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Rebecca Makkai On Plot Construction, Boarding Schools, And Singing Gorilla Telegrams

by Brendan Dowling on May 2, 2023

Now a film professor and host of a popular podcast, Bodie Kane has largely managed to move past the events of her tumultuous adolescence. As a teenager, Bodie had to navigate a deeply dysfunctional family, four years feeling like an outsider at a prestigious boarding school, and the shocking murder of her former roommate her senior year. Yet when her high school, Granby, invites her to return to teach a two week course on podcasting, Bodie’s forced to reexamine her teenage years from an adult perspective. Two of her students begin investigating the now twenty-year-old murder, and their research leads Bodie to suspect that the wrong man might have been convicted. What follows is a suspenseful and disorienting reckoning with the past, where Bodie reconnects with former classmates, many of whom have their own reasons to deeply resist reexamining their high school years. I Have Some Questions For You marks Rebecca Makkai’s first book since her acclaimed The Great Believers, and her new work has received equally rapturous reviews. The New York Times Book Review hailed it as “a spellbinding work” and The Boston Globe called it “an irresistible literary page-turner.” Makkai spoke with us about creating the perfect hero for her story, what she had to leave out of her novel, and singing gorilla telegrams. Author photo courtesy of Brett Simison.

In other interviews, I’ve heard you talk about how you reverse engineer your writing process by coming up with the plot first, and then figuring out the perfect characters to fit into that story. Can you talk about why that process works for you?

I think a lot of writers start with character and then, of course, the challenge is going to be figuring out what they’re going to get up to. My brain doesn’t really work that way. I start with plot and then I have to figure out the kind of character that’s going to be the most susceptible to that plot. Who’s going to be the most changed by these circumstances? What Achilles heels do I want to give them that are going to be interesting for this plot or that would get them drawn into it? People talk sometimes about how if you put Romeo into the plot of Hamlet, he just does it. He’s just like, “I’ll kill the guy, yeah, okay.” But if you put Hamlet into the plot of Romeo and Juliet, he’s like, “Well, we should think about this for a long time,” and nothing bad happens, right? You need to find the character that this plot could only have happened to them. For me, that means working backwards.

Bodie was such a fascinating character for me as a reader. I was really drawn into everything that she was going through. Can you talk a little bit about  why she’s the perfect person for this specific story?

I wanted someone who had been really adrift and insecure as a teenager and is really secure and confident as an adult, so that when I put her back on her high school campus, she’s dramatically torn between those two people. She isn’t who she was. I also wanted someone who had very, very much felt like an outsider in high school. Part of her journey is realizing how much of an insider she actually was, just being part of these systems, willingly or not. [I wanted] someone who thinks systemically about abuse of power. She thinks about whose stories get told and how, in her work with film history, but hasn’t had had a reason to turn that on her own life. She really thought that this was a case that was settled. Realizing that it isn’t, she has that skill set to use and those real observational powers, but it’s still a slow, painful awakening process going on there. I wanted someone with a good sense of humor, etcetera. That helps a lot, being in first person and stuck in their head.

The dynamic between Bodie and her former classmates are so compelling also, especially since we get to see Bodie’s memories of people against their present day interactions. Can you talk about how you created the relationship between Bodie and Beth?

That would be a character who Bodie quintessentially viewed as the epitome of this school—you know, popular and attractive and talented and wealthy. Very much an insider. Bodie has a line late in the book that she never would have dreamed that she had a hand in bullying this girl. She just felt like gossip about her was fair play in the same way that we might feel like gossiping about a celebrity is fair play. Like, “They’re never gonna see this, why would they care about me?”

Of course, it’s going to dawn on her later—as it dawns on all of us—that other people were going through things and might have been even more vulnerable than we were. But Bodie’s someone who’s avoided class reunions, she’s avoided Facebook for the most part, and she hasn’t had that experience of being thrust back together with these people before. Social media has really been that for a lot of us, like, suddenly becoming friends with someone that you were never friends with in high school and going, “Oh, wait. You’re not the person I thought you were.”

For someone like Beth, she really saw Bodie as sort of thinking she was above it all, thinking she was better than everybody else—which she did! (laughs) That’s what tends to happen in some of these cases, you see yourself as an outsider and then you look down on the people who you see as insiders. I think that’s just very realistic. That’s, in so many cases, exactly the way that things went down in high school and probably go on in subtler ways when we’re adults.

