Rebecca Makkai is a fiction writer and her first novel The Borrower was released in June of this year. Her short stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and have also appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and Shenandoah. She earned a master’s degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Makkai graduated from Washington and Lee with a BA in English. During her time at W&L, she served as a student assistant at Shenandoah. Through this interview conducted via email, Makkai shares her thoughts on her time at W&L, her writing discipline and practice, and the particulars of working in the publishing world. Providing insightful commentary on her career as a writer whose work is “pure invention,” Makkai teases out her imaginative process.
Tracy Richardson: What was work-study like at Shenandoah? How was working under the direction and guidance of both R.T. Smith and Lynn Leech?
Rebecca Makkai: In my sophomore year of college the stars magically aligned, and I got to spend the next three years working in literary heaven at the Shenandoah office. I opened mail, logged submissions, stuffed envelopes with rejection slips, alphabetized the enormous stash of literary magazines in the basement, and retyped the accepted stories that came in without a floppy disk (ah, the dark ages), and while those might sound like mundane tasks, to me they were anything but.
I’m glad that I understood at the time what an education it was, and I absorbed every detail I could. I’ve realized since then how mystified most writers are about what goes on at literary journals, and yet it’s a world that’s essential for poets and short story writers to feel comfortable in. Especially in the early days of sending stories out, I was so grateful for all that time spent sending out hundreds of rejections at a time; I knew better than to take things personally, and I knew the patience I’d need.
TR: As an undergraduate, you published some pieces in the student magazine Ariel (now called Muse). What is your perspective on these pieces looking back now as a writer?
RM: I can’t even remember what those were, but I fear I might have inflicted my poetry on people. I remember that the stories I wrote in college were much more concerned with voice than with plot, and for some reason I often wrote from a very limited point of view, narrating as a child or an idiot or a confused outsider. A few years after college, someone gave me the very liberating advice that it was okay to have a narrator as smart as – or smarter than – I am. I’m unclear on why that hadn’t occurred to me before, but I suspect it had something to do with reading (and gravely misunderstanding) a lot of Eudora Welty.
TR: Which authors that you discovered at Washington and Lee remain favorites of yours today? Who are some of your favorite authors that you have found since graduating?
RM: Almost everyone I read in college I was “discovering” for the first time, so the list is very long. One memory that stands out is of walking to campus across the bridge by the Lenfest Center, holding A. S. Byatt’s Possession open in front of me so I could read while I walked, and almost running into some poor woman and her Labrador.
I do love reading literature in translation now, and that’s something I only had time for after college. If I were designing an English department from scratch tomorrow, I’d require students to take at least one or two courses in foreign lit, if only so they didn’t end up with the impression that everything from the sonnet to modernism was invented by the Brits and Americans. It’s strange for me to think that twelve years ago, when I graduated, I’d never read Tolstoy or Calvino or Flaubert or Borges – though Borges might have fried my undergraduate brain, so perhaps it’s for the best that I waited on that one.
TR: What did you do immediately after graduating from W&L? What were your experiences like at graduate school? Were there many similarities (or differences) between your time at Middlebury and your time at W&L?
RM: I earned my Master’s in English from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, which is a five-summer program on a beautiful mountain in the middle of nowhere. It’s an unusual program, in that there’s no Master’s thesis and that creative writing classes and even acting classes can count towards the degree. I had the luxury of studying poetry with Paul Muldoon and short fiction with David Huddle, but also got to push myself by taking a class blithely called “Joyce, Proust and Mann” from the frighteningly brilliant Michael Wood. It was a healthy balance, in keeping with the liberal arts education I’d just experienced in college.
Although it wasn’t a mandatory part of either program, I feel strongly that creative writing should be not just offered but required at some point for literature students, in order that they fully understand what it is they’re even studying. I can’t imagine an art or music major that didn’t require at least one studio class, and it’s odd that English has skewed so far to the “humanities” side of things that we forget it’s also a study of a fine art. Yet I don’t know of a single college or graduate lit program that requires a student to try writing a poem. (Another component of my imaginary English department… along with free Starbucks. I can dream.)
TR: Recently, a creative writing minor was introduced at W&L, a step that really seems to promote the emergence of young writers in the undergraduate setting. How did your time at Washington and Lee influence elements of your writing? How are writers who have come from Washington and Lee representatives of the Washington and Lee community?
RM: I wonder if the number of workshops I took, combined with my creative honors thesis and my time at Shenandoah, would qualify now as a minor. If I could have taken creative writing every semester of college, I would have; as it was, I took all the courses offered and then audited one of Dabney Stuart’s workshops that I’d already taken for credit. Although I made great friends in the workshops, some of whom I’m still in touch with, I would have enjoyed the support of a cohesive and self-selected writing group that grew together through the four years.
