TCR Talks with Rebecca Makkai

BY: Kaia Gallagher

Acclaimed by Vanity Fair to be a rising literary star, Rebecca Makkai demonstrates her versatile storytelling ability in Music for Wartime, a collection of 17 stories written over a 13-year period. Reflecting on Makkai’s diverse career, the stories vary in their narrative structure but connect around the central themes of music and war. To tie them together, Makkai has added three oral history accounts shared by her paternal grandmother, Ignacz Rozsa, a famous actress and novelist in Hungary, and her father, Adam Makkai, a Hungarian-born linguist.

Displaying a distinctive storytelling style, Makkai’s stories have been selected for The Pushcart Prize XLI (2017); The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009 and 2016; New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Fantasy. She was also featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts and This American Life.

Her novels have been equally applauded. The Borrower was chosen as the Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Since its debut, it has been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Hundred-Year House, won the 2015 Novel of the Year award from the Chicago Writers Association and was named the best book of 2014 by BookPage.

A prolific author, Makkai’s published work has appeared in Harper’sTin House, the Wall Street Journal, and New England Review. She has received fellowships at Yaddo and the Sewanee and Wesleyan Writers Conferences and was the recipient of an NEA literature fellowship in fiction in 2014.  She is on the faculty of MFA programs at Northwestern University and Sierra Nevada College, and is the Artistic Director at StoryStudio Chicago

The Coachella Review: You have described your recent collection of short stories, Music for Wartime, as representing 13 years of work. How has your approach to writing short stories changed over time?

Rebecca Makkai: I’m actually not sure my approach has changed much in that time. (These stories go back a long way, but they don’t go back, thank God, to when I was just figuring out how to write.) My interests are constantly changing, of course, and I’m always up for trying out new things stylistically—otherwise, I’d get bored—but it’s always still about becoming obsessed with something, thinking about it for a long time, committing one sentence to the page, and going from there. If it’s a narrative story, I still do what I always have, which is to stop and outline when I’m about halfway through; and if it’s a short, non-narrative piece, I try to get through it in one go. That said, of course, I’d love to believe my writing has improved over time. I definitely have a better understanding of character than I used to, if only because I’ve lived more life.

TCR: There is an undercurrent of grief, shame and loss in many of the stories within Music for Wartime. In what ways do you find these emotions to be a compelling foundation for storytelling?

RM: I mean, it doesn’t work well to write about satisfied people, right? So, you’re always either writing about someone who wants something they can’t have, or can’t have yet, or you’re writing about someone who did have something good and lost it. This collection might be slanted toward the latter, but I do think I have stories in there—“Cross,” for instance—that are about people finding what they were looking for. I don’t know how to write a story that isn’t sad, and I don’t know how to write a story that isn’t, in some way, funny. Not that I want to stop; I’ve been told this is my aesthetic, so I’m just going with it.

TCR: Within Music for Wartime you incorporate stories written as fiction and nonfiction, including some oral history accounts from your family’s Hungarian past. In what ways do you like to blend stories that have both fictional and nonfictional elements? In your opinion what is the boundary between fiction and nonfiction?

RM: Honestly, it’s not normally something I’m into, not part of my overall aesthetic. For this particular collection, though, it felt like the appropriate mode, and a way to tell a few family stories that I’d never been able to tell either as pure fiction or pure nonfiction. These were handed down to me from tremendously unreliable sources, and I finally realized (after years of trying to tell the stories straight) that this was part of their allure for me. If I wanted to pass that feeling on to the reader, I’d have to blur the line between fiction and fact in my writing, as well.

There’s one story in there, “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” that’s got a completely surreal premise—J. S. Bach shows up in a contemporary woman’s Manhattan apartment, and they begin a sexual affair—and whenever I’m asked at readings where I got the idea for the story, I love to look at the questioner with a completely straight face and say, “Well, it’s autobiographical.” It usually takes a good five seconds before anyone in the audience feels free to laugh; there’s this moment of wondering if I could possibly be serious, and I find it hilarious.
Aside from those four short family pieces, everything else in the collection—and everything else I’ve written, aside from personal essays—is utter fiction. If my real life makes it in, it’s in such tiny and convoluted ways that not even the people closest to me would recognize it.

