By: Kaia Gallagher

A masterful story-teller, Rebecca Makkai blends tragedy and humor in her recently released book, The Great Believers, a novel that tells the very human story of Chicago’s gay community as it faces the emerging AIDS epidemic during the mid-1980s.

The story revolves around a small group of gay men who find their relationships disrupted, their identities challenged and their hopes for the future dimmed as their friends fall ill and die around them.  A second narrative follows Fiona, the sister to one of the deceased, as she travels to Paris in 2015 still haunted by the shadow memories of those she lost.  Within a broader context of homophobia and government indifference, the story highlights the ephemeral nature of present time and the ways in which the past, present and future are all very much connected.

The Great Believers builds on Makkai’s illustrious writing career.  Her first novel, 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 a 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 was pleased to have the opportunity to interview Makkai by phone just prior to the release of The Great Believers.


The Coachella Review: Congratulations on the publication of The Great Believers.  How does your experience in writing this book compare to your other two books?

RM: Compared to my other books, The Great Believers is much more research-heavy.  I could not be writing about a real time and place and such a sensitive topic without doing a ton of one-on-one in-depth interviews and a lot of primary document research.  My other works were entirely about the creative process and only a little bit about research.  This felt like equal parts research and writing and it’s stronger for that.  It doesn’t read like non-fiction. It’s not meant too.

The research process behind this writing was really intense. I was both writing and researching for five years. It was four years of “full throttle” which is pretty fast for a novel of this length.

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