An Interview with Rebecca Makkai
A major childhood fantasy of mine was as simple as it was unobtainable: I wanted to be locked in the city library overnight. Oh, to eschew, if only for a night, the agony of limiting myself to the twenty-book checkout limit! Oh, to sleep surrounded by more books than I could read! Over the years, I've mentioned this fantasy often enough to have realized that this is a common hope, shared by a host of bibliophiles. We are all like Borges: we imagine that paradise might be a kind of library.
But it was more than the premise that drew me to Rebecca Makkai's debut novel, The Borrower, in which a book-loving ten-year-old boy runs away from his fundamentalist parents, sleeps in his local library, and convinces a sympathetic librarian to abduct him and take him on a road trip. I'd been looking forward to reading The Borrower since I first encountered -- and was delighted by -- Makkai's short fiction, which appeared for four consecutive years in The Best American Short Stories series and conjured characters as diverse as an escaped prisoner who adopts another prisoner's identity and a reality-show manipulator. The tale of the escapee and the librarian, Ian Drake and Lucy Hull, was published this June; I spoke recently with Makkai via e-mail.
What was the first book that meant something to you?
I discovered Lois Lowry when I was about eight, and for the next five years I made a beeline straight for the L shelf every time I visited the library, hoping she'd published something new. I had no sense of how long it took to write a book, and I expected her to put out something as frequently as the new Baby-Sitters Club hit the shelf. I ended up loving all of her work, but I started with the Anastasia Krupnik series. I was particularly drawn to Anastasia's artsy, academic family. I grew up in a town where everyone's father seemed to be a banker, while my parents were linguistics professors, and my father -- like Myron Krupnik -- was also a poet. Here was this fictional person who had more in common with me than anyone I'd ever met. I actually put Lowry in The Borrower, as one of those writers Ian's mother vetoes without having read.
Do you read your father's poetry? Does he read your fiction?
His poetry is all in Hungarian, which I only speak a few words of. Unfortunately, Hungarian poetry doesn't translate terribly well into English -- it's very rhymey and it's all about revolution, so in English it can end up sounding like Dr. Seuss is calling for political action -- therefore I don't think I've ever gotten an accurate feel for what he does. I understand that it's well-regarded, though, and he just won the Kossuth Prize, which is basically the highest cultural honor the Hungarian government gives. He does read my fiction, and always has strong opinions about it, one way or other. It's actually refreshing, in a strange way, to have a parent who doesn't love everything I write. If he likes something, I know it's because I've really earned it.
Lucy has an almost religious belief in the power of literature. She thinks that if she can get books into Ian's hands that nudge him toward questioning the authority of his evangelical parents, that this broadening of his outlook "might well be what would save his life." What about you? What matters most to you in a book? When you read, is there anything in particular you're looking for?
I don't think, at this point in my life, that I'm looking to be saved from anything particular -- but there is a certain salvation to be had from recognizing the commonality of experience, especially with an author very far removed from your own world. It's one thing to read a contemporary American writer talking about something we all agree on, like Isn't it embarrassing how people revert to cliche when they flirt? but then you read Madame Bovary, and here's Flaubert, one hundred and thirty years dead, making the same point with startling familiarity. And there's a reassurance in that, this reminder that we're not alone in the universe. I like to think it's the same feeling early humans would have when they stumbled upon cave paintings left by earlier tribes: "Dude, there are other people! And they hunt mammoths just like us!" That's the feeling I'm after, on whatever level, when I pick up a book: I want to sit there wondering how the author got inside my brain.
What about the converse? When you read, is there anything that really turns you off?
Too many things, I'm afraid. Children who act wrong for their age (a thirteen-year-old who brags that he can spell "Mississippi" or a newborn who grabs a rattle). Redundancy. Characters who are introduced just to espouse a certain philosophical view. Stilted dialogue. Inaccurate representations of CPR.
Sometimes I think I learn as much from books I've hated as I do from the ones I love. What are some examples of books that have committed any of the aforementioned sins?
I'd better go with deceased authors, hadn't I? The nineteenth century Russians played pretty fast and loose with the whole character-as-viewpoint bit, and it cracks me up when they introduce some completely new guy at the train station, someone you know you'll never see again, but he's given a foot-long name and a whole physical description and then he talks the main character's ear off for half a page about serfs' wages or something and then he's gone.
