A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

512bpnaxg3rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“We’re living in this terrible world with wars and broken hearts and starvation, but some of us are compelled to make art, like that’s supposed to help anything.”
The narrator in Rebecca Makkai’s short story, “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart”

Rebecca Makkai’s short story collection, Music for Wartime, was originally scheduled for publication on July 14, 2015 — the same day, her publisher learned, that Go Set a Watchman would hit the shelves. Short story collections, regardless of their literary merit, have a tough enough time attracting  readers’ attention without competing with the year’s most talked-about book. So Music for Wartime came out on June 23, and Makkai’s job as a salesperson for her book — which was 13 years in the making — began.

Makkai, the author of two acclaimed novels (The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House), is one of today’s most accomplished writers of short fiction. The Kansas City Star says: “If any short story writer can be considered a rock star of the genre, it’s Rebecca Makkai. She has had a story selected for the annual Best American Short Stories anthology in four consecutive years.” Music for Wartime includes those four stories, along with 13 others. Divergent in tone, style, and subject matter, the stories all address the same question — “what it means to be an artist in a brutal world,” as Makkai put it.

Rock stars don’t have any trouble filling arenas with screaming fans. Literary stars, on the other hand, are relieved when a bookstore has to set up extra chairs to accommodate readers who have come to hear a favorite author. Makkai’s appearance last week at Lake Forest Book Store (her hometown store) was her last bookstore event promoting Music for Wartime. On Thanksgiving, I’m sure she’ll be feeling gratitude that she can now turn her full attention to writing! She graciously took time out from a residency at Ragdale (a writers’ retreat), where she is working on her third novel, to discuss her short story collection.

10738849Here are some edited highlights of my 45-minute conversation with Rebecca Makkai.

I though we could start out by talking about short stories in general. I have to say, having been a bookseller for a long time, short stories can be a hard sell. I absolutely love them — I’ve always loved them. But the minute you tell a customer about a book of short stories, you can see the look on their face — “Oh no, not short stories!”

They always get critically recognized — it’s a matter of the commercial sales. My first experience a couple of years ago — which is proof of this — was when I was working on Small Business Saturday. Sherman Alexie started this initiative to get authors in bookstores the Saturday after Thanksgiving, to handsell books. I’ve done it here, and last year I did it at City Lit in Logan Square, and this year I’m going to Women and Children First down in the city.  I started to realize, selling here and selling in Logan Square, that I could not move a story collection to save my life.

You should have gotten a bonus if you did.

There was one guy, who came in shopping for his girlfriend who wanted to be a writer. That was the one person, who bought three story collections.

You’ll notice, they didn’t put “stories” on the cover (of Music for Wartime) — sneaky move!

I think part of the reason is there’s no hook for people the way there is with a novel. If someone wants to pitch a book to their book club, if it’s a novel, they can say “It’s the story of a woman who buys a bookstore, and this happens to her, and this happens to her”, and people get involved, and they want to hear more about it. With a story collection, you can’t pitch the plot that way.

And I have to add — tonight is the National Book Awards, and good news for the short story: two collections are on the short list: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Karen Bender’s Refund.

And last year, the one that won was a book of short stories — Redeployment, by Phil Klay.

You always hear about how people’s attention spans are shorter today, in the Internet Age . . . you can read a story in 15 minutes, versus investing all that time in a novel.

I don’t think that’s true. Look at what people watch on TV. The age of the little 30-minute sitcom is over. People want epics. They want to binge-watch seven hour-long episodes of something. I get it, I write novels too. But I feel that people are missing out if they don’t read short stories. They’re missing out on what can be done — the avant-garde of literature.

You can take so many more risks with a short story.

Yes, think of something like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. You cannot maintain that for 300 pages. No one wants to read a 300-page novel about a cockroach. But you can do it for 15 pages. You can be experimental with form, with language in a short story in a way that would be unsustainable or unbearable in a 300-page novel. So when people miss that, they’re missing, I think, what literature can do.

