Rebecca Makkai is the author of three novels, The Borrower, The Hundred-Year House, and her most recent book, The Great Believers, which just came out on June 19th. She also wrote a collection of short stories called Music for Wartime. A graduate of Washington and Lee with an MA in English from Middlebury, Rebecca was a Montessori elementary school teacher before publishing her first book. She has since taught at Northwestern, the MFA program at Sierra Nevada, and at multiple workshops at writer’s conferences. She currently lives in Chicago and Vermont with her husband and two daughters. Does that sound right?
Rebecca Makkai: Yup, that's it.
Zibby: Welcome, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Zibby: You've written these three novels and a short story collection that won the 2017 Pushcart Prize and have basically gotten the best reviews ever from The New Yorker to O, The Oprah Magazine and even the People magazine I just picked up to read on my flight from LA last week.
Your books are incredibly praised and lauded by critics. I was just wondering, what's your secret? How does this make you feel?
Rebecca: I don't really have a secret. [indiscernible]. It absolutely feels great. This book is being read a bit more widely right off the bat than my previous one, which is very exciting. I was already incredibly grateful and thrilled for the reception of my previous books. This one feels a little different. I'm really happy and excited. It’s been less than a week, but good things are happening.
Zibby: That's awesome. Speaking of reviews by the way, I saw that author Priscilla Gilman, who wrote The Anti-Romantic Child, blurbed your short story collection. She was also a recent guest on this podcast. She wanted me to tell you that she's thrilled for you and can't wait to read your latest novel.
Zibby: You write with such insight and authority about the gay population. In this latest novel, The Great Believers, you not only depict a male relationship with tremendous beauty and insight, but you also describe Chicago 1980’s gay culture in great detail with bathhouses and parks to certain bars and parties. I was pretty surprised when I realized you were actually married to a man, as a woman.
What captured your interest about this particular population? How do you write about gay men so well as such an insider?
Rebecca: It’s funny. What was actually trickier for me than writing about gay men was simply writing about a different time. I was alive in the eighties, but I was a kid. That shift in trying to remember exactly when certain things had been invented, things like that were actually harder for me than just writing the characters. Of course being really active in the art scene in Chicago, I do have a huge number of LGBTQ friends and feel very comfortable in that community and love those people, love writing about them. I do always have some trepidation writing as an outsider.
I was really careful and really concerned as I wrote this book that I could get things wrong, first of all, and that it could be seen as an act of appropriation in some way, telling a story that I didn't have the right to tell. We can talk more about those things if you want to. I managed to answer those questions for myself to an extent that satisfies me. Honestly, it’s easier for me to write gay men than it is to write straight men. Straight men are always scratching their crotches. I don't know what to do with them. Gay men, I got this. I also think that gay men write women really well in novels, something like Sex and the City, Darren Star. There's certainly differences, especially societal differences. There's a ton in common. As much as I was worried about getting things wrong historically and tonally, anything like that, and made sure that people read it for accuracy and for whether it rang true, the key characters in the book came pretty easily to me.
Zibby: That's great. You definitely made them super real. I felt like I could spot Yale on the street after reading your book.
Rebecca: Aw, that's cool.
Zibby: I was actually going to ask you already about how many of your works have multiple story lines in different time periods, not only in The Great Believers from going back and forth from 1985 to 2015, but also in The Hundred-Year House, how you went from 1929 to ‘55 to ‘99. Tell me a little more about that. Do you enjoy that process of bringing different periods of time to life for readers? Is it more a structural element that you think helps you tell your story? Is it just a coincidence that you do it often? It was great how you reference such time-specific details like listening to the acoustic version of Simon & Garfunkel’s America and saying that they listened to it right after Reagan’s reelection. All those details are so spot on.