TCR: Many of the protagonists in your stories are artists or musicians. To what extent does this vantage point provide you with a way to reflect on the ways in which artists view life?

RM: Other artists are the people I understand best in the world. I’ve certainly written about people with other jobs, but I’m drawn again and again to characters who work in the arts, who are driven to create beauty and order and meaning, or at least ask disrupting questions, in the middle of a brutal world. I keep trying to get away from these characters, just so I’m not stuck in a rut, and then I’ll find myself in the middle of something new going “Oh crap, how did I get here?” My new novel, The Great Believers, is about the AIDS crisis, but somehow in the midst of all that I managed to make it about the Paris art world in 1920 and 2015, as well. That one’s done, and what I’m obsessed with right now is Golden-Age Hollywood, so that might well be the next book. I’m throwing up my hands in surrender; I’m just going to write about artists.

TCR: You have used different storytelling forms in your collection. How do you decide what format would best tell a story? Does the story come first or do you create a form and tell a story around it?

RM: I always, always, always start with plot; and most of my initial craft decisions in a story are intuitive. By the time I’m ready to begin writing, I’ve been thinking about the story for a long time. I kind of wait until the story is boiling over, and then I start to write—and the conscious or subconscious decisions I’ve made in those first sentences (point of view, tense, form, narrative distance, tone, diction, etc.) tend to stick. I’m a compulsive reviser, and I’ll rethink almost anything about my story, but I rarely change those fundamentals.

TCR: Ghosts from the past lurk in your novel The Hundred-Year House. Do you consciously set out to stretch the definition of reality through your storytelling?

RM: Well, I mean, it’s fiction, so you’re already sitting there inventing things and talking to your imaginary friends. But no, I don’t plan out what I’m going to write in a theoretical way; I think it’s a terrible idea to do that. When a writer sits down and goes, “Okay, I’m going to tell a story that questions capitalism and pushes the line between genre and literature, and it’s going to prove that humans are fundamentally lonely”—those stories feel tremendously forced and heavy-handed. On the other hand, when you go, “What if someone woke up as a giant cockroach?” and then write your way to meaning, we can feel that too; we can feel that you’re discovering things with us, not trying to prove something to us. I probably shouldn’t speak for Kafka, but he just texted me and said he agreed.

TCR: What authors have had the most influence on your work?

RM: I often answer this question by talking about the authors I read in college or grad school who really made me think consciously about craft, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the books I read as a child that probably had much more foundational and subconscious impacts on the way I think about narrative. The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), both by Ellen Raskin, taught me a lot about narrative intricacy and fun—and I don’t think I’d have written The Hundred-Year House without her influence. Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game is about children inventing a world that then gets away from them—and it very much plays with that line between fantasy and reality. Lois Lowry was my all-around favorite author, and this was before her dystopian novels like The Giver. I loved the humour of her Anastasia series, and Number the Stars was for many years tied with The Westing Game for my favorite book. It has a strong young female protagonist, wonderful suspense, and it was an age-appropriate introduction to the stories of the Holocaust that I’ve been drawn to and grappling with ever since.

TCR: Can you tell us about your most recent writing project?

RM: The Great Believers will be out in June from Viking. It’s a novel set both in 1980s Chicago, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and in 2015 Paris, where a woman who lost her brother to AIDS is struggling to come to terms with the long-lasting effects of the virus in her own life. I’m very excited about it. It feels like a completely new kind of writing for me, at least in terms of depth of character. Part of that is that I was able to follow these characters over longer time periods—in one case over thirty years—and so I felt like I came to a longitudinal understanding of my characters. I ended up caring about them more than I’d cared about anyone else I’d written—which of course makes it scary to let go of, to let the book go out into the world.