Rebecca Makkai is the author of the new novel The Great Believers. Her other books include Music for Wartime and The Hundred-Year House, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Harper's and Tin House. She lives in the Chicago area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Great Believers, and why did you decide to focus on the AIDS crisis in Chicago?
A: I did not decide to write about the AIDS crisis in Chicago. I set out to write a different book. What’s now the subplot of Nora’s story in Paris in the art world was the book. An older woman had been an artist’s model in Paris, in the ‘20s…She could only live until about the ‘80s, so [the story] would be set in the ‘80s.
I had an art story in the ’80s, so AIDS could be in the book, but that could be a subplot. I wanted to set the book in Chicago, and as I started doing research, I was learning amazing and devastating stuff. That’s where the story wanted to go.
Q: How was the novel’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?
A: Part of the epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald [“We were the great believers”] is from a posthumous essay. I was thinking about Paris in the ‘20s and reading a book called Flappers. It came out a few years ago. It follows the lives of six women, and [one of them] quoted Fitzgerald as saying this.
I was so taken by it. You think of the Lost Generation as being so jaded, and he was writing about the hope they all shared. I felt like someone has to have used this as a title. When I found the essay and the quote, I felt it more strongly.
I had the title before I had the book. I could have been writing a much bleaker book, and the title was challenging me to find what these people did believe in. Where was their hope? That was my North Star as I was writing.
Q: The book jumps back and forth in time. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around as you wrote?
A: There was a lot of moving! I wrote about 150 pages just about [my character] Yale. Fiona was a very minor character. I needed someone at this party. I’d written a scene where they were at a benefit. There was something there—I started finding her very interesting.
I wrote about Yale remembering her brother talking about her long dangling earrings. I was having a crisis about my permission to write a book that was just about gay men when I am not a gay man. I thought about broadening the novel, and thought I’d try Fiona’s perspective.
I went back and wrote her first chapter and interspersed them. I do have a writing group—we’re all published authors. I showed them the first six chapters: Yale, Fiona, Yale, Fiona, without saying anything, and I was really concerned. They had critiques for me, but none of them felt Fiona’s perspective wasn’t original to the book.
It might have been more born of panic, but it worked for me. I love playing with time. A 30-year span, I knew, was the right move. You change one thing, and it affects the entire storyline. I was playing with notecards.
Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: It was a five-year process writing the book, and the entire time I was doing research. There’s not a lot out there about Chicago during the AIDS crisis. It’s all about San Francisco and New York.
Mostly I had to rely on primary sources, gay weeklies from the ‘890s, and interviews with people—people who were HIV positive, doctors, nurses, an art therapist, lawyers, journalists, historians, survivors. It was factual, but also emotional research, absorbing people’s stories.
And in terms of surprises, yeah. I thought everyone understood a lot about the AIDS crisis and it turns out we don’t. There were a lot of misrepresentations. I had no idea it was usually five years between infection and first symptoms. That really altered my timeline.
Also, there were things about the details of what people went through with health insurance that were astonishing to me. There’s a section where this guy is talking to Yale about all the jobs he had to prove he couldn’t do, to go on disability. AIDS itself was not a disability category.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, 17,000 essays related to the book.
I had two competing novel ideas going, and I think one has won out. The title is Class of ’95. It’s not set in the ‘90s, it’s set now. It’s a murder mystery. It’s probably completely going to change!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m really excited to be doing a donation campaign for Vital Bridges. The information is on my website.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rebecca Makkai.