Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman – Rebecca Makkai

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Rebecca Makkai and the Four Best Americans

makkai-225x300Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the story collection Music for Wartime, and the novels The Hundred-Year House (a BookPage “Best Book” of 2014 and winner of the Chicago Writers Association Award) and The Borrower (a Booklist Top Ten Debut). Her short fiction was featured in The Best American Short Stories anthology in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 and appears regularly in publications such as Harper’s, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and on public radio’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca teaches at Northwestern University, Lake Forest College, and StoryStudio Chicago; in the fall of 2015, she will be visiting faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her website is www.rebeccamakkai.com.

Rebecca Makkai mete with me at one of the north suburban cafes in which she regularly writes. I started by asking about her incredible string of Best American short stories that began in 2008.


Fifth Wednesday Journal: I have to ask you about the four Best Americans in a row. The fifth year, when you weren’t in the book, was that a bummer?

Rebecca Makkai: It was, yes. I probably shouldn’t say that. It was a very, very minor bummer. I was so ridiculously grateful to have that first story chosen. I consider that one of the best days of my entire life. And then it happened three more times. I found myself disappointed that fifth year, but of course I was laughing at myself the whole time. Like, You poor little thing. I did have a story nominated that year. It wasn’t my strongest ever, and there was another story, I think by Jennifer Haigh, with a very similar plot: a funeral for a professor, told by a woman he had an affair with. It helped because, you know, you can’t put them both in the book, and hers was a better story.


FWJ: Anyone else ever get four in a row?

RM: Someone told me that since they moved to guest editors the record is four, but it’s like a multi-way tie, and might be broken now. Before that, the record was Irwin Shaw, seven in a row. Now the guest editors bring their own aesthetics to bear each year, so there’s some welcome diversity in the selection. The year Michael Chabon edited is a fascinating collection — he was reading out on his own a little bit, stuff that wasn’t nominated, finding things that had been published online. Junot Diaz is editing this year, apparently, and I can’t wait to see what he chooses.


FWJ: Do you keep up with them?

RM: I do! I used to read them cover to cover, but in the last couple of years I have less control over my own reading time because this weird thing happens once your career gets going, where you start reading things you’re supposed to blurb, reading books by friends because you feel you really ought to, or I’m going to be in conversation with someone in a bookstore so I need to read that, or I’m reviewing a book.


FWJ: And as a writing teacher, I bet a fair amount of student writing, too.

RM: Right. And if I just spent the last three hours reading student manuscripts, it’s really hard to crawl into bed with a book. I’m going to do a crossword puzzle instead at that point. I’ve actually kept a list of every book I’ve read since 2001, and so much of what I read now never makes it in there because it’s not technically a book.


FWJ: What were the books you read that made you want to write?

RM: I started writing stories when I was four. There was not some moment when I decided to be a writer, I was just born this way. I think for that reason, everything I read along the way counted as stylistic influences. I’d try to soak everything up. I was the kid everyone was sick of in English class with my hand always up in the air. I’m certainly a product of everyone I’ve ever read, but I’m not the sort of writer who read someone early on and said I want to be like this person or I’m going to incorporate this. The mind-blowing moments for me that changed the way I write would be Nabokov or Stoppard, but I don’t think I particularly write like those writers.

FWJ: Nabokov I definitely can see, the structural gamesmanship. Maybe a little Marquez in there too — I thought about him while reading The Hundred Year House.

RM: Which Marquez?


FWJ: One Hundred Years of Solitude because you come away from both books with a feeling of timelessness, a sense everything is really all happening at once.

RM: I do love that book!


FWJ: I just realized the similarities of the titles. Was that a deliberate nod to Marquez?

RM: It wasn’t intended as a nod, but when I realized it was there I thought, oh, that fits. Absolutely. That book was an influence. Jaw dropping for me as a reader: The kind of moment that maybe comes out fifteen years later in really subconscious ways. I haven’t gone back and reread it, and I remember very little about it, but the feeling of it has stayed with me.


