The Millions Interview

Looking from Across the Room: An Interview with Rebecca Makkai

By posted at 6:00 am on July 2, 2014 0
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coverAt my wedding last September, my theme — beyond the necessary trilingual nature of the event due to being Russian and marrying an Israeli — was books. For the centerpieces, I chose my favorite literary works, stacked ten copies of them on top of each other, tied them with a large gold ribbon, and then gave them away to the attendees when the night ended. I had classics for the more aged (and non-English-speaking) of the bunch, Russian translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but for the younger crowd, I picked Jonathan Franzen and Safran Foer titles, Gary Shteyngart’s appropriately titled Super Sad True Love Story, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. But probably my most current favorite of the bunch was The Borrower by fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai. It was a book I had recently read and one that had stuck with me as a great representative of contemporary literature. I wanted everyone I knew to read it (and it didn’t hurt that there were Russian characters involved, since anyone reading it from my wedding would at least be able to relate on that level). Makkai now has a new book, The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the life of a haunted family and a haunted mansion, told in reverse. We recently sat down to discuss it:

The Millions: The first thing that was really clear to me after finishing your book is how incredibly complicated the structure of it is, especially how every section goes backward in time – from 1999 to 1955 to 1929. How did you go about writing it? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you play around with it a lot?

Rebecca Makkai: I wrote a short story once called “Gate House,” which consisted of some of the plot of the 1999 story. And it didn’t work as a short story at all; it was terrible. But when I revisited it, years later, I suddenly thought of turning it into a novel, and that’s when I started to consider what I would have to do to move backwards in time. At that point the whole thing was coming to me as I went about my day, as I was brushing my teeth – I would have these ideas of the way the plot would be layered. Soon I realized it would be stupid to start writing without seriously outlining, so that was the next thing I did. I ended up with a sixty-page outline. I had calendars, I had timelines, I had historical events. And of course it changed a ton as I was actually writing it. I knew I wanted to write it in reverse chronological order, as it appears in the book, but I had to outline first. Because I couldn’t write 1955 until I knew what happened in 1929.

TM: So you did have to jump around a little?

RM: Well it’s not that I was jumping around, it’s that I had to have every detail worked out before I could write anything, which is unusual. I think people are afraid of outlining, but it didn’t take any of the creativity out of it. And even with the scaffolding the outline provided, I was still catching things up to the last moment. For instance, there’s this bear statue in the woods, and you find out later that it was built in 1957, but I accidentally had it there in 1955… It’s probably not something the reader would really catch until the second or third read—but someone would eventually.

TM: I saw Nathan Englander last year at Printer’s Row, and he said something very similar to that, about how every detail of a story needs to be thought out, no matter how small. If there’s a story set in Chicago, you can’t have a character turn left down a one-way street going in the opposite direction.

RM: Yes, exactly. For me, the details of this house were really important. I ended up drawing the floor plans three times, once for every era. From different angles too. I had to refer to them constantly.

TM: Did you have fun with that, or do you not like drawing?

RM: Oh they look horrible – and I was staying at Ragdale [an artists’ residency] at the time, so there were actual artists there.

TM: Did they see the drawings?

RM: Oh yeah. One of the painters was laughing at me. But it was very helpful. I thought I knew the space pretty well, but then as I drew it, I realized that mentally I’d had the kitchen in two different spaces, depending on the scene.

TM: I would imagine it was really helpful to draw it, since basically all of the scenes take place in that house.

RM: Exactly. In each era there’s someone kind of trapped there.

TM: I did have that feeling a lot. Especially with Case, where all those bad things keep happening to him; the car fire, the knee injury, the bee stings.

RM: The house has this sort of magnetism to it. In 1999, Case is literally crippled by all these accidents. Then in 1955, Grace is trapped there by an abusive husband. And in the ’20s, when it’s an artists’ colony, the characters want to be trapped there. It’s their home, and they’re protecting it. I talk to students a lot about keeping people trapped together in a story so that they don’t just leave, because most people are so conflict-averse that they’d realistically just walk away. I have them practice by writing a scene with characters trapped in an elevator. I don’t think I realized that I’d done that myself until just now.

TM: Was your intention to have some sort of magical element to that feeling of entrapment? And to the house in general?

RM: For sure. I wanted everything to theoretically have some kind of an explanation, but at the same time there’s this question of luck – can you really have that much good luck or bad luck, or does it at some point start to feel supernatural? That’s the question a lot of them are dealing with. For Case, its almost like the house hates him. He just doesn’t belong there.

TM: You said that the first section, the one in 1999, was also the first thing you wrote. Did it change a lot once you decided to make it novel-length?

RM: Yes, quite a lot. Originally, if you can believe it, the story was about male anorexia. No one believes that this guy, who later becomes Case, is anorexic, and the character who later became Doug follows him around, obsessively trying to prove it. The main problem with that story was it was too long. But there was something in it that I loved, and I kept going back to it and trying to cut it,  so that it would be publishable, but nothing ever came of it. Five years later it was still sitting there, one of many unpublished stories.

TM: Do you remember why you suddenly came back to it?

RM: I wish I could remember, but no, I don’t. And the original story, about the anorexia, it’s not even there at all anymore. The only trace of it that’s left is the idea of Violet, the original owner of the house, possibly starving to death.  There is also a point when Doug takes that idea and puts it into one of the children’s books he’s writing, and it gets him fired. I tried really hard to keep that anorexia in the novel; it was hard to admit that was the thing that needed to go because it was the spark. It was like putting out the match that lit the candle.