Washington and Lee has a tremendous literary tradition (I steam every time my husband’s Yale alumni magazine claims Tom Wolfe as a product of New Haven), and I think there’s something magical about the campus and the scenery there that inspires people to write. It was one of the main reasons I chose the school – on my tour, I just got an overwhelming feeling of “this is a place where I could write.”
TR: Are you familiar with other Washington and Lee alums who have had successful careers as writers?
RM: When I was a student, people were still talking on campus about Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (’93), whose poetry I’ve watched for and enjoyed since then. And I have John Pipkin (89)’s novel Woodsburner sitting in my to-read pile.
TR: What are some of your most important memories of W&L?
RM: In terms of my writing future, some of my more important experiences actually happened in the theater, both acting in shows and then studying playwriting with Tom Ziegler. I wasn’t a particularly talented actor, but I loved the theater and did something like six shows in my first two years, after which I decided I needed to sleep and pass my classes and gave it up. But that experience of living inside a story, day after day, thinking about character and plot and dialogue on a deeper level with every rehearsal, it definitely enhances your understanding of story.
TR: Have you come back to campus since graduating?
RM: I showed my husband the campus when we were dating, but not since then. I’d love to be able to get back there to do a student workshop someday.
TR: What are some characteristics of your writing discipline and practice? Do you have any specific habits to assist you in the writing process?
RM: I have a three-year-old and a six-month-old, so right now, getting out of the house is an essential part of the creative process, since I find it helpful not to be climbed on while writing.
I always start by rereading what I’ve already written, editing as I go, and by the time I get to the new part I’m already living in the world of the story, and I’m writing new paragraphs before I even realize it. Hemingway famously said that you should stop not when you’re stuck, but when you know exactly what you want to write the next time. I agree, but I’d add that if you’re a sleep-deprived mom, it’s also best to jot down a few notes about what exactly that is.
TR: Do you have any advice for young writers? Are there any pieces of advice you can offer on craft or discipline? How do you feel is the best way to shape a writing schedule? What are your thoughts on revision and editing?
RM: My strongest advice for young fiction writers is to remember that above all, you’re telling a story. When you first start out, you can get so caught up in wanting to sound like a writer, and wanting to describe things beautifully, that you can forget no one is even going to listen to what you have to say unless you have a fascinating story to tell. Everything else – the schedule, the revisions, whatever rain dance you have to do before you sit down in your chair – is so individualized to the writer; but the story-telling part is essential and universal. And, weirdly, so easily neglected.
TR: How is your image as a person similar to or different than what people think writers are like?
RM: I think many people’s image of a writer is actually of a very introverted poet: someone quiet and dreamy, writing by hand in a creamy notebook. Like most of the fiction writers I know, I’m rather outgoing and gossipy, and I have a lot going on in my life besides writing.
TR: For you, what has it meant to be a writer as your career? Have you discovered anything interesting, unappealing, or surprising about the business side of publishing?
RM: Everyone I’ve met in the publishing world has been completely lovely, and I honestly didn’t expect that. I was imagining some snarky, literary version of the New York fashion industry (The Devil Reads Kafka?), but everyone I’ve met is just a wonderful book geek, and I don’t think they’d mind my calling them that. I’ve also been surprised by how female-dominated the industry is. I had the opportunity to meet my editor last summer in the Penguin building in New York, and the only man I saw the whole time was the guy who gave me my elevator pass.
Of course the publishing industry is in bad repair, and when I’m in a particularly bad mood I feel like I’ve finally been let on board a wonderful boat just when it’s about to sink. The optimistic view, though, is that I’m more wedded to the idea of storytelling than to the idea of a physical, hardcover book, and humans will always, always need storytellers because they will always need stories, whatever the delivery system. It’s hard to imagine a world where art fails just because a particular industry founders. If it ever comes down to it, just give me a microphone and I’ll stand in the park telling stories.
TR: How did you find an agent or did an agent find you?
RM: After my first appearance in Best American Short Stories, I started getting contacted by agents, but I wasn’t in any rush. I’d sent out a really horrible version of my novel to a few agents the year before, and had been lucky to get some pointed feedback along with my rejections. I knew that their criticisms were valid, and I knew the book wasn’t ready yet. I spent another year fixing it (actually abandoning it, starting another novel, returning to the first, fixing it, abandoning it, and so on) and decided that before I got back to any of those lovely agents who’d taken the time to write to me, I would take my chances on my dream agent, Nicole Aragi, who (as W&L professor Jim Warren would put it) wouldn’t have known me if I stood up in her soup. Somehow, I got from her assistant’s inbox to hers, and she eventually took me on.
