Interview by Carter Foster
Rebecca Makkai is the author of three books. Her first novel, The Borrower, follows a young librarian's journey across the country with a boy who has convinced her to kidnap him and was a Booklist Top Ten Debut and an O, The Oprah Magazine selection. Her second novel, The Hundred-Year House, tells the story of artists-in-residence at an artist colony in reverse chronological order and won the Chicago Writers Association's Book of the Year Award. It was also named a Best Book of 2014 by Bookpage, PopSugar, Chicago Reader, and more. Her most recent book is Music for Wartime, a story collection. Her work has appeared numerous times in Best American Short Stories. She was also the recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship.
This past month, she left her home in Chicago to meet with students and give a reading as part of the University of New Hampshire’s Visiting Writers series. This interview was conducted as we drove from Durham to Portsmouth and other sites around the New England Seacoast.
All blinker clicks have been removed for clarity.
Barnstorm: It’s rather unusual to meet a published writer these days who does not hold an MFA. Did you intentionally decide not to get one?
Rebecca Makkai: It sort of just happened that way. When I was in college I was aware of MFA programs. But I remember having a professor who had an MFA and a student once asked this professor what she thought of MFA programs. Maybe she was feeling down on them at this point, but she said something like, “An MFA and a nickel will get you onto the bus.” Maybe her response was more tailored to the student who asked it, who actually wanted to be a journalist. I never took it upon myself to have that conversation in private with any professors. I thought, “Oh, those people who get an MFA are just silly.” Then later I realized it might have been tremendously useful.
But really, my goal all along was to get a PhD in Literature. I was living in Chicago and was going to teach elementary school for three years, finish my Masters degree in the summers—which I did do at Middlebury College—and then I was going to apply to PhD programs.
We ended up delaying leaving Chicago. I was looking into PhD programs when I had this moment of total reckoning. I was looking at John Hopkins, and they had links to the CVs of current PhD candidates. I was reading this one guy’s CV, and you know, he was doing papers and conferences on the minor points of Dickens or something in hotels in Kansas. I thought, “Oh my god, that’s not what I want.”
My parents were both PhDs and college professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was drawn to it for that reason, but I also knew that they were pretty miserable.
B: The decision to not get a PhD, was this made while you were still getting your MA or was it later?
RM: I think it was after, I can’t remember. After I graduated from Middlebury I was on staff there—working in the library and the copy room. I kept going back each summer. I would audit classes, write the papers and everything. So I don’t have a clear date in my mind for when my MA ended; it just kept going and going. I think I took as many classes afterwards as I did to get my degree.
B: All the while you were working to be a writer too?
RM: Yeah, and that’s the thing. The whole time I was working on short stories, and I had halfheartedly started my first novel. I always wanted be a writer, but I was thinking I could do a PhD, be a full time professor of literature and then also write. And I have friends who ended up doing that. But I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on, and looking at that guy’s CV… So the question I had to ask myself was: do I want to write about literature or do I want to write literature? Once I phrased it that way to myself, it was an easy answer.
By that point I was married. I had a full-time job. I was starting to get published. For an MFA, I would have probably had to stay in Chicago. And there are great programs in the city, but they are full-pay. So I would either have to pay a ton of money to stay or pay a ton of money to do a low-res. Part of me considered biting the bullet and applying to Iowa—you know it’s not that far away from Chicago and I didn’t have kids yet. Still, it meant quitting my job, it would mean living apart from my husband for 2 or 3 years or his quitting his job.
Then my third published story got picked up for The Best American Short Stories, which was only a couple years after my first published story. And it wasn’t like everything happened really fast after that, but everything did happen after that. That was the start of a lot of things. Even afterwards, I was still thinking I might want to get an MFA. I was talking with a mentor of mine, asking if I should do it, and he kind of laughed and said “You’re as qualified to teach in an MFA as you are to get an MFA.” But I never quite believed him. Then at a certain point I found myself teaching at Iowa Writers’ Workshop and I was like, I guess that window closed awhile ago.
B: I was going to say, that’s only your third story, then you’re collected in three more consecutive years of Best American, two novels and a collection, all in a span of 7 or 8 years. From the outside it looks like it must have been a roller coaster ride. But how did it actually feel?
