Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. The Great Believers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and received the ALA Carnegie Medal and the LA Times Book Prize, among other honors. Makkai is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, and she is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago.
This month, we’re devouring Rebecca Makkai‘s latest novel The Great Believers a captivating story oscillating between 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, following a group of friends affected by the AIDS crisis.
We caught up with Rebecca recently to find out all the other work-related things she’s doing when she’s not writing and all the things she’s doing when she’s not doing those other work-related things – and as usual, we also asked for some great recos – and Rebecca delivered!
Girly Book Club: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?
Rebecca Makkai: I was writing from the time I could hold a pencil, and spent elementary school compelling classmates to act in plays I’d written. I can’t say there was any one moment that got me into writing; it was just something I did, and something I increasingly got positive feedback on. I was publishing short stories long before my first novel came out, and ultimately I wrote that novel (The Borrower) simply because I had a plot (a children’s librarian inadvertently kidnaps a ten-year-old boy) that wouldn’t fit inside a short story.
GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?
RM: There has to be brilliant language (and that language might be flashy, or it might be simple and translucent) but if you’re writing literary fiction, there also has to be a shapely and compelling plot. When you think back on your absolute favorite novels, the ones you both love and respect, it’s the plot you think of — not the sentences. But nothing ruins a great plot faster than bad writing.
GBC: What are you doing if you’re not writing?
RM: There’s so much more of the business of writing (endless emails, travel, teaching, conferences, more email, meetings, more email) than you’d ever imagine. It takes more of my time than the actual writing does. If you’re asking what I do for fun: yoga, playing with my kids, organizing and attending literary events in Chicago, cooking.
GBC: Name your favourite bookshop in the world.
RM: Never! Not in a million years! I’d be betraying so many bookstores I love!
But I’ll make a recommendation, for those who want a literary pilgrimage: Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT is vast and labyrinthine and has a wonderful cafe and one of the best children’s sections you’ve ever seen.
GBC: Physical book, e-book, or audiobook? – and why.
RM: Physical book, almost always. They’ve done so many studies that show that reading comprehension and retention and deep understanding are far better with a physical book. My one exception is audiobooks, since I drive a lot — but they have to be either hugely plot-driven (like, I listened to Gone Girl on audio) or nonfiction. And there has to be a great voice actor. Nothing’s worse than a male actor doing female voices in awkward falsetto, so every woman in the book sounds like Miss Piggy.
GBC: What was your favourite book as a child?
GBC: We’re always on the hunt for our next great read. Recommend us a book to add to our TBR pile!
RM: The Caregiver by Samuel Park, came out last summer, and it’s brilliant. The author died very young of cancer, and this book was published posthumously — and because he hasn’t been around to promote it, it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It’s set in both Brazil and LA, and it involves covert rebel operations and immigration and cancer and friendship. It’s gorgeous and life-affirming and captivating, and I want everyone to read it.
GBC: What is one movie, TV series, or podcast that you’re loving right now?
RM: I just got into The Good Place, and I think season 3 is finally available on Hulu, so that’s going to be my hotel room show for my fall travels. Each episode is one sheet mask long, which is perfect.