Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai's first story, at the age of three, was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of her stuffed Smurf doll. More recently, her stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008, 2009, and 2010, and she has been chosen by Geraldine Brooks for The Best American Short Stories 2011. Her stories have also appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and on Public Radio's Selected Shorts. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

Her debut novel The Borrower is out from Viking in June 2011.

From a Q & A at her publisher's website:

Q. What inspired you to write The Borrower? Did you ever have a friend like Darren?

Of all the characters in the book, Darren might be the most real, although he's an amalgam of several different people I knew in high school and college. Some of their stories ended well, and some ended very badly. I wrote his sections a few years ago, but then in 2010, as I finished editing The Borrower, there was a spate of tragic reports about gay teenagers taking their own lives. It's my strong belief that the media focus wasn't the product of any new trend but rather our sudden national obsession with news stories featuring the words "bully" and "suicide." You start paying attention to those stories, and, lo and behold, they're largely about gay teenagers. I'm grateful, though, for that media blitz, however ephemeral, since some good came of it—notably the "It Gets Better" project, ( which I dearly hope that Ian, in his fictional universe, has discovered.

That sad and familiar narrative wasn't quite the spark behind The Borrower, though. I became aware, about ten years ago, of the numerous groups that (like the fictional Glad Heart Ministries) attempt to "turn" gay or gay-identified kids, teens, and adults straight. Of all possible viewpoints on that issue, I was intrigued most by that of an outsider: someone who cared very much about the child at stake but had no legitimate recourse. I think Lucy's is a relatable narrative if only because that's how so many of us feel, hearing reports of children we don't even know who are growing up in hostile environments and finding ourselves utterly unable to help. What we don't have, of course, that Lucy does, is opportunity. What each of us would do if given the chance… I suppose that's a question for the book group after-party.

Q. Lucy and Ian's journey parallels those in both Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Was it difficult to find the right balance?

It was fun to play with those extremes: the delusional, monster kidnapper and his victim, versus the two misfit companions helping each other escape. Lucy isn't sure where she falls on that spectrum, but, being the librarian she is, she sees her whole life through a sort of narrative lens and wants to define herself on those terms.

Nabokov's influence actually helped me through a difficult pass in the writing of this story; I'd gotten Lucy and Ian on the road, but after they got past Chicago the story abruptly lost steam. I dug back into Lolita and saw what I'd forgotten, and what the old master had done so effortlessly: he had them followed. I embraced "Mr. Shades" as a nod to Lolita's Quilty plotline—but even if it hadn't fit my larger thematic motives, I'd still have stolen the idea, because it was such a good, basic one. I'm pretty sure I literally hit myself on the head when I saw it. As soon as Lucy and Ian got a follower, too, I had a triangle—and that's when plots (and life) get interesting.

Of course there's a whole heaping dose of The Wizard of Oz in there, too, and there's even some Ulysses, buried so deep that only the true-of-English-major-heart will find it.

Q. Who are some of your other literary influences?

I've learned about endings from...[read on]
Learn more about the author and her work at Rebecca Makkai's website.

Writers Read: Rebecca Makkai.

--Marshal Zeringue