The PEN Pod: Looking Through Time with Rebecca Makkai
Today on The PEN Pod, we are joined by Rebecca Makkai, who’s a writer, teacher, and the artistic director at StoryStudio Chicago. Rebecca is the author of the acclaimed novels, The Great Believers, The Hundred Year House, and The Borrower. The Great Believers, which is set during the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago, was a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist and received the ALA Carnegie Medal and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. We spoke with Rebecca about the similarities and differences between that moment in history and our current one; the writing advice she always gives her students; and why it’s more important than ever that we continue making and talking about art during times of upheaval. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Rebecca is up until the 10-minute mark).
The Great Believers recounts a period in Chicago history where the AIDS epidemic was at its height. Do you see connections between that moment and where we are now?
Absolutely. But I don’t think it’s doing anyone any favors to oversimplify and to equate things. I don’t think that’s fair to what’s going on now, and I don’t think that’s fair to what continues to happen with HIV/AIDS or what was happening in the early days. But I think that the good old compare and contrast that we all learned to do in high school—that’s very useful, to look at the ways that the American healthcare system, in times of crisis, exacerbates the fissures that are already there, the inequalities that are already there; the ways that basically every epidemic is an epidemic of opportunity, and it tends to hit marginalized communities; the ways that government inaction makes everything worse; and the ways communities come together. And then, of course, there’s the medical stuff, which I know very little about; anything that I researched for that book went in the book. Beyond that, I can’t even possibly wrap my head around it, but I think about it more sociologically. I think there’s a lot to be learned from the comparisons and from the differences as well.
“I think that the good old compare and contrast that we all learned to do in high school—that’s very useful, to look at the ways that the American healthcare system, in times of crisis, exacerbates the fissures that are already there, the inequalities that are already there; the ways that basically every epidemic is an epidemic of opportunity, and it tends to hit marginalized communities; the ways that government inaction makes everything worse; and the ways communities come together.”
Your work often discusses relationships—relationships among people, and across space and time. How do you think this moment is impacting our relationships with each other, and how is it impacting your work and writing?
The question everyone is facing right now is, “Do you move your novel into the past?” You can’t really put it in the future unless you’re putting it hundreds of years in the future, because who could write about 2022 right now? Do you keep it now and write this thing into it? I am, and I think most writers are, very interested in personal relationships. I’m particularly interested in time and in personal relationships across time. The way memory works, the way reinvention of the self works across time—those are things in all of my books. I sometimes look at myself and wonder if I have any kind of themes going at all, any kind of style, and then I go, “Yeah, it’s this obsession with time that’s at the core of a lot.” Time is working very strangely right now—this fundamental interruption to most in-person relationships, and what that will mean for the reinvention of those friendships and those relationships when we’re done with this.
With my writing students, I’m always telling them that they should trap their characters together; don’t let your characters walk out of the room. Not, like, in an elevator necessarily, but if you give them a reason that they can’t leave, that’s when change happens and when conflict happens. Of course, for me now it’s like, “No, this is just when bad homeschooling happens.” But I imagine that for people who were in marriages on the brink, or people who were just starting to date, this is going to be really interesting to look back at.
You mentioned that you’ve got your family and your homeschooling, and I realize that’s a very stressful thing to have to undertake. But are you finding that you’re productive right now as a writer?
Not terribly. Honestly, I think it’s less about having my kids at home and more that it’s the end of a semester for me right now, with my teaching. I have a ton of student manuscripts to read, I’m judging the National Book Award this year for fiction, so I have a lot of fiction to read, and then, of course, it’s everything else on top of it too.
I’m working on two new books actually, simultaneously—the reason being that one of them is a middle grade novel for kids, and one of them is my regular adult novel that I’ve been working on for a while. They’re very different parts of my brain, and it’s been nice to have two things going right now actually, because if I’m too stressed out to work on the adult project, which is fairly dark, I can write this thing about kids. It’s for my kids—right now, they’re the ones reading chapters when I finished them. When I’m in a bad mood and I’m in that dark place, I can work on my more long-haul project that’s been with me for a while.
“The idea that when things are bad, or the government is inhospitable, or you have a lot going on in the world, that this is somehow not a time to talk about art, is ludicrous. Whether it’s escapist art or political art or whatever, just the way that I was raised, my conception of what literature is—it is by its nature political, and it is absolutely vital to be writing, to be spreading books, spreading art, and talking about these things in a time like this.”
You wrote a piece a few years ago called “The World’s on Fire, Can We Still Talk About Books?” Do you still feel like it’s time to talk about books?
That was always my thesis—yeah, of course we can. It came out about last year, I think, or two years ago. Basically, someone on Twitter was complaining that this was not a good time to talk about books. You know, we look back on 2018 and you go, “Well, what was even happening in 2018? It wasn’t that bad.” My Hungarian grandmother was a novelist, and she smuggled manuscripts out of the country, she wrote in hiding, she was blackmailed by the government. She saw writing as a political act, which it very much was and is. The idea that when things are bad, or the government is inhospitable, or you have a lot going on in the world, that this is somehow not a time to talk about art, is ludicrous. Whether it’s escapist art or political art or whatever, just the way that I was raised, my conception of what literature is—it is by its nature political, and it is absolutely vital to be writing, to be spreading books, spreading art, and talking about these things in a time like this. You don’t look back on the times in history when things were brutal and terrible and go, “And then the art stopped for five years.” That’s when things usually get really interesting, memorable, and vital.
What else are you reading right now that’s speaking to you?
I’m not allowed to talk about a lot of it, because I can’t tell you, for the National Book Award, the fiction that I’m reading. I will say, on my audiobooks—this was like way back before quarantine—I thought it was a good idea to listen to Middlemarch on audio. But of course, you download it, and it’s like “40 hours remaining,” and I still have not finished it, so I’m still going back to that. I don’t recommend it at this time, actually. It has its absolute diehard fans, but you might find it a little bit long and tedious at this particular moment in time.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Tana French, the Irish crime writer. It’s great on audio because they have these Irish accents. If I were doing the accent in my head, it would sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun, but this actor can do all these different Irish accents—I would never be able to do that if I were reading it. So they’re actually better on audio. They’re smart, but they’re fun—you’re not trying to figure out all of life from these books, you know? I can walk and listen, and it’s perfect.
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