I’ve made my peace with it because every year I watch the Oscars, and when they start with the awards for short films, I go make popcorn.

Getting back to Kafka, you have a couple of stories that sort of remind me of his. This collection is so great because of that — the stories are all different in terms of tone, subject matter, and style. There’s magical realism, there’s humor, there are family legends — there’s so much variety here, but there’s something binding them all together. Every story is about somebody who’s creating something. Can you talk about how you assembled this group of stories and how you chose which ones to include?

Part of the reason this wasn’t my first book  and that I focused on my novels first is that I couldn’t understand how to put the stories I’d written into a collection. I feel like a story collection should be more than just a pile of stories and more than just a sum of its parts — it should be like an album, that adds up to something more.

Very early on, before I’d published my first novel, I sent out a really incomplete collection — someone had gotten me an introduction to a publisher — and they very wisely passed on the collection, because it didn’t come together at all. But the editor who wrote back took the time to say, “I could see these stories eventually coalescing around a theme. I notice the themes of both music and war are really prominent in these stories.” I was thinking about that letter years later, and the title, Music for Wartime, came to me. I liked that it sounded like an album, like an old LP of World War I songs.

The idea that those themes could coexist, and the themes I was already writing about, the stories I was already writing about artists and music, and the stories I was already writing about refugees and dissidents and interrogations and war, that they were really speaking to the same question. I think of it as a question rather than a theme, the question being, “What does it mean to try to make beauty, to make art or order in the midst of a brutal and chaotic world?”

auth-ph-13-cropped-jpeg1-300x400There are some stories interspersed that are almost like memoir snippets — I assume they’re fictionalized family history?

Overtly fictionalized nonfiction . . . It’s already  in many ways a collection about the line between fiction and reality — there’s a story about a reality TV show, for instance. So it felt right that these stories went in there — I was taking the story I’d been told, acknowledging that I don’t really know what happened, and then working with my uncertainty to create a piece of fiction. But it’s very clear that that’s what I’m doing, rather than passing them off as fiction, or passing them off as nonfiction, kind of laying bare the process a little bit.

Can you share a little about your family history? 

My father was a refugee in 1956 following the failed Hungarian revolution. There are three stories in here that are about his parents. These are the pieces that I thought fit into a collection of fiction rather than a nonfiction account. Her mother was a really well-known Hungarian novelist. She wrote something like 40 novels — which I haven’t read because they’re written in Hungarian. My grandfather — and they were only married for a few years — was a member of Parliament and was in many ways, at least for a while, on the wrong side of history and was the author of the second set of anti-Jewish laws in Hungary. Later, he did other things that sort of contradicted that, but it’s not entirely clear to me why and what the pivot point was for him. So they’re fascinating people . . . ultimately, I’m going to be writing something longer about them — a sort of nonfiction investigation.

What do you think makes a great short story? I know you teach writing — if a student were to ask you what makes a story successful, what would you say?

What literary fiction is trying to do in the contemporary age is really different from what it was trying to do, say, 200 years ago. The contemporary project is largely concerned with how much people can change over the course of a narrative — over the course of a novel, over the course of 20 pages. Our question is really one of character development — which is where literary fiction tends to differ from certain genre fiction, which is much more about the conventions of plot, or establishing an alternate world. So when short stories fail, it’s almost always because the character doesn’t change, or only changes once. You need a change to set the story in motion, but you also need a change at the climactic scene of the story, you need an ultimate change for that character, a reason that the story has been told. It can happen in three pages, it can happen in 25 pages, it can happen in 320 pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Summer Paperback Picks

In the spring, I posted a list of 10 of my favorite recent books just published (or about to be published) in paperback. It’s now official summer reading season, and dozens of new paperbacks are piled high on bookstore tables. Some of these (Station Eleven) were critically and commercially successful in hardcover; some (The Blessings) didn’t get as much attention as they deserved in hardcover; and some (The Red Notebook) are brand new books, never published in hardcover.