RM: It felt really slow. With Best American, it was maybe the best moment of my life—in a different way than your children being born, because it’s something that you don’t have any control over, something you can’t make happen. They send you an email, and I remember reading it and thinking “Okay, my life is going to change.” But it’s seven months until the anthology comes out. So in that time I was working to get a website up. I didn’t have an agent. What I remember is looking into a mirror—but I probably wasn’t literally doing that—and thinking, this is where everything starts, this is the beginning of everything and you’re going to have a career now. But then, of course, it was just crickets. I got some emails from readers—and that was fun—but it didn’t make anything happen. Someone posited to me that if I had been a man I would have had agents reaching out to me. But it didn’t happen, and I don’t know if it’s true or not. So it’s easy to say that I would have. I should probably ask a man in a similar situation what it was like for him.
No one contacted me, but I think the anthology helped when I reached out myself. By the time I found my agent, it was the fall of 2009—right before my second appearance in Best American came out. And I’m glad, now, that no one reached out, because I would have been picked by someone else, and I would not have ended up with my agent, who’s amazing. After the second story, I did get some agents emailing. Maybe the recognition that I had two in a row helped, or maybe it was just a better story than the first.
B: The first story was “The Worst You Ever Feel?”
RM: Yes. And I might be feeling a little iffy about that one right now because of Dwight Garner’s review of the collection in the New York Times. He eviscerated that story.
B: How often do you read reviews?
RM: I read them all. You’re going to hear about them anyway. That review in particular, when it came out I was sitting in an airport on book tour. I didn’t know about it, but I got an email from a friend saying, “I don’t care what that guy says about you, you’re awesome.” I thought, “Oh god what happened.” Then I saw all these texts on my phone, some of them just hearts.
B: When you get a review like that, one that changes the way you feel about your work, does it affect you because they are tearing it apart or is it that they are speaking in some way to an insecurity you already had about the work?
RM: It could be either one. With Dwight Garner’s—which was more of a mixed review, and I do have to say he also said some really generous things—I objected more to the misquoting. He took me out of context. There was a line of dialogue from one page and he put it with dialogue from another page, then put them together as if they were one conversation. All to say, look how cheesy. And yeah, it would have been cheesy had I written it that way. He criticized my novels in the review, too, and he went on and on about how the main character of my second novel was called Zenobia—which is not her name. Her name is Zee, which was shortened from Zilla. That’s a major plot point of the novel. She’s named after another person in the book. But a character in the novel calls her Zenobia one time, halfway through, as a joke. Which leads me to speculate about the process behind the review, but I probably should zip my lips about that.
It’s different to be harshly critiqued and then learn from it, which has happened with other reviews. There was some legitimate criticism of The Borrower, and I think some of it really made me a better writer. And there were criticisms of some of my stories that were very sharp and intelligent. Those felt like someone making a really good observation about my work, as if in workshop. It was like, “Ouch that’s true, but now I know.” Ultimately, I was grateful for it. But it’s different when you feel that someone did not read your work carefully and then was very public about it.
Even so, sales of the book leapt with that review. I wonder, though, what damage did it do in terms of other things. Did people on prize committees decide not to read it? Did other publications decide not to review it? Or in contrast, it was on the front page of the New York Times Arts Section, did that actually cause other people to review it? It ended up being reviewed fairly well for a story collection.
B: You talk a lot about craft on your Ploughshares blog. The posts are funny—offering inside jokes that have a nice bite to them.
RM: Originally, I was writing earnest things about craft, almost like little essays. I think the first one that got a lot of attention was “14 Ways to Tick off a Writer.” And because it got passed around, I was thinking, “Okay, well if I’m funny more people will read it.” It also probably helped that it had a list form.
Over time, I found it more fun to skewer some of us. There was one post that really pissed off some people—“Writers You Want to Punch in the Face(book).” It was a basically about the misuses of social media by writers, the ways we wind up humble-bragging and over-promoting. 99.9% of the people that responded said things like, “Oh my god, that was so cathartic.” But a few writers—mostly straight white males, very self-aggrandizing—took it to heart. A couple of guys I was friends with on Facebook—one posted a big rebuttal, a few unfriended me. Of course I think it was because it hit too close to home for them. And if you went through that post and just read the little Facebook posts—which were entirely made up—it might look like I was saying, “Some people are obnoxious, here’s one,” when the article was really saying, “We all do this. We all fear that we are this guy. We’re all stuck in this place of having to promote and are self-conscious about it, what are we supposed to do?”
B: When I read “I Have a Favor to Ask,” which is a form-letter for writers asking other writers for advice or to look at their work or to write a letter of recommendation, I kept thinking of how hard it is for new writers to know what’s appropriate or inappropriate to ask. And in a way, your blog is the perfect guide for navigating a world that they are unfamiliar with.
