Rebecca Makkai: 2019 National Book Festival

Rebecca Makkai: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Carey Cranston: Good morning
to all of you and welcome to the 19th Annual
National Book Festival. As Peter said, I’m
Carey Cranston. I’m the president of the
American Writer’s Museum. But before we get started
on the fiction stage, I also want to recognize
the Library of Congress for this amazing host
of this event which does such an amazing job of
celebrating and engaging with the writers of
today and promoting them and connecting them
with their public. I also want to give
special thanks to the James Madison
Council of the Library which is an independent
philanthropic body that is the sponsor
of this stage. As Peter said, the best stage. The James Madison Council was
formed almost 30 years ago. It is comprised of public-minded
and philanthropic individuals who seek to advance
the Library’s efforts to make the riches they collect and protect more
accessible and more dynamic. The Council is the reason
for the success of hundreds of projects at the Library
and I want to thank them for being the sponsor
of this stage. Now, as I mentioned,
I’m the president of the American Writer’s Museum which is a national
museum located in Chicago and if you have not
heard of us, that’s okay. We’ve only been open
for two years. But if you come to Chicago, we
would love for you to visit. The only way I can possibly
describe our museum is what a visitor said recently which
is we are an amusement park for people who love
writing [laughter]. So please come visit us. Now, along with our engaging
interactive exhibits, we have a very robust
youth education program and an extensive public
program for writers to connect with our audiences. One of those writers I’ve
had the great fortune to meet on multiple occasions
because we both live in Chicago is Ms. Rebecca
Makkai who is here today. What I find most compelling about Rebecca besides her
amazing talent as a writer is that while she has been at
three different events for us at the American Writer’s
Museum and every one of them, she was celebrating, promoting
or helping other writers or teachers instead of herself. Rebecca is on the MFA faculties
of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is the artistic director
of Story Studio Chicago. Of anyone who knows her in
Chicago, she is lauded there for her generosity as a mentor,
a teacher and a literary friend as much as she is
for her amazing work. But lately the accolades
for her work continue to mount higher and higher. In “The Borrower,” Rebecca’s
first novel, she told the story of a young librarian and an
outcast young patron struggling to make peace with her family
on a cross-country road trip that was only partly
a kidnapping. About the novel, the
author Richard Russo said, “Rarely is a first novel as
smart and engaging and learned and funny and moving
as The Borrower.” In her second novel,
“The Hundred Year House,” she disguised a generational
saga as a literary scavenger hunt through the history
of a haunting. In praising Rebecca for this
book, the New York Times said, “Makkai guides her
twisty maximalist story with impressive command and
a natural ear for satire.” And in “The Great Believers,”
she contemplates the ripples of a grief affecting generations
of survivors of the AIDS crisis and in this powerful work,
has been highly praised by the readers and
critics alike. And its accolades
include being a finalist for the Pulitzer
Prize and a finalist for the National Book
Award, being listed as one of the top 10 books of
2018 by the New York Times, winning the L.A. Times Book
Prize, the Stonewall Book Award and winning the American Library
Association’s Carnegie Medal. Interviewing Rebecca
today, we have Emily Eakin, who is an editor at the New
York Times Sunday Book Review. And so, please help me in welcoming Rebecca
Makkai and Emily Eakin. [ Applause ]>>Emily Eakin: All
right, Rebecca. I think we should dive right in. I want to start by
asking the audience here, how many of you have read
this extraordinary novel, “The Great Believers?”>>Rebecca Makkai: It’s not
in this class like don’t worry if you haven’t, okay [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: That’s
fantastic and you know that this novel is extraordinary
not just for its ambition. It braids together three
narrative strands set in different places
and different times. And it includes a complex cast of characters all
fully realized. It’s intricately
plotted and unfolds in lovely crystalline prose. It’s a novel full of
incident and emotion. There’s a lot of
sickness and death in this novel both
on and off the page. But there’s also a lot of love. A lot of love and wit and humor. So there’s a lot going
on in this novel. And I want to start
by asking Rebecca about the genesis of this book.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah, you
know, it’s funny because I think that as a reader, you would
rarely, rarely be able to tell with any book where it started. And I remember, in high school,
reading “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner and learning
