If you’re looking for the best book of 2018, pick up a copy of The Great Believers (Viking, 2018), the new novel by Rebecca Makkai.
Makkai’s dazzling epic about the AIDS epidemic and its impact on a group of friends in Chicago during the 1980s is insightful, sensitive, revelatory and — be forewarned — a tearjerker.
This interview with Makkai took place on an exciting day for her — June 19, the day the book was published.
Wisconsin Gazette: Rebecca, I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the rave review for The Great Believers in the June 22 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
Rebecca Makkai: Thank you! I’ve been thrilled about getting really good magazine coverage ahead of publication, which always means a lot. … Everything’s a bit of a blur to me right now — it’s publication day today. But I know that was a lovely review. You work “in the dark” for a few years, alone, writing without an audience, not knowing how people are going to receive the book. It’s a little bit like getting dressed in the dark and showing up at a party without having looked in the mirror. You hope that it all works and that people get it.
What’s it like as a straight woman to create gay male characters?
It’s interesting. I also think that gay men happen to write straight women spectacularly well. I really do. You look at someone like Michael Cunningham or at Darren Star and Sex and the City. I think there is more in common between straight women and gay men than, for instance, with straight women and straight men. I feel more comfortable writing gay men than I do writing straight men. I get them better. I also tend to make good friends with them in real life. I think that’s part of it. I do always have an eye on the problems of possible appropriation.
AIDS has recently made a return to the cultural zeitgeist. In addition to The Great Believers, there is Tim Murphy’s 2016 novel Christodora, Kenny Fries’ 2017 memoir In the Province of the Gods and an essay in the new David Sedaris book Calypso. AIDS is back onstage in the Broadway revival of Angels in America, as well as on TV in Ryan Murphy’s new FX series Pose. Why do you think that is?
As much as I think it’s amazing that all this stuff is out there, I am much more interested in why there isn’t more of it. Here’s the thing: You go to someone’s house and they have 18 books about the Civil War on their shelf. They have 32 books about World War II. People who are interested in American history, that is. Where are the books about AIDS? They don’t have books about AIDS on their shelf.
Where is the museum?
Where are the monuments?
This is one of the major events of the 20th century. We should be talking about this in school to the extent that we talk about World War II and for the same reasons. So that history doesn’t repeat itself, to understand America the way it is now because of what’s already happened, to understand the cause and effect of history, and so on.
This is a drop in the bucket.
You’ve already dealt with queer issues in The Borrower and in Music for Wartime. But The Great Believers is something else entirely. How do you think your core readers will respond to it?
I don’t really know who my core readers are. I know individual people. I think different readers might like my work for completely different reasons. I don’t think there’s a consensus out there about why people like or dislike me for that matter. It’s not as if I’m known for mystery novels, and suddenly I’m doing this.
I think that ultimately everything I’ve written has been character driven. It’s always had literary aspirations.
Yale, the main male character, works at a gallery on the Northwestern University campus. Through his job, as well as his friendship with the main female character Fiona, he becomes involved in presenting a special exhibit of rare artwork. What is your own knowledge of the art world and artists, and was much research required for this part of the book?
There are two sides to that. There’s the art history side and there’s the gallery world.
For the art history side, because we’re talking about Paris in the ’20s, that really was a lot of reading.
For the art world side, of course, there was reading involved. But a lot of my introduction to that world was through artist friends in Chicago, in the wonderful arts scene that we have going here and the cross-pollination between the disciplines that goes on in the city.
But also because I’ve stayed at artists’ residencies such as Ragdale (in Lake Forest) and Yaddo (in Saratoga Springs), having dinner every night for three weeks with (people from) all different disciplines.
You really get a sense of their world.
And then, of course, making friends with those people (I go) to their shows or see their Facebook updates. I certainly needed to do a lot of research into that world, as well, but I think I had a glimpse into that world through personal friendships. The flames of my interest were fanned through those friendships.
In terms of the book’s timeframe, The Great Believers is told in alternating chapters. Were all of the ’80s and ’90s chapters written at once?
I could say neither or both. I was initially writing about the ’80s, writing Yale’s story. I got about 150 pages in with just that when I realized that the story needed broadening. At that point, I wanted another character, another point of view. I also wanted another timeframe. I spent some time figuring out what that would be. Ultimately, I went back into the manuscript and found Fiona, who had really been a minor character until that point. I decided that she would be my voice for the other chapters. I went back and wrote her first few sections, weaving them into the story, breaking Yale into chapters as I did that. Once they were caught up to each other, I wrote forward in alternating chapters.
The Great Believers is incredibly cinematic. If there was a movie version, who would you want to see play Yale and Fiona?
It’s funny, I just did an essay on this. There’s a wonderful blog called “My Book, The Movie,” where they ask you to cast your story. …
For Fiona, because we see her in two time periods, I said that I wanted to see Kate Hudson and Goldie Hawn. They’re mother and daughter. But I need them like 15 years ago, I think.
For Yale, I said a cross between a young Paul Reiser and a young David Eigenberg, but with a Chicago accent instead of a New York one.
If it really were made into a movie, I think I would want someone young and unknown who has the right look and doesn’t have the baggage of being a known entity behind them, so they can just be that character for people.
Rebecca Makkai takes part in “Read and Feed” at InkLink Books, 2890 Main St., East Troy, Aug. 15, and then reads from her book Aug. 28 at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N Downer Ave., Milwaukee.
For more, go online to rebeccamakkai.com.