Secret Library Podcast


Secret Library Podcast Episodes

#109 Rebecca Makkai

109 Makkai Headshot.jpg

Rebecca Makkai didn't set out to write about the AIDS Crisis in Chicago.

This is what I love about writing. There is the saying, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." I would say that it's just as true that "Books are what happen when you're busy making outlines."

In speaking with Rebecca Makkai this week about her latest novel, The Great Believers, a book I absolutely loved, I was most struck that the plot line all the press and critical acclaim is centered around is not the one Makkai started with. 

She started with a story about a character and then, as she wrote, the story grew. She stayed curious and followed where the story led. And it led her somewhere big, so a big period of research followed. Makkai was devoted to doing the right thing by her book, and that's really what we all need to do in the end. Trust that the story is worth writing, and follow its lead. Here's hoping you listen in close to your own story this week... I can't wait to find out where you end up following it to. May this episode inspire you in the process of getting there.

Happy listening, and happy writing.

Discussed in Episode 109 with Rebecca Mikkai:

  • The Great Believers

  • The book started as what became a subplot in the final manuscript, the story of the art dealer.

  • Fiona started off as a very minor character. Came in to provide a voice closer to Rebecca’s own.

  • "I wrote a detail that hit me emotionally hard for some reason."
    On discovering characters as you write them.

  • "I had this major crisis of confidence about 150 pages into the book."
    On writing from a very different POV & worrying about appropriation.

  • "It was a choice born out of cowardice."
    On introducing a second voice closer to her own.

  • Turns out, having that second voice really worked out well.

  • Suspense vs mystery vs intrigue in literary fiction.

  • "l’m not someone who thinks that your characters just talk to you & randomly tell you stuff."
    On not overly mystifying the writing process.

  • "I was in this tiny, cute room that also was totally haunted."
    On busting the myth of the “peaceful writing retreat.”

  • "It’s a book in many ways about the passage of time."
    On one of the themes she explored in The Great Believers.

  • The AIDS epidemic is still resonant for such a big part of the population, even as it’s largely dropped out of the general public imagination.

  • "Every novel you write should involve scads & scads of research."
    On what it took to tackle the history in The Great Believers.

  • Surprised to find that the history of AIDS in Chicago is largely unwritten.

  • Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by MK Czerwiec

  • Interviewed a lot of people to get the time and the sense of place correct. Difficult at first to find primary sources. It was a lot of "Who do you think I should talk to next?"

  • "I felt so completely honored that people were willing to share these stories with me."
    On the interviews conducted to get The Great Believers right.


This episode sponsored by Listeners like you via the Secret Library Podcast Patreon