TM: The character of Miriam probably resonated the most with me, because I lived with a lot of art majors in college, so someone creating works of art with found objects is very familiar. Did you know someone like that as well?

RM: Twelve years ago, I was in a pizza restaurant in New Haven, CT, with my husband and in-laws. It’s this world-famous place called Pepe’s, where you have to wait in line for hours to get in the door. We had finally made it into the lobby and there’s this group there, and it’s clearly a guy introducing his girlfriend to his parents for the first time. And what she did for a living was create portraits of people’s pets out of strange materials. In my memory, she was making marionette puppets, but I could have made that up. And the parents were trying so hard to be supportive, but they clearly didn’t understand. For some reason that was the seed of Miriam—this person who does this thing that no one would think would be sustainable but she’s actually quite successful.

TM: One thing that surprised me is that you had three separate sections with characters that we never see again. Did you think about the risk of that a lot?

RM: It’s not entirely true, though. The middle section is about Grace, and you do see her again in the 1929 section, as a small child. And there are other characters you see briefly too. I did worry that readers might be disgruntled as I divorced them from these people I’d just gotten them invested in, but I was careful to try and keep certain characters’ spirits in the story. For Doug and Miriam in particular, even though you never get back to 1999, you learn things in 1955 and 1929 that affect their story – that even change our understanding of what’s going to happen to them.

TM: Was there anything else you worried about?

RM: Well, I’m confident that none of my readers will remember 1929 clearly. But I’m worried about 1955, because readers who were around (and know that I wasn’t) could go into it looking for mistakes. But 1999, I remember myself. For a long time I’d wanted to write about the Y2K hysteria, because it was an interesting time, and I like to give deadlines to my stories. There’s a clock ticking; things that are going to happen have to happen by a certain time.

TM: It was a lot like a movie in that way, with the pacing.

RM: Yes. That said, I don’t think it would make a good movie. You’d have to take a lot of liberties, and do it very differently, and maybe return to 1999 in the end.

TM: The Borrower would make a good movie too.

RM: I feel like no one would want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. A ten-year-old boy… With sexuality issues… It would have to be an indie film.

TM: These two books are so different from each other. Was there anything different about the writing processes?

RM: I think it was more fun [with The Hundred-Year House]. All that outlining that I had to do paid off hugely when I sat down to write. The problem with The Borrower is that in the beginning I didn’t understand what I was doing yet and I wasted years floundering around, just figuring out how to write a novel.

TM: How long did this one take, after you just sat down to finish?

RM: I really got back to it around the time The Borrower came out, in 2011. So it happened fast. The Borrower took ten years, because I was poking at it, and I was working full-time so I didn’t have as much time to write.

TM: If you could tell your past self anything about writing The Borrower, what would it be?

RM: Just to outline. You can see the shape of something when you outline. You can see the structural flaws. Working on a novel is like painting a mural: if you’re close enough to work on it you’re too close to see the whole thing. You have to step away and look at it from across the room.

TM: Do you edit as you go along? Or do you write and come back?

RM: Both. You don’t want to spend time editing language when you’re not even sure if that scene is going to stay in the book. You don’t want to polish something you’re still carving. I’ll fix it up if something sticks out, but I wont do micro-edits.

TM: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

RM: I actually love outlining. Especially when it’s new and you’re just generating ideas. I also love polishing the language. I don’t like the big structural edits as much. I get myself geared up for those edits by letting myself play spider solitaire. It turns on the math-and-logic part of my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.

TM: How much of an impact do your editors at Viking have on your books? Do they change it quite a bit?

RM: They don’t change it themselves; they ask the writer to change it. But it’s mostly bigger things, not the details. They pushed me to cut a lot from the 1999 setting; it was much, much longer before.

TM: Oh! Is that why the chapters are kind of short? Or is that just how it came out?

RM: No, that’s just how it came out. I ended up cutting entire chapters, rather than parts within the chapters. I think I cut it by a third or a half. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I’m glad they pushed me.

TM: How many times has your husband read this book?

RM: That’s a good question! Definitely not as much as The Borrower… He’s probably read the entire book three times. I held off giving it to him, so he didn’t read it till close to the end.

TM: Was he helpful?

RM: Yes. He’s my best editor.

TM: Are you in a place where you never want to look at it again?

RM: Weirdly, I’m not. I’m never going to sit down and read the whole thing, but I’m not dreading the many occasions where I’ll have to read from it out loud. Whereas with The Borrower, I’ve read from it so much that I don’t particularly want to read from that again for a while.

TM: Do you have a book tour coming up for the release?

RM: Yes. I’m going to the east coast in July, and in August I’m doing Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.

TM: What are you working on now?

RM: I’m wrapping up a short story collection called Music For Wartime that’s coming out next summer.

TM: Are you editing a lot or is everything pretty much done?

RM: Yes and no. There’s one story I feel strongly about that’s unpublished and I really need to revise it, so I’m working on that. I’m also working on the order of the stories. It was done a couple years ago, but we decided to publish the novel first, so I had an order picked out, but since then I’ve written more stories.

TM: How many stories total?

RM: Some of them are short, one or two pages, so it actually ends up being sixteen stories all together – but the total page length isn’t unusual for a story collection.

TM: Have you started a new novel?

RM: I have the idea. I want to work on something set in the New York art world in the ’80s amidst the AIDS epidemic, and Paris in the ’20s. There are artists, some stuff about tuberculosis, and a connection between the two worlds, though I’m not sure what yet.





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