REBECCA MAKKAI TALKS ABOUT THE RELEASE OF HER NEW NOVEL, THE GREAT BELIEVERS
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’s, Tin 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.
TCR: In The Great Believers, you address homophobia, the fears of closeted gay men and the political activism spawned by the government’s inaction towards the AIDS epidemic when it first emerged. What sources did you use to gain insight into how this life-threatening disease changed how gay men related to one another and the ways in which they responded to this threat to their lives?
RM: First of all, I did a lot of reading. I read a lot of the books about the AIDS epidemic, looking hard for resources about Chicago. Although I was able to find a lot of personal accounts online that were very helpful, I was appalled to find there were no non-fiction accounts about AIDS in Chicago. Everything out there was about New York and San Francisco.
That led me to look at the gay weeklies from the ‘80s which are on archive at the major library in Chicago, publications such as the Windy City Times and a few others. I read every issue from 1985 to 1992 which is the time the book covers. I also read editorials on issues like the newly available HIV test, which was a big point of controversy in 1985 so I could write about my characters’ reactions to it.
I did a lot of sit down interviews with survivors, doctors, nurses, activists, journalists, lawyers and basically anyone I could find who lived in Boys Town in the ‘80s even if they never got sick and didn’t have any close friends who did. I was also able to interview some of those who became infected with HIV in 1982 and are still with us. I spent hours and hours interviewing them and they were incredibly generous with their time.
For me it wasn’t just factual research; it was also emotional research that helped me to form the psychology of my characters. I didn’t base the characters on actual people but hearing the memories and thoughts of those who lived during that era and getting into the psychology of what they were like then, how they are now and how they deal with their memories and traumas was a really an important part of writing this novel.
TCR: What struck me is you appeared to think like your characters which is particularly difficult when you’re describing people who lived decades ago and in a different culture.
RM: I was alive in the ‘80s but I was a kid. I grew up in Chicago but not in Boystown. It’s always the job of a writer to make leaps of imagination and empathy. To be able to think about another person, that’s the trick of writing fiction. These characters made a lot of sense to me, particularly my point-of-view characters. You’re always writing about a part of yourself and finding common ground there, but when you’re not writing from the point of view of your other characters, you still have to get behind them, and look through their eyes to know what they would do or what they say. Something about this group of friends came easily to me in terms of how I could imagine their inner workings.
TCR: Why did you choose The Great Believers as the title for this novel?
RM: You might have noticed the book title comes from the epigraph at the beginning of the novel, which is in turn from a posthumous F. Scott Fitzgerald essay. He was talking about the Lost Generation in Paris, which is a theme of this book. Yale (the book’s main protagonist) is the development director for a small gallery and is in the process of acquiring some work dating from before and after World War I. We tend to think about the American writers who went to Paris in the 20s, but within that same generation, there were a number of visual artists from all over Europe who also travelled to Paris before World War I, including Mondigliani and other artists mentioned in my book. They were a generation that got completely decimated by World War I and influenza.
This is something Yale is thinking about as his friend Nora talks about her youth, seeing a parallel between the devastation she sees in the mid-1980s matching the devastation she saw in the 1920s. I came across Fitzgerald’s quote in another book about artists in Paris from that era before I started writing.
Then I found the Fitzgerald quote when I was reading Judith Mackrel’s book Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation and I knew instantly this was my title. When I found the essay it came from, I was even more convinced. It was a willfully optimistic quote and I liked that for my title as well as this portrait of a generation we often see as jaded. Fitzgerald is saying the opposite. They were dreamers and that became a touchstone for me in my writing. I wanted to write to the title and figure out what these characters did believe in against the odds.
TCR: The plot structure in The Great Believers alternates between Chicago in the mid-1980s and Paris in 2015. Why did you choose to set your story in these two alternating points in time?
RM: I was originally just writing about my characters living in the 80s coupled with conversations recalling the 1920s. Those were my two time periods, but Yale was my only point of view character and it began to feel a little claustrophobic. I really wanted a later point of reference, in part because 30 years had passed since the height of the epidemic. In 2015 there were people who never thought they would survive but who were still alive in contrast with those we did lose who would still be with us if it weren’t for this epidemic. You could think about what they would be doing with their lives in contrast with those who lost everyone around them and tried to move on.
I was also worried about appropriation. I was a straight woman writing about gay men and writing just from Yale’s point of view felt a little too appropriative. Adding Fiona as a character who was more demographically like me helped to make this a more multi-faceted novel.
I had written about 150 pages only from Yale’s point of view when I went back and wove in the Fiona sections, which really did work for me. I really loved allowing the novel to portray the 30- year passage of time while providing two windows into the same generation living at the height of everything and experiencing the epidemic’s extreme aftermath. That became the book for me.
TCR: You have included a number of references to real-life events that happen as your novel is unfolding such as the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. In what ways do these event help to ground your fictional narrative within a specific time and place? How do these backstory elements contribute to the flow of the novel?
RM: While writing, I gathered information on global events that occurred during 1985 and 1986, knowing I didn’t want to include them all and not wanting to write a tour of history, but I saw the Challenger explosion as something I could work with.
As for the Paris terrorist attack, I was writing in the fall of 2015 at a writers’ residency, trying to describe Fiona as she would be living in real time and then the terrorist attack happened. It was really jarring to me and I didn’t know if I should move her narrative.
If I shifted Fiona’s story back in time, I would be writing about something that might happen in the future. By contrast, if I described the novel’s events as happening after the terrorist attack, I couldn’t do that without addressing the political events from 2016 that I believed Fiona and her friends would be talking about. Plus, there was flooding in Paris in the spring of 2016. There were all these reasons why I couldn’t really move the narrative, so I decided to write the terrorist attacks into the story, not only out of authenticity but because ultimately it did feel thematically appropriate.