partly through our reading that it started with the scene. Everyone knows the book,
it’s the scene of Caddy, the sister up in the tree. And I was like, “But that’s
in the middle of the book. How can you start in
the middle of the book? It doesn’t make any sense.” And now, it makes total sense. So for me, there is what is
now a subplot in the novel, this woman who was an
artist’s model in 1920s Paris. And she started as the
main thread of the book. I was going to write this
novel about this woman who had been an artist’s model. Just mathematically,
that put her at the 1980s in the end of her life. And I wanted her looking back. My original plan was going to be that this woman was
watching the news and they had found this
painting and it’s on the news and its questionable
authenticity. Was this really by this
great artist or not? She knows that it was because
that’s a painting of her and so she needs to contact
people in the art world and convince them of this. And I was getting ready to go
to a writing residency to work on this and my husband asked
what I was going to be writing and I told him about it. And he very gently goes,
“Honey, you know that’s the plot of the movie Titanic?” [ Laughter ]>>Emily Eakin: People
looked at [inaudible].>>Rebecca Makkai: You know
and she’s like, “That’s me. And I shall tell the tale.” [ Laughter ] So okay, so meanwhile, I had
realized that I had this novel. It was going to be
set in the ’80s. It was art world [inaudible]
and I had recognized it as an opportunity to
write about AIDS epidemic which is something I’ve written
a little bit about before in short fiction, something
I’ve, it’s been kind of a lifelong interest is the
wrong word if you’re talking about AIDS because how
can you be interested in something so terrible?>>Emily Eakin: Where
did that come from? You’re young. You live in Chicago.>>Rebecca Makkai: I do.>>Emily Eakin: But you didn’t,
you were too young to be alive.>>Rebecca Makkai: I was alive,
yeah [laughter] in the ’80s. You know, if you ever want to
talk again and again in public about how “young you are,” just write something
slightly too early for you to remember it. You’d be 80 and writing about
something that when you were 70 and people will still
want to know. No, I think that we have
native decades in the same way that we have native countries. And you know, I think I’m
not comparing myself to him but I think about Matthew Weiner
making “Mad Men,” for instance. He grew up in the ’60s. He was a product of the ’60s. He was not working on
Madison Avenue in the ’60s. And I think that for
me the ’80s, I think, when I talk to people right
around my age and I was born in ’78, I think that for
some people in my generation, there was, they were
oblivious depending maybe where they lived, where
they went to school. For many of us, it was,
we as kids recognized it for what it was which
was one of, if not the most important
thing going on in the world, one of the top couple. Where I think adults had a sense
more of crisis coming and going. Adults had learned a
sense of dismissal. Adults had lives going on.>>Emily Eakin: So gradually, AIDS becomes a more
dominant theme in the novel that
you’re writing.>>Rebecca Makkai: It did, yeah. It was partly, you know,
shifting away from the Titanic. There was that. And obviously, I’m
kind of joking. It was, you know, it wasn’t
the only thing that happened. But it did really happen. But a lot of it was when
I started researching. And I knew that I was
going to have, you know, the way I originally envisioned
it was that my art world guy, the character who became
Yale Tishman in the book, the AIDS thing was
maybe what was going on in the background
of his life. A couple of different
things happened. One was I realized how
often AIDS is relegated to the background. How often it’s a subplot. How often someone dies
symbolically offstage to make someone on stage realize
that their life is short. And I did not want to do that. If I was going to
write about this, I wanted to actually
write about it. And then, my research was just
heard one on AIDS in Chicago. There was next to nothing
in writing about AIDS in America’s third largest city
which I find really alarming. And it was really compelling. A lot of that research
ended up needing to be interviews,
either archival.>>Emily Eakin: How
did you about that? How did you find the people
who could really fill that gap? Because I think we
can all agree, one of the brilliant
accomplishments of this novel is to give the texture of the lived
experience of someone living with the fear of the virus,
living with the virus, surviving in the aftermath of
extensive death of friends?>>Rebecca Makkai:
Thank you, yeah. You know, I realized it was
partly necessity that got me off from behind my desk sooner than I otherwise
would have gotten up. Just there wasn’t anything. I was expecting that I could
go to a big downtown library and at least get a few big
boring nonfiction books. Someone’s doctoral
dissertation, there’s nothing. There is a graphic memoir
meaning like a memoir in comics written by a nurse. It just was published so