I remember, when I was working at Shenandoah, peeking at a cover letter where an MFA student had written that her professor advised her to start at the top and work her way down, and this was why she was starting with Shenandoah. I don’t believe her kiss-up worked, but it struck me as a decent piece of advice, and I was thinking of that when I put everyone else on hold to take my chances on Nicole.
TR: In terms of advice to young writers, what are some words of wisdom regarding navigating the business aspects of the publishing world?
What I mean is, there’s no race to be the youngest published writer out there, and I’ve seen a lot of writers try to skip over some crucial rites of passage because they’re so anxious to make a name for themselves. They usually end up disheartened and stuck. For most writers (but of course not all), it’s essential to master the short story before moving on to the novel, just as filmmakers will start with shorts. This isn’t because of anything intrinsic to the story form, but rather because completing many short pieces gives you the opportunity to stand back and look at the entirety of a finished work – one you didn’t spend years of your life on – and assess it as a whole. You can play with structure, rewrite the entire thing, or just chuck it, and that’s a lot harder to do with a novel.
At a recent reading, a young college student told me he was stressed about finding an agent. I was too taken aback even to ask what he’d written – and who knows, maybe he was a genius – but my guess was that he’d sat in his dorm room writing a novel, and then he’d heard somewhere that the next step was the agent. All I could think was, thank god I didn’t go around worrying about publishing when I was nineteen. It was wonderful to have that time to play around with my stories, never even considering a publisher or an audience, or whether my stories were good enough to land me a book deal. That would have been quite limiting, I think.
TR: How has winning awards and critical acclaim affected your confidence? Your discipline?
RM: After your first story is published, there’s a huge paradigm shift when you realize you’re actually writing for readers. Then there’s another one when you get to the point where people are actively seeking out your work, talking about it to each other online, waiting for your novel. That first revolution didn’t do much but make me more careful not to write about real people; the second has helped me to prioritize my writing, and not feel guilty about taking time away from my family to get out of the house and work. It would be very hard to justify that to myself if I didn’t know there were people out there caring that I wrote something.
TR: What were some general readers’ responses to “The Briefcase?” Obviously the short story has received much praise from the literary community, but what types of feedback have you gotten from readers in general?
RM: One very brave AP English student sent me his term paper, and I loved reading it and seeing the things he’d thought of that hadn’t occurred even to me, at least not on the conscious level. I told him it was like having my dream interpreted by a really sharp psychologist. Apparently it’s been assigned quite a bit in high school and college classes, and I’ve just given permission for its inclusion in a textbook. That’s a strange thing, to know that people are being forced to read your writing. For a while, one of the things that popped up on Google when you started typing my name was a search for “briefcase summary.” Of course no such thing exists – but it cracks me up that enough poor students (either lazy or confused) tried it that the Google algorithm took note.
From general (willing) readers, though, I almost always get the same question, which is some variation on “How did a nice suburban girl write such a dark story?” As if I should be writing about shoe shopping and Gymboree. So I tell them my father was a refugee, and we go from there.
TR: “The Briefcase” could be any revolution at any time. What were you trying to achieve by giving this short story such an unfixed setting?
RM: My father escaped Hungary after participating in the failed 1956 revolution, and I’ve always been fascinated by the revolutions – both political and personal – that will make someone abandon everything and start over.
I was pregnant when I wrote the story, and terrified by the prospect of labor. I kept reminding myself of all the billions of women who’d had babies, in all circumstances, and that commonality felt so reassuring. It brought me to that first image, of the prisoner/chef taking comfort in the fact that there have always been prisoners, and in the fact that his is an old, old story that will be repeated infinitely. It made sense, then, to work towards a setting that was as broad as possible, to emphasize those similarities across time and place.
What’s striking to me now, though, is how as I wrote I sat there thinking about revolutions of the past, and now it seems like the story could so easily be about 2011.
TR: How are the study of physics, plays on time, and the idea of assumed identity related to one another? What were some challenges you faced while writing about such abstract concepts?
RM: I got pretty wrapped up in my own head when I was working on the story, and there were several days where I was so immersed in it that even after I stopped working, I didn’t want to talk to anybody or think about anything else.
