Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai
by Carly Courtney
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, was published in June of 2015. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review.
You can purchase Music for Wartime here and on most online book-retailers: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525426691
What is your favorite story from graduate school?
I have a Master’s in Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. You go every summer for five summers and then you have a master’s degree… but I met my husband there! He was literally the first person I met: I got out of the taxi with my suitcase, and he was the first person that I met. I was like, “He’s really cute!” Then “No, you’re just thinking that because he’s the first person you met at graduate school,” and then I ended up marrying him. We had some wonderful professors, and because it was a summer program, they were from all different institutions. Oskar Eustis, who was, at the time, was already a theatre director (now he’s the director of the Public Theatre in New York- he’s a major director), taught my contemporary modern American theatre class and it was incredible. This is a guy who does not himself have even a college degree, but he was the most dynamic professor that I’d ever had. I remember him, on the third day of class, talking about “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and he just started openly sobbing, tears falling down into his beard (he had a big bushy beard), just totally unembarrassed, sobbing about this play. It was one of those classes I would retake in a heartbeat. It would be my first choice of any class I’ve ever taken. I was so excited to get up the mountain to hear him speak that I got a speeding ticket!
Have you ever published anything you were positive you’d get in trouble for? What was it? What happened?
I’m terrified about a lot of stuff I’ve published. Once your stuff is out there, you do get really bad reviews, it’s inevitable, and sometimes very publicly. Unfortunately, on a bad day, that voice can be in your head as you’re writing. “This is what people aren’t going to like about it, this is what people are going to mock it about, this is who will be offended by it.” You do really have to turn that off. I’m really scared about the book I’m writing now because it’s about the AIDS crisis and that’s not something that I was personally affected by. I know that there will be reviews that question my right to tell that story, or are really eager to point out any way that I got it wrong, and I just have to be okay with that. I thought a lot about whether it is what I really want to publish, and it is. I can’t control what story I want to tell any more than people can control their dreams; you tell the story you want to tell. I just have to be okay with the fact that I’m doing the best I can, I’m trying very hard to get it right and to do justice to the people whose story this is, and I’m going to try my best not to upset anyone, but just the fact of its existence, there is going to be some people who have an issue with it.
What was the weirdest place you’ve ever written? Did anything come of it?
I think you have to be able to work in all different places, you can’t just be able to work in your one special spot. I’m sure I’ve written in weirder places, but what sticks out in my mind is when I wrote a whole story sitting on the floor of an airport during a flight delay. It was very short, I wrote the entire thing right there. It’s a story in my story collection called “Everything We Know About the Bomber.” It was right after the Boston Marathon bombings, right after they caught the one brother and killed the other. So, CNN is playing this endless loop in the airport of basically every photo they could obtain of these people, every fact about their lives, so that’s basically what I wrote. I wrote this really short, weird story that was not directly about them, I changed all the details, but it basically just reads like this absurd news report of all these details, everything we know about this one bomber. I don’t think I would have ever written it somewhere else, I wouldn’t have written it if CNN hadn’t been in my face, I don’t normally write watching CNN, but I guess this is what happens if I do, and it was published in a literary magazine and it’s in my story collection, so good things came from it.
Do you have a favorite story in your story collection?
You know, I have to tell you something. I’ve been touring for this book for almost a year and no one has asked me that! I think I do. There’s a story in there called “Good St. Anthony Come Around,” and it is actually, in a very different way than my novel in progress, about the AIDS crisis. It’s set in New York city, it’s about artists, so it’s very different than the novel. It’s the last full story that I wrote for the collection. I wrote it as an entry into the world I was going to be writing about in the novel, I thought I wanted to write about [the AIDS crisis], I wasn’t sure, I was trying it out a little bit with this story. And I really love that story! It’s not a story that other people pick out as their favorite, though. It cracks me up; there are certain stories that people always bring up in interviews, and that readers will talk to me about which stories they like, and some of them never get mentioned. Not that people didn’t like them, maybe they’re just quieter stories, because if I do bring them up I get the “Oh yeah!” but they just don’t get mentioned, and “Good St. Anthony” is kind of one of those. People will occasionally bring it up, but it doesn’t seem to stick out to other people the way it sticks out to me. I think it’s probably that it might not really be the best story in there, I like it a lot, I think it works, but for me I like it because it’s what I’m obsessed with right now. It’s the world that I’ve now dove into, and this was the beginning of that. I think I like it for other reasons than just its artistic merit.
Do you think it’s a good exercise to write a story about what you plan on writing a novel about?
Not necessarily, no. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, or something I ever plan to do again. I have to say, it wasn’t entirely deliberate. It wasn’t like I said, “I’m going to write this story because I’m going to do this novel.” I didn’t realize back then how very much my novel would be about AIDS. I thought it was only going to be a small part of it, and partly it was the writing of this story and the research that convinced me that my novel should be more about that. The only risk of that for a lot of people might be that you write your interest out of it. If you write the short story, and if it worked, then why write the novel? Except for the fact that both are about AIDS, everything about the story and my novel in progress is completely different, different city, different characters, different themes, different tone.