she’s the one I talked to for the book. It just came out.>>Emily Eakin: But she
was inspired by you?>>Rebecca Makkai: No,
she was working with that. We were working on it at the
same time but she’s [inaudible].>>Emily Eakin: So how
did you find these people?>>Rebecca Makkai: So right.>>Emily Eakin: But there
wasn’t anything fancy.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah,
basically I sent out, honestly, I first put a call on Facebook. Just saying, you know, friends
who lived in or near Boy’s Town which is what it
sounds like in Chicago. Friends who were out
in Chicago in the ’80s. People who know those people who
were willing to connect to me. And the first connections
I got were often friends of friends who, there was
often a degree removed. Someone who had moved
to the city in ’92 but then worked for Act-Up. But I’m still going to sit
down and talk with that person. I got a lot of great
information and at the end of that conversation, I’m saying who are the next three
people I should talk to? And then, certainly not
everyone wanted to talk for you know, many reasons. But then the person I had
previously interviewed was making those connections,
not only recommending people but emailing them
and connecting me. I was coming vouched
for, you know. And people were incredibly
generous. I ended up talking to
doctors, nurses, lawyers.>>Emily Eakin: What were
those conversations like? I imagine there’s a lot
of emotion, catharsis, I mean these stories
haven’t been told.>>Rebecca Makkai: Right. You know, it was interesting
because I think in many cases, I, in some cases, I
was talking to people who really hadn’t talked
much about that time. Just survivors, you know. And they were incredibly open. You know, I’m sitting
down with them. They often invited me into their
own home because we don’t want to talk about this in Starbucks. And within minutes of
meeting me or talking to me about their sex lives, about
the most traumatic period of their life with
huge openness. In other cases, I
was talking to people who had talked a
great deal about it. You know, people who had been
very prominent in Act-Up.>>Emily Eakin: Yes.>>Rebecca Makkai: The doctors
who founded our big AIDS unit that I write about in
the book in Chicago. But I was asking
such weird questions. Because I was asking things
like where was the fish tank? You know, what color
was the carpet? I could hear them sort of go
from their canned responses to much, you know, to more
like “Oh, I haven’t thought about this in 20 years
but,” kinds of answers. And you know, in some
of those situations, I wound up in almost
a therapist role.>>Emily Eakin: It’s
interesting that you say that because this is really,
this is a novel about trauma.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: And all
three sections of the novel, I think of the sections as
the different time periods that are braided
together so we have Nora, who’s remembering
being an artist muse in Paris during World, well
before and after World War I. So she survives that trauma
and many of the artists for whom she modeled,
with whom she spent time and had romantic
relationships, are dead, either during in
the war or after. And then we have the
AIDS crisis in the ’80s. And then the final section
of the novel is set in 2015.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: And includes
a character who is connected to the other sections, Fiona, who lives with her trauma having
survived the ’80s AIDS crisis. Her brother has died
of the disease and who’s estranged
from her daughter. And you get the sense that,
that estrangement is rooted in the trauma that
she’s lived through. And while she’s in Paris
looking for the daughter, the Bataclan nightclub
massacre takes place.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: So these traumas
constantly mark the novel and you really get a
sense this is a novel about people afflicted
by history.>>Rebecca Makkai: You know
what’s funny is I started the novel really setting
it only in the ’80s. And the 1920 sections, we
never, we don’t go there. It’s just talked about. And I started, you know, it was really just set
in 1985 through 1992. And I realized for several
reasons that I needed to bring the story into what
was then the present day. 2015 feels like ancient
history now but it was then the present day. I also realized I needed more
voices in the novel partly because of my own concerns
about appropriation which is something we might talk
about at some point up here. But, and partly because I
really, in my interviews with these people, I was
becoming so fascinated by that 30-year gap that
you know, the long arm of grief, the passage of time. What happens to survivor’s
guilt over the long haul? What happens when, you know,
you were so close to someone in your 20s but if
they’ve lived, you probably would have moved
on and you’ve had much longer and much more meaningful
relationships since then? But you’re responsible
for this person’s legacy because you were the closest
to them when they died? And those are the kinds of
conversations I was having. And so I really needed to
