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Rebecca Makkai Thinks in Stories All Day Long

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The Borrower
by Rebecca Makkai

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An exclusive Authorlink interview
with the author of The Borrower

 

 


AUTHORLINK: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

MAKKAI: I’ve been writing creatively since I learned to write physically. I grew up in a household where everyone was always stationed at either a typewriter or a piano, and for that very reason I didn’t consider writing to be a choice or a career until I was twelve or thirteen. When I finally realized that not everyone spent their life writing, I immediately put myself in the column of those who 

AUTHORLINK: You have a Master’s Degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and a BA in English from Washington and Lee. Which aspects of your education have fed your fiction writing?do.nuary 2012

“All those critical papers along the way helped train me to be a deep reader even as I was writing fiction – to search for meaning and structure…"
—
Makkai

MAKKAI: Both my BA and MA were in English Literature, rather than creative writing. All those critical papers along the way helped train me to be a deep reader even as I was writing fiction – to search for meaning and structure, not just float along seeing where the story might end up. Even after all that education, though, I still consider myself poorly read, when I think of the amount of literature out there that I haven’t gotten to yet. That said, I did have the chance to take intensive creative writing workshops in both college and graduate school, and I benefitted greatly from that feedback and that sense of community. If the logistics had worked out, I’d have loved to go on and get an MFA, but honestly I wouldn’t trade my MA in for all the MFAs in the world.

AUTHORLINK: You’re known for your short stories. How does writing a short story differ from writing a novel? In what ways are they alike?

MAKKAI: For me, the difference is more on the technical end rather than the creative end. When I sit down to write a scene or think about a character it feels exactly the same, but the planning and editing are of course much more laborious for a novel. As I’m writing a story I’ll often have two or three pages of notes as I go, but for the novel I’m currently writing I have sixty pages just of outlines and timelines. It’s like the difference between making lunch for a friend and catering a wedding.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your writing habits. I know you are a busy mom. How do you stay disciplined with your writing?

MAKKAI: It’s a job, like any other job, and you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike – especially when you do have children and, in my case, another full-time job on top of everything else. I went to a Montessori school through eighth grade, and that experience of structuring my own days but still being accountable for all my projects is something that I’ve found very useful with a creative career. It also helps to get out of my house so I don’t have the distractions of children and life and the Internet.

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you – character, plot, a first line? Tell me about where the premise of The Borrower came from.

“For me, they always come from plot. Character follows pretty closely behind that…”
—Makkai

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAKKAI: For me, they always come from plot. Character follows pretty closely behind that, as I think about what kind of person would get involved in a certain situation. Right now I’m working on a short story about two people who wake up snowed in after a one-night stand – and although they really don’t remember each other from the night before, they can’t leave the building for the next two days. So I have to think first about the kind of people who would have a one-night stand. And yet I need to make them quite different from each other, in order to have a real story. I might not arrive at a proper first line, though, till I’m almost done.

 

 

 

 

The Borrower was no exception. I had found out about the programs that purport to turn gay adults and adolescents straight, and I wanted that triangle consisting of the boy who’d been put in such a program, the parents who had put him there, and a concerned adult trying to help him from the outside. After I had the plot, it populated itself organically with the characters who would roll it forward – most notably Ian, the ten-year-old boy at the story’s heart. He presented himself to me almost immediately, and he changed very little from the first pages I wrote to the final draft. If I needed to write fifty more pages about him, I could do it tomorrow.

AUTHORLINK: The journey is a common theme for fiction. What makes this journey story unique?

MAKKAI: Well, it’s a mutual kidnapping, for one thing. You could debate all day what happens the morning Ian and Lucy (the librarian) leave the library together, and I’m still never sure how to describe it briefly except to say that “he blackmails her into kidnapping him.”

At the same time, there’s a lot of postmodern playing with the tropes of the traditional road story. It was fun to refer both directly and obliquely to books like Huckleberry Finn, Lolita and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and to braid those stories together into something new and strange.

AUTHORLINK: This is a story about the power of stories. What do you believe stories give us? What power do they hold for you?

MAKKAI: It’s about the power of stories, but also the danger of stories. There are a lot of lies in The Borrower, and there are even lies in the narration – moments where we realize the narrator hasn’t been honest with the audience.

As a writer, I think in stories all day long – to an extent that would probably be unhealthy if I weren’t a writer. But they’re so crucial to the way our brains operate. The way we think, as humans, is primarily linguistic. And then as soon as we’ve acquired a functional vocabulary, the very first thing we do is tell stories. We talk about things that really happened, or things that will happen, or things that aren’t. It’s impossible for me to think about what exactly they do for us because it’s impossible for me to imagine a life – anyone’s life – without stories.

AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write The Borrower?

