Finding the Echoes: An Interview with Rebecca Makkai

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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, will appear in June 2015. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011), and appears regularly in journals such as Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review. The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai will serve as visiting faculty this fall at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Less than a year since we met to discuss Rebecca Makkai’s summer hit, The Hundred-Year-House, I sat down with her again to chat about her third book, a story collection titled Music for Wartime, coming out June 23.

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I’ll start with an easy question. How long did it take to write all the stories in this collection?

The earliest one in there, “Suspension,” I wrote in 2002, for a graduate school class. The last one I wrote was “Good St. Anthony Come Around”; it was a much later addition to the book. I wrote that one in early 2014. So, 12 years? But when I started, I wasn’t working on a collection. I didn’t begin to assemble it until after The Borrower came out, and then that winter of 2011, I really sat down to work on it. I had the title and then I hit upon the idea of weaving through my own family’s stories, and that really gelled everything for me. It made me feel it could really be a collection. But it was still a long saga, because as you can see, my second novel came out before the story collection.

I remember when we last spoke, when The Hundred-Year House was coming out last summer, you were just finishing arranging the order of the stories. So that was quick! Less than a year!

Well, not quite, since it took 13 years. And really, a version of it was done before The Hundred-Year House was done. But because this is coming out so soon after the second novel, I’m getting all these comments like, “Oh my God, you work so fast, you’re so prolific!” But I can’t take credit for writing that fast. I’ll take credit for writing them all and working my ass off, but I did not write a story collection in a year. I wish I could do that; that would be awesome.

I noticed, with all of your books, that you write a lot about artists. Were you raised around a lot of them?

Yes, in a way. My parents were linguistic professors; but my dad was also a really talented amateur pianist, and my mother played the organ. My sister was a piano performance major at Oberlin and now she’s a piano teacher. Actually, I was really raised more around musicians. It was more that they had a lot of artistic friends. My dad was part of the ex-pat Hungarian community and there were a lot of artists there, painters and writers. I had an aunt who ran a ballet studio. As for the “write what you know” school of thought, I realized early on in my writing process that artists and intellectuals were who I was most comfortable writing about. I’m not the right person to write some gritty novel about life on the streets—I’m glad people are doing it, but I would be terrible.

The Hundred-Year House had all sorts of visual artists, but in this collection, there’s more focus on music and musicians. You also go into quite a bit of detail with the technical aspects of playing. Did you have to do some research for that?

Yes. I studied piano and voice in college, but I don’t know a lot about string instruments, so a friend of mine connected me with a professional violinist who read both “Cross” and “The Worst You Ever Feel.” She gave me a lot of feedback about little details. Like in “The Worst You Ever Feel,” the violinist is missing a finger, and originally I had it as his pinky, but she said that wouldn’t be missed as much as his ring finger, so I changed it. She was incredibly helpful.

I found the last story, “The Museum of the Dearly Departed,” really haunting. Where did the idea come from?

Originally I had an idea for a novel about an apartment building where a gas leak has happened, and the survivors are trying to sort things out. These two people were going to live in one of the apartments on the top floor and move everything into it and make a museum of it. Also, someone told me this story once, and I’d always wanted to use it, about a person saving someone else in line during the holocaust. It wasn’t a soldier, like in my story. In the real version, there were lines for single people and lines for married couples, and somehow they knew the unmarried people would be killed. This Jewish man in the line for single men saw a woman in the single women line and said she was his wife, and they survived because of that. In my version, he knew who she was, but in the real story, I don’t know if he picked the prettiest one or what happened.

Rebecca MakkaiLove at first sight?

Maybe!

Tell me more about this piece.

I feel like most stories are really two stories. In putting those two together, I found the echoes between them. This one is very discernibly two stories. And it means a lot more as the last story of the collection, because then you see that this old Hungarian couple are echoes of my own grandparents, and that this survivor’s guilt the characters feel has a lot to do with mine. Even the little museum that Jed constructs has references to other stories in the collection. Not so overtly that it would be cheesy, but I want the sense that what he’s doing with that museum is what I’m doing with this collection. This sense of being an artist and a survivor in a world where a lot of people don’t make it.

Was this story published on its own before?

Yes, it just came out in the most recent Iowa Review, but I really wrote it for the collection. That and the three family legends, and the very first one, “Singing Women,” are the only ones I wrote for the collection. They were the missing pieces. Of course, I also made them publishable on their own—all of them either have been published or will be. By the time it comes out, everything in there will be published.

Which ones haven’t been released yet?

“Good Saint Anthony Come Around” is going to be on FiveChapters. “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” will be in Ploughshares. The very first one, “The Singing Women,” that’s going to appear online soon as well.

You said you based some of those shorter stories on your family legends. Were they taken completely accurately, or did you fictionalize them? They read to me like essays.

They really are like essays. Those three legends were actually published together as nonfiction in Harper’s. They were fact-checked by the Harper’s team, which is scrupulous, by the way.

So doesn’t that make this collection both fiction and nonfiction? I don’t think I’ve seen that before.

Right! They’re very fiction-y nonfiction, though; as in, I wasn’t there, this is what I’ve been told, I’m not sure that it’s true, here’s what I imagine. It’s not reporting. But all the facts that I give in there are true.

What about the fourth one, “Suspension,” which wasn’t in Harper’s?

In that one, I’m lying my ass off about the photograph at the center of the story. There’s no such photo. My grandfather would never be at my birthday party. But the history is accurate. It’s kind of a blending of fiction and nonfiction…

Was “The November Story” based on the actual reality competition show about the artists?

The one on Bravo? I loved that show, but no, I actually wrote this before it came out.

I still remember when reality TV first came out and I thought it would be a fluke and go away, but it won’t go away! It’s so unrealistic. People are never critiqued that way in real life.

They are though! For visual arts, they are. And I think the process of being reviewed is similar, too. You get people being snarky for no reason, you get praise when you’re least expecting it, you don’t understand why some people respond to one thing and not another thing. That’s really how a publishing career can feel: being one of those people standing on Project Runway and they’re coming down the line, and you don’t know if you’re there because they loved you or if they hated you.

The last time we talked, you mentioned your next novel. Can you tell me a little more about that? Have you progressed much?

Yes, definitely. The next novel is set in Chicago in the 1980s and Paris in the modern day. Again it’s about the art scene a bit, but set against the AIDS crisis in the Chicago section. As of now I’m not sure if I’m going to write it out or not, but in the 2015 section, this woman is trying to navigate Paris when there’s a Woody Allen movie being filmed.

That sounds fun!

Yeah, it could be. I feel like I needed some balance with the AIDS portion.

Do you have a deadline for it?

No, but I’d like it to come out three years after Music for Wartime, so if I finish in two years I’ll be about on schedule.

Let’s end on a less serious note. Maybe it’s because I’m binge-watching the Walking Dead series right now (which I do not recommend unless you want to start waking up five times in the middle of the night), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about apocalypses. If you had to choose a post-apocalyptic world to live in, which would it be? 

I think I’d live in the fourth section of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. The world is in trouble, and there’s a pandemic, and all the bees are dead, but there’s also a tremendous amount of hope and peace. Helpful things, after an apocalypse.

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Read Rebecca Makkai’s short story, “Dead Turtle,” in MQR’s Summer 2013 issue. Read Zhanna Slor‘s essay, “A Floating Continent,” in MQR’s Summer 2014 issue.

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