FWJ: The Hundred Year House moves backwards as it’s moving forward — a neat trick which you pull off seamlessly. You didn’t write it backwards, did you?

RM: No. I wrote it in the order you read it. I wrote the 1999 section, then 1955, then 1929, so in order to do that — at the point where I realized I had to do that — I stopped where I was and spent about a year outlining and it. I ended up with a hundred-page outline. It was ridiculous. I had to have it all worked out ahead of time, the cause and effect of little things. I had to know everything that happened in 1929 before I wrote 1955. Not my typical process.


FWJ: Do you hear from readers that they go back and check earlier parts against the later stuff?

RM: Yeah, that’s why no one should read it on a Kindle. It’s terrible on an e-reader because it’s meant to be the kind of book where you can flip back and reread and check that someone’s name is the same.


FWJ: During the 1955 section I went back and reread the New Year’s Eve 1999 conversation.

RM: And that’s essential! You have to be able to flip back to that conversation to understand what happened in 1955. It’s meant to be read that way. I’ve visited a few book clubs and there’s always someone who says I didn’t understand this part or that part and then you find out they read it on an e-reader. We’ve known for a long time that people don’t retain information as well when they read electronically, but specifically they’re just realizing that people don’t retain chronology. They’ve done these studies where they ask people to read a book, some of them on paper, some on screen, and they quiz them on trivia from the book and they all do equally well. But then they give them five events and ask them to put them in order. People who read electronically can’t do it.


FWJ: That makes sense to me. It must be that people are using the actual pages as reference points.

RM: That’s exactly it. I’m two pages from the end, or I’m halfway through. It’s subconscious, but you just don’t have that with an e-reader. I’ve never used an e-reader, but I have listened to books on audio, and I know it’s the same effect. It’s much harder to recall the structure of a book. If you’re just completely going for entertainment — I’ll try to go for lighter books on audio — then whatever, it’s fine. But I worry sometimes about my writing students. You’re not going to understand structure by reading that way.


FWJ: You published essays in Harper’s that were part fiction, part memoir. You’ve written that the details were invented but the stories were handed down to you from your family. How is writing this kind of hybrid essay different from writing a straight memoir — or a straight fiction?

RM: I am planning to do a nonfiction book eventually about my father’s family in Hungary in the 30s, which is what those stories are about. Memoir is really the wrong word for it because it’s not anything I personally remember. It’s not my life. But at the same time I think it’ll be personal in that it’ll be about my experience in trying to investigate the stuff — trying to read some of the novels my grandmother wrote that I haven’t been able to read because they’re in Hungarian — but it’ll also be largely about the past. My father just moved back to Hungary this spring after 59 years in America. I’m hopefully going to visit him in April. And I might be able to get around a little bit and do some digging. I especially want to interview him some more. His parents were both very political and alternately on both the right and wrong sides of history. So there is a lot of confusing stuff leading up to the war. Somehow by the time I was born, my grandfather who had been a member of the Hungarian parliament was living in Hawaii as a yoga instructor. So there are some blanks to fill in. My grandmother after the war was writing novels still, but they were highly censored by the communist government. She was writing historical fiction in order to be political. I’m fascinated by all of that. It’s not just WW II, it’s kind of the whole trajectory.


FWJ: It seems like a lot of that back story already informs your writing, and I’m thinking of the story “Suspension: April 20, 1984.”

RM: Exactly. The piece that appeared in Harper’s was three of those family legends put together. In the collection they’re separated, and then there’s a fourth piece about my family that’s quite different, “Suspension.” What they’re doing in the collection is hopefully shedding some sort of meta-fictional light on the other stories. Then the question is, how does what I write grapple with this strange legacy? The last story in the collection is called “The Museum of the Dearly Departed,” and there’s an elderly Hungarian couple who are absolutely not my grandparents — their history is different — but I’m clearly inviting you to read them as an analog in some way for my grandparents. It means something different in the context of that collection and in the context of my family’s stories, different from what it meant on its own in the Iowa Review, where it was first published.


