Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Q&A with Rebecca Makkai


Photo by Brett Simison



Rebecca Makkai is the author of the new novel I Have Some Questions for You. Her other books include the novel The Great Believers. She is on the MFA faculties of the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe and Northwestern University. 


Q: What inspired you to write I Have Some Questions for You, and how did you create your character Bodie Kane?


A: I started writing this book in early 2019, but I'd been thinking about it for years. Originally, I wanted the whole novel to comprise what ended up being the last quarter of the book: high school classmates reunited (but sequestered) in a hotel, waiting to testify in a retrial and having to face the mistakes of the past.


I ended up needing to back up -- not to 1995, when their classmate Thalia Keith was murdered -- but to 2018, when Bodie Kane returns to teach for two weeks at the Granby School in rural New Hampshire and starts to realize that the wrong man might be in prison. 


Bodie grew slowly as a character. Since I'm someone who starts with plot, I usually end up reverse-engineering my characters, finding the people who would be the most vulnerable to the circumstances and the most susceptible to change. I needed her to be a pretty powerful adult who felt absolutely disempowered as an adolescent -- so that being back on campus places her somewhere right between her past and present selves.


Q: You write, “I have lived for twenty-one years on the campus of the same boarding school that I attended as a day student in the 1990s,” adding that your fictional Granby “is a very different place.” How did living on a boarding school campus affect your creation of Granby, and do you have any other favorite novels set at boarding schools?


A: I was determined to make the Granby campus not only a different from the one where I live, but fully a product of my imagination. I made and adjusted maps over several years, moving things around to where I needed them to be.


I also worked out a tremendous amount about the history of the school, largely by reading up on the histories of New England schools of around the same vintage. Some of that history made it into the novel, and some lives only in my head and in my computer. 


I have many favorite boarding school novels, but the one I'm always putting in people's hands is Pamela Erens's The Virgins (Tin House, 2013). It's a beautiful novel with an unusual narration. It's also a quick and hypnotic read, perfect for a rainy weekend.


Q: The author Rumaan Alam said of the book, “Both a deeply satisfying crime story and a thoughtful, even provocative, novel of ideas, I Have Some Questions for You narrates one woman’s interrogation of her own past while in turn posing difficult questions directly to its reader: about sex, power, privilege, and the ambient violence of contemporary American life.” What do you think of that description, particularly in relation to the issues Alam mentions?


A: Well, he can do no wrong, so he could have said just about anything at all about my book and I'd have been happy. But yes, I think he gets it exactly right. My job as an author is not to preach at people or to answer questions; it's to take questions I already have and then complicate them with narrative.


And those are indeed the big thematic questions of the book. If I were being thorough, I'd add race and class to the list. (Why did I take on so much?? I have no idea.) 


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It came along quite late in the process; we were almost at copy edits when we settled on it. The working title had been "Ninety-Five" (as in the year) -- a title that meant a lot to me but that would have done very little to telegraph the tone or subject matter of the novel to someone browsing a bookstore table.


"I have some questions for you" was already the first line of one of the book's later chapters, and to me it captured that tone I just mentioned of complicating thorny issues -- plus the "you" gets at something else important, which is that this book, while told in the first person, is addressed to a certain character.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on something set in WWII-era Germany (although it's neither a war book nor a Holocaust book) and I was able to use my Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Germany this past fall for research. Right now, it's in what I think of as a "marination phase" -- I'm busy with publicity and travel, but I'm always working on this new book mentally. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm very excited about the audio version of the book. Julia Whelan is the primary narrator, with JD Jackson reading one chapter. They're both brilliant, and I was able to listen to a bit of the book the other day (not too much, or I'd want to edit again) and I was so happy. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rebecca Makkai.

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