Rebecca: The appeal for me isn't necessarily in the details, although they are fun. What makes me play with time and write about multiple time periods, that's what gives me [indiscernible] spunk, the span of time and the dramatic irony that it makes possible. Dramatic irony, for people who aren’t up on their middle school English or whatever the last time that was mentioned, would be when we know more than the characters. That can seem really heavy-handed sometimes in fiction where it’s like there's someone waiting around the corner and they don't know it yet. Writing with a gap in time allows us to use that dramatic irony. If we’re going back and forth between the ‘80s and 2015, we end up knowing more about the ‘80s than the characters in the ‘80s know. We know what's coming. That becomes really interesting for me to play with structurally. I find that exciting on a writer level. I also like reading stuff like that, which is always a bit fun.
Zibby: Me too. By the way, just for one detail that I wanted to tell you how much I liked, when Charlie apologizes to Yale in The Great Believers after their fight when they misinterpreted the events at their friend’s memorial service, he writes the word “Sorry” out in M&Ms on their bed. I thought that was so brilliant. I'm definitely going to have to steal that idea. I was wondering, has someone done this for you?
Rebecca: No. I wish someone could do that. That'd be awesome. No. That's a later addition. I was working on their relationship a little bit more. I wanted to include that. Also, it was a great excuse to include the tan M&Ms that don't exist anymore.
Zibby: Totally. I love those. I also grew up in the eighties. I remember sorting all those little colors out, the light brown and the dark brown. In The Borrower you wrote about an accidental kidnapping. I understand it took you about nine years to finish that book. I was wondering if you could tell me more about that process.
What made you keep coming back to the book over and over again? Did you ever want to throw it out and start again?
Rebecca: Yeah. I did throw it out a lot of times, actually. I abandoned it temporarily a lot of times. There are many writers whose first books take them around eight to ten years for several reasons, though that’s a little bit long, partly because you're probably working a full-time job during that time without the promise of this book ever getting published. You don't know if you're deluding yourself. You don't know if it’s just a weird hobby you have. It’s hard to prioritize it. Also, you're still learning how to write a novel. You might have written a bunch of different short stories, and you could write them in a day or two. You get better at the short story because you’ve done it a lot of times.
Your first novel is at least going to take you a few years. This is your first time out the gate. You're trying to write something publishable. It’s funny because I think people who aren’t writers or aren’t long-term writers get a little confused by that whole NaNoWriMo thing, that National Novel Writing month, which is a really cool idea. It’s a great way for people to get some stuff down on the page. It’s a great way to get teenagers involved in writing. It takes a lot more than a month to write a novel. Usually it takes about three or four years for [indiscernible] novel.
During the ten years I abandoned that project several times. I was working the whole time on short stories, which became the collection. Meanwhile, I was starting my second novel. I was starting The Hundred-Year House during one of the times when I'd abandoned The Borrower. I came back to it in the end partly because I couldn't let go of those characters. I found them really compelling and also because in the end, I realized it was almost done. I'd abandoned it and started this new book that then as soon as it started giving me trouble, I went back and looked at The Borrower and was like, “What was I thinking? It’s going to be fine.” That was a long, winding road. That's not unusual for a first novel.
Zibby: Aside from trial and error and just practice, how did you teach yourself how to write a novel? Did you teach yourself? Did you take a class? How did you do it?
Rebecca: There was a lot of thinking and reading about plot and about structure that helped me. I also really learned to outline, which I had not done with The Borrower. For The Borrower my only outline -- I had this one pie chart that I drew with a percentage of the time I'd spend in different parts of the book or something. I wrote fairly detailed outlines for The Hundred-Year House because it was backwards in time. It was a very intricate plot. I had a really elaborate outline. For The Great Believers it was quite a bit looser. I still needed to have one. You need to do things like keep track of the dates that they would happen. I was mapping this one in my Google Calendar. It’s still in there. I scrolled back a few years so that the days of the week would line up with 1985 and 1986. I had these events that I was putting in there.
Because it is a novel about AIDS, I needed to make sure that two weeks had passed between someone taking the test and getting their results, things like that. That kind of thing with the first novel, I didn't have a list of my characters and how old they were. I didn't have a timeline. You waste a lot of time then going back in and trying to find that information or messing it up and having to redo it and also not having a map for what scenes are going to go where. With The Borrower, I was writing things out of order, then stitching them together like some big patchwork quilt, and then wondering why I didn't have any momentum to my story. It’s like, “Well, because you wrote it completely out of order and now you have to go back and do that again.” There are many things I have learned.