It also seems that this is a story that could only have taken place in 2018; Bodie is constantly in conversation with the news events of the day and the #MeToo movement. What was it like to write a book that was so specific to its time period?

I started writing in 2019 and I was forced to make a choice pretty quickly, just because of COVID. I had been setting it kind of vaguely “now,” and then suddenly “now” became like, “Well, what do you mean by now?” Right? (laughs) I’m not quite sure why I chose 2018 instead of 2019, except that I didn’t want it to feel like COVID was bearing down, so I scooched it back. It was funny, because in 2020 ,when I made this decision, I thought, “I’ll just set the last part in 2022 when the pandemic will surely be completely over.” Then I had to go in there and take masks off my characters and put them back on and off, depending on what was going on. Fortunately, I didn’t have to finish editing it until after March of 2022,  so I could write with authority about what the situation would be in New Hampshire at that point.

There was that part, but then setting it and writing it when I did, those #MeToo questions were definitely on my mind. It was a time—it still is—when we were all looking back on things that we were told we were supposed to be okay with in the past and re-examining them. That was something I think that was going on for all of us. It made a lot of sense to me that it found its way into my book, maybe in a more contradictory, complex, nuanced way than the same discussions that we were all having on Twitter.

I was really drawn into the relationships Bodie forges with her students. They’re so engaging in how smart and vibrant they are. What made you choose which students to bring along with Bodie and her journey? 

First of all, just generationally, it’s funny because they are in so many ways just more aware—socially, culturally, more considerate of other people’s feelings. They also are really annoying in their overthinking of everything and their sort of policing of each other, but they’re still working it out. They’re very young. It’s not like I’m saying that they are this perfect generation by a long shot. But the contrast between them and Bodie’s classmates is notable, as it is in real life. If you step into a high school now at a place where kids are really thoughtful and well educated—oh my God, the difference is enormous.

I wanted of all the kids that I could have created for this situation, I did want one kid who was maybe getting a little over her skis and have these lofty ideas in terms of like, “I’m going to solve this.” Something interesting about this younger generation right now is that because they sometimes do have huge reach online, they sometimes—correctly or incorrectly—feel like they have a very big voice and that they might accomplish huge things. That often is correct, but it’s funny to someone of even my generation. I’m not that much older, but the farthest we ever thought anything that we said or did was ever going to go was the people in the room. Maybe you went to a protest, but you didn’t really think anyone was paying attention to you.

Alder, I just, liked him as a character and he kind of came alive on the page. It started to make sense that he would get involved in this and that he could have some real agency. I was never going to write the version where two white women come in and save the day. That was not going to work for many different reasons. His agency there is very important to me, but also I think he’s he’s the kind of kid who would have been probably incredibly ostracized by a previous generation of Granby students. The fact that he’s popular and beloved is real. That is a real cultural shift that we’ve experienced.

I’ve read in other interviews where you talk about how you wanted to correct some common mistakes that occur in a boarding school novel. Can you talk about what some of those misconceptions or mistakes are?

I mean, some of them I’ve joked about.  It’s just the aesthetic and the vibe. Every building is ancient, it’s always October, and everyone writes letters. (laughs) I live on campus at a boarding school, so this does come up in conversation. Once in a while you get people going, “Do those still exist?” I think they’re thinking of something like “Dead Poets Society” or Harry Potter. I don’t know what they’re thinking of, but something very, very, very old. Other people, this is much more I encountered when I was a day student at a boarding school, but people asking me if it was a reform school. People would ask, “What did you do to get sent there?” When I was a day student at a boarding school, we hired a singing gorilla telegram for one of my friends in the dorm. The singing gorilla shows up and we’re leading this guy basically down the hall, which we probably weren’t supposed to do. The singing gorilla is like, “What did you guys do to go this reform school?” It was like, “What choices did you make in your life that you’re a singing gorilla?” (laughs)