FWJ: Your writing has a theme of community in general, but very often artistic communities specifically. How does being part of an artistic community animate or inspire your writing?

RM: I do spend a fair amount of time at artists’ residencies (Yaddo, Ucross, Ragdale), and they absolutely feed my work. Not that I’m literally inspired — literally hearing someone’s work and thinking, I have to incorporate that, or seeing someone’s art and going, Oh it’s all about the color pink for me now. It’s more like what John Cheever said about Yaddo: “It’s a monastery by day and cruise ship by night.” That’s apt. You get sixteen-hour workdays with a walk and some yoga thrown in, and then you have enlivening conversation in the evening. Back in Cheever’s day there were more drunken hijinks than now, but still people are sitting around the fireplace with a bottle of wine and having — not a serious conversation about art necessarily, but telling stories. Joking around. The people who go are incredibly creative, intelligent people, and if I didn’t have that discourse I would not do as well working in isolation. I was at an artists’ colony once, and one person decided he really needed concentration, so he wasn’t even going to come to dinner. He was just going to eat in his room. He lasted a week before having a meltdown. There’s also something really great about those places just in knowing that everyone is all around you in their own rooms doing work. You get to those places, and the very first day you haven’t met anyone yet. So you’re in your room working, and it feels weird and totally isolated. Then you meet everyone at dinner, and you see them grabbing breakfast in the morning. Then you go back to your studio, and you feel like you’re part of a beehive. You feel energy all around you. It isn’t lonely at all. You know everyone’s working their asses off in their studios. You’re going to get together at dinner, and someone’s going to say, How was your day, and you’re going to be able to say It was pretty good, I wrote 2000 words or It was terrible and I stared at the wall all day and I’m so frustrated and I’m questioning this whole project, but you’re in this very small way accountable to other people, and there’s this group energy. It really is like a beehive.


FWJ: Are there some types of artists you prefer to be around more than others? In The Hundred Year House there seemed to an emphasis on visual artists.

RM: I’ve stayed with artists and photographers, but I think their inclusion had more to do with the book’s themes. Photography, in specific, captures a moment in time — which is thematically relevant when your book goes backwards. Writers are the ones who are going to tell crazy stories, but at the same time I know a lot already about the writing world, so to me it’s fascinating to talk to a visual artist about how he makes money, to learn about this completely different way of making art. The first time I heard a painter say she had to go back to her studio and revise, I was completely thrown. Of course I knew artists touched up their paintings, but that word “revision” seemed really startling. But it makes total sense. She was rethinking the concept of the painting.


FWJ: How do you keep the momentum once you leave a colony?

RM: I haven’t had a good writing day since, like, February. But what’s great about the colonies for me is that I get going full speed, and then when I get home it’s easier to keep going.


FWJ: Is that kind of an experience more useful when plotting out a novel, or later, when revising?

RM: I’ve done both. My least productive residency was one where I thought I was going to start a novel and I really never started it there. I just wrote a short story and revised some old stuff. I need to show up with a project started and then go from there. When I come back I have a lot of things buzzing around. I can work for two hours and get a lot done. It’s harder to jump back into something when you only have two hours to work on a Thursday. If I was already going full speed I could jump in and do it. Right now I’m in a place where I haven’t worked on this project for a number of reasons, part of which is that I had two books to promote and summer vacation with the kids at home. I really haven’t worked full time since February or March, and to dive back into my current novel, I need to reread everything I wrote, find all my outlines, reconcile two different computer files that have different revisions in them. And it’s like, if I have two hours the idea of doing all that is overwhelming. Whereas I’m doing a residency the first three weeks of November, and the first day I get there it will be organizational, and rereading. . . .


FWJ: Which ones do you prefer?

RM: Ragdale, north of Chicago, is actually my favorite. There’s incredible history there, and wonderful energy. While it’s not as old a residency, the house itself dates back to the 1890s. The guy who lived there was the architect who built it, and one of his daughters was the sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson who did that bird girl statue that people know from the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The place does feel haunted in this lovely way. And the food is great.


FWJ: That seems pretty important.

