Author gives herself hefty reading assignments
Rebecca Makkai’s third novel, “The Great Believers,” a story of life during the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and its emotional aftershocks decades later, was a 2018 National Book Award finalist. She teaches at Northwestern University and is artistic director of the writing center StoryStudio of Chicago.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
MAKKAI: Last night I finished Sigrid Nunez’s “The Friend,” which is lovely. I was sailing along; then, the last two chapters are game changers, which I hadn’t seen coming. My happiest moments as a reader are having the rug pulled out from under me.
BOOKS: What other books have done that for you?
MAKKAI: Some relatively obvious ones, such as Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” or Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.” Another one that I love, “The Virgins” by Pamela Erens, is just weird from the get-go, and then she does this thing at the end that she shouldn’t be able to get away with but does. Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less” has this lovely unfolding of what the narrative actually is.
BOOKS: What are some of your all-time favorite endings?
MAKKAI: The ending I’m constantly marveling at is Tom Perrotta’s “Little Children.” Three pages from the end there are all these scary things up in the air, and he pulls out this satisfying ending. In the last 50 pages of Ru Freeman’s “A Disobedient Girl” she pushes the cause-and-affect of decisions characters have made into this gut-wrenching climax.
BOOKS: Do you have any reading habits?
MAKKAI: I write down every book I read. When I got married in 2001 my husband and I got this beautiful hand-bound book as a wedding gift. We made it into reading log. He’s has the left side, and I have the right side.
BOOKS: Can you track how you have changed as a reader?
MAKKAI: At the beginning I was in grad school in English literature. So Joyce’s “Ulysses” is in there and Proust. I read the canon. Now I’m much less interested in that. Since my books started coming out it’s part of my professional life to read contemporary fiction. There are books I’ve been asked to review or blurb. The downside of that is I have never managed to read “Sense and Sensibility,” my last Jane Austen.
BOOKS: How do you keep up with your reading?
MAKKAI: I schedule it. I have my next 5 books on my calendar with deadlines as if I’m still in grad school. I don’t have to say yes to all of this, but I love being part of this literary landscape. Right now I’m reading “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea, an amazing writer and a friend. A librarian I love asked me to be in conversation with him in a few weeks. How can I say no to that?
BOOKS: What else is on your calendar?
MAKKAI: “Bangkok Wakes to Rain” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a debut novel about a missionary doctor in 19th-century Siam and something my agent wanted me to read. “The Peacock Feast’ by Lisa Gornick because I need to interview her. This anthology by Michele