More and more books are being published as paperback originals. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (“The Stigma of Paperback Originals”), American publishers view the “straight to paperback” format as “an increasingly attractive option—perhaps the only option—for young authors with no track record, midcareer authors with a challenging track record and international authors being published for the first time in the U.S.” The Journal points out the paperback original is “the industry standard ‘ In Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.”

Frances Coady, formerly publisher of Picador, the paperback imprint of Macmillan, is quoted in the article as saying: “You have to ask yourself questions like, ‘Is it better to sell 5,000 or 8,000 copies in hardcover and try to reinvent the book in paperback?’—which, unless there’s some extraordinary piece of luck, is really hard to do—or ‘Is it better to sell 50,000 in a paperback original?'”

As a reader, I vote for the paperback option — especially now that paperbacks are so high-quality. Some even have fancy French flaps. Gone are the days when you cracked open a paperback only to have loose pages flutter out. And booksellers have a much easier time convincing customers to take a chance on a new author with a paperback than with a hardcover. Here are 10 books to take a chance on this summer:

9780804172448Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (hardcover 9/14; paperback 6/15)
WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.

I’m surprised this book was released in paperback only nine months after it came out in hardcover. One of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel has been a bestseller for months. Despite the acclaim, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been a selection for my book group. I couldn’t imagine getting through, much less enjoying, a dystopian novel. But I truly loved every page and recommend it without reservations to anyone who reads literary fiction. I was captivated by the first chapter, which takes place during a performance of King Lear. In a New York Times interview, the author said,

I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence. People would want what was best about the world, and it’s subjective, but to me, that would include the plays of Shakespeare.

women-kings-260x388-1Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson (paperback original 4/15)
They said that the wizard was something Mama had dreamed, and because she was sick in the head. But how could Mama’s dream get inside Elijah’s head? And now they told him that Mama hurt him badly. Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered and he wanted to scratch out the memory but he couldn’t. It waited there for him like a wolf under a tree.

Seven-year-old Elijah, the son of an abusive and mentally unstable Nigerian immigrant, finds refuge with Nikki and Obi in a stable home. But Elijah comes to believe he is possessed by a wizard. This heartbreaking, beautifully written story explores  foster care, childhood trauma, interracial adoption, mental illness, religious ideology, and the complex nature of parental love.

9780345807335Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/23/15)
. . . Remembering Ms. Newcombe now  — though my file drawer contains thousands of lives for which I often find myself feeling accountable — I realize I am well disposed in her favor; in fact, I thoroughly urge you to offer her a job. Why? Because as a student of literature and creative writing, Ms. Newcombe honed crucial traits that will be of use to you: imagination, patience, resourcefulness, and empathy. The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy– the insertion of oneself into the life of another.

Professor Jason Fitger’s personal life and writing career are falling apart, and he tells the story through a series of very funny letters of recommendation. “Clever” doesn’t begin to describe this novel, which is much more than a satire of academia. If you enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, you’ll love Dear Committee Members.

9781594633881The Vacationers by Emma Straub (hardcover 5/14; paperback 6/15)
A good swimming pool could do that—make the rest of the world seem impossibly insignificant, as far away as the surface of the moon.

When a New York family spends a summer vacation in a rented house in Mallorca, things are a little too close for comfort. From the New York Times: “For those unable to jet off to a Spanish island this summer, reading The Vacationers may be the next-best thing. Straub’s gorgeously written novel follows the Post family — a food writer named Franny; her patrician husband, Jim; and their children, 28-year old Bobby and 18-year-old Sylvia — to Mallorca . . . When I turned the last page, I felt as I often do when a vacation is over: grateful for the trip and mourning its end.” I felt the same way! I’ve heard that The Rocks by Peter Nichols, just published a couple of weeks ago, is another wonderful book set in Mallorca — I can’t wait to read it.

