Rebecca Makkai: Shelf Lives

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rebecca Makkai’s debut novel, The Borrower, introduces us to Ian Drake, a young student whose fundamentalist mother is worried about his reading habits. She only wants him to read “books with the breath of God in them.” Her list of forbidden reading material includes witchcraft, weaponry, evolution, Halloween, and anything by Roald Dahl and Lois Lowry. Sympathetic for Ian and his passion for books, Lucy—the town’s children’s librarian—smuggles him reading material. After finding Ian hiding in the library one morning, Lucy agrees to drive him to his grandmother’s house and pretends to believe his false directions. As they continue to drive, she knows she is helping him run away. The strange pair leaves home behind and embarks on a cross-country roadtrip.

Makkai invited TriQuarterly into her home to explore her bookshelves, discuss her favorite children’s books, and recall the ones she had to smuggle. She also gave a sneak peek at the books that influenced her next novel, The Hundred-Year House, which will be published by Viking/Penguin in July 2014.

TriQuarterly: In the book, Roald Dahl and Lois Lowry are banned from the house. Why did you choose those two authors?

Rebecca Makkai: Those were two of my favorite writers when I was a child. And I’ve taught elementary school for the past twelve years, and those are my favorites to read to my classes. They’re also very subversive in this lovely way. This is where I differ from my narrator. Personally, I think there are some things that are not right for kids. My kids will not be allowed to read literally anything they want to. My narrator, if she had kids, she might say they could read whatever they want. But for me, Roald Dahl and Lois Lowry are right up against the edge of what kids can handle and what’s appropriate. Roald Dahl goes way over the edge of what’s normal. He’s so far out there that the kids get it. It’s OK because it’s so unreal. When I was six, my teacher read The Twits to the class, and it was a revelation for me. My parents had this really dysfunctional marriage, and this was so far beyond that. It was almost cathartic. I’d never read anything like that. Lois Lowry, in a very different way, really trusts children’s intelligence and then goes to that dark, dystopian place in some of her books. Then some of her other books are really sweet and simple. I’m thinking of The Giver and Number the Stars, which was about Nazi occupation. She was writing about that for children that before anyone else was, and she took a lot of flack for it.

TQ: Were there any books that you weren’t allowed to read as a child?

RM: No one has asked me that! Actually my mother was really laid back. I could read junk. I could read The Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley Twins because I was also reading good stuff. I think she knew not to say no because I would have found it anyway. At one point, I was too young. I want to say I was nine. I checked out Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I think I asked my mom, “What’s menstruation?” I can’t remember if she answered me or not. But the next day, my book was gone. She hadn’t said anything about it, but the book was just gone. My room was so messy anyway, I didn’t think much about it. It wasn’t until twenty years later that I realized she probably stole my book! It was perfect. She knew me better than to say, “I don’t want you reading this book.” That’s actually a good way to get your kid to read. Just tell them all the stuff they can’t read.

TQ: Is there anything that you’ll be hesitant to let your children have?

RM: Probably. And who knows what will be trendy in ten years. A lot of stuff that I don’t love my students reading is stuff that’s super trendy and really poorly done. It could be poorly done in terms of style, but it could also just be thoughtless in content. Then there’s always stuff that’s age inappropriate. Books that are too violent for a ten-year-old or too sexual or whatever it is. As a parent, you have to draw your own boundaries. So in The Borrower, there are two characters—the librarian and the mother—who are opposite extremes. I’m kind of in the middle on that. The mother takes the censorship way too far. And the librarian can’t deny books. I’m more toward the librarian end of things.

TQ: The book has many references to children’s literature, but it’s not a book geared toward children. It felt very nostalgic for me. How did you manage to strike that balance?

RM: It was tricky. I didn’t think much about it during the writing. But later, it was tricky from a marketing perspective. We had to be really careful with the cover, making sure it didn’t look like YA. I would say that someone seventh grade and up could certainly read the book. But it’s not for ten-year-olds. As soon as I made her a children’s librarian, I was able to get inside her head. This really would be her frame of reference. The lens she sees the world through is children’s literature. At the same time, I was teaching [children] that age as I was writing the book. So it was easy for me to recall all those books, whereas I might have had to do some digging around in my parents’ closet otherwise. I very deliberately made her a pusher of the classics because I wanted people reading it to have their own memories of their childhood reading experiences rather than to make it just what was really trendy in 2006. No adults reading it now would relate to it.

TQ: Do you have a book or two that have really influenced you?

RM: Yeah, for everything that I’m writing, I’ll pull out five or six books as reference points, and I’ll keep them right on my desk. It’s not that I even read them that often. But even just looking at them, I get a vibe from them. So for The Borrower, it’s obvious because the references were so direct with Huck Finn and Lolita, etc. The project I’m working on right now, no one would know what influenced me. I do find myself susceptible to writing like whoever I’m reading. I had to stop reading Lydia Davis. She kind of invented flash fiction, in a way, but I don’t think she would ever call it that. She writes two-sentence stories, and she’s brilliant. I had this volume of her collected works, and every time I sat down to write, I felt like I needed to write a four-sentence story. This is not what I do! I really admire her but I had to stop reading her. When I’m looking to submerge myself in a certain project, I need to choose really carefully or read something completely different that won’t get in the way.

TQ: What is your current project?

RM: It’s called The Hundred-Year House, and it’s set on the North Shore. The Borrower comes through Chicago. But this one is fully set in Lake Forest. I don’t say it’s Lake Forest, but it’s obvious. Then it’s set in different time periods going backward. So it starts in 1999. Then it’s 1955 and then 1929. The last section is 1900. So it’s the twentieth century in reverse. It’s the story of a defunct artist colony. It’s defunct in 1999, but as you go back in time, it’s not defunct anymore. It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family told in reverse. It’s a lot of ghost stuff. The Turn of the Screw is one of my reference points in terms of that really precise balance where you don’t know if it’s a ghost story or not. You can read it either way.

