Author Q&A: Rebecca Makkai

Elena Bowes, aptly, has some questions for Rebecca Makkai, about her latest novel I Have Some Questions for You.

I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel is about a podcaster named Bodie Kane who returns to her New Hampshire boarding school decades after a classmate, her roommate, was murdered to look at the crime again. Who really killed Thalia Keith, a beautiful, popular girl who was killed senior year? She had a boyfriend, and was having a secret romantic relationship with her married music teacher. Neither was considered a suspect at the time. Instead, a young Black man who worked as the head athletic trainer was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison. 

Makkai’s novel is a sharp, twisty page-turner that deals with uncomfortable themes such as murder, racism, sexual abuse, the fallibility of memory, adolescent cruelty, privilege and grief. 

Here are my questions: 

You live on the campus of the prep school you once attended because your husband is a teacher there. While I understand your book is not autobiographical, did you draw on your feelings of being back at a school as an adult during such formative years, the weirdness of going back in time as an adult where things haven’t changed much on the surface, but have changed tremendously when you look under the hood?

You know what’s strange, is that I’m in the unusual situation of not having distance from my high school. We came back here when I was 23, and while it was odd for a month or so (back in 2001), I haven’t had that jolt of returning after a long absence and seeing all the ways the campus and people and ethos have changed. In contrast, I’ve had that with my college—an experience I probably tapped more into in order to capture the sense of strangeness Bodie feels when she returns. (I always feel compelled to add, in these conversations, that my husband did not teach at the school when I was a student. I dragged him back to the Chicago area after we married, and this is where he got the job.)

You write compellingly about the 1990s and how bullying and sexual abuse were almost a nonissue as opposed to now. How did you do your research on that or was it just from personal memory?

Oh, it was definitely personal memory. I did bring out my old high school yearbooks, but they were helpful mostly on fashion and pop culture. And at one point I asked a bunch of friends around my age about the most scandalous thing that had happened at their high school. (I’ve heard, by the way, that this is a great book club question for groups discussing my book.) 

Let’s talk about your title. I Have Some Questions for You Can you tell us about who the you is.

Once you’re a little way into the book you understand that there’s a very specific “you”: a problematic music teacher named Mr. Bloch to whom Bodie was once close. But of course, no one knows that when they pick up the book, and so I do mean to address that “you” to the reader, as well, and to promise that I’ll be interrogating you a bit. This is the job of fiction, of course—not to answer questions, but to ask things of the reader. 

What was the most challenging element to crafting this labyrinthian, multilayered narrative with a crime story at its centre? 

I’m not great with logistics, so keeping track of the layout of the campus, the timeline of the night in question, the location of various people—that’s not my strong suit. I knew from mystery writer friends that it helps a great deal to head into the story already knowing how the crime occurred, and so I did lay that all out for myself very early. And since I knew I’d have a hard time with the logistics, I kept careful notes on the timeline, and I drew campus maps. The only problem: I kept losing the maps. 

Let’s discuss setting, specifically the woods at your fictional boarding school Granby. The woods are everywhere – a place for the main character Bodie to walk and contemplate, a place to party, a possible murder scene, a place to scatter ashes. What do the woods symbolise? And I read that you think setting is often overlooked as a literary vehicle. Can you explain the power of setting? 

I love thinking about setting, and talking about it. The soap box I’ve been on recently is about how little we consider setting on its own merits. When it’s done well, we just say “Wow, the setting was almost a character!” (which makes no sense) and then move on. As a writer, I have an unlimited budget for setting (it’s all free!) and I’d be silly to disregard that. I love settings with deep ambience, I love settings that trap characters together, and I love settings that destabilise people. The campus really does that for Bodie when she returns in 2018. She was quite adrift as a student, she’s very accomplished and stable as an adult, and when she steps back into this campus in the woods, she’s pulled between those two poles. 

I was invested in finding out what happened throughout your 435-page book. What advice would you give a wannabe crime writer in keeping the reader invested?

Honestly, this process didn’t feel any different for me from keeping a reader invested in a story that isn’t about a crime. You always need to think about the rate at which you’re revealing information to the reader, the balls you have up in the air, the unanswered questions, the way you control a reader’s attention. With any kind of fiction, I’d suggest that the writer ask, throughout, Why wouldn’t a reader put the book down right now? What are the unanswered questions that will keep them turning pages? What’s at stake? 

There are a myriad of characters in your novel. Which came easiest to you? 

It’s funny how secondary characters are often easiest. Maybe it’s because there’s less pressure on them, or maybe it’s because authors plan them out less, which gives them more room to come to life. Beth Docherty, Geoff Richler, Dorian Culler—characters that I didn’t have much intended for at the outset—were the ones who really just announced themselves to me and started doing things I hadn’t planned.  

I was most intrigued by Mr. Bloch, the music teacher. Without giving too much away, did you always plan to make him so mysterious? 

I decided early on that although Bodie would remember a great deal about Mr. Bloch, he would never show up in the present day. Often, an absence is more compelling or more ominous than a presence; think about the times in Jaws when the shark isn’t there, when we’re just waiting for him. Also, it’s something that’s true to life: So often, the person we want to question or accuse or explain ourselves to just isn’t there for us to do it. We’re always talking to them in our heads precisely because we can’t do that in real life. 

This is not the Perry Mason version of criminal law. I read that you relied heavily on a public defender in New Hampshire to get your facts straight. Had you planned on writing a different ending prior to your research? 

Yes, there were a lot of different things that I’d hoped to do before I realised the realities of the law. Fortunately, I didn’t get too far into plotting before I started researching; I knew that if I made it all up, I’d end up having to tear it all apart later.

You were a Pulitzer Prize finalist for your last novel The Great Believers. Did you feel creative pressure that your next book had to match or better the last one? 

Counterintuitively, I felt really liberated by that novel’s success. In specific: as a woman, you’re always worried about not being taken seriously as an author. And here I was, heading into a book that’s genre-adjacent, that takes on adolescence, that’s from a woman’s point of view—all things that might lead a reader or critic to take a book less seriously, even if only on the subconscious level. And knowing that my previous book was well-regarded helped me to worry less about being dismissed out of hand. It gave me hope that people would look beneath the surface of this new novel. 

Tell us something surprising about yourself?

I taught Montessori elementary school for 12 years, up until right after my first book came out. It’s not the typical path for a writer, but it was a wonderful time in my life, and I learned so much about the world (Animals! Roman history! Bog mummies! Origami!) from children who were passionately following their own interests. That experience also taught me a lot about how to engage people, how to earn and keep people’s attention, how to tell a story. 

Thank you so much for agreeing to this Q&A.

– Elena Bowes 

Image © Brett Simison

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