The Real People: A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

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Rebecca Makkai’s third novel, The Great Believers, travels between 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, following a group of friends impacted by the AIDS crisis. The main characters, Yale and Fiona, confront the disease and its impact on their friends and family, as they struggle to make the best of their own lives. With its themes of reconciliation and redemption, and its focus on subjects such as activism and access to healthcare, the book feels spookily relevant in the age of Trump.

Makkai has created a gorgeous and compassionate narrative, one which asks how we can move forward from disaster.

She recently talked with the Rumpus about her research methods, how she arrived at the book’s structure, and her attachment to the story and its characters.

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The Rumpus: This novel is strongly grounded in the history of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the response of the Chicago gay community during that time. In your acknowledgments, you recognize some of the folks that helped you learn the history. Can you describe how you started your research and how you found and approached your resources?

Rebecca Makkai: When I started the book, it didn’t focus as much on the AIDS epidemic. Originally, it had much more to do with this art scene in Paris in the 1920s that is referenced in the book. But slowly the AIDS plot line took over, and I went into that research pretty naively.

First of all, I assumed I’d be able to go to the library and find a lot about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago. In terms of book-length work about AIDS in Chicago, though, I found very little. There was one short documentary, Short Fuse, about the founder of Chicago ACT UP that I did manage to watch, and which I reference in the Acknowledgments. During the time when I was writing, a graphic memoir came out from an AIDS nurse in Chicago (Taking Turns by M. K. Czerwiec). There are many books about Chicago history and about Chicago LGBTQ history that have a few pages devoted to the AIDS epidemic.

But because there was so little out there, it forced me to do some real legwork, which I think is essential for this project, and honestly for any project where you’re writing about real situations. So I went to the Harold Washington Library. They have on file every back issue of the Windy City Times, which is our largest gay weekly in Chicago. It started in 1985, which happens to be when the novel starts. I sat down and read every issue from ‘85 to about ‘92. I also threw a bat signal out on social media saying I wanted to talk to people. It was hard, at first, because I have tons of gay friends, but they weren’t necessarily the right age or hadn’t lived in Chicago during that time.

Rumpus: So what happened?

Makkai: I sat down with several people, each time getting one step closer. And finally, I hit the jackpot when a writer-friend introduced me to these two men, Dr. David Moore and Dr. David Blatt. They’re married, and they were the founders of the AIDS Unit at Illinois Masonic, which became the model for AIDS treatment around the country and around the world. They were incredible, and invited me to their apartment twice and let me interview them forever. They hooked me up with some activists, with a charge nurse from the unit, and with the art therapist from the unit.

Towards the end, one of the most amazing things happened. I had this photo as my laptop wallpaper that’s of, I believe it’s five guys outdoors at night at a candlelight vigil. I knew who one of them was. This is a person who I knew was not alive anymore. I was trying to find online who the other people were, and I had names for some of them. Specifically, I knew the name of one guy in the back row, Bill McMillan, but I didn’t know if he’d survived.

Meanwhile, I was working on a scene late in my book at this ACT UP march against the American Medical Association in ’90, where a bunch of guys from ACT UP walked into the County Building dressed as straight businessmen. They got up on a ledge with a banner and took off their dress shirts to show their ACT UP shirts underneath. I’d been watching a YouTube video of that protest obsessively because I’d been writing the scene.

Anyway, I had this photo on my laptop, and an amazing lawyer I was interviewing saw the photo and asked if I wanted to talk to Bill McMillan. He was still around. The only survivor from the photo. And it turned out he was one of the guys out on the ledge with the banner. At that point, I’d been staring at this photo for two years and watching the video for months. Bill met me in a restaurant to talk, and it was as if someone walked out of an iconic painting to talk to me. He’s an incredible person; he was a hairdresser who became an essential ACT UP activist. And he’s still a hairdresser.

My initial frustration with research became a blessing. I wasn’t able to sit back and rely on the historical version of events. Even if I’d read the same information in a book, there’s something fundamentally different about sitting across from the real people involved and talking to them about it.

Rumpus: Circling back a little bit, you said The Great Believers originally started out as a book about the group of Paris artists and then it morphed. Could you explain how that transition happened?

Makkai: I got the original spark for story right after I finished my second novel. In a cab, between my agent’s place in Chelsea and Grand Central Station, I passed this very tall, thin woman with ebony skin, really beautiful. I’m not sure if I was right, but my thought was, “My God, this is an international superstar model. This person is incredible.”

I started to think about the life of models and then specifically about artists’ models and what it would be like to not be an artist but to embrace the role of muse instead. I thought about women who didn’t necessarily have the access to arts training, or those who lived in times when they wouldn’t be taken seriously, for example the 1920s, and how being a muse might have been its own art form.

So the original idea was about a woman who’d been an artist model back in Paris in the ‘20s, who at the end of her life must become an advocate for the art she helped create. This ended up being the character Nora in my novel. I did the math, realized she would be an old woman in the 1980s, she couldn’t live much past that, and started to think about her relationship with the gallery director who would be buying the art.

But one point early on, I was telling my husband my basic idea. I said, “There’s this woman, there’s this painting of her, but no one believe it’s her. She’s trying to convince them that it was her…” He stopped me and said, “Honey, that’s the plot of Titanic.”