bring it into the present day. So I was writing the fall
of 2015 in the fall of 2015. And I was staying at again, at
a different artist’s residency. And I was really catching up on
Fiona’s sections which I was, you know, getting them
braided into Yale’s. And I felt like I was
in Paris and I was going into my Google Maps, my
Google Street View every day and walking a little
blue guy around.>>Emily Eakin: So you’d
already planted her in Paris.>>Rebecca Makkai: I had.>>Emily Eakin: Before
this event takes place?>>Rebecca Makkai:
No, this is it. It was, it was November
of 2015 and I was writing and the way I was keeping up
with myself was like I’m going to write one of her days
for one of every my day. It is today in Paris. And then the terror
attacks happened. So it stopped me for a while. I felt, you know, I was
living so deeply in it that if I didn’t imagine
[inaudible] as if I were there, I felt as if I’ve been staying
in some other part of Paris and this happened, you
know, three miles away because that’s where
I was mentally. I was really shaken
and just didn’t feel like I could work
on it for a while. And then I had this
question of do I move this? Do I move the chronology? Do I have this be 2014? For a while, I was
going to make it 2016 and then 2016 turned
out to be [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: Another,
another novel.>>Rebecca Makkai:
Right, totally. But I’m not letting
that into my novel. [ Laughter ] So I decided ultimately
to keep it. I decided this is ultimately
a novel about the brutal and random invasions of the
world into the lives of people who are having enough trouble
just functioning, you know, being a human is hard. And then trauma, bloodshed,
disease, all these big, you know, these things just come
in, and you know, what do they, how do they change our stories?>>Emily Eakin: Fascinating. I want to talk a little
bit about appropriation because that is something
you mentioned in the acknowledgements,
your anxiety as writing about the Chicago AIDS crisis
through the perspective of young gay men,
something you are not. It becomes more and more
common into the novel. How did you deal
with that anxiety?>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah,
I think it was a really important anxiety. I think, you know, I’ll hear
especially writers, you know, are very concerned about
this kind of thing, you know, all the time. And the readers are too. And when I talk about it, I’ll
sometimes get from writers like, “Oh, so you didn’t need to
worry,” because and it’s like, “No, I did need to worry. That’s the point.” The fact that I worried is
what means this is not a novel that has, you know,
that was not a novel that was greeted with outrage. I mean, if someone’s outraged,
it’s quiet, you know, it’s, you know — we’re almost,
we’re a year-and-a-half end and things, you know, things.>>Rebecca Makkai: No
one has said to you, “That’s not your story. How can you be [inaudible]?”>>Rebecca Makkai: Not really. There was like one guy on
Twitter, you know [laughter]. There’s always one
guy on Twitter. But no, in terms of you
know, actual, you know, critical reception, reader
reception, it hasn’t been there. I’m sure that there are
readers whose response is, “That’s not for me. I would rather read a
first person account.” In which case, please do. Please don’t just say that. Please actually do it. Because there are, you know,
there are some brilliant, you know, own voices
kind of fiction. There’s brilliant memoir. It’s out there. I think what a novel can do
though and especially a novel from someone with some
distance from events is to see a little bit
of a broader scenario. You know, I think that if
you look at, for instance, what happened with
literature about the Holocaust in World War II and the
years immediately after, you had memoir and you had you
know, very intimate narratives. And it was only about
30 years later that you had people
starting to write novels that encompass a broader scope. And very often, those novels
are from people to some extent, on the periphery of
what had happened.>>Emily Eakin: Right.>>Rebecca Makkai:
They weren’t people who had lived through that.>>Emily Eakin: Right. Yeah, what you suggest so well,
this is really a social trauma as well as an individual.>>Rebecca Makkai: Right.>>Emily Eakin: Personal crisis.>>Rebecca Makkai: Right.>>Emily Eakin: All
of these events.>>Rebecca Makkai: Right, so you
know what, that’s not, you know, part of the reason I did
introduce Fiona’s voice is I worried that only using
Yale’s third person voice felt like an attempt at
ventriloquism in some way. I worried that and I
felt like making it more of a polyphonic novel was
going to help that scope and that breadth and it
wasn’t attempting to feel like this first person
account in some way. This is a novel. It’s about a million
different things. It’s also about cults and
the art world and you know.>>Emily Eakin: Let’s talk
about art for a few minutes. Because Yale, Yale’s job, he works in a university art
gallery and he lands a windfall. He threw his connection to
Fiona, ends up acquiring for the university