Even within stories that people are telling about a boarding school, they’re very often ignoring the diversity of a really responsible good boarding school that works in the same way that a responsible small liberal arts college would, in what I think of as the Robin-Hooding of wealth through financial aid and scholarships. Maybe half the kids there are wealthy and full pay, but you’ve got kids from all over the world. You’ve got kids from underserved communities and cities nearby. You’ve got kids from very, very small rural towns where they weren’t going to get this kind of education, and everything in between, in a way that even within a public school in a major city, you’re not getting that kind of diversity in terms of the extremes of international experience. Kids are exposed to that at a very formative time in their lives. High school is a more formative time than college. It readjusts you in some way. I’m not saying that they are superior to other schools at all, but I’m just saying that to me, that is the greatest strength of a good boarding school, that incredible diversity of all kinds. When they’re depicted as these incredibly homogenous places, I find that dispiriting. It’s like you’re completely missing the point of what’s going on here. Of course, they’re significantly more diverse now than they were even in the 90s. But even in the 90s, as much as Bodie feels like an outsider, there are plenty of other kids in that boat. The classmates that she names are people from all over the world and that’s just not something that gets represented.

I love your newsletter and you recently posted questions to ask at a book talk, so I thought I would steal one of those questions. What did you end up having to cut that you that you wish you could have kept?

There was a lot more stuff about Rita Hayworth that didn’t have much to do with the book. So much about Rita Hayworth. (laughs) There’s this discussion in brief about this teacher who was killed by her boyfriend in the 70s. There was originally a lot more about her. It wasn’t a major plotline, but the details of her case kept coming up in a way that ultimately, it’s just giving you too much to juggle. It doesn’t really matter that much.

I had a lot of scenes that were cut because they were all doing the same thing. Scenes of misperception or scenes of Bodie feeling uncomfortable in high school because everyone else seems to know some kind of code. I had a scene where they had Kmart Day. It was this day every year where the students would go and buy all their clothes from Kmart. It was making fun of the clothing that you could purchase at Kmart and just the class thing there, but it was basically beating a drum that I had already beat. I had made those points elsewhere.

I had scenes of them watching “My So-Called Life” or paying attention to the beginning of the OJ trial, things that were cultural markers. I get annoyed when I’m reading something set anytime in the past and there are just too many mentions of what’s going on in the world. Like working in song titles constantly. And then someone turns on the news and this is what was on the news. I roll my eyes at that, so I needed to keep that to pretty much to a minimum.

It seems like you’ve had to have done a ton of research because we get so immersed in the New Hampshire legal system with the trial of the man who’s been accused of the killing Bodie’s classmate. That must have been a balancing act that you’ve had to play in terms of what to share for the reader and then what the reader didn’t need to know.

It helps that I don’t know that much. (laughs) I was working with this wonderful woman who until recently was a public defender in New Hampshire. It was more about her answering my questions than, for instance, me going and taking a yearlong class about something and then ending up with too much information. I think, for me, very often with research it helps to be filling in blanks in my own story, rather than to go and collect absolutely everything I can and then figure out what to do with it all. You need to know some things before you begin for sure or you’re going to end up with a story that doesn’t make any sense.

I really end up researching in layers where I’m researching, writing, researching, writing, and it ends up pretty quickly being a matter of filling in the gaps. I don’t know a whole lot more than what’s on the page to be honest. But what is on the page is very well researched and I was incredibly grateful for the generosity of this one person.

Finally, what role has the library played in your life?

I tend to think of it definitely in relation to my childhood public library, the Lake Bluff Public Library. I did own some books, for sure, but 99% of my books came from the library. Lois Lowry was my favorite writer as a kid and I would just make a beeline twice a week for the L shelf to see if she’d written something new.  She doesn’t have ghost writers. It was like, twice a year, once a year, [when a new book would come out]. But I can still tell you exactly where her shelf was.

Like a lot of kids, the summer reading program was huge for me. Much more specifically, they had a short story contest for grade school kids every spring where you were up against other kids in your grade. I have no idea how many kids entered, but every time that I entered I either won first or second prize or honorable mention or something. A couple of times, it was first prize, to the point where I really felt, excited and supported and like, “Oh my God, this is something I can do.” I think the prize was a hardcover book that you got to pick out, any hardcover book you wanted. I cannot say confidently that I would be a writer without that. They would print up and Xerox everyone’s stories and then leave it on the shelf in the library. It’s still there, which is hilarious. The Lake Bluff Public Library loves to point this out. It’s a contest that is still going. I’ve helped them do their award ceremony just for fun. It had an enormous, enormous impact. It’s very, very hard to imagine my life without that library.