It was kind of devastating. But by that point I was already starting to focus more on the gallery director, and to think about what he might be like and to think about Chicago in the 1980s. I began to research the AIDS crisis. The more I discovered, the more the story took shape. I realized that’s where I wanted it to go.

Rumpus: There are many artists in The Great Believers, but the two main characters are administrators. Yale works in development for a university gallery, and Fiona raises money for Howard Brown health center. Was it a conscious choice to take both of these characters one step away from the creation of art?

Makkai: That’s a good question. Not really. The ‘20s artists originally played a much larger role. Even in a late draft I had a lot more about Modigliani and Soutine. Ultimately, I cut that back because it wasn’t the heart of the novel.

It wasn’t a conscious decision make Yale something other than an artist. He was a character who arose exactly where I needed him to be. His role as an administrator came about because Nora, the model, needed him.

Fiona is our 2015 character, and was not central to the book at all originally. She kept popping up, though: she’s in the first chapter at a party that’s important for the plot. Then she came back in another scene at a benefit where Yale ends up crying on her shoulder. I’d given her this detail, about her long earrings and her brother who had died, and he always told her that her earrings would get caught on something. The detail intrigued me.

I’d written about half of Yale’s chapters, thinking it was just his book, when I started having a crisis of confidence. I had a lot of concerns about writing across difference, and if I were only telling his story I wondered if that felt too much like an attempt at ventriloquism. I considered adding another voice. It’s funny because it was a move born out of fear, but I loved the result. I loved the echo chamber it created because of the thirty-year time gap. I loved that Fiona inhabited the future, or what would be the future of 1985, and is able to tell us what happened to everybody.

So I didn’t think about the distance between Fiona and the world of the art. She is, however, someone who has not fully processed her emotions. She’s living in the aftermath of her life and her decisions. As artist, she would have had to process her emotions in order to create decent art. It was important to me that she be someone who hadn’t dealt with her trauma. On instinct, I don’t think I would’ve allowed her to be an artist because an artist wouldn’t have been as messy. Not that artists all have their act together. Just… she wouldn’t have repressed as much.

Rumpus: A number of public tragedies color the background of the book (the AIDS crisis, WWI, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and the Bataclan club shooting in Paris). Were those events in your mind early in the planning of the story?

Makkai: The AIDS epidemic was important from the beginning, and fairly early on, I realized that, for my 1920s model, there were several years where no one made art. World War I occurred, and a lot of people were dying of the flu.

I tend to outline partly in a Google calendar. I enter what my characters are doing on different days. That method became really important with this book, especially because I needed to know how long particular characters would be waiting for things like HIV test results. I also entered historical events on the calendar, and I realized Yale is supposed to be in Wisconsin interviewing Nora when the Challenger shuttle explodes. It ended up being one of the weirdest scenes in the entire book. It might be my favorite scene, actually.

Then for Bataclan, I was staying at a residency at Ragdale Foundation in the fall of 2015, writing the 2015 sections. I wrote them largely in real time, trying to writing Fiona’s day by the end of that actual day. As I was writing, the terror attacks happened.

At first I didn’t include them; this didn’t seem to have anything to do with my book. Later, I considered moving the events to a different year to avoid the attacks, but I didn’t want to be writing specifically about the 2016 presidential election or its aftermath. There was also severe flooding in Paris in early 2016. It started to make sense to write the attacks into the book. (They’re in the background, but they do affect the action.) Ultimately, it worked with some of my emerging themes. My characters are trying to live their lives while the disasters of the world are encroaching.

Rumpus: Another of the themes of the book is family, particularly how Fiona’s connections to her brother Nico and her connection with Yale, who is a kind of chosen family, affect her relationship with her daughter.

Makkai: I think the topic was naturally going to come up with this story, if only because I was writing about a population of people who’ve largely been excommunicated from their biological families and have needed to form new ones. On top of that, at this period in time, those chosen families are being broken apart by illness. When your friends are all you have, that puts so much more weight on them, and on romantic relationships.

Originally Fiona wasn’t as connected to the other characters. As I revised, I decided the character Nico (whose funeral takes place early in the book) would be her brother, and that the elderly woman, the model Nora would be her great aunt. Fiona became a way to draw the world closer together.

Her family became central to the book; her brother, her great aunt, her daughter are all characters. In contrast, Yale really does not have a family presence. We hear his father once on the phone.

What’s interesting, though, is that by 2015 Fiona has very little family left herself. Her brother is gone, her parents are gone, and she’s really ruined her relationship with her daughter, in part because of the trauma from her early twenties that she hasn’t dealt with.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Makkai: I’m working on a couple of short stories and am playing around with a few different novel ideas. I think it’ll be hard for me to transition into something new because I love this book so much. I don’t mean that in terms of the writing I did, but the real people I interviewed and the characters who sprang up in the wake of those talks. Writing the book felt quite urgent, even though it’s a historical subject. I’m going to have to work hard on the next project not to make it feel more frivolous to me in some way. I’m not going to be content to write something that doesn’t achieve the same importance for me personally.

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Author photograph © Susan Aurenko.


Chelsea Voulgares lives in the Chicago suburbs, and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Passages North, Midwestern Gothic, Bust, and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.chelseavoulgares.com or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares. More from this author →