44e1505bebb7632d9a662b978df7fc9aThe Blessings by Elise Juska (hardcover 5/14; paperback 5/15)
She thought about how it was something they would all remember forever. How this was family: to own such moments together. To experience them in all their raw shock and sadness, then get the food from the refrigerator, unwrap the crackers and fill the glasses, keep the gears turning, the grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.

This lovely novel follows several generations of a close Irish-American family from Philadelphia, in a “deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together” (Publishers Weekly). The book reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, since it’s a collection of linked stories. Like the PW reviewer, I felt lucky to have spent some time in the Blessings’ presence.

UnknownWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/15)
You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved.

Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)” Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company put it more succinctly; he notes that McDermott’s novels are “on the slim side” and calls Matthew Thomas “Alice McDermott on steroids”.

9781908313867The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (paperback original 3/15)
He drank some more wine, feeling he was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag — even the most remote tribe would adhere to that ancestral rule. Husbands in loincloths definitely did not have the right to go and look for a poisoned arrow or a root to eat in their wives’ rawhide bags.

I hate to use the word “charming”, but this little jewel of a novel really is charming — and it’s not sappy. Parisian bookseller Laurent Letellier finds a woman’s handbag on the street, containing plenty of personal items — including a red notebook — but no clues to the owner’s identity. This has been one of our store’s staff and customer favorites for months — it’s the kind of book people buy in multiples to give as gifts.

9780062365590Us by David Nicholls (hardcover 10/14; paperback due 6/30/15)
. . .  And, like many men of my generation, I enjoy military history, my “Fascism-on-the-march books”, as Connie calls them. I’m not sure why we should be drawn to this material. Perhaps it’s because we like to imagine ourselves in the cataclysmic situations that our fathers and grandfathers faced, to imagine how we’d behave when tested, whether we would show our true colours and what they would be. Follow or lead, resist or collaborate?

Has Douglas and Connie’s long marriage, as she claims, run its course? A summer “grand tour” of Europe with their sullen teenage son, Albie, brings matters to a head. If a book could be described as a romantic comedy, that would be the appropriate term for this smart and delightful novel. The characters, especially Albie, will drive you crazy — just like real people.

A1Ugvdz5AnL._SL1500_The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, with introduction by David Nicholls (paperback original published in the U.S. 6/15)
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

I’m thrilled that this brilliant novel is being introduced to a new generation of American readers.  It’s about a widow who decides to open a bookshop in an isolated English village, encountering resistance from her neighbors. David Nicholls, who worked as a bookseller at Waterstones in London for several years, writes in introduction to the new edition of The Bookshop:

With typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop a “short novel with a sad ending”, which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald’s wit and playfulness . . . Fitzgerald’s great gift, often remarked upon, was the precision and economy of her prose . . .

It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald was a late bloomer. The New Yorker points out that The Bookshop, “published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene.”

9780143127444The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (hardcover 7/14; paperback 5/15)
But here at Laurelfield, there was something more in the mornings, a buzzing sensation about the whole house, as if it weren’t the servants keeping it running but some other energy. As if the house had roots and leaves and was busy photosynthesizing and sending sap up and down, and the people running through were as insignificant as burrowing beetles.

Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. I was enthralled from the first page. Makkai has a new book coming out this summer — a short story collection called Music for Wartime.

It just occurred to me that all the books on this list are fiction. There are plenty of great nonfiction books coming out this summer as well, and I’ll be highlighting those soon. Which paperbacks are you planning on picking up this summer?

Back to School — 10 Favorite Campus Novels

I’ve always been drawn to novels set in the academy. I like the parochial closed world in which incompatible people are forced to come to terms with one another. I like the relatively high tolerance for oddity and the relatively low threat of physical violence. I like characters who speak in complete sentences, use lofty vocabulary and sprinkle their repartee with literary references.
Cynthia Crossen, “Back to School” in the Wall Street Journal

September used to be the traditional “back to school” month, but August has become the new September. (I would love it if someone could provide me with a good explanation of this phenomenon — but if it has anything to do with football schedules, I don’t want to hear it.) College students are moving into dorm rooms, children are buying new backpacks and sneakers, and teachers are preparing classrooms and lesson plans.