All my characters have their own personal dramas to begin with and then the world intervenes with these horrors that you have to react and adapt to. That’s very much in keeping with the other themes within the book. World War I and AIDS both came in from the outside and interrupted people’s lives.
TCR: Throughout the novel, your protagonists constantly replay memories from the past as they struggle with the present. As you were developing the novel’s narrative, how did you seek to integrate the dimension of time (past, present and future) within your story-telling?
RM: I notice that my students struggle with how to integrate memory into a story without making it seem like a clunky flashback. Ultimately, I believe human beings are largely the sum of their memories. To write about characters without constantly introducing memory ignores a lot of human consciousness. It’s possible in a short story to stay right in the moment, but if you’re taking a longer view on a character, you really have to be willing and able to go back into the development of that character through their childhood or something that might have happened in the last week. That is consciousness. We are all walking around making associations and constantly coming up with memories.
I know that some writers feel very awkward in transitioning into those memories. For me, often what comes first is the present scene and then I might need in revision to remind myself to add in the associations and memories a character might be experiencing.
In the 80s Yale’s memories are germane to the situations he’s encountering, but with Fiona 30 years later, I wanted her repressed memories to be triggered more by virtue of who she encounters in Paris and by the photographs that surface of her long-lost brother and his friends from decades earlier. In addition, the emotional trauma she is going through as a parent forces her to address and deal with other memories from her childhood. So, I needed to focus more directly and thematically on memory as part of Fiona’s narrative as compared with Yale’s story.
When you’re writing anything longer than a short story, you really have to get into what has made this person to be the person he or she is and that involves memory whether it’s through a flashback that is part of a scene or whether the memories are more incidentally included as a story progresses through time.
TCR: In our last interview, I asked about the undercurrent of grief, shame and loss in many of the stories in your collection Music for Wartime. Your comment was “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.” In The Great Believers, you continue to blend sadness and humor. As a writer, do you find that the humor arises spontaneously as you are writing, or do you backfill what you’ve written to lighten what would otherwise be dark emotional scenes?
RM: I have found that my friends in the gay community have a tremendous sense of humor. It felt quite natural to me that I was writing about people who had a kind of gallows humor about everything that is happening around them.
To overgeneralize, gay men are funny — you could say it’s a natural gift, a coping device, or a product of having to deal from a young age with the burden and gift of looking at society from an outsider’s position —which of course provides a sense of the ridiculous.
TCR: Like many of your previous stories, The Great Believers incorporates a story about artists, in this case the art community in Paris before and after World War I. Did you intend for art to represent a symbolic quest for immortality as a contrast to the lives lost due to the AIDS epidemic?
RM: I really believe it is not in any writer’s best interest to think about meaning and symbolism as they write. It’s going to come out naturally no matter what. When we dream, our brains work subconsciously in imagery, symbolism and hidden meaning. We don’t need to think about it and we shouldn’t think about it. That should come from the subconscious. If writers start thinking about the broader meaning of their work, they can end up setting out to prove certain points. By contrast, I believe writers should focus on the natural momentum of a story which derives from character, motivation and plot which can evolve into something surprising and completely different from what writers might originally have planned.
I think it’s confusing for younger writers because the first thing you’re asked to discuss in literature classes is the meaning and symbolism within books which can make it feel as if that’s what you should be thinking about as you write. It’s a really good question but I will leave the symbolism in The Great Believers for others to think about. It’s not my job to do that.
TCR: When we last spoke, you said you found yourself caring deeply for the characters in The Great Believers because you followed them for a 30-year period. In what ways did having more emotional investment in your characters impact your story-telling?
RM: Following my characters over time made me a much better writer. I think my first two novels had an arch feeling of not quite being within the real world. I was writing stylized universes and part of that aesthetic involved my not getting too deep into the characters. I wasn’t aiming for the intense realism that was my goal in this book. Certainly, the AIDS epidemic is not a topic to treat in a stylized way.
Realism was the way to go, a realism that included emotional realism and made my writing feel more urgent to me. I felt as if my characters were very real and I needed to take care of them even as I was letting terrible things happen to them. The end result was that I held these characters closer than others I’ve written about in the past and ultimately that was a really good thing.
TCR: What is the takeaway you’d like to leave with your readers about the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s? What relevance does it have to our current experience?
First of all, there are a lot of people who have either forgotten, never knew, or were too young to know what actually happened unless they were intimately involved with the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s. I might have known more than some people but there was certainly so much that I didn’t realize when I started looking at the events from a psychological perspective.
Just in terms of history alone, everyone needs to know about the height of AIDS. We should be spending as much time teaching about the AIDS epidemic in high school as we spend on World War II. Because something like this will happen again. What is constantly happening is that the government and the health industry in general treat marginalized populations differently. They let people die based on beliefs about how those people got sick and why those people don’t have money, factors that have little to do with their illness and a lot to do with the reasons those people are marginalized.
Whether we’re talking about the poor, the LBTGQ population, non-English speakers, immigrants — we have to be constantly vigilant, because those groups are always going to be disenfranchised and cut off from health care. And if a contagious disease like this were again to arise, the results would be even more cataclysmic than the quiet constant drip of horrific events happening all around us.
In the Last year a million people died from AIDS in Africa. People think of AIDS as a thing of the past, but it is still a global epidemic that is continuing to devastate entire populations even while the United States is currently pulling out of international AIDS work and assistance.
We teach the history of World War II because we believe we can’t let this loss of life and genocide happen again. It’s the exact same reason we should be spending that much time on the AIDS epidemic, as a history lesson for us all.
Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. She is an MFA student at the University of California-Riverside’s Low Residency program.