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"The best we can hope, as writers, is that our ruts are perceived as themes. "
In her most recent novel, The Great Believers (a finalist for this year's National Book Award and the ALA's Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction), readers are introduced to Yale Tishman, a director at a Chicago art gallery who is set to introduce a series of 1920s paintings and whose life becomes twisted in complications when the effects of the AIDS crisis begin hitting his personal circle, including his best friend, Nico. He tries to cope through the tragedy by developing a bond with Nico's little sister, Fiona, who thirty years later in Paris readers meet more intimately as she searches for her daughter who has disappeared into a cult and finds herself revisiting the horrors of the epidemic. It is emotional and majestic, as readers have come to expect with the author's now third book.
Read on for Rebecca's interview where she discusses what influenced the development of this book, what it is like at her other job aside from writing, and explains a little bit about how her characters and plots were created over the course of the novel's writing process.
How did you become interested in writing?
I don't think "become" is the right word there. I was both a writer and an inventively pathological liar as a kid. If I hadn't grown up to be a writer, the only other thing I can imagine doing is acting. I do enjoy the real world, but it's apparently not enough for me.
In addition to your own writing, you are the Artistic Director for StoryStudio Chicago. What do you enjoy about this position?
I love teaching, which is part of my job there, but the other part is planning events and classes and bringing our writing community together. I don't have an MFA myself, and I love helping to make the kind of place that fills those same needs for writers of all ages and backgrounds. Our students are having some wild success with getting published lately, although of course just continuing to write is the greatest measure of success.
What inspired your most recent novel, The Great Believers?
I was riding in a cab in New York and looked out the window and saw a woman who might not have been a model, but looked like one. A long chain of thoughts followed, and by the end of the cab ride I had decided to write a novel about an artist's muse in 1920s Paris. I messed up, though, and I wound up writing a novel about AIDS in Chicago in the 1980s instead.
The novel explores the impact of the AIDS crisis in America in the 1980s. Why did you feel compelled to explore this very important time in American history?
AIDS really started as a subplot, but slowly took over the book. I was born in 1978, and so while I was not a part of the world I'm writing about, the AIDS crisis was a backdrop to my childhood — in the same way that the Vietnam War was the childhood backdrop for folks fifteen or twenty years older than me. While I didn't personally lose anyone, much of my thinking about ethics and empathy were formed around what I saw and knew of the crisis. I think it's natural that it eventually found its way into my writing.
Photo credit: Susan Aurinko
Readers are also taken across generations and locations throughout the course of the novel as two characters' lives become intertwined. What was it like telling a story over such a span of time and distance for the characters?
There were a lot of timelines involved, for one thing, and a lot of calendars. I mapped out a great deal of this book in Google Calendars, which I highly recommend. But more importantly, the timespan allowed me to show characters at different ages, which I found fascinating. I hadn't originally planned to include the 2015 sections — I was just setting the book in the 80s, and had written about half of it already — so when I started to weave in the contemporary storyline, I had to reimagine these characters 30 years later. Although I'd worked with longer timespans before (particularly in my second novel, The Hundred-Year House, which moves backwards in time) I hadn't dealt much with the same characters at different ages. That span automatically deepened the characters for me, gave them their fourth dimension.
Art also plays an important role in the book, whether it is painting or photography. How did you decide to incorporate this into the book?
This wasn't particularly a decision I made, so much as a rut I'm in. I try very hard not to write about artists, and I always end up writing about artists. The best we can hope, as writers, is that our ruts are perceived as themes.
What is coming up next for you?
Another novel, I hope, with some short stories along the way. I don't think it would be helpful right now for me to talk about the new project, so I'll just say that it's something fairly angry, which is what I think many people are writing right now.
Follow Rebecca Makkai on Facebook and Twitter. The Great Believers is available now from Penguin Random House.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.