff that comes back to me. There are layers. 

I was really not interested in jumping back and forth in time. Partly, I had just done that with The Great Believers, and I don’t want to do the same thing twice in a row. Also, I was interested in trapping this character in the present, which is our situation in real life. As much as we’re thinking about the past, it is just thinking. We are fundamentally trapped in the present. I wanted her to be trying very hard to think back, and finding she’s unsure of her memories, doubting herself, seeing things in a new light. 

I have this allergy to the move in fiction, that I think is borrowed from film, of someone being suddenly overcome by a memory — like a capital M memory. It’ll be a full on, seven-page flashback, in chronological order, with great detail, of everything that happened 50 years earlier. Real memory absolutely doesn’t work that way. 

CD: There’s a lot of doubt and you’re really confined to Bodie’s point of view. It felt very true to the reckoning that a lot of women have gone through in the wake of Me Too.  

RM: That was very much on my mind. It was not really an origin point of the book because all the Me Too stuff was happening as I was beginning to write. But in my own thinking back on high school and college, I was going, This was weird, did that really happen? Oh, my God, why was I okay with that? I wasn’t okay with that. Hold on. Am I misremembering that? Holy shit. No, it was worse than that. We were all doing this. It felt realistic that this character would be also. 

CD: I want to talk a little bit about the true crime aspects of the book. The book starts off with this lyrical section, where Bodie is talking to various people about the murder. There’s some confusion, people ask her “is it the one with the…” and so on and she corrects them, guiding them to Thalia’s story. Then, later in the novel, there’s this crime story in the news that Bodie is fixated on, but she withholds which one. That pattern recurs throughout the book. It feels like it’s referencing all of these news stories about women and girls who have been the victims of crimes. How did you approach that section and that theme?

RM: I was looking for ways to destabilize Bodie. In my early drafts, she was way too put together, and she felt like this neutral detective figure.I was trying to find a way to destabilize her. The one thing that seemed to make sense was to put something in the news that was really upsetting to her, in the same way so many of us were destabilized by, say, the Christine Blasey Ford hearings. I wanted there to be something in the news where she’s just like, I can’t think about anything else right now

My problem was, if I put a real case in there, it distracts from the narrative. I’d have to write about Christine Blasey Ford, for instance, and try to do that justice. If I invent a case, I have to invent all the details and ask the reader to keep track of all those, when they’re also keeping track of my main narrative.

My solution to these problems was: What if she refuses to tell us what the news story is? What if it’s actually all of them? Because in reality it’s always about all of them. It’s about the one you see on the news at the moment, sure, but it reminds you of all the other ones. You’re talking about all of them at once, and you’re thinking about all of them at once. 

I wrote this one section of Bodie being like, “No, it was the one with the swimmer. No, it was the one with the Supreme Court Justice.” And it worked for me. It was pinging off everything. It situates this story within the canon of true crime stories that you already know, and we’re going to pretend that this is one of those. 

CD: The whole book in general feels very tightly plotted. You find information out at just the right time. Is that something that happened from the beginning, or is that something you worked through later on?

RM: I have a number of friends who write genre mystery. The Chicago writing community is really tight and really inclusive, where you’re not siloed into literary fiction. I have friends who just write a book or two a year about a detective, and they’re brilliant. You learn so much from talking to people who work like that.

Every actual mystery novelist I know says that you’re going to save yourself so much time and headache if you know what happened going into the book. So I worked out pretty much everything at the outset. Of course, I went back in and altered a few things later, but basically, I had that all, including the clues, the things that would lead Bodie to figuring out more than she knew at the beginning.

There’s so much to be said for off-the-page writing, for stepping back from the book and going, okay, I need to figure out the timeline of this person’s life or I need to figure out the layout of this cruise ship, or I need to figure out exactly what happened that night —  and then going back into the text, and writing based on stuff you know.

CD: We’ve talked about film a lot, and Bodie’s role as a film podcaster is an interesting part of this book. In your other books, you’ve engaged with other art forms, like photography, music and painting. Why is that an interest for you?

RM: I was raised by two linguistics professors, but my dad was also a poet and very much in the music world in Chicago. My sister is a musician, and we have a lot of actors in the family… So many of the people I know are academics or artists of some kind. 

Early on, I really needed to give myself permission to write about those things. I think as a student in my early twenties, I was constantly trying to write about gritty people, people of the streets — things I knew nothing about, and was not comfortable with. Honestly, it was not what I was actually drawn to. I just felt like that’s what real writing was supposed to be. 

I thought that I couldn’t write about my real life. That’s embarrassing and nobody wants to read about that. It’s dorky. Then, a mentor at one point, the lovely writer David Huddle, said to me over lunch. He doesn’t remember this, but we were talking about a story of mine and he said, “Rebecca, it’s okay for a character to be as smart as you are, or even smarter.” My mind was blown. 

CD: You’ve mentioned a few new book ideas. How many ideas do you hold in your head at a time?

RM: I have at least five right now. The thing I’m working on now feels politically urgent, and it feels like this is the moment for it. But I have multiple other ones that I’ve written part of or have sketched out.

I have a children’s book that I started writing for my kids. In early 2020, I was touring so constantly because of The Great Believers, and I felt guilty being on the road so much. My kids were younger. So I started writing a middle grade novel and sending chapters home to them.

Then COVID hard stopped all the travel and I stopped working on it. Now they’re 13 and 16. It’s not even their age group anymore. But my kids will be like, “What happened to that book? You’re supposed to write that book.” 

I have endless ideas, which is frustrating. You just can’t write that fast. I have a lot of bad ideas too. There’s just a constant idea generator in my head.

Courtney DuChene is a second-year MFA candidate at the University of Michigan and an associate editor for MQR.

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