this collection of work that Nora possesses. Nora, the older woman, from
her stint in Paris and art. So art, what did, I wanted
to ask you about the function of art in the novel because it
also comes up in the photographs that another character,
Richard Campo, takes and we attend his
career retrospective at the Pompidou Center where he
has photographs documenting many of these young men
who died of AIDS from this earlier
period in his life.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: So how
do you understand that?>>Rebecca Makkai: You know,
all I can tell you, I know that, you know, I’m not
a visual artist. And the visual arts have
played really prominently in my last three books. Not in my first one
but in my second novel and in my story collection,
I have all these pieces about photographers and artists
and I don’t really know why. I would say though that I
think in this particular case, photographs were a lot of
my way into certain aspects of this world as a researcher.>>Emily Eakin: You
had a photograph on as wallpaper on
your computer.>>Rebecca Makkai: I did, yeah.>>Emily Eakin: Was it a
source of inspiration on it? Tell us about what that meant?>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah, I know that there’s this
beautiful photo that, it’s these four men, fag men
at an outdoor candlelight vigil in Chicago at some point, I
think in the very early ’90s. It’s this beautiful
black and white photo. And I found it before I
really knew who they were. And I just, I loved
this photo and I put it as the wallpaper on my computer. And later learned the
one guy in the edge who was just really haunting
to me, turns out to be someone who I think, I swear he was
haunting me as I wrote the book, everywhere I went, people wanted
to talk about this one person.>>Emily Eakin: Interesting.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: So
he was well known.>>Rebecca Makkai: He was
but there was something going on beyond that, that was
really creepy and awesome and wonderful and helpful. And there was another man in
that photo who was a survivor and he ultimately sat
down and talked to me. But there were many different,
there were many photos that I saw, you know, just in
my earliest days going online, you know, 1980s Chicago
AIDS, what am I finding? And what I could find, you know,
this is an era, for one thing, you know, this is not a time
when everyone had a camera on their bodies at
all moments, right? It’s also, you know,
you don’t take a camera into a gay bar in the 1980s.>>Emily Eakin: Right.>>Rebecca Makkai: And so
photographs were kind of, you know, they were gold to me. They were really
hard one things. And often just so evocative. And there was a series of photos
I found early in my research of men on the Belmont
Rocks, just this sort of, I reference it in the
book a little bit. It’s just basically
was these big rocks on the Lake Michigan shore
that were below street level. So that you could be outdoors
but no one could really see you from up on ground level. And so, it was this
outdoor sunbathing, cruising hangout spot. And to have an outdoor
space to be gay in the ’80s was revolutionary.>>Emily Eakin: Yes, now, I
know we have to open the floor to questions but I wanted just
to add to what you’re saying. You know, it seems that
art is about the record of these terrible events
that happened, these traumas. But also functioning in the book
in a sort of more hopeful way.>>Rebecca Makkai: Right.>>Emily Eakin: Yeah, this
retrospective at the end that Richard holds at
the Pompidou Center, Fiona who has been
estranged from her daughter. Her daughter actually
comes to the retrospective and there are photographs
of the dead brother.>>Rebecca Makkai:
The daughter’s uncle.>>Emily Eakin: And
you get this sense that art also has this
more hopeful function. And I want to say that the book
for all of the kinds of trauma and terrible things
and death that happened in it, is a hopeful book.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: And perhaps
we could end our conversation with just a comment about the
title, “The Great Believers” which is in your epigraph.>>Rebecca Makkai: It is.>>Emily Eakin: From Fitzgerald.>>Rebecca Makkai: I find
this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote talking about his generation
which is [inaudible] some of the people we think of
as the Lost Generation. And he’s talking about this
time, you know, before the war, this time that they
were full of hope. And you know, it’s after the war that the American expat writers
we think of went to Paris, that they’re getting their,
you know, this trauma.>>Emily Eakin: Paris
mystique, yeah.>>Rebecca Makkai: Wait then
this trauma has rolled through and just decimated
this generation largely of its young able-bodied men. And it’s in the aftermath of
that, that Gertrude Stein says to Hemingway, “You’re
all a lost generation.” But I loved this phrase, the
great believers that I came across and I felt like,
okay, that’s my title. It has to be my title. How do I justify that
egregiously hopeful a title? And it became a sort of
