With my Savidge Reads Grills guests I like to have authors, and their books, that I am really passionate about. Rebecca Makkai has become such an author since I read her delightful debut ‘The Borrower’ a few weeks ago. Easily in my top five books of the year, if you haven’t read ‘The Borrower’ then you should (and I am giving some copies away today – one of the answers is in today’s post) because if you are visiting Savidge Reads you are most likely a book lover and ‘The Borrower’ is a book lovers book, no question. Anyway, I managed to catch up with Rebecca for a nice bookish natter, I hope you’ll enjoy…
Can you describe the story of ‘The Borrower’ in a single sentence?
A Midwestern librarian with Russian-revolutionary genes inadvertently kidnaps (or maybe is kidnapped by) a ten-year-old boy who’s been forced into anti-gay classes by his fundamentalist parents.
How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?
About ten years ago, I first heard of the phenomenon euphemistically known as “reparative therapy” – in other words, the classes designed to turn gay adults and adolescents straight, or to keep children from turning out gay. Apart from my private political reaction, which was… let’s just say “quietly violent”… I was fascinated by the fictional possibilities of those dynamics. I could have taken a closer view of that situation, of course, but what spoke to me was an outsider’s narrative, one where we see not the therapy but its results.
It’s a road trip tale of sorts isn’t it? What made you decide to take the story in that direction?
For one thing, Lucy, the librarian, lives in world of literary references – there are the more obvious riffs on young children’s books, but she also just thinks in terms of literary tropes and quotations – and so the fact that she launches out on a skewed version of the classic American road trip seems fitting. She’s escaping town, but not the literary prison of her own brain. I had fun playing with echoes of the road trips of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lolita and Huckleberry Finn, and even a little bit with the wandering around in Ulysses. Trips give a story an extrinsic structure, which is a nice thing to have, but it turns out they’re also incredibly hard to pull off because you’re at the mercy of the map and the speed limit. There were times I wished I’d kept them home, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell and in the end I loved giving them that journey.
There is so much that ‘The Borrower’ is about, you have the ‘anti-gay camp’, the history of a Russia we don’t hear so much of, religion and all it can do, both good and bad… How did you fit this all in together and also manage to make it entertaining rather than tragic, though it has highly emotional moments in it too?
I always think about building an echo chamber for every story and novel I work on. You put certain elements in the room together, and if you keep them there long enough and play around with them, they’ll start to echo off each other, speak to each other, and enhance each other.
Some of my short stories have been quite a lot darker than this novel, but there was something that was fundamentally amusing to me about the way the pieces of The Borrower were relating to each other. I suppose I could say that I found they were having a rather raucous party in the echo chamber.
Ian is a wonderful character, and he is the drive of the novel. If he hadn’t been a child at Lucy’s library she wouldn’t end up in the scenario she does. How hard was it to make Ian so utterly precocious and yet adorable in one?
I do teach elementary school, and so even though Ian isn’t based in the slightest on any particular child I’ve known, I have logged an enormous number of hours with ten-year-old boys. I believe they’re the funniest people on the planet, and I had a ball creating a fictional one. Yet although Ian is funny and bright, he’s also incredibly manipulative and doesn’t quite live in the real world. It was important to me that he not just be some angel child we’re all feeling sorry for, but a complex and damaged and hard-headed person. The paradox of Ian is that some of his more irritating traits are the same ones that will probably see him through childhood intact.
There is an assumption by most people in the town of Hannibal that Ian will be gay, his parents want to ‘straighten’ him out, how hard was writing about a boy who is prepubescent and yet is ‘already headed up the yellow brick road’?
The strange thing about Ian’s situation is that his parents are responding not to his sexual proclivities (he’s ten, after all) but to his effeminacy and bookishness. Lucy herself is not fully convinced that Ian will turn out gay, but I did as the writer have a lot of fun showing some of those very traits that led his family to be concerned (though to me those quirks were endearing, not alarming). My only struggle was to resist putting more of those moments in the book. I never worried about what he should do next as a character, because he always just showed up and did it, quite insistently.
Lucy is an accidental heroine, and an accidental librarian but by no means a stereotypical one. Where did she come from? Was there anyone you were basing her on?