RM: I get a lot of stuff from people who have suddenly come to writing; people that have experience with one kind industry, where if you want to become a part of that industry you reach out to those within it and they kind of take you under their wing. But I’m not sure what industry that’s true for. In a lot of people’s minds, all a writer does is sit and write. What could you possible be busy with so that you couldn’t look at a manuscript? But they don’t understand that I’m constantly on the road; and I have two-hundred emails a day; and I’m trying to blurb books for four dear friends; and I have essays to write; and book reviews to write. They’re going, “I met you at a festival for thirty seconds, and I have a novel that I’d like you to look at. No rush, treat it like any other book on your nightstand. Read it when you can and give me your reactions.” It’s as if they’re imagining that there are only a few hundred people trying to be writers, and so they might be the only who has ever thought to write to me.
But that sounds terrible, because I love being able to help people when it is the right time and place. I will go out of my way to blurb books that I really believe in. I will write letters of recommendation for my former students.
The issue is that the people who reach out in the least appropriate ways—they’re often the ones who get really offended when you say no. I’ve had a few become belligerent. I imagine it’s part of the same entitlement that led them to presume I’d drop everything to read their book in the first place. (No huge surprise: 100% of these people are straight white men.)
But most people are lovely and very sweet and awkward about asking even the most necessary, appropriate favors. That includes the vast majority of straight white men, too!
B: That’s what I like about that post in particular. You might misread it as a slam against reaching out and asking for help. But there is the flip-side, which is that many writers are beholden to ask for advice or help from mentors, successful friends, and total strangers. And you give honest advice and criticism in a comedic way.
RM: My point with that post was in no way to say, “How dare you ask for favors.” I’m still in the position where I have to ask for letters of recommendation constantly. I still have to ask people to blurb my books. And it’s so awkward. The whole point of it was to help that process, because we all need it. It wasn’t at all to complain about people, because I have no problem saying no. And most of the people reaching out to me are doing it for legitimate reasons.
Not having an MFA, I understand the position people are in. How are you going to ask for favors when you don’t know anybody? Say you want to apply for something when you’re thirty-six and need a letter of recommendation. Are you going to write back to your college literature professor?
B: There are these rules to the writing world that are not totally obvious to, or in favor of, beginners.
RM: I had some advantage, despite not having an MFA. I worked for the literary magazine Shenandoah for three years and that taught me a ton. I had great writing instruction and guidance in college. Some people don’t even know they want to be writers until after college; I knew it in high school. Even at Middlebury, I was able to work with David Huddle and Paul Muldoon. I knew enough at a certain point. I knew that I should probably go to Bread Loaf and I got an alarmingly swift lay of the land there—this is how you approach an agent, this is how you talk to an editor. If you took all that stuff away, even if I had studied writing in college but not with successful authors who could tell me this stuff, I don’t know that I would have had any clue where to start. I’m not sure I would have known about literary magazines. I might have sent story after story to The New Yorker and given up because they kept rejecting me. Or written a novel first, because that was all I had been exposed to.
B: Your first novel, The Borrower, takes place in Hannibal, Missouri—or anywhere but Hannibal—why did you decide to put that location in your readers’ minds?
RM: Mark Twain. It’s where Mark Twin grew up and where Huck and Jim start their journey. And yeah, I’m always quick to point out so I don’t get sued by the Hannibal Public Library, that it is technically anywhere in the world except Hannibal, Missouri. The narrator says she’s going to call it Hannibal, which means that’s not where she is. I still fear that I might run into someone from the Hannibal Library at a reading.
Apparently, when the book came out, my publicist contacted the library to let them know that the book was set at their library, then sent them a few copies, and never heard back from them. I’m sure they were horrified.
You know, you’re writing your first book and you don’t think through all the repercussions of it being out in the world. Why would you? It feels like such a pipe dream. It would have been really presumptuous of me at the age of twenty-three, as I’m starting this book, to think, “Well, this might be an insult to the Hannibal Public Library.” I wouldn’t even say I was writing a novel at that point, I would say I was writing “something longer.”
Here’s something that still kind of bugs me: I needed this character to have fallen into her job by happenstance, mostly because I needed her to detach from it pretty easily, and that’s why I didn’t have her get a Masters of Library Science degree. The way she got her job was totally legitimate—and she says in there that she’s not technically a librarian, they just needed a library worker but they called her a librarian. A small percentage of very loud librarians were so upset, and it was not about the fact that this character kidnaps a child, it was that I didn’t give her an MLIS. I’m sure I upset the children’s librarian at the Hannibal Public Library—among other things—because I didn’t give her the proper degree.
