Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrowers (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as many short stories and essays. Her story “The Briefcase” has just been anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new high school literature textbook, Collections. She is a smart, observant, and sharp-witted woman, and it is reflected in her writing. She was kind enough to answer some questions during a lull in her book tour. (You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here.)
I understand that The Hundred-Year House began as a short story. Did you start with the idea of a multi-generational story or the artists’ colony, or were they always intertwined?
Neither. I began by writing a short story about male anorexia. There was no artists’ colony, and there were no multiple generations. There was a coach house with two couple crammed into it, and there was some academic sabotage. There were a few characters you’d recognize from the 1999 section of the novel. But what were to be my main themes (my main subjects, really) weren’t there at the beginning. Or they were there only as tiny specks on the side. It took years to realize that they’d be my main story. And that the male anorexia had to go.
The structure of the book is so intriguing. What were the benefits of telling this story in reverse chronological order? Did you outline it in chronological order to make sure everything fit together perfectly, and then reverse it when it came time to start writing?
Once I realized I’d go back in time I slammed on the brakes and outlined everything (which took about a year). I did outline it in the order it would appear – that is, in reverse chronology. And I wrote it that way, too. I realized it would be important to have the same experience as the reader, to move through the story in the same direction. But that meant that I had to outline everything in meticulous detail first; I couldn’t write 1955 without knowing everything that would happen (which is to say, had happened) in 1929. At times it felt more like a Sudoku puzzle than a plot – the way I had to sketch everything in quite tentatively and only then, when it had all gelled, commit it to ink.
There are a lot of characters running around at Laurelfield in the three time periods. Did you create an outline for the entire book before you began writing, or did aspects of the plot come to you as you wrote? How did you keep track of all of the characters, and the various plot strands, while writing the book?
The aforementioned outline was around 60 pages long. And constantly changing, I should add – it’s not as if I wrote it and was done. I’ve heard someone smart compare an outline to an itinerary for a trip to a city you’ve never visited before; it’s essential to have a plan, but once you get there you might realize that a restaurant has closed, that there’s a festival on, that the place down the street is really fabulous. You need the flexibility to let go of your plan and do what makes sense. But yes, that initial outline included calendars and timelines and biographies and research and floor plans. It gives me a headache thinking about it now.
Doug Herriot’s research into the life of poet Edwin Parfitt is challenging because he did not leave an extensive paper trail. The few things Doug discovers about Parfitt only create more questions, and his life and work becomes a mystery at the heart of the novel. Why do you think writers and readers love novels in which sorting out a writer’s or artist’s life is the central mystery?
Hmm. Well, I hope they do, and I know I’ve loved a couple of books like that, namely The Aspern Papers by Henry James (a novella, really) and Possession by A. S. Byatt. I wonder if it has something to do with the artist being a person who’s left quite a bit behind, but is ultimately unknowable… And I do think this echoes our more personal experiences with people dying. They go, and they leave a few cryptic things behind, and only then do we realize all the questions we were supposed to ask them. So maybe it’s cathartic to delve, fictionally, into the mysteries of the dead.
What has been the highlight of your current book tour (which continues into the fall)? Most surprising thing?
They fed me really, really well in Atlanta, which made me happy. And I was thrilled with the turnout in New York City, especially after I’d been told that people would only come to an event in NYC if I was famous.
What is most difficult or nerve-wracking about a book tour?
It’s kind of horrifying every night walking into a bookstore and not knowing if you have 80 people or 2. I’m okay with 80 people, but 2 is a little awkward – not that you can’t still have fun. It’s just hard to prepare psychologically when you don’t know what you’re preparing for.
Can you tell me about your work with Story Studio Chicago’s novel-in-a-year project? How do these teaching and mentoring activities affect your writing?
I love teaching this class. It’s the class I wish I could have taken when I was writing my first novel, and in many ways it’s my effort to teach myself the things I kind of sort or know but haven’t fully internalized yet. Putting together craft talks and handouts absolutely helps me organize my own thoughts on things like endings or outlines or character development. And there’s a sense in which being the teacher forces you to be the grownup. Like, I’d be afraid of a mouse if I were alone, but I wouldn’t be afraid of one if my daughters were there freaking out, because I’d be the adult in the room. And in the same way, if I’m talking other writers through despair or insecurity, I find that I’m less likely to experience those things myself.
What can you tell me about your upcoming short story collection, Music for Wartime, scheduled for publication in July 2015? Do the stories cover a range of approaches and preoccupations, or are they linked in some way (which seems to be increasingly common)? Are most of the stories mentioned on your website in the book? Will any new or unpublished stories be included?
The stories are linked by the themes of (surprise) music and war. More specifically, the collection as a whole aims to answer the question: What is the role of the artist in a world at war? There are some brand new stories in there, and a few so ancient that only twenty people ever read them back in 2004. And there are some that have been around the block a bit more. There’s also some nonfiction mixed in, some family history – so it’s a little nontraditional as a collection. I’m excited about it.
Who are your favorite authors, or those who have had the greatest influence on you?
Shirley Jackson, Vladimir Nabokov, and Tom Stoppard.
What have you read recently that impressed you? Who is flying below the radar that deserves more attention?
I have this running list of writers who should be more famous than they are, but they aren’t exactly under the radar. My current list includes David Huddle, Kevin Brockmeier, and Julie Otsuka – and Otsuka was a finalist for the fricking National Book Award, so it’s not like I’m finding unknown writers on the street corner or anything. It’s just that they should be household names, and they aren’t yet. I loved Pamela Erens’s The Virgins last year, and am still thinking about it. There’s a recent novel (2011) by Ida Hattemer-Higgins called The History of History that should have gotten way more attention than it did. It’s dark as hell, and morally difficult, and probably not for everyone. But I adored it.