And sometimes I wonder, reading someone like Proust, if he was just very confused about the timeline of child development, or if French children in the 1920s really did act like modern PhD candidates. I'd like to think it's the former, or else it speaks poorly for my three-year-old that she spends most of her time pretending to be an orangutan.
You've said that you abandoned The Borrower many times between its genesis in 2000 and its conclusion in 2009. What made you abandon the novel; what made you pick it back up?
I really had no idea how to go about constructing something as large as a novel when I first started, and my own lack of planning did me in again and again. I had hardly anything sketched out ahead of time, I wrote scenes wildly out of order, and then when I sat down to piece them together the pacing was horribly off. I also felt at first it was horribly presumptuous of me to be writing a novel. I didn't talk about it, which made it all too easy to abandon in moments of frustration: nobody cares if you abandon a secret novel they've never heard of, and nobody's going to encourage you to get back to it. I felt real guilt, though, when I'd leave Lucy and Ian out on the road for months at a time, almost as if they were real people who were going to die of thirst and exposure. Then I'd go back to it, start believing in it again, and work like mad -- at least for a while.
Were there any particular problems or challenges with which you were struggling?
The big hurdle in any runaway narrative is what to do with your characters once they've left town. In early drafts, this was always where I got lost. One thing I've learned to do in the years since I began the novel is to look at what master writers have done with similar situations, and eventually I went to my bookshelf, specifically to the two books between which Lucy positions herself in the prologue: Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. I was aware that Twain abandoned his book for three years right at the point where Huck and Jim enter the south and realize they can't turn the raft back around. But that didn't solve my problem, just gave me a sense of companionship in the struggle. It was Nabokov who gave the answer: I realized that once Humbert and Lolita start driving, the reason the story isn't over is that there aren't two people out on the road, but three. Quilty following them made a triangle; and once you have a triangle, you have a story. So Mr. Shades was born, and suddenly everything became very easy.
(I always worry, in describing my struggles, that I'm making myself sound like an idiot, and really it wasn't quite as haphazard as I've made it sound. One of the few things I do have in common with Lucy Hull is a tendency for self-derision; though while that tendency might be crippling for a librarian-cum-kidnapper, I'd argue that for a writer it's healthy.)
Given Ian's mother's attempts at censorship, I love that both Huckleberry Finn and Lolita are books that various people are ever trying to ban, burn, what have you. Did these books' renegade status further raise their significance for you?
Only after the fact. I chose those two texts as touchstones for what they were about rather than for the world's reaction to them, but when I realized that these were books Ian's mother and her real-life counterparts would object to, it felt all the more right. The same was true of The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses, which are also referenced throughout, albeit much less; both came in on a trial basis, but were invited to stay when they proved resonant enough, and part of that resonance was their censorship history.
You mentioned that it felt presumptuous for you to be writing a novel. Did that feeling end up going away?
Eventually. After my first inclusion in Best American Short Stories, I was finally able to call it a novel, rather than "something longer I've been working on." Writing really is a presumptuous act, though: I'm going to tell a three-hundred-page lie, and you're going to pay to listen to it.
The novel's told from the point of view of a character who, at least in a superficial sense, has little reason to care about Ian's life. Did you ever think of telling this story from Ian's mother's vantage point, or even Ian's? Or was it always the librarian's tale?
I started the story one afternoon on a couch in Baltimore, and the first pages I wrote came from my frustration and anger at learning that "rehabilitation" programs [for gay youth] like Ian's existed, and for children as young as Ian. As I thought about how this could become a story, I realized that my helplessness was itself an important element, in part because it's something we can all relate to. Most of us are outsiders to this kind of situation. I wasn't sure if the narrator would be a neighbor or teacher or family friend, male or female, but I wanted it to be an outsider with no right to interfere, and no real inclination to, at least until the child runs away and there are urgent decisions to be made. Later that same day I fixated on the image of Ian hiding in a bunch of plants, and I tried to think who would have plants. A librarian would, I decided, at the ends of the book aisles. Over the next few years, the story became as much about those shelves of books as about the child hiding between them.
There's something fascinatingly oblique about Ian's and Lucy's relationship. Throughout their abduction of each other, they never directly talk about what they're doing, or what or why they're escaping. Why do you think they're so careful to evade these questions?