TQ: What are the other books are you using as points of reference?

RM: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I have the Selected Lettersof Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. I have the Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, the poet. I have this Lives of the Poets book. I’ve decided that I need to read more ghost stories. Someone told me to read the Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

TQ: Do you have any books that people would be surprised to know you have?

RM: I think we gave away The DaVinci Code, thank god! (Laughs) I did read it though. My grandmother was a novelist. She’s Hungarian. I’ve really never read her books. I have one that my father’s translated for me. But I have a shelf with thirty of her novels, and they are all in Hungarian. I have a lot of children’s literature, and I don’t think that would surprise anybody. But it goes beyond the ages of my children. It has more to do with teaching for so many years than with any particular obsession over children’s literature. If you’re going to have a complete collection of books, of the things that you love and that influence you, how could you not have the books you grew up with?

TQ: Are any of those books ones that you hung on to since you were a kid?

RM: Yes, and others were things that I picked up and couldn’t resist buying because I want them for my children or want to share them with my class. I have this constant fear with children’s books about them going out of print. Because they go out of print faster than adult books. When you see a great one, you need to snatch it up. A lot of those are in boxes in the basement because we ran out of shelf space. Until our children are actually ten years old, it’s hard to justify spending that much shelf space on children’s novels.

TQ: How do you have everything arranged?

RM: (Points to a small bookcase beneath a window in the living room.) This is all children’s books. (Points to a bigger bookcase along the side of the room.) I do collect Best American Short Stories. They go back to 1969. Whenever I’m in a used book store, I look for them because I’m missing a few.

TQ: When you read through the Best American Short Stories anthologies, do you skip your own?

RM: The first year it came out, I was so terrified to look at it because I thought I’d see mistakes that I made. Then after awhile, I realized I had to reread them because when I do readings or have interviews, people ask me things about the stories. So I need to re-familiarize myself with them and try not to get obsessed with the things that bother me. (Points to another section) My father’s a poet, and he writes in Hungarian. This is one of his first collections. Then he did these huge anthologies of translating Hungarian poetry into English. Then this is the phonological theory book my mother wrote. (Laughs) Really juicy reading! My husband’s grandfather was a local historian, so the top shelf is all his stuff. We have a lot of family stuff around. My grandfather was a strange political figure in Hungary. He wrote a lot of strange political things that were never published. And I have the manuscripts.

Nothing goes on the bookshelf unless one or the other of us has read it. The unread books are in our bedroom. These two bookshelves in the living room are things that we feel really happy displaying to anyone who comes over. We have to love it to have it out here. The top shelf is almost all signed books.

(Moving down the hallway to a small bookcase in front of Makkai’s office.)

These are my grandmother’s books. She died in 1979, so some of these are reprints. These were all my father’s. He’s still alive but he moved to Hawaii.

TQ: So was your grandmother pretty well known in Hungary?       

RM: Yeah. She was not popular with the Communists. So her writing was suppressed, and she had to smuggle it out. When my mother was dating my father, she went into Communist Hungary to visit my grandmother. My father couldn’t go back into the country. So she met her future mother-in-law for the first time. My grandmother gave her this manuscript to smuggle out in her girdle, so she did. Then my father had it. She had trouble with the Communists. She wasn’t able to do as much as she could have. She was well known at the time. I don’t really know. If you asked the average sixty-year-old literary Hungarian, then they would know who she was. But a twenty-five-year-old probably would not. I’ve heard her compared to James Michener, oddly, because she  did a lot of historical and travel writing.

TQ: How did your dad acquire all of her books?

RM: She could send them. She would make a “historical novel” that skewered the politicians, but she’d set it in Transylvania in 1812. Or set the story in a faraway place. They were about the Communist party, but the Communist party never seemed to get the joke.

(Moving into the office)

These are my publications—literary magazines and anthologies, my novel. And books about writing. Little totems for what I’m working on now. Poems and photos of inspirational things. Collectible books. This is a deteriorating photograph of Grandmother. She was a stage actress before she was a writer, so that was from her acting days. Ridiculously glamorous. I really didn’t know her, but she has this spooky look on her face. It’s haunting. And I like this because I’m writing about ghosts now.

TQ: There are two desks in here. Do you and your husband work back to back?

RM: Not really. (Gestures to a door in the back of the office.) This door leads to dorms for the Lake Forest Academy. Almost all faculty members live on campus. My husband is on duty one night a week, so he sits in the dorms on his computer. The students can get really loud, so I just shut the door. One night they were human bowling! Then sometimes they play a Ninja game that involves a lot of shouting. So I do most of my writing at Starbucks. (Laughs)

TQ: I notice you have a lot of bugs and shells.

RM: Yeah, I used to have more urchins, and then the dog ate them. I’m kind of a science geek. This moth I got when I was probably eight years old at the Field Museum. I was doing this report on butterflies and moths, and my mom took me down to see this exhibit.

TQ: (Pointing to a small, leather-bound book on the desk.) Is this a journal?

RM: This is actually a list of every book I’ve read since 2001. Someone gave this book to my husband and me as a wedding present. We had no idea what to do with it, so we started on our honeymoon. I was reading all Harry Potter on our honeymoon. And I have books I read to my class. I didn’t get a lot read this summer. It’s this really cool handmade, Celtic binding. Every time we finish anything—we have to actually finish it—we write it in here. It keeps me motivated because my husband reads so much faster than I do. And keep track of books on opposing pages. That’s why I write much bigger than he does.