I’ve only ever based one character on a real person, someone in an as-yet-unpublished story. Beyond that one instance, my characters are pure invention; and it’s the invention of character and plot that are the most appealing things to me about writing fiction. I have a few things in common with Lucy (I’m a second-generation American, and I work with children), but a lot of her character (her haplessness, for instance, and her lack of ambition) stands in direction opposition to mine.
Actually, in the interest of accuracy, I should admit that I’ve also based a dog in my novel-in-progress on a real dog. I didn’t do much to disguise his identity, but I’m not worried as I’m fairly sure the dog can’t read.
‘The Borrower’ is definitely a book for people who love books. I was taken back to my childhood and visits to the library and how it was a world of wonder. Was that feeling of nostalgia something you wanted to plant in the reader? Were you a devourer of books as a child?
It was, and I was. I did have to make a decision, in writing the scenes where Lucy recommends books to Ian, of whether I’d keep her recommendations very up-to-date (and thus more realistic for a modern librarian) or bring up some of the old classics that would take readers back to their own childhoods. I chose the latter, making Lucy a devoted pusher of those timeless old chapter books like The Egypt Game and The Hobbit. On my tour I’ve been reading the part of the book where Lucy fills Ian’s backpack with contraband books, and it’s been wonderful seeing the audience react to those titles. In some cases they’ve run to the bookstore’s children’s section after my reading and gone home with five old favorites stacked on top of The Borrower.
Before we discuss books further, lets discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?
I started writing stories when I was three, as soon as I could hold a pencil and make letters. Both of my parents were college professors, and my father was additionally a poet, so the typewriters were constantly going in our house and I just assumed that writing was something people did about as regularly as eating. I was around thirteen when I realized it wasn’t a bodily function but a potential career.
Right, back to books… Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?
This is such a hard question, and my answer changes every time I’m asked. As of today… They’re not exactly my contemporaries, but they’re in their writing prime, and if I had three Nobels to hand out tomorrow they’d go to Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro.
What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?
I wish I had time for one! I have two very young children, so I’m under pressure to make my reading time count. My guilty pleasure right now is showering.
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
I really have to get out of the house if I want to get anything done, or I’ll end up with someone small in my lap. Beyond that, I just sit there and plug away. My grandmother was a writer (the Hungarian novelist Rozsa Ignacz), and I’ve seen a picture of her working at an outdoor desk at a summer house with a typewriter and a coffee pot on the table, a cardigan over the back of the chair, and a cigarette in her mouth. Apparently she worked like that all summer, chain smoking and drinking coffee. I deeply envy that setup, and I envy her living in the time before they knew what cigarettes did to you. Caffeine gives me hives, cigarettes are out, and my computer screen would glare in the sun… So I guess I’m down to the cardigan.
How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?
I wish I could say I’d had the fortitude to avoid online reviews, but I’ll see them occasionally if they pop up on my Google Alerts. For any author, there’s a lot of frustration and unhealthiness involved with the crowd sourcing of reviews, if only because there are so many and a certain percentage will inevitably be cranky, and a certain percentage will praise you in ways you don’t deserve. In my case, I think I’ve gotten a bit of a magnified effect on the reactions simply because it’s such a politically charged book. A few of the “reviews” out there online aren’t really reviews at all, but arguments about homosexuality and religion. The longer the book has been out, and the greater the volume of stuff out there, the more I’ve been able to turn my back on all that. As an author you want to be focused on your next book, not obsessing over the last one.
I was quite heartened, though, to learn the sheer number of book blogs out there, and to see the sharing of reviews on sites like Goodreads. So many of the changes going on in the literary landscape are scary or frustrating, but this is a genuinely good one: a shift from reading in isolation to reading and discussing together, around the virtual campfire.
Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?
Well, being American I really wouldn’t call anything my “favourite,” as we’re rather biased against the letter U over here. But picking a sadly U-less favorite from the book shelf opposite me, I’d say that anyone who hasn’t read Fun Home, the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, ought to find it immediately.
What is next for Rebecca Makkai?
I’m putting together a story collection, at long last. It’s called Music for Wartime, and the stories are linked thematically by… well, music and war. Or, more specifically, the response of the artist to a world at war. And I’m about a third of the way into my second novel, which is tentatively called The Happensack. It’s set at a defunct artists’ colony, and the narration moves backwards in time from 1999 to 1900. I’m having way too much fun with it right now.
A big thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to do an interview when she is very busy with young children and writing a new book. Please pick up ‘The Borrower’, or try and win a copy, because honestly it is wonderful.