North Star as I wrote, this idea of you
know, this question, what do people believe in,
for better or for worse, what hopes do they hold on to? And just wrapping it all
back up with those photos, what I was going to say, some of
these photos that I was finding, there were photos of such joy. This one photographer
I found these photos of the Belmont Rocks, there
were photos of utter happiness. And those were one of the
things that brought me in and I modeled Richard, that
character, in some ways on this photographer,
just his work. This frame of someone who had
captured this wonderful sort of Camelot of a moment
in the, just in the kind of earliest glimmer of
something going wrong. And I wanted that as well as
the disaster and I wanted the, I wanted people to be able, you
know, as survivors to survive.>>Emily Eakin: And there’s
something in the fact that we’ve gone through
this together as a society that you suggest even
in grief, there’s a kind of bonding that’s
emotionally positive.>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: People at
the end of the book seem to be coming together. There’s the prospect
of this reunion.>>Rebecca Makkai:
Right, there’s, you know, if where there’s
hope in the book, it is in human interaction. And when there is despair, it is
in the failures of those bonds.>>Emily Eakin: Exactly.>>Rebecca Makkai: Whether from
you know, one human to another or from a government to the
people it ought to protect.>>Emily Eakin: And with that, let’s turn on the
floor with questions?>>Rebecca Makkai: We
have one right there.>>Emily Eakin: Yeah.>>You talk a lot about born
families and chosen families. Can you [inaudible] a little
bit of how you got there or it’s just this [inaudible]
that I love to just [inaudible].>>Rebecca Makkai: Yeah,
we’ll repeat this question and then the other people are
making to use the microphones. Everyone’s doing everything
right, that’s great. Yeah, the question was
about chosen family versus, you know, family of origin. And that was definitely
a theme for me. I started realizing and I
think that if you’re writing about queer communities,
you are going to be writing in some way about chosen family. And you know, I was writing
about particularly, you know, the idea of city, you
know, these are people who have often left other
towns to come to Chicago. And we’re also talking about a
time when there are, you know, families of origin in the
book that bands together and you know, not everyone
excommunicates their kid. There are some, you
know, I have a couple of really good moms in there. But I also have some terrible
moms [laughter] in there. But it became thematic for me
and that’s where, you know, Fiona’s story in
2015, her daughter, they’ve had a very
troubled relationship and her daughter has
joined a cult essentially. And so, I didn’t want
that to be, you know, art, chosen families is great. I wanted, you know,
I think the thematics of my books are more
vague questions like chosen family,
question mark? And I want to muddy the issue. I’m not the one to say what
that all adds up to but I can, you know, I’m the one to put
it all in there and stir it around and see what happens. I want to start over here. There’s a question there.>>Hello. You know, when people
let you into their space, into their trauma,
it’s a sacred space. And so I’m curious as to how you
were able to develop the level of empathy and trust in
such a short period of time and have you been able
to maintain it now that you have interpreted
their trauma through your book?>>Rebecca Makkai: Thank you. That’s a wonderful question. You know, I think there
is, it helped going into these conversations that I had already
done a lot of legwork. I wasn’t going in going, “So
AIDS, what was that like?” It was, you know, I had
read every back issue of every Gay Weekly in Chicago
that I could get my hands on from the ’80s to the ’90s. I had, you know, I
had read the books. I had done all that work. So coming in, I was able to
say more things like, “Okay, so you were working in
medicine in 1985 when the test for what we now know as HIV
was first introduced to you and I know that the Howard Brown
Health Clinic, blah, blah, blah. And so, that helped
a great deal. I think also though, you
know, I think people can tell when your empathy is genuine. I think people can,
you know, people have, we have a tremendous instinct
of sense of who we can trust that we have to listen
to, I think, all of us more than we do. It helped that I was coming
vouched for in many situations. But I was, you know, I always
assured people as I sat down with them, I have my
characters, I have my story. I’m not here to take
anything from you. But I want to do right by this. I want to honor if they
have history, if I’m writing about a bar, I want to get the
stickiness of the floor right. You know, I don’t want to have
those moments where someone who was there would feel that
it was wrong in some way. And people have this, you
know, I think we’re talking about people who in many cases,
the people I was interviewing, have been telling
their own stories. They do feel like they
