Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is one of this summer’s big books—we even named it one of the season’s must-reads. So imagine our excitement when we got to catch up with Makkai at BookExpo America earlier this summer and ask her all of our burning questions about her new novel. The novel takes readers to Chicago in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, and then to Paris decades later as one woman searches for her daughter. We chatted about art, orange scarves, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read on for more fascinating details about The Great Believers.
Bookish: How did you decide to write a novel about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago?
Rebecca Makkai: I originally decided to write a novel about an artist’s model in 1920s Paris, and the AIDS epidemic was a subplot in that novel. As I wrote and as I researched, the gravity of the story shifted and I know enough about myself to know that I need to follow it when that happens. It ended up being 95% a novel about the AIDS epidemic and 5% about this artist’s model in 1920s Paris. But there was never a moment where I was like, “You know what I’m going to do, I’m going to write this novel.” It was sort of a slow sliding into it.
Bookish: The novel opens with Yale getting to keep a pair of Nico’s shoes after Nico dies. Later, when Yale wonders about his own HIV status, he puts himself in Nico’s shoes in a less literal way. In a broader sense, this seems like the book’s mission: Helping the reader understand what it might have been like to walk in the shoes of someone living during the AIDS epidemic. Is this what you set out to accomplish?
RM: Well gosh, I never meant that with the metaphor about the shoes. Those things happen totally subconsciously, like when you dream. You dream in symbolism and then someone else is like “It means this!” and you’re like “Oh yeah!” I never really thought about that, but that’s probably what I was doing. That’s really funny.
I think whenever we write, we’re trying as authors to step into another person’s experience and we’re trying to enable that experience for a reader. Being able to step into a life that is not your own—that’s why people read. I certainly am always hoping to do that no matter who I write about, and even other characters in this book, like Fiona, who is tracking down her estranged daughter—I want people to step into her shoes as well. But it was a scary leap for me writing about people who were dealing with illness or dealing with the threat of illness. So for me, I really needed to do a ton of research. I was only able to write those points of view because of things people told me about firsthand experience, and that, I’m hoping, got translated into the book in a way that lets people experience not just my imagination of what that would be like but actual stories that I received from other people. I never based a character on anyone real, and the plot is total invention, but the details about illness and diagnosis and getting tested—all those things are based on research that I did talking to people about their own experiences.
Bookish: What was it like to write two storylines at once? Did you write one and then the other, or alternate between the two?
RM: I originally started writing just about the 1985 storyline, and I got about 150 pages in with that and realized the book felt too narrow in a lot of ways. I constantly had my eye on the issue of appropriation. I was worried that if I was only telling Yale’s story, it felt a bit more appropriative. I also was just feeling a little claustrophobic in the story. So I spent a long time sweating this out, but in the end went back in, took Fiona, who had been a very minor character in the book, and gave her every other chapter in 2015. But I had to go back and write those in and break Yale’s story into chapters, which it hadn’t been originally. I wasn’t sure then if that was working or if it felt tacked-on. At that point, I didn’t know how the stories were going to come together in the end, but I showed it to a few friends—maybe the first six chapters, not telling them that the Fiona sections were added later and just getting their feedback—and none of them had that impression that it was a later addition, which I felt was a good indication that I should keep going and that she belonged in the book as well.
Bookish: Much of this book deals with the art world. Is art a passion of yours? What was the research process like for writing those sections?
RM: It’s definitely an interest of mine. I’m not terribly knowledgeable about art compared to people who are truly knowledgeable about art. You know, I grew up going to the Art Institute
in Chicago. I have a lot of friends who are visual artists, which sort of comes about as a result of being an author and doing things like artist residencies like Yaddo, for instance, where you end up meeting a lot of visual artists and learning about their process.
I did way more research actually than you’d know from the book. Because originally, it was going to be so much more about 1920s Paris, so I was reading all these biographies of Chaim Soutine and Tsuguharu Foujita and Amedeo Modigliani. I read this biography of Kiki de Montparnasse who was going to be in the book. Now there are maybe like two lines about Soutine in the whole thing, but it was a good education. I learned a lot. I don’t regret it!
Bookish: The epigraph for this book is a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, which contains the title of your novel in it. What drew you to this quote and this title in particular?
RM: I was actually reading this really interesting book called Flappers by Judith Mackrell. It’s a nonfiction book about six dangerous women of the 20s. In it, the author quotes this posthumous essay that was published in Esquire by Fitzgerald, and she’s using it to talk about the lost generation, which is what she was writing about. I was reading the book, in part because I was planning to write about this era, and I saw that quote and just instantly loved it and felt like it had to be my title. It just seemed to relate so much to that idea of a lost generation, which is in so many ways what I’m writing about in three different eras, but also the idea of the survivors of a generation that was decimated and the bond that those people have with each other. That just felt perfect to me. I needed to justify that title as I wrote, so I was constantly writing towards the title in a way—what that meant about optimism or survival in the face of disaster for these characters.
RM: I avoided reading A Little Life for several reasons, one of which is that it terrified me: I was in the middle of writing this, and this book comes out and it’s doing hugely well. I made the assumption at first that it was about AIDS because I was hearing vague conversations about it. People would say, “It’s about this group of gay friends and then they go through this stuff, and it’s over a long period of time,” and I’m thinking, surely that means it’s about the AIDS epidemic. I’ve since been told that it’s not really about that at all. I was really relieved to hear that. So I was avoiding it largely because it did seem similar in some ways and I did not want to be influenced by it, and I also didn’t want to be reacting to it. I wanted to be able to say ultimately that I hadn’t read it. And now I’m going to, certainly.
I’ve been very influenced by Angels in America. A lot of my artistic input on the AIDS epidemic is theater. And I think that’s true for a lot of people—there’s more in the theater world than in the fiction world. The play Jeffrey was a big early influence, The Normal Heart, of course, was something that’s been on my radar for a long time. So that said, as I was researching I did not want to run out and read other fiction or even any personal nonfiction about the AIDS epidemic. I read a lot of general nonfiction about it. My thinking there was, if I read a really compelling detail and it’s in a novel, I can’t use that. Whereas if I read a compelling detail in a general nonfiction book, I could use it, or if someone tells me something, that’s something that I could then use. But you can’t take a fictional detail and then use that in your own fiction. So almost all of my research was primary sources, like gay weeklies from the 80s, and then one-on-one interviews with all different kinds of people. Now I’m in the position of doing a lot of interviews and wanting to amplify some of the artwork of people who are HIV-positive or survived the AIDS epidemic, so now I feel like I need to catch up so I can be telling people what to read next!
Bookish: I loved the orange cover: It reminded me of Nico’s orange scarf. Did you have any input into the cover design?
RM: I gave my press a lot of trouble on the cover. I think they’ve forgiven me. We went through a lot of completely different concepts at the beginning, and ultimately I kept coming back to them and was like “I like this font” that they’d used in one design. They were like, “Ok, we’ll use the font.” And they started experimenting with this striped background. The first one they gave me was rainbow, and I felt like that was too literal. So we decided to try several different monochromatic patterns. And there were several that were really beautiful—there was a purple one that I loved, but I liked the orange because it was already in there for Nico’s scarf. And then, this is really silly, because if you read the galley, it’s not in there… but in the final proofs, I changed every time they talked about his orange scarf to “orange stripy scarf” just to make it a little more tied-in with the cover. I like the idea of it looking abstract, but then when you read, it starts to mean something.
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the short story collection Music for Wartime, which appeared in 2015, and of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short fiction won a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011). The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai is on the MFA faculty at Sierra Nevada college and has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Tin House, and Northwestern University.