B: Is that why The Hundred-Year House takes place at a fictional artists’ colony?
RM: Anyone who knows the North Shore of Chicago could pretty easily recognize the area described as Lake Forest. There is a colony there, Ragdale, but it started in the 1980s, so it has a completely different history from Laurelfield, the fictional one in my book. I’m on the curatorial board there, and they were cool with it. In the book there’s a college in the same town as the artists’ colony, and some pretty scandalous stuff does happen there. So I did not want it to be recognizable as the college at which I teach.
B: With the stories and aspects of the novels, too, I see a lot of attention payed to oral tales and folklore, the kind of family histories as told by parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. I wonder what import you feel those tales have had on you, as a storyteller.
RM: I was raised with this bizarre family folklore. Some of it on my mom’s side—she would tell stories from her family history. But it was much more from my dad’s side, partly because he’s a writer and partly because he tells a really good story. And he exaggerates wonderfully, so whatever the story had been originally, after he’s told it a few times, it becomes this fantastic thing. He has a lot of material to work with, too. He’s had a crazy life; his parents had crazy lives. And I grew up with those stories.
In The Borrower, the immigrant father is really the only part of Lucy’s life that has anything to do with me, but when it first came out people assumed it was a thinly disguised version of me. Which is kind of disturbing because it’s about a kidnapping, and she makes all of these horrible decisions. Now that I have two other books, I don’t think people assume that anymore, but since it was my first novel, it was all people knew of me. And it’s a first person story, so I can see how you’d make some assumptions.
I put in the immigrant father, but he’s got a very different situation from my own father. He’s Russian while my father is Hungarian—which might not sound that different to some Americans, but it’s hugely different.. And he’s a mafioso, and my dad’s a linguistics professor. I wanted to use the idea of someone who had left everything behind. When you’re the child of an immigrant who’s done that, that’s a question you grow up with: what’s it like to leave it all behind? And since Lucy was going to run away, it made sense to give her that family legacy.
Also, when I made the decision for her to be a librarian, it became a story about stories—the stories we tell each other and ourselves. So it fit, because the stories from an immigrant father were stories that might be full of lies.
Some of the stories in Music for Wartime originated from the stories I’ve been told. And while I still think of them as fiction, I’m dealing with them more head-on there.
B: Sometimes telling another person’s story can be a sort of violent act where you have to recreate a lot and almost obscure the original person or culture in order to shape the narrative, but there are other times when it is a more natural process—maybe one with a lot of research—where the story more or less tells itself and you take more of a curatorial position. When you’re telling the story, of say a town, or even your family’s stories, do you ever fear appropriation?
RM: Yes. And when my family’s stories appeared in Harpers, my father was both thrilled and upset. In Music for Wartime, I have a story called “The Briefcase.” There’s a family story that goes with that. An older cousin of my father was a college professor—I think a history professor—who was walking across campus and a chain gang walking near him was short a prisoner, so they just took him up and he was never seen again. And I’m not sure if that is really the way it happened—that’s clearly what someone told his family, but I don’t know if there was something else going on or if there were other political things or if they had planned to take him. Anyway, his wife was pregnant at the time and then gave birth to a son who never knew his father. That son came to America, like my father, and I was very close to his daughters. And I still know them—I see them every weekend because my daughter takes classes at their ballet studio. I felt like I couldn’t just tell his story. For one thing, it felt like too much appropriation. And for another I didn’t quite know what to write about, a gulag? I didn’t really want to write a story about a prison camp. But then one day it hit me that I could write a story about someone who’d escaped from a chain gang.
At the point that I wrote the story, I was out of touch with this branch of my family. When it was published in Best American, I was able to put a little note about where it came from and all that. I put in a line like, “If anyone from that side of my family is reading this I’m sorry…” But I’m not sure any of them read it there. I know they’ve read it now that it’s in the collection, though, because one of them has a book club where they read the book and invited me to come.
There’s appropriation on the personal level, which I guess I’m okay with, and then there’s cultural appropriation, which I’m more concerned with. Then, it becomes a matter of power. I know a woman who wrote a novel about Georgia O’Keeffe—they are both white women, so no one really would have an issue with that. If she had, however, written a novel about Sojourner Truth, we could ask: is that appropriate? But then again, if I’m writing a novel and I have this cast of characters, I don’t want them to all be straight and white. I need characters of other ethnicities, backgrounds and sexual orientations. But are they also going to always be side characters then? That’s not great, either. So if I then really write about them, really focus on them, does that become appropriation?