RM: It is! I’m mostly vegetarian, and if you get into a place where the only vegetarian option is steamed broccoli you’re going to be really sad really fast.


FWJ: What about the broader artistic community? I know you’re from around here, but do you consider yourself a Chicago writer?

RM: I very much consider myself from and of Chicago. I feel so supported by the Chicago press and the literary scene and, oh my God, the bookstores? We’re so spoiled for independent bookstores in the city. It’s ridiculous. I love to write about Chicago. The Hundred Year House was set in the suburbs, and the novel I’m working on now is set largely in the city, in Boystown. The city itself inspires me. But that said, I’m not looking at, like, a historical tradition of Chicago Writing. I’ve never read Nelson Algren. I probably should. I’ve read shockingly little Saul Bellow. I’m not sure I’ve been influenced by any tradition of Chicago writing. And also I think that when people say, “the tradition of Chicago writing,” the canon of whatever, it’s white men. They’re not usually talking about Gwendolyn Brooks. And I think what’s going on in Chicago, especially right now, is diverse in many ways, and it has little to do with that white, male, hard-knuckled, Carl Sandburg tradition. I’m influenced by what’s happening here right now, not fifty or a hundred years ago. I keep trying to convince other writers to move to Chicago. We’ve got so much going on without it being all about sucking up to agents or editors at a party, like it might be some places. People are open and supportive and welcoming.


FWJ: Are there a lot of agents living here?

RM: No. That’s the point.


FWJ: If you lived in New York you’d be bumping into your agent all the time.

RM: I wouldn’t mind that at all, she’s lovely. But if you don’t have an agent yet and you go to a party and there’s an agent in the corner and you have to try and angle yourself to have a conversation, or Hey can you introduce me to this person . . . That’s a lot of stress, and it’s usually fruitless. There’s something nice in Chicago about the industry not being here. We have some great small presses, but the pressure is off, because the pressure is elsewhere. We’re on this island, and we can hang out with each other. We don’t have to worry about that stuff, at least not tonight, not at this party, you know?


FWJ: Do you write in public? In cafes like this?

RM: Yes. I actually write here a lot. I don’t get as much done with the distractions of home. I have kids. My ideal situation would be writing in a cafe with no WiFi, but in a foreign country so everyone is speaking a language I can’t understand.


FWJ: Are you listening to music when you write?

RM: No. You’re supposed to be using the music part of your brain tuned in to what you are writing. If the music part of your brain is occupied with someone else’s music. . . . I know some people that works for, and they claim that rhythm comes in to their writing, but then I feel like you’re not listening to the rhythm and sound structure of your words.


FWJ: Then do you read your stuff out loud, to hear it?

RM: I used to. I’ve trained myself to read silently but editorially, if that makes sense. I’m reading and editing for sound even though my mouth is not moving. I acted a lot in high school and college, and that was essential for me in learning how to write dialogue. Also scene structure and story structure and all kinds of things. I think it affects the way I read, too. You’re constantly thinking about inflection and delivery. If you’ve had that experience it’s much harder to write a really bad line of dialogue that no human could ever say naturally.


FWJ: Were there specific plays or playwrights who inspired you as an actor?

RM: I’m in awe of Tom Stoppard, who I think is one of the greatest living writers in any genre. The things I tended to be in were a lot of musicals or, in college, weird little one-act plays written by students. I remember at one point I was in some one-act where I was supposed to be buried in the desert. I was standing under the stage with my head sticking out and someone put a box over my head and someone else swung an axe at the box and I had to climb down this ladder really fast before the axe hit my head. Not exactly Actor’s Equity working conditions. It was meant to be tremendously symbolic, I think, though I’m not sure what it symbolized other than my eminent demise.



The complete interview with Rebecca Makkai is available in the spring 2016 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Please visit our store to purchase a copy.



Daniel Libman is a Pushcart Prize and Paris Review Discovery Prize winner. His debut story collection, Married But Looking, was published by Livingston Press in 2012. He regularly writes the “Taking the Fifth” interview and is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

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