have a voice but they know that they’re speaking
about a time in which so few people had a voice. They know that they’re
helping me learn about people whose
voices are no longer here. And so they had this great
sense of responsibility too in making sure I got it right. I knew they were terrified
that I was going to mess it up. And they would never, I never
would have put them on the spot. It was [inaudible]
after that came out. So many of them saying,
“Oh my God. Thank God, I was so worried. I was like, I know you. Look, I didn’t tell you
but I was so worried. I know you were worried.” Of course, you were worried. I was, I had to be worried. But there’s that. There’s also, I’m just
one of those people that people tell secrets
to which is fun, you know. So yeah.>>Emily Eakin: All
right, maybe over here? Is there someone over here?>>Hi, so when I was reading
“The Great Believers,” one thing that, it was probably
a small thing but really stuck out to me was how like indescribably
satisfying every first name, last name combination
[laughter]? So was there a strategy
behind that? And if so, like how
did you do it?>>Rebecca Makkai: Thank you. I love talking about names. I first asked my mother for a
baby name book when I was 16. And fortunately, she
did not freak out and she just got
me one [laughter]. Like she was asking me, “What
do you want for Christmas?” And I was like, “Baby
name books.” So I would have had more
children just to name them, if I weren’t a writer, I think. I love naming people. Really for me, the names, our
characters don’t come together until I have their names. One of the things that’s
kind of I’ve been holding, kind of holding me back on my new novel is I
can’t find the right names for my two main characters. For a lot of the names in
this book, I was just sitting in a hotel room one night
on tour for a previous book and I just started jotting
down a lot of names. Yale was one of those names. So I was like, is
this even a name? I don’t know. We’ll figure it out later. And you know, many of them
then grew from those names. I do, you know, the small sliver of my brain that’s very
hoodoo voodoo, you know, into that stuff, believes that
there’s a lot of power in names. Most of me just thinks
they’re fun. But there are other characters
who didn’t really click until I found the name and
Terrence was a character. I changed his name
probably 15 times. Nothing worked and I was, I
was in a grocery store one day and the cashier had
a name tag that said, “Terrence” and I was like, “Oh! That’s it.” But I do work hard on those. It’s something, I think
it’s important also in a novel that’s this populated
which this novel needed to be, that I give you names
that you can remember. I’m not doing anyone any favors
if I have a Dave and a Dan and a Doug, you know [laughter]. So yeah.>>Wonderful.>>Hi, I’m interested in your
thought process as you wrote such an expansive book , were
there are things you decided to omit that maybe at one
point, you wanted to include? And then also, given your
relationship to MFA programs, I’m interested in
your perspective on the quintessential
MFA question?>>Rebecca Makkai:
Yeah, oh my gosh, okay. The MFA, if you come sign, if you come get a book signed
then I can definitely talk to you at length
about the MFA thing. But so the length of the book
was the other thing that I was in this constant
four-year flop sweat over along with appropriation. I felt like, you know,
there is a lot of pressure to get your book under a
hundred thousand words. It’s not that no one
reads long books. You get into this
stupid marketing stuff of the book has to
be more expensive. Bookstores are going to
order fewer in hard cover. Your sales numbers
won’t be as good. It won’t get reviewed
as fast because people. So I was worried
about that and I think that I got a little
bit defiant about it, that I think women are
told more often than men to shorten their work.>>Emily Eakin: Interesting.>>Rebecca Makkai: I think men,
when they read a big long book, it’s more greeted as this
important tome, you know.>>Emily Eakin: Weighing
in [inaudible].>>Rebecca Makkai:
It must be important because it’s big [laughter]. And it’s, you know, and you know
what’s going on there, right? I think this literary
men spreading that kind of happens [laughter]. And I got really
defiant about it. And of course, there’s some,
you know, big [inaudible]. There’s some, you know,
wonderful long books by women but I think that’s
only more recently and I think there
aren’t as many of them. And I, you know, felt that
this is by nature, a saga. This is by nature, a
fully populated novel. I need a big book. That said, there was so much
more that I could have put in. I could have made
it a 2000-page, you know, booster seat. And [laughter] there were,
you know, there were stories that you know, if I were really
trying to represent the scope of AIDS, I would, I had failed. If I were, you know, I don’t
get into the trans community. I don’t really get into
communities of color. I don’t, you know, I don’t
cover the ’90s very well. I don’t cover other cities. Milwaukee, only a