MAKKAI: Way too long. I had the idea when I was just a couple of years out of college, and I knew I wasn’t ready to undertake an entire novel yet. I poked away at it for several years while I focused on short stories and got my teaching career underway, and then finally I went through several rounds of intensive writing and abandonment before it was finally where I wanted it. All told… let’s just say that I started it in the Clinton administration and ended it in the Obama administration.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research. What resources did you draw on when developing the novel?

“There’s a fine balance in fiction, where you want to do enough research to give the story some authentic details, but not so much that you’re buried under the avalanche…”
—Makkai

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAKKAI: There’s a fine balance in fiction, where you want to do enough research to give the story some authentic details, but not so much that you’re buried under the avalanche and can’t let the story do what it should. In the case of The Borrower, if I’d tried to represent a realistic experience of a modern-day librarian, there would have been a great amount of wonderfully realistic detail that wouldn’t have advanced the story at all and would have bored most readers to tears. Of course, The Borrower doesn’t set out to be realistic – there’s a strong element of escapist fantasy – so it’s a bit easier to play fast and loose with the facts in a story like this. My next novel is largely historical and more anchored in the real world, so I’ve had to take the research on that one much more seriously.

I did work circulation in my graduate school library, and I did some additional research into the daily life of librarians, most of which I promptly ignored. I also did as much research as I could stomach into the real “reparative therapy” programs like the fictional Glad Heart Ministries. Honestly, I couldn’t stomach very much.

AUTHORLINK: What challenges did writing this book pose and how did you overcome them?

MAKKAI: I’d compare my experience of writing a first book to going through my first year of teaching. I had every challenge you’d expect, and I made every mistake I possible could. The difference with a book, mercifully, is that you get to go back and revise a hundred times. You never get to do the school year over.

AUTHORLINK: What is your revising process like?

MAKKAI: Most importantly, I need some distance from the project. Sometimes I’ll take a few weeks off from a story and then look at it with fresh eyes, but often it’s as simple as showing it to my husband and then going back to it the next day. His suggestions are helpful, but what’s usually just as helpful is the infusion of an outside perspective. I’m suddenly able to look at it as an outsider, a reader, just by virtue of having shown it to someone.

AUTHORLINK: What was it like working with your editor?

MAKKAI: I worked with Kathryn Court at Viking, and her British accent is so lovely that I’d adore her even if she were horrible to me, which of course she isn’t at all. She was great at pinpointing problem areas without prescribing exactly how she wanted them fixed. This was perfect, and I think it’s usually all a writer needs. If someone hands you a solution you might be tempted to use it even if it doesn’t fit the book. The right revision really has to come from the author herself, and Kathryn was wonderful about letting that happen.

AUTHORLINK: How and when did you connect with your agent Nicole Aragi?

“…I knew if I didn’t take my chances on my absolute dream agent, I’d always regret it.”
—Makkai

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAKKAI: I had sent out an early, very inchoate draft of The Borrower to about ten agents way before I should have, and although I got a lot of reads and a good amount of constructive feedback, no one took me on. I had published only two short stories, and really I was lucky that anyone read this very rough draft at all. Three years later I was in a very different situation: it was my second consecutive year in The Best American Short Stories, I’d published quite a bit more, and agents had started to contact me asking if I might have a novel. I took my time to get The Borrower where I wanted it – and then, instead of sending it to any of those lovely agents who’d written to me, I sent it to Nicole. I had no connection to her whatsoever, but I knew if I didn’t take my chances on my absolute dream agent, I’d always regret it. To my eternal amazement, she asked for the full manuscript, then wrote when she was only halfway through to say she loved it. When we finally talked on the phone and she took me on, I think that was the day I finally felt like the world was going to allow me to be a writer.

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have to first time novelists about the craft of writing?

MAKKAI: Don’t forget to tell a story, and don’t forget to make it mean something.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have to first time novelists about breaking into publishing?

“…I don’t think there’s any real secret to “breaking in” except to write really good stories…”
—Makkai

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAKKAI: I recommend that everyone starting out attend one writing conference – Sewanee, Bread Loaf, Tin House, Wesleyan, some of which have scholarships available – if they possibly can. You almost definitely will not meet your future agent or editor there, and you’ll only get workshopped once (if that), but you’ll get the layout of the publishing landscape and meet others at the same stage in their careers. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s any real secret to “breaking in” except to write really good stories and put them out there. Eventually, someone will notice.

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on currently?

MAKKAI: Oh, boy. Seventeen things at once. Mainly, I’m putting the finishing touches on a story collection, Music for Wartime. And then over in the slow cooker I have my second novel, The Happensack, which is the story of an artist colony and the family that owns it, but told in reverse. There are ghosts involved, and it’s very fun. And I have stories that aren’t related to the collection, too. I think it’s actually healthy for me to work on a several projects at once. If I’m stuck on one thing, I can just turn to another – an invaluable gift for someone who has no time to spare for writer’s block.

About Rebecca Makkai Rebecca Makkai’s 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. The Borrower is her first novel.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.