B: Yes, it can be a tricky thing. You want to do service to other people’s lives. In a way that’s what storytelling is, trying to build this empathetic relationship between readers and the characters in your story. And that often involves writing characters that are not yourself—and doing it in a way that is not exploitative.
I think a lot about that. Say with Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t accuse a journalist for writing about the victims there. But there has been a backlash against Beyonce for bringing attention to that story, and others, in her video for the song “Formation.” It’s clearly different based on the response, but I’m not quite sure how.
RM: She’s from the South, she’s African American, her family has ties to Louisiana. And she is certainly not preventing someone else from talking about it. Do you have to be from New Orleans to tell the story? Do you have to have been there? To have drowned? There is a point where it goes too far, where we are too afraid. But you want to be careful for a reason. You don’t want to offend, you don’t want to misrepresent. You don’t want to perpetuate stereotype. But I do have issues with people going around trying to police who can tell what story.
B: You mentioned at your reading last night that you’re writing about the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s. How are you approaching that project?
RM: I think you tend to get accused less of appropriation if you tell the story well. Partially that involves going against stereotype. And with this project, it is entirely fictional. I’m doing research and pulling on details from real-life, but I’m not telling the story of someone who actually lived and then fictionalizing it. And I’m not trying to represent the AIDS crisis in Chicago as a whole, I’m trying to tell a very specific story.
When I began writing, it was going to all be set in 1985 with a group of friends and my main character was a gay man. But I started to feel that I needed a second thread to the narrative, to have alternating chapters with a woman, a straight woman who was part of this group and had a brother that died. So it’s now going between her and my original character. And honestly, I initially made that move out of fear. I didn’t feel like I could live entirely in that world, that it would be better if there was a character who was more like me. And while I started it out of fear, I found that it really worked for the narrative. It brought out new threads that hadn’t been there before—new echoes. It really became essential to the book and broadened its scope. So it’s not just a book about the AIDS crisis, it’s also a book about cults and Paris and a woman looking for her daughter. But thematically it helped the book be more about people shutting others out when they need them most.
Anyway, that became my bid for amnesty. I’m no longer taking this one narrative and trying to own it. Or appropriate the story. But rather this is one of the voices and there are others, too. Someone, maybe many, could still take the opportunity to criticize the novel on the grounds of appropriation. But I’m not going to change what I’m writing because of that.
B: I read that you extensively planned your second novel. How did that process inform your later work with stories or the novel you’re writing now?
RM: I don’t think I will ever outline anything as thoroughly as I outlined The Hundred-Year House. I had to outline because it was incredibly complicated, with a huge cast of characters, and it was told in reverse. It was like doing sudoku. For the novel I’m writing now, I have timelines and I’ve done research, but the actual outline is only three or four pages, which is a much more normal outline for a novel. The outline for The Hundred-Year House changed all the time, from sixty to a hundred pages. It grew and shrank as I changed my mind. It was a scene by scene, moment by moment breakdown. That actually helped me write it. I might be in the outline drawing out a scene and then start the dialogue. So the outline felt like discovery and revision meant filling it out a little more.
It helped that it was my second novel and I already had a lot of short stories under my belt. I was experienced enough to know that I ought to feel free enough to surprise myself and veer off of what I’d planned. That happened plenty.
B: The second novel, maybe it has to do with the project, has a different kind of authority than the first. There are more characters, larger themes, different perspectives, etc.
RM: Third person narration allowed me to do a lot more. Just the ability to jump around time within a scene, switching perspectives. And I got pretty experimental in the 1929 section, where I was using things like third person plural, past and present tense, different points of view. I wanted to show the chaos of that time. And it was the Modernist era, so I tried to write in a style to match it. When I got free and loose with that section, that was maybe the most fun I’ve had while writing.
B: Your collection has a wide variety of styles.
RM: I get too bored if I try to stick to one voice or style. And I’m not that tempted to, either. I choose the voice and style based on the story. I decide all that as soon as I start writing. I tend to go very much on instinct, whether it’s going to be first or third, past or present. I don’t think I’ve ever changed the person I’ve started telling the story from.
One interesting thing in “The Briefcase” that most people don’t notice: The beginning of the story is in past tense, but at some point it goes into the subjunctive—he would have, he could have—and I came out of it writing in present tense. I liked it that way, so it stayed.