couple of hours away, has its own completely
different, completely tragic AIDS story. You know, there’s so much
that I don’t get into. And I just, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to write the
kind of book that was first and foremost there
to educate you. I needed to write a book that
was first and foremost a novel with blinders on to you know,
this is only this one world. Hoping that after, you know,
people are new to this world, that after they read
this book, they’ll go on and they’ll read more. And to my delight, many of them
have which is, which is great. Yes, over there?>>Hi, so I run a
book club for my group of 23-year-old women friends. We’ve read your book
and we loved it. And my question is one
thing that came up a lot in our conversations was
how we, as young people now and who didn’t live during this
time, didn’t live in Chicago, how we interpreted the book and understanding what
queer culture is today in our society now and how that really contrasts what
you wrote in your book. And my parents lived in
Chicago during that time, like the audience that
you’re able to connect to across the [inaudible]
is really astounding. So my question is what is the
biggest takeaway that you would like young people who
didn’t live there, who didn’t understand that
time, to take away from?>>Rebecca Makkai: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. And I’ve been so, I’ve been
so amazed by younger people, you know, taking, first of all,
I was amazed that oh my gosh, you guys, some of you
don’t know this stuff. Oh my God. Even people just
slightly younger than me. But then, then you know, coming
to this with great understanding and great empathy and openness,
what I would say, you know, I’m asked constantly about
parallels to the modern day. And my first answer to that is
always, “Forget the parallels.” We still have 1.1
million Americans living with HIV in this country. We have 35 million people
globally living with HIV. Most of them in Africa which is
why we aren’t hearing about it because of you know,
if that were Europe, it would be on the
news every night. Forty-five million
people have died globally since this epidemic began. What, so you know,
forget the parallels. But to bring the parallels
back into it, we are constantly and in your life and in my
life, there are going to again and again and again, be
opportunities for greedy people in power to cling to that power by disenfranchising the
already disenfranchised. And the health crises are
always going to strike first in communities where people
already don’t have access to good medical care,
don’t have health insurance and don’t have education. This is going to
continue to happen. You know, you don’t, I’m looking
at health crises, of course, you can look at education. You can look at opioids. You can look at anything and
see the same exact damn patterns again and again and again. But something, you know, epidemics are going
to hit again. This is not it. Things that spread even
faster than poverty, even faster than opioids. And we know what communities
they’re going to hit because they’re already
hitting them. DC is one of the cities
with the highest populations of people living with HIV. You know, I’d involve,
I would, you know, I think that I would
question and you know, just the challenge I’d drop
there is when, you know, people who read my book and
say they felt such empathy for these young beautiful
men and it’s like, “Great. What are you doing for the
people in your community now who are afflicted with this?” It’s one thing to have
hindsight empathy and go, “Wow, those gay boys sure were
beautiful and now, they’re gone. And I would have done
something if I had been there.” And it’s another to look around
you and look at you know, the largely black
and brown populations in largely southern
cities like DC and Atlanta, poverty-afflicted and you
know, what are we doing on the voting level,
on the advocacy level, on the activism level? So but that said,
I think, you know, learning about it is the
first step for everyone. It was the first step for me. And I’m really lucky
to be, you know, the people that I had spoke to
in my research have continued to involve me in their
activism in Chicago and beyond which is one of the most
thrilling things that’s happened for me with the book.>>Emily Eakin: Unfortunately,
I think we are out of time. But again, I wanted while you
are all here to ask Rebecca, you will be signing
your book today?>>Rebecca Makkai: I
will be signing books.>>Emily Eakin: Let’s
tell people where they can continue
this conversation with you? When are you signing?>>Rebecca Makkai: I’m,
yikes, I’m signing at 11:30.>>Emily Eakin: Okay.>>Rebecca Makkai:
In the signing place. [ Laughter ]>>Emily Eakin: Okay, so
please look for it today.>>Rebecca Makkai: What?>>Three.>>Rebecca Makkai: Three.>>Twenty one?>>Rebecca Makkai:
Twenty-three, twenty-three. Signing place 23. Okay. [ Laughter ]>>Emily Eakin: Well, Rebecca. Thank you so much.>>Rebecca Makkai: Thank you.>>Emily Eakin: For
talking to us today. [ Applause ]

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