Zibby: Are these the types of things that you teach? I know you do a lot of teaching now.
Rebecca: I do. I'm the assistant director at a place called StoryStudio Chicago that basically is a nonprofit writing center for people of all levels and writing in all genres, so from beginning writers through people who have an MFA degree in creative writing. Specifically, what I teach myself is a year-long novel workshop. We have people who are working on really incredible novels. It’s application-based. It’s so awesome. They come in and they're great writers. They often have a pretty great academic background in creative writing. They’ve maybe published short stories, but no one’s taught them how to write a novel. It’s a totally different ballgame. I'm guiding them through a lot of that structure, the outlining, the practical considerations, as well as how to write a great scene. It’s hard to find out there. A lot of our creative writing education is centered around short stories because that's what we have time to read and workshop and discuss.
Zibby: If you had any advice for fiction writers out there who don't have time to take your class or aren’t in Chicago, what free advice might you give out?
Rebecca: There are lots of other writing centers in other major cities. It helps if you live in a city like Boston or Denver or Seattle. They have great writing centers. A lot of these places also offer online classes. We do too. I'm going to sound super nerdy here. One of the best things you can read about structure is Aristotle’s Poetics. That sounds so dry. It’s not. It’s actually kind of funny. It’s thousands of years old. He was talking about Greek drama. He was the first one to really sit there and splice, dissect how to plot work. He says in there even all these people who could write a great sentence but can't write a great plot, we still have the same issue. He breaks it down in completely fascinating ways, some of which are outdated. They apply to Greek drama and don't apply to the modern novel but many of which absolutely work. The ancient Greeks were figuring out the parts of the triangle and all this other stuff too. You figure out the parts of the plot.
Zibby: I’ll go on Amazon and pick up some Aristotle then, make it trending after this interview. In your short story collection Music for Wartime, you include a tale about a reality TV producer who manipulates two contestants into falling in love while the producer’s relationship falls apart herself. My husband is a reality TV producer. I wanted to know if you could tell me more about how you came up with that story and how you come up with most of your story ideas.
Rebecca: I come up with them in entirely different ways. I can tell you that one, I love process-based reality shows like Top Chef, Project Runway. Honestly, I'm always recommending them to writing students. It’s really cathartic to watch someone else cry about their failed art and to see what they struggle with and to look at the psychology. Do they let the criticism get to their head? At the same time, you know that they're actually scripted in many ways. I became really fascinated with the talking head interviews. This is way back. I wrote this story in probably 2009. I'm ballparking there.
I became really fascinated by the talking head interviews and by the question of who was on the other side of that interview. What were they asking to get them to say these things? Sometimes it becomes really clear that they're saying, “Whose work are you concerned about?” They’ll answer with “I'm really concerned about Analisa’s look. I don't think the judges are going to like it.” They totally coached them into saying that. I became really interested in that other invisible, silent person as a character. It was hard because I couldn't research much about how reality TV is made. As you know if your husband works in this, they sign these non-disclosure agreements that are pretty intense. It was a lot of guesswork that I later had verified in some ways by when I did met people who worked in reality. It was assuming the worst and then writing in down. In some ways, I was right. In some ways, I'm sure I was wrong. I didn't have the commitment to realism there that I have with a book like The Great Believers where I'm writing about something so sensitive.
Zibby: Right. That makes sense. I know in a previous interview someone had asked you about how you came up with story ideas. You said you didn't know, but it was the same as how do you come up with what you dream about? It just is. Is that how you feel?
Rebecca: It is. I never understood that question for the longest time. What do you mean? It seemed so natural to me that you constantly have story ideas wherever you go, the way that you take that idea and it grows into a story.
Zibby: How old are your daughters, by the way?
