The Rebecca Makkai interview

auth. ph. 13 cropped jpeg.jpgToday I'm chatting with another awesome Chicago writer you should know. Her new second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is a generational saga in reverse, a literary scavenger hunt that uncovers the truth about a strange family and their mysterious house. Her first novel, The Borrower, is a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine's choices for best fiction of 2011. Her short fiction has been chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years and appears regularly in journals like Harper's, Tin House, Ploughshares, and New England Review. You can learn more about her here.

 The Hundred-Year House was originally titled "Happensack": what were the origins of the first title, and why/how did it change?
The Happensack is the name of the mosaic someone is making in the 1999 section of the book, and it's a crucial piece symbolically as well as plot-wise. (The word "happensack" came from a character's mangling of the word "happenstance" - and so it was also a way of getting the idea of luck into the book's name.) There were two problems with that title: It didn't evoke anything for the prospective reader; and, as my husband finally pointed out, it kind of sounded like some weird slang word for testicles. I really did like it, though. That's still the book's secret name.

What were some of your favorite 1955 artifacts from your research for the book?
A fellow writer told me I should get the Sears catalogues off eBay for any year I was writing about. I found both the 1955 and 1929 ones, and they were both invaluable. 1955 was especially helpful on Paint by Number sets and clothes. I also found an amazing postcard of a Kaiser Darrin, the car referred to in 1955. I've never seen a Darrin in real life.

Which library or libraries do you most frequently use?
I kind of don't want to say the name of it in case someone creepy finds your blog, but my local library on the North Shore is gorgeous and relatively quiet on a weekday morning. I write there while my kids are at school, and when I'm tired I get up and flip through the art books.

What keeps you sticking with and staying interested in book projects that take many years to complete?
For me, the stories get richer the longer I spend in them. The characters become more real, and the world gets more fleshed out - so it's not a place I ever want to leave. I was kind of devastated to leave the 1929 section of this book behind. I wanted to keep writing it for years and years. Not because I thought it was so fabulous or anything, but because I've made a world to my own specifications. I've made it principally to amuse myself. It's like the best kind of dream.

How is your relationship with Facebook, currently?  (I'm asking after re-reading your great piece about writers you want to punch in the face.)
I wrote that piece to express how conflicted I felt about the whole self-promotion aspect of social media, the ways we all have people we roll our eyes at, but then we deeply fear that we are (or will become) those same people for someone else. And it gets much worse when you have a new book out. I try to keep all my reviews and good news over on my official author page, but then I get worried that people who aren't connected to that page will be like "Oh, I guess her book never amounted to anything." But I will say that I adore Facebook - it brings writers together in amazing ways, and I'm able to use it to invite friends to events all over the country. I can look up who lives in Minneapolis and tell them I'm reading there. I can't quite imagine what this process would be like without that network.

I read that your father lived in Edgewater, which is my part of town, and you've set writing there. How was it as a literary setting?
My father lived on the corner of Sheridan and Bryn Mawr when I was a teenager, and I'd spend weekends down there. The rest of the time, I lived with my mother up in the suburbs. It's a great area. I actually love the whole far north side of the city; if I could magically live anywhere, I'd probably pick Andersonville. There's a comfort in writing about an area you know, one you're guaranteed to get right. I'm always terrified when I write about New York City, because I know I'm getting something wrong, something New Yorkers will scoff at. My next novel will have something to do with the Chicago art scene in the 80s, and I'm still trying to decide what neighborhood my characters live in.

You've done a lot of work writing and researching your Hungarian roots. How do you describe the country to people who aren't from there, especially in comparison to its neighboring countries?
I'm doing a lot of research into my own family (some of which appeared in Harpers last summer), but I've actually only been to Hungary once. I'm hoping to go again soon, of course. I'm much better at describing Hungarians than Hungary itself, but then I always have to stop and remember that all the Hungarians I know are expatriates. Most of them came over in 1956 (when my father came, after a failed student revolution). So I'm really good at talking about '56ers. And I'm pretty good on the food. But I'd say the basic thing you need to know about Hungary is this: The closest language to Hungarian is Finnish. The second closest language to Hungarian is Korean. No joke. The Huns started in Asia, pillaged their way through Finland, and wound up settling in this valley in the middle of Europe. And then the Austrians taught them how to cook pastry. But that was a long time later.

This is just a parenting question: when you taught at a Montessori school, what were the parents like? Did they inform how you decided to parent?
The parents were really pretty amazing. They still are - I send my daughters to the same school where I taught. I hate to go on and on about how much I love Montessori because despite some amazing public Montessori schools, it's still not an option for everyone. But I'll say that I was a Montessori kid through eighth grade, and I think it's as important to who I've become as my actual genetic material. I'm not as cool as most of the Montessori parents. Some of them show up somehow carrying four kids on one bike. Those are the same ones who never seem to frazzle. I frazzle pretty easily.

I read an interview with you where you talked about how when you were a young reader, you felt perturbed by reading work that was set in the present tense. What writing styles or idiosyncrasies irk you now?
Hmm... The present tense definitely doesn't bother me anymore! I was thinking recently how annoyed I get at the number of scenes set in restaurants. I think I'm going to blog about it soon. On a more stylistic level, I can't stand books that revel in their own darkness and violence in a sort of self-congratulatory way. (Cormac, I'm looking at you.)

What is the last book you recommended (to a friend, other interview, etc.)?
I convinced my husband to read The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. And now I'm driving him crazy by constantly going "Where are you? What's happening? What page are you on? Tell me when you get to the old lady!"

One weird thing we have in common is occasionally being mistaken for being Jewish and not always correcting people when it does. Why did you keep it up when it happened?
Ooh. That's complicated on my part. I'll say that for a while, a family member had me convinced that I was partly Jewish, which is not true. And (without going into details) my family's history in Hungary is complicated and disturbing enough that sometimes I'd just prefer it if I could say we were Jewish. This was all back in college, though, that I was kind of in this state of hopeful denial.

As an adult, it's often something really subtle, where someone I've known for a long time will make some joke about bat mitzvahs or something, and I'll laugh, and then I'll realize that the implication was that I could relate to this, but it's really awkward to stop the conversation and say "Hey wait, did you make that joke because you think I'm Jewish? Because I'm not." And honestly, if you could somehow just convert to cultural Judaism - if you could be like, I'm agnostic but I just want to become a secular, non-practicing Jew - I'd totally do it. I think I make more sense in that context.

What are the upsides and downsides of living on the campus of a boarding school?
The context here is that my husband teaches at one, so we get to live on campus. There would be a very different answer if I was the one who had to do the teaching and coaching and dorm stuff.

Upsides: free housing, free utilities, free food (if you can stomach it), you can find a babysitter in two minutes, you live thirty seconds from a lot of your friends, your kids can watch girls' sports and go to concerts and plays, free athletic facilities, free pool, amazing faculty kids for yours to be friends with and frolic around the grounds with, community garden, smart neighbors, incredible national and racial and socioeconomic diversity, and the mascot is a giant frog.

Downside: At one point, our apartment was in a boys' dorm, and the other side of my office door was the goal in a game called Human Bowling.

How does it feel to be the 393rd person interviewed for
I've taken so long to answer these that I'm probably the 398th person by now. So mostly it feels guilty.