Rebecca Makkai (Photo by Larry D. Moore, Wikimedia Commons)
An interview with Rebecca Makkai
GREGG SHAPIRO | Contributing Writer
Beginning with her first book, 2011’s The Borrower and continuing with her 2015 short story collection Music For Wartime, novelist and straight ally Rebecca Makkai has created some of the most unforgettable queer characters in contemporary fiction.
This inclusion reached a crescendo with 2018’s award-winning and acclaimed novel The Great Believers, about a group of gay friends in 1985 Chicago as AIDS was beginning to make its impact felt on the city.
In Makkai’s new novel, I Have Some Questions For You (Viking, 2023), she not only features characters that are lesbian and nonbinary, she manages to perfectly illustrate the present mood with podcasts and COVID figuring prominently in the story. Makkai will be in Dallas Tuesday, Feb. 28, in conversation with Ben Fountain at Dallas
Museum of Art, and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions before the February 2023 publication of the novel.
Gregg Shapiro: Rebecca, the last time I interviewed you was in 2018 right before your third novel, The Great Believers, was published. Were you prepared for the reception that the book received? Rebecca Makkai: I was certainly surprised and absolutely thrilled. I’m honestly glad that it all happened with my fourth book, rather than my first; I enjoyed and appreciated it more, and I understand how much luck has to do with it.
Your new novel, I Have Some Questions For You, has been appearing on a number of “Most Anticipated Books of 2023” lists. What does that mean to you? There are really two places that comes from. Some of those lists are just about the buzz, and about the audience an author already has. And some lists are made by people who’ve already read early copies of those books. Both types of lists mean a ton to me, and I’m so grateful to know people are waiting for the book. It definitely makes for a more fun book tour, not having to worry as much about showing up to an empty bookstore.
The title of the book comes from chapter 26. Which came first — the title or the chapter? If it was the chapter, how did you know that it was the right title for the novel? We (my editor and agent and I) searched FOREVER for a title. The book’s working title was Ninety-Five, which I liked. But it didn’t do much to telegraph the novel’s tone or content. I found the title late in the editing process, so the chapter title definitely existed first. I like how, as a novel title, it signals the complications and uncertainty at the heart of the narration.
Did you have a particular boarding school in mind when you created the boarding school Granby, the main setting of the story. Or is it more of a composite? Neither; it’s completely made up. I did make a lot of maps, which was fun.
Throughout the book, there is this kind of mantra of victims and their fates. Were these written all at once or organically as you wrote the novel? These litanies came about because I wanted there to be some major news story going on, something that really triggered Bodie, but I neither wanted it to be a real story nor one I made up for the book. At a certain point I just said, “Fuck it, it’s all of them at once.” Because that’s so often what it feels like.
I did not write those parts all together; they found their way in as the novel needed them.
I Have Some Questions For You is separated into two parts. Did you always know the second part would involve the retrial? That was originally my plan for the whole book! The very first thing I wrote was Bodie showing up at the hotel in New Hampshire, ready to testify. The problem was I’d have had to include an enormous amount of backstory — not only what happened in the ’90s, but everything that led to the hearing for retrial as well. I thought I should back up and give 50 pages or so to the events of a couple years earlier — but then those events ended up being the bulk of the book.
In the second part, COVID and the war in Ukraine make appearances, giving the book a certain immediacy and timeliness. It was important to me that this story happened some specific number of years after high school for the characters, not at a vague and unstated distance. That means I’m writing about a real time, and that means global events are going to be part of the story.
The COVID thing was endlessly frustrating! I was finishing copy edits in late 2021 and then in early 2022, which is when the last section was set, and first I had to put face masks on everyone and change out sentences like “he smiled.” Then I assumed the masks would be a thing of the past, so I took them all off; then I put them back on; then New Hampshire lifted its mask mandate, so I took some of them out.
It was needlessly exhausting.
Bodie, the narrator, is a podcaster and teaches film studies. With that in mind, if there was a movie version. Who would you like to see playing Bodie, Fran, Thalia, Britt, Alder, Jerome, and Geoff? The thing is, I’m absolutely terrible at actors [laughs]. I never recognize anyone. I’d love Lizzie Caplan as Bodie, though. She’s so amazing in Fleishman is in Trouble, and I love that we all have in our heads exactly what she looked like as a teenager. Paul Rudd is a little too old to play Geoff, but then he doesn’t look his age, so maybe we’re good.
You have incorporated queer characters into the story, including lesbian couple Fran and Anne, and nonbinary student Lola, which is sure to make your LGBTQ readers very happy. Can you please say something about the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in your work? I mean, it would be weird to have a fully populated novel and not include LGBTQ characters. When we look back on high school, it’s interesting to think not only about who we were, but who we were pretending to be. Like Bodie, I graduated high school in 1995, and there were only one or two kids in the whole school who were out. I’ve imagined things the same way at Granby, where Fran had to disguise herself more than most other students just to get by.
Finally, have you started to think about your next book project? Yep! I’m keeping quiet about it for now, though. Right now, I’m researching, but hopefully, by the time I’m on tour, I’ll be writing on the airplane.
Dallas Museum of Art Presents: Rebecca Makkai in Conversation with Ben Fountain, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 7:30-9:30 p.m. in the Horchow Auditorium. Tickets are $35 for the general public, $30 for DMA members and educators and $10 for students. Visit RebeccaMakkai.com for details.