Since the philosophy involved is so off-kilter (an uneducated if thoughtful response to an intentionally ridiculous question), I was able to free-associate and go off on philosophical riffs rather than stay in any logical parameters. It was enormous fun to refer directly to the themes of history and time and space and identity – things I normally only get to hint at obliquely – and tie them so tightly around one man’s life.
TR: Which of your short stories do you think appeals to the widest range of readers? A few of your stories delve into the academic world (“Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” “Exit, Pursued”) while others are concerned with revolution (“The Briefcase,” “The Worst You Ever Feel”). Do you see a different kind of reader response to each of your short stories?
RM: This breadth has been one of my major difficulties in thinking about an eventual short story collection. Collections are notoriously hard to sell, and readers will always be more interested if the stories are linked or, at the least, themed. I can’t yet envision a collection that will put “The Briefcase” next to the story I published last year in Crazyhorse about reality TV. I’ve thought about two separate collections down the road, focusing on exactly the themes you mentioned. (I will probably not do a collection about reality TV… although on second thought, that might be my golden ticket.)
The audience for short literary fiction is small and self-selected, though, and I imagine most of the people reading my stories right now are (like me) simply interested in good stories, regardless of the subject matter.
TR: In your novel, The Borrower, Lucy says, “…all my reference points were fictions…all my narratives were lies.” How does this theme weave in with your multi-layered use of different novels and authors? The book is steeped with literary references. How does this work towards your own ideas about the power, and the implications, of fiction writing?
RM: That’s one of the meanings of the book’s title, of course: beyond the obvious references to book borrowers, and to Lucy’s taking a child from his home, she also borrows from the books she loves in order to tell her story. This is a part of her character, as much as a narrative device. As a librarian, she is someone who has chosen to live her life among books, and she sees everything she experiences through a narrative lens.
This compulsive borrowing is not a device I’ve employed in any of my other work, and I doubt I’ll use it again. There are writers who, as a badge of their post-modernity, are constantly pulling from a vast library of references. I’m not one of them, but Lucy is.
TR: There seems to be a definite political and religious charge throughout the novel. Was this a planned method for you to assert your own personal views, or was it more of an exploration of morality, society, and the contemporary moment?
RM: Well, I hope no one comes away from The Borrower thinking I’m advocating kidnapping. My own personal concern with some of the issues at play – for instance, the rise of groups like Exodus International that try to turn gay teenagers straight – was part or what led me to write the book, but I don’t think fiction works well when it exists just to advance a certain political or even philosophical point.
A lot is left for debate at the end of the book, including Lucy’s own culpability and the long-term implications of what she’s done. I don’t picture squadrons of readers who all magically come to see things from my own point of view (which would be hard to locate in this narrative, actually, anyway); I imagine (and hope), rather, that there will be some impassioned yelling in book clubs and on blogs.
TR: Did any of your own personal experiences influence the development of plot or of character in The Borrower? Is there any part of you in Lucy or your children in Ian?
RM: Like Lucy, I’m a first-generation American, and I share her self-deprecating humor, but that’s about it. I’m particularly fortunate not to share her strange mixture of ambivalence and impulsivity, and of course none of her experiences are mine. The risk of publishing a book (especially a first book) where the narrator is first-person and close to my age is that people will assume more similarities than actually exist. Really, I’m not much of a “write what you know” writer, and one of the things I love most about my work is the pure invention. When people ask (as one person at every reading invariably will) where I “get my ideas,” I honestly have to answer that I don’t know. Writing is sort of like dreaming for me; once in a while I’ll know what real-life situation prompted me to think of something, but more often I emerge from a story going, “Where the hell did that come from?”
TR: What were some challenges you faced in moving from writing short stories to a novel? What were some unexpected differences, or similarities, you found between writing short fiction and an entire novel?
RM: I started working on The Borrower in 2000, long before I’d published my first story, and while my learning curves for novel-writing and story-writing were both steep, they were also simultaneous.
There’s a lot more room to move around in, in a novel, and that usually affects things like pace and the depth of characterization – but ultimately, I think we all have instincts about how to tell a shorter story or a longer story, and we make those choices in social situations every day.
The novel I’m working on right now actually did start as an unruly short story that refused to be edited down to a manageable length. When I finally gave up trying to squeeze it down into twenty pages, it revealed itself as a long, complicated novel.
TR: What are you hoping to accomplish with this next novel? Are you drawing from any experiences you had in writing and publishing The Borrower? Can you make any comment about the temporal and geographic setting of this new story?