9780525426684MLast week, when I visited Lake Forest Academy’s campus for Lake Forest Book Store’s author event with Rebecca Makkai, the school was feverishly getting the campus ready for the upcoming year. But in the beautiful Little Theater in the historic Armour House, where tea with Rebecca took place, no sounds of construction could be heard. The audience was enraptured with Rebecca’s reading from her new novel, The Hundred-Year House.

Just back from a book tour on the East Coast, Rebecca was on her home turf. A native of Chicago’s North Shore, she has taught at Lake Forest Academy, as well as at Forest Bluff Montessori School and Lake Forest College.

The Hundred-Year House has received rave reviews from the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, NPR Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, People, and many more publications — and was selected as one of Oprah’s top “summer reads”. I loved Rebecca’s debut novel, The Borrower, and was thrilled when our Penguin sales rep gave me a bound galley of The Hundred-Year House. I sent him the following mini-review:

Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. Rebecca’s gorgeous writing enthralled me from the first page. She lives and works in the Chicago suburb where our store is located and where the story takes place, but I would have been just as mesmerized even if I hadn’t been curious about her portrayal of our town.

What I didn’t mention is that academia and campus life (specifically, inter-departmental politics at a small liberal arts college) are integral to The Hundred-Year House. I’ve always enjoyed novels set on campuses — it must be nostalgia for my school days. I think the first adult book I ever read that took place at a school was The Catcher in the Rye, when I was 12 or 13, and I remember wondering if there really was a Pencey Prep. (No, but the McBurney School did exist.)

So, in the spirit of “back to school” (which really should be next month, but nobody asked me), here are 10 of my favorite campus novels, old and new:

The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch
A coming-of-age story about a young man who leaves his political career and devoted girlfriend behind to spend a year studying at Oxford. This is Finch’s first contemporary novel–he’s best known for his Charles Lenox Victorian mysteries.

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical debut novel is set at Princeton (which he attended, but did not graduate from): “From the first he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds, and under it all the air of struggle that pervaded his class.”

2e5fadd2709fcd35faa8523e11a328bdThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I have zero interest in college baseball, but I savored this story of students, faculty, and administrators at fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. It’s one of my all-time favorites. The Melville references are a bonus.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Portia Nathan is an admissions officer at Princeton, involved in a stale relationship with an English professor. The novel was made into a movie starring Tina Fey — of course, the book is better.

Straight Man by Richard Russo
Russo is one of my favorite authors, and Straight Man is Russo at his best. It’s a smart and touching satire about an English professor at a little-known university.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher9780385538138
I just read this one — it came out yesterday!  It’s a hilarious (and short) novel made up of letters of recommendation that English professor Jason Fitzger is constantly called upon to write.

Moo by Jane Smiley
Even more satirical than Straight Man, Moo pokes fun at every aspect of university life.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Since the publication of The Goldfinch, there’s renewed interest in Tartt’s first book — a very smart literary mystery that moves backwards in time.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
This surprisingly insightful novel follows four young women through their college years at Smith and afterwards. It’s a familiar formula (remember Mary McCarthy’s The Group?) but Sullivan makes it fresh.

9780375701498Old School by Tobias Wolff
Prep school novels are tough. Most of them don’t ring true to me. This one, about a scholarship student at an elite boarding school in the 1960s, is beautifully written and authentic.

Last December, Rebecca Makkai was kind enough to spend a few hours at Lake Forest Book Store as our guest bookseller for a day. (Author Sherman Alexie spearheaded this program, which brought authors into independent bookstores to sell books.) Rebecca highly recommended Virgins, a prep school novel by Pamela Erens, which I promptly bought . . . and haven’t read yet.  It will be my back to school book!

 

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