This was a decision I questioned a lot as I wrote, because usually in fiction you want to push a confrontation. Most of us are conflict-avoidant in real life, and that's something you have to unlearn as a writer. But in this case, both characters have enough reasons to play it close to the vest that their mutual caginess becomes integral to the plot.
One of the (many) reasons Ian is so unhappy with the anti-gay program his parents have enrolled him in is that at his age, he has neither the vocabulary nor the brain space nor the inclination to process his own sexual and gender identities. I think a large part of his running away to the library is so that he doesn't have to talk about it. The last thing he's going to do once they get out on the road is explain his thought process or start asking why he feels funny in gym class.
Lucy realizes this, and it's a factor in her reticence, although certainly another factor is her personality: she's a bit of a doormat, and she's overly analytical to the point of paralysis. At one point she compares herself to "Woody Allen leading the Charge of the Light Brigade," and I think of that phrase as her nutshell. But more than anything, there's a spell she's afraid of breaking, or maybe many spells: the spell of Ian trusting her, the spell of her denial, the spell of their not getting caught yet, the spell of the whole, fairy-tale trip.
In addition to your novel, it seems you've steadily published short stories. How do you balance the two forms in your writing life? Do you prefer writing one to the other?
I love them both, and I'll always be writing both. This sounds overly simplistic, but some stories are just short and some stories are just long. Meaning, when I sit down to work it's because I have an idea of a story I want to tell, and the size of that idea, rather than allegiance to any particular form, dictates the number of pages I'm going to write. And sometimes I'm wrong, of course; the novel I'm working on right now started as a short story that was too long to publish, so I went to all sorts of procrustean measures trying to get it under six thousand words until I realized it really wanted to be a novel.
For me, it's healthy to have more than one project going all the time, and the perfect way to do that is to have a novel going plus various short stories on the other burners. If I only have a novel, I'm tempted to throw everything I think of into it -- a funny restaurant name, my gloomy mood, a recipe for corn bread -- even if it has no business being in there. When I have other outlets, I can take my funny restaurant name and consider which pot it really goes in (and then, if I'm lucky, come to my senses and realize no one wants to read about funny restaurant names).
I wouldn't not be interested in reading about funny restaurant names. Would you mind sharing one or two?
Oh boy, maybe not funny, so much as stupid. Like, a guy (maybe someone's dad, a little older and kind of clueless) wants to start a restaurant called "Tomato, Tomahto," like the old song. Only the guys who print up the signs and menus assume it's a typo and everything says "Tomato, Tomato," so for the next twenty years that's what he's stuck calling his restaurant. He tries to correct the customers' pronunciation, but eventually he gives up. Yeah, I'm not going to be using that one.
And I keep wanting to have a character walk by a sign for an "AA Symposium." It would be funny only to me and about five other people, the joke being that "symposium" actually means "drinking together." And three of those five people would be really ticked off because their brothers are in AA. Half the things I write, I'm tempted to put that stupid sign in. Maybe it's out of my system now. Did I mention I was raised by linguists?
How soon did you know that The Borrower would end up being a novel? Or did you know from the start?
As I mentioned, I started writing around the central crisis -- the anti-gay classes and the mutual kidnapping -- so I knew from that very first day that this was going to be a long story. I needed a lot of buildup to Ian running away, and I needed a lot of pages to achieve the complexity and moral ambiguity I wanted. Later I did wonder, just a few times, and for just a few minutes, whether it could stand as a short story, ending when Lucy agrees to drive Ian around town. It would have been such a copout, though. And it wouldn't have been a very good story.
Do you have any routines when you write?
After all the goats are sacrificed and the rain dance is done, I usually head out of the house -- to the library, the coffee shop, or the bakery, in order of decreasing salubrity -- and sit there with my laptop, which mercifully I've never been tech-savvy enough to hook up to the Wi-Fi. I have two small children, and if I want to get anything done when they're awake it's essential to get out of the house.
Unless I have a pressing deadline, I let myself work on whatever project I feel like: a story, a novel, revisions, plotting out (after my early floundering with The Borrower, I'm now a big plotter), or even just research. This is the other benefit of my multi-burner policy: I never get blocked. It's a big psychological game I play with myself, but it works. Usually I'll sit down thinking there's one thing I really ought to be working on. So I stare at that for five minutes, and then I pick something else that sounds more fun. The second thing is probably just as important and challenging, but because I see it as procrastination I think I'm getting away with something, and it never feels like work. And I fall for it every time! I'm pretty easy to trick.