What is the most inspiring book you’ve read in the last 5 years?
I don’t read books for inspiration, I might be inspired artistically, but I don’t read to be told how to live my life or to feel a certain emotion. Sometimes you read to be deeply disturbed or to be mildly entertained, so I’ll answer it in the sense of being artistically inspired. This happens every time I read Alice Monroe, who most people acknowledge is our greatest living short story writer. Every collection of hers ups the ante for me on what I realize is possible in short fiction, and it makes me step up my own game. For that reason I’m usually terrified to read her because every story I read of hers it’s like, “Oh no, I made more work for myself because I have higher standards and new ideas.” But of course I’m still going to read her, I just space it out a little bit. The last collection of hers I read was her last collection called Dear Life and it had stories in there that just blew apart… not my conception of what a story can be, she’s not doing anything that experimental with form or tone, but more these little moves she makes that if you look at them from a craft perspective as a fellow writer, you can see what she’s doing, even if you don’t know how she did it. It’s like being a magician and watching a magician who’s way better than you, to the point you can’t figure out how they did their tricks, but you know you have to try, because now that you know that its possible you want to do that too.
If you were a super villain, what would be your goal?
Do I have to be a villain, does it have to be a bad goal? I think I would have pretty good goals: free alternative education for everyone, and do away with Monsanto. Maybe some people would see those as evil, but that’s the thing about villains, they believe they’re right. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. But, for me being like, “Yeah I’d do away with Monsanto, and I’d have Montessori schools for everybody, and all the food would be organic,” someone else might see that as the most villainous plan ever.
Who’s your favorite author to follow on twitter?
There are certain people who are just hilarious, and there are certain people you just grudge-follow, the people who just humblebrag a bit too much. You like to follow them for the wrong reasons. There are people who are just genuinely hilarious and relatable on social media. One of them is Danielle Evans, she’s a short story writer. She only has one book out so far, called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She’s just really funny, on Facebook especially. There’s a writer, Jami Attenberg, who lives in New York. It’s partly that she’s really funny, and partly that she has these hilarious pictures of her pug that you kind of can’t look away from.
Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I really feel strongly about it actually. I know plenty of writers who do, I don’t judge them for it or anything, but I always advise my students not to. You need the musical part of your brain engaged with your writing. And if the musical part of your brain is busy listening to Beyoncé, or even to Bach, you’re not tuned into the rhythm of your own sentences. I know some people argue that the music helps infuse their writing with a sense of musicality, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you’re borrowing the rhythms of Bach to put into your sentences, that doesn’t make any sense. I will occasionally listen to music before I write, but it’s more to recapture the mood I was in when I started writing a piece, or listen to a piece that has always meant something to me in relation to what I’m writing, but I do feel like it messes with me. Especially if there are lyrics. It’s like having someone shout in your ear; you don’t realize it, but it really is! If there are writers out there and it works for them, and they are serious, published, amazing authors, I take their word for it. When students say it works for them, I don’t believe them for a second, and I try to convince them that they’re wrong. Especially if they’re not doing well. If they’re making a lot of grammatical mistakes and the sentences aren’t flowing and I’m writing “awkward” in the margins a lot, then I say, “Hey listen, I think I know what your problem is: take the headphones off! Jay-Z is not helping you write this story.”
I know your novel in progress has a cult element: have you ever interacted with a cult or cult members in real life? Was it a preexisting interest?
I was never in a cult or anything, but I will say I had a very weird religious upbringing. My mom was ostensibly protestant, but she and my dad were also both, and still are, deeply into astrology and reincarnation. I kind of don’t want to believe that stuff, but it’s weirdly accurate. I would test her on it, and it was really, bizarrely accurate. My dad got into this, not cult, but occult religion. Occult, to some people, means Satanist, but occult just really means that there are secrets within it, and you have to get to different levels before you can learn the secrets. It’s called Anthroposophy, and he and his wife are really into that. My sister became an evangelical born-again Christian in college, and she’s 10 years older than me, so that was a big part of our household. This isn’t a religious thing, but I just like to laugh about it: my mom sent me to Amish farm camp one summer, so I was exposed to the Amish. And then, my sister started letting these Mormon missionaries into our house, and then the Mormon missionaries were coming once a week, and then we were going to a Mormon church for a month or two. I came out of it completely agnostic, like, I’m going to look at this all from the outside, I’m not in on this anymore. My sister is still really, really religious. It is a little bit of a rift between us. We still get along, but we really don’t see eye to eye on that. I also had a friend in high school who had grown up in a cult in Ohio. It was a boarding school, so when she went home she was still a part of this “group.” Actually, I did also write a story about a cult, but it totally failed. I think because it didn’t really work and I was still interested in [cults] that I felt like bringing it into my novel and seeing if I could make that interest work there.
Did you like “The Cat Poem” from All Def Poetry?
I liked it, but I didn’t think it had a lot of substance to it. I think a lot of spoken word poetry is very performative, which is great, that’s the point, but sometimes we get so into the performative aspect that we forget the person isn’t really saying anything, but it was cute.