RM: This second one is a bit more ambitious in narrative scope. I have multiple viewpoints and multiple time periods, and the story is also told in reverse… all of which mean I’ve had to plot things out meticulously ahead of time. With The Borrower, I made just a very general outline of the plot – and then at many points during the writing I wished I had spent more time planning out the overall structure back when I could see the whole project in one piece, rather than trying to make decisions when I was in the middle of it, my head barely above the water. It all worked out, but it was harder than it needed to be. This time I have about forty pages of detailed notes, and I know I’ll end up with more. I’ve also made sure to write down characters’ ages and full names and daily schedules, since those were things that threw me off in my first book; I’d know that Lucy, my librarian character, had a story hour, but I could never remember when it was, and so every time I wanted to refer to it I’d have to search the document for the page where I originally said it was on Friday. This time, it’s all printed out and highlighted.
An additional challenge with this book is that since the three main sections run in reverse chronological order, I have to know all the details of what happens in my last section (1929) in order to write my first section (1999). It feels a little like a Sudoku puzzle at times. I’ve even pasted calendars into my Word file for the years 1999, 1955 and 1929, along with extensive notes about current events and cars and music and politics. I don’t think I’ve ever been so organized with anything in my entire life.
It’s tentatively called The Happensack, and it’s set on Chicago’s North Shore, which is where I grew up and where I live now. I love having my inspiration so close to home, and as I drive around doing errands I feel like I’m simultaneously living my real life and living inside the novel.
TR: What are you currently reading as you engage in writing another novel? You’ve mentioned a current interest in literature in translation, but are there any specific works you would like to point out?
RM: When I’m drafting a novel – especially in the early stages – I want to read not just for pleasure but also to see how other writers have handled similar challenges. With The Borrower, I went back and reread both Huckleberry Finn and Lolita, and then I ended up using those as touchstones even within the text (as the narrator refers frequently to them both). This time, I’m keeping Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw on my desk. The Stoppard play deals elegantly with pluralities of voice and time, while the other two are helping me to think about houses that might or might not be haunted.
I’m generally on a lighter kick right now, seeking out shorter books, because I spent a lot of the winter reading Anna Karenina. After my first daughter was born I read Madame Bovary, and I decided it would be perversely funny if, after my second daughter was born last fall, I read another long and disturbing novel about a selfish, suicidal woman. (I think this was my strange way of staving off post-partum depression. Unorthodox, but it worked.) Needless to say, I didn’t have as many reading hours this time with a toddler to watch, and thus an already long and bleak Russian novel stretched into a five-month undertaking. So for the immediate future I’m sticking to short, cheery books, preferably ones with fewer than two hundred main characters.
TR: Is there a writer you currently see great potential for in for the future? Who is, in your opinion, the next person people must go out and read?
The playwright Sarah Ruhl is doing amazing things right now, and even if you can’t see her plays in New York, you can read them and absorb her strange and poetic stage directions. She’s not exactly a well-kept secret, though, and neither is Nicole Krauss, who I think is the fiction writer we’ll be seeing the most exciting things from in the next few decades.
TR: There has been a lot of talked in and around the Shenandoah office about creative writing and publishing in the digital age. As you know, this interview appears in the first issue of Shenandoah that appears completely online. How do you think these changes in how creative writing is presented to readers will affect the craft itself? What do you think young writers should be aware of during this transitional period in the publishing world?
RM: I’m actually excited about the possibilities for new kinds of texts that will be made possible by new media. If we think way back to the origins of storytelling, it often included music and visual art and was much more interactive. The world is wide open now for people who want to think about new ways to tell stories. Unfortunately, much of the work I’ve seen that experiments with the new technology is also excessively focused on that technology as its subject (“Look! A novel made of emails!” “Look! A Twitter novel!”) instead of just being gracefully open to a postmodern sensibility, and to the embarrassment of riches we now have at our disposal. I might not be the person to take full advantage of that – I’m far more verbal than visual, and I think my stories will always just be very long strings of words – but I’m certainly a game audience for those experimenters out there.
On a different note, one thing I have become aware of, going through the publishing process for the first time, is how extremely vital the survival of independent bookstores is to the health of the literary world. Those booksellers’ recommendations, their willingness to host author events, and their dedication to finding and promoting books that will work for their particular clientele are all irreplaceable. One of the best things you can do to promote a vibrant literary landscape is to go into an independent bookstore or go to indiebound.org and buy hardcover fiction. Even if much of our reading becomes digital, I dearly hope there will always be a place for brick-and-mortar bookstores.
TR: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed the time I spent reading your work and conducting research in preparation for this interview. Your time is a very valuable thing to offer, and I appreciate the opportunity to work with you.
RM: No problem – just the tip of the iceberg of what I owe Shenandoah!