Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, which was short-listed for the National Book Award, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. Her short fiction won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011). The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, and she is the artistic director of StoryStudio Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters in a college dorm. Makkai and her puppy sat down during the 2019 Polar Vortex with Stephanie Vanderslice for a phone interview, which included an extended fire alarm and evacuation to the bathroom, although our intrepid author remained calm throughout and insisted she was never in any danger.
Stephanie Vanderslice: Your 2018 novel, The Great Believers, intertwines two stories: that of Yale Tishman and his friends as AIDS casts its devastating shadow over the Chicago gay community in the mid-’80s, and that of Fiona, Yale’s late friend’s younger sister, who struggles with this long shadow in 2015 Paris. Also central to the novel’s themes are mothers: absent mothers, ideal mothers, and mothers (or parents) with a long list of regrets and worries. There’s also the parental rejections of the AIDS victims. Did you start out to make this book a story about family—original family, built family, and the importance of mothering and parenting—or did that theme begin to make itself known as you wrote?
Rebecca Makkai: It definitely came later. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but I’m writing about a group of gay friends, so the theme of chosen family is going to be the milieu for the book. I don’t think I sat there and thought “this is going to be a theme,” but it made a lot of sense realistically to have the people close to Yale be other people around his age in the same city, rather than to have him living at home or being close to people from work. Fiona came into the book later. I was originally only writing something set in the ’80s, and it was maybe halfway through that I realized I needed another point-of-view character. I wanted it to be that span of time—through to 2015—and I wanted it to be Fiona. I wanted to put her in the modern day, but I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her. I knew that I wanted her dealing with her own present day, not directly still dealing with the AIDS crisis, but then, I wanted that to creep back in. And I recently had been working on a short story that didn’t work out about a woman who was in a cult. I liked that story; it was something I was really interested in, and it felt like something I could really put in there.
At that point I started thinking, okay, I have this idea of a cult, which is a kind of chosen family, [and I have] Fiona, who is dealing with alienation within a nuclear family as she loses her daughter. I began looking for ways for all of this to come together. The idea that things would come back to Yale’s mother at the end of the book, the idea of what had happened between Fiona and her being the crux of a lot of Fiona’s issues, came about as I wrote. I pushed hard on those themes to see what was behind them and what might have been most upsetting in her life. It’s the first time too that I’ve really written about motherhood. That takes a while to process—your own life into fiction. My own kid is 11 but this is the first time that motherhood has appeared in my work.
SV: Do you relate to different aspects of the mothers in the book, or is there one that you feel you relate to best? Charlie’s mom is my favorite.
RM: There are at least four mothers in the book. There’s Yale’s mother, who we don’t meet on the page. There’s Fiona. There’s Charlie’s mother, who’s pretty lovely. And there’s also Julian’s mother; she’s everyone’s favorite. She has one paragraph in the book and everyone loves her.
I think because Fiona is a point-of-view character, she’s someone I really poured myself into even though I’m a very different person. You know your kids are going to be in therapy no matter what. My kids are totally going to be in therapy about how much I travel. I’m kind of exaggerating all those traits in this person to interrogate some of my own thoughts and feelings. She’s dealing in many ways with the fact that her daughter, Claire, is someone whose personality was not formed by her and whose personality she can’t control. She’s looking at this person who is a difficult person. Some people are just difficult, and sometimes one of those people is your child, and you can’t control it. Fiona is also dealing with the effects of her own behavior and how her life and her choices have affected this child. There are not neat answers there. There are a lot of questions.
SV: And they both feed the other, which is so interesting.
RM: I really didn’t want it to be one or another. I didn’t want Claire to be just an asshole, and I didn’t want Fiona to have been a terrible mother and now she has to atone for it. That would be regressive and uninteresting. It’s that balance, because you’ll never know what was your kid’s personality and what was how you raised them. It’s that eternal nature and nurture debate; you just can’t control it and you can never dissect those two things. My life is not Fiona’s life, but as a parent those are questions I grapple with. Is the kid just like this? Can I do anything? Would my kids be like this no matter who they were raised by? Both good and bad stuff. Giving characters the same questions you have is a good way to write something juicy and not predetermined.
SV: You’ve created such an alive book that I’m thinking about these people in the future. It’s possible that Fiona may be able to resolve some of her relationship with Claire through her granddaughter. Something I’ve noticed is that granddaughters and grandmothers can have less complicated relationships than mothers and daughters.
RM: Totally, I wanted that hopeful note of optimism. The world is still chaos but there’s hope for our relationships.
SV: You teach in two MFA programs, you’re the artistic director of StoryStudio Chicago, you have two children, and you have been described as “the most over-committed person ever.” You talk about your indebtedness to residency programs, but in day-to-day life, what are some things that you do to protect your writing time, especially as a parent with young children?
RM: I don’t do enough, honestly. I think that the best thing I do for myself is go to residencies once or twice a year, where I have maybe three weeks to do nothing but write. I try to clear up my inbox beforehand and put an outgoing message on my email that says I’m busy, and I just write for a few weeks at a time. I’m not great at protecting my writing time, to be honest, and I’m struggling with it right now as I try to get going on the next novel. My inbox is fuller than ever in this lovely way, and I have more commitments and invitations than ever, in a lovely way. But I have to become better at saying no.
SV: Well, thank you again for doing this interview. I recognize the irony in having asked you that question.
RM: For example, it would have taken me longer to answer your questions in print. If we talk on the phone, I can use this time to rub my puppy’s belly or fold laundry or multitask. But I write fast and do a lot of my work away from the computer. I do a lot of mental writing, figuring out the whole book before I start, to a certain extent, working out my characters, working out the setting, the scenario, thinking about that in the shower, in the car, when I take my kids to ballet. So, when I sit down and write, it comes out very quickly. I know not everybody works that way, but it’s fortunate for me that I do.
The other thing is that I used to teach elementary school and was at work seven, eight hours every day. I didn’t even have a lunch break—I mean, I ate lunch but I ate with the kids. I wrote my first novel (The Borrower) and most of my short stories (Music for Wartime) under those circumstances, and toward the end of it, I had a kid at home too. As overcommitted as I am now, it feels completely luxurious. I drop my kids at school and then I can get a coffee. I can go to yoga. I can go to work. I can go to the dentist at normal hours. I go to bed at normal hours. I’m not exhausted from a crazy day. I can write some more. I’m busy but I’m grateful for the time that I do have.
I think it’s important for writers, especially new writers, to understand that everyone’s first novel was written under impossible circumstances. Most people are writing their first novel around the edges of a job; they’re writing on the train; they’re writing with kids at home. My students think, This is impossible. I can’t do this, and we’ll talk about how most first novels have been written that way. They also have this idea that once someone’s successful then they can just write all day. I guess if you’re Stephen King, you can do that. For most of us, success in writing comes with this huge job-iness, answering emails and booking flights, being a participant in the literary community, reviewing books, and all this other stuff. It’s not like you ever get to this level where you can just sit back in your villa and write all day. I don’t think an eight-hour writing day would be healthy.
SV: In his “Make Good Art” graduation speech, Neil Gaiman talks about how he wishes he had done a better job of taking the advice King gave him when Gaiman was starting to rise as a writer, which was to try to enjoy himself, to enjoy his success. The Great Believers has met with some well-deserved success this year. How are you feeling about it? Are you enjoying it?
RM: I am. I definitely am. It’s hard, you know; it’s not something that can be sustained, that relief or joy. I feel it in moments, or I can stop and remind myself that things are good, or something good will happen, and I’ll have a moment or day of being really happy about it. But you can’t sustain that elation over the course of your day, as you’re going about your business. What’s unfortunate is that stress is sustainable, wonderfully sustainable. So, the stuff that I’m stressed out about, like the state of my inbox or travel things that are messy or not getting to work fast enough on the next book or whatever it is, those dog you all day. Those follow you as you brush your teeth or put your kids to bed, and the joy doesn’t. So, I’ll say this: I couldn’t wish for more than what’s happened. I’m thrilled. This is incredible. But at the same time, the stress in my shoulders and back is worse than it’s ever been. It’s one of those things where even great stuff is stress-inducing, like how a wedding is one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. It’s supposed to be this joyous, amazing occasion but all the logistics are stressful. Having a puppy helps a lot.
SV: What are you working on right now?
RM: I’m trying to finish up a couple short stories and then I’m also thinking towards the next novel, which probably I shouldn’t talk about too much. It’s really hard to move on from The Great Believers, in part because it was so emotional for me. Also, as I go on and promote it, I’m meeting people who’ve lived through so much of what I’m writing about that it feels like I’m still doing research, like I’m still living in the world of the book. It didn’t feel this way to move on from my previous two.
Also, there’s this weird question of do I really want to write a female protagonist, an entirely female protagonist? I hate thinking this way, and I’m not going to let it stop me. But the books that get taken seriously always have either a male protagonist or one of each. Books with female protagonists get dismissed, don’t win awards, aren’t read as seriously, no matter who writes them, whether it’s men or women. I’m thinking of making a very difficult woman character and I’ve dealt with this before. I had a very difficult female narrator in my first book, and my second book was written with a lot of different narrators, including two difficult women. The Great Believers was such a welcome relief from the way those other books were read that I’m struggling to get back into writing a difficult female character, knowing how harshly people judge female protagonists and how unseriously people take books with female protagonists on the whole. It’s making me angry before I even start and it’s really tripping me up.
It’s hard knowing going in that you have some stuff going against you, simply for writing someone who’s like you. I think there are people who deal with that much more constantly and in much worse ways—people of color, other marginalized populations trying to represent their own experience, knowing that their work runs a really serious risk of being marginalized. I’m certainly still writing from a place of privilege and I know that. But the industry reality is still so troublesome and I don’t like having this on my mind. It doesn’t stop me, though. I’m determined to do it.