Rebecca: Seven and ten.
Zibby: Seven and ten. How do you manage all the writing and being a mom too? When do you write? How do you involve the girls, if at all, with your writing?
Rebecca: Oh, gosh. I wouldn't want to involve them with my writing. That would be a terrible mistake. [laughs] They go to school for seven hours a day. That's a pretty full workday in there plus time to do other stuff. I do a lot of traveling to promote my work. They're great about it. They're really independent. I get this question all the time when I'm on the road. Specifically, for some reason it’s from older women. I understand. It’s a generational difference. They’ll meet me at a signing or something and say, “Who's watching your children?” I’ll say, “Their father, their human father.” They’ll go into, “Oh, my gosh. You're so lucky.” I just let it fly. Luck had nothing to do that. I never would've married someone who wasn’t going to parent their children and let me have my career. He's pretty great, but I'm not going to give him superhuman credit. It’s like any other career that you need to balance. I understand you're asking me that because it's the nature of your podcast. I know that as I'm out on the road and I get this question, you're not asking male authors this. The guy who read at this bookstore last week, you didn't ask him this. Come on.
Zibby: I ask male authors too, when they do their writing, how they balance family. I promise. I wasn’t trying to insinuate --
Rebecca: -- You, I trust. It’s germane to your podcast. It’s fun because this is the first book that they’ve really understood what's going on. My last book came out three years ago. They were a little too young to really get it. Now, they're excited to see my book in magazines or to hear where I'm going and to know I'm going to be on radio or TV or whatever. They're pretty excited about it, which is great. Since they're girls too, I want them to see their mom having an important, fulfilling, exciting career. That's important.
Zibby: Totally. I have four kids myself. I feel like even though they go to school I don't really have that much time somehow to get everything done that I need to. Maybe my question is selfish in nature because I'm always looking for… [laughs]
If your children asked you if they should grow up and be writers too, what would you tell them?
Rebecca: Here's the thing. I was really grateful that in my childhood home writing was seen as a legitimate career. My father is a poet. His mother was a novelist. My mother is an academic. I certainly was advised wisely to make sure that I had other employment opportunities. I majored in English rather than creative writing. That really didn't matter in the end. As you said, I taught elementary school for a while as I was publishing my first work.
No one’s going to graduate from college and go get hired to be a fiction writer. That's not a thing. Also, I don't know anyone really wants to read what a recent college graduate thinks about life. Give it a few years. No offense. There's no such thing as a writing prodigy. It’s probably for a reason. There needs to be a little bit more time that passes. I would say that.
Both of my children are tremendously creative to the point where I would be shocked if they don't have careers in the arts. Something would have had to go awry for that to be the case. They see with me the amount of work that entails, the hustle that's involved in that, that it’s not about sitting in a beautiful cabin in the woods and writing something pretty. It’s a job. They'd be in many ways well prepared for that life. They certainly have been warned by example. I’ll say that.
Zibby: What's next for you? What do you want to do next? Another novel? More short stories?
Rebecca: It will be another novel. Meanwhile, I'm working on short stories that might appear one at a time in various magazines. I’ll never stop writing short stories. I have three different competing novel ideas kicking around. This is good position to be in, but I'm so excited about all three of them that I can't commit to one of them. They can't really coexist in the same novel. I think I know which one I'm going with. I'm really idea-driven. If I get an idea that's a short story idea, that's what I'm going to write. If tomorrow I got an idea for a play, that’s what I would write. Knowing that my next most compelling ideas are for novels, I'm pretty sure it’s going to be a novel next.
Zibby: It sounds like you need a three-book deal.
Rebecca: Yeah. Sure. That would involve deadlines. I'm happy to pass on that.
Zibby: Thank you so much. Those are most of my questions. It was really great chatting with you. I loved your book, The Great Believers. It was amazing and so powerful. It really took me to another place and time and made me really attached to all your characters. Thank you for transporting me.
Rebecca: Aw, thanks. I really appreciate it.
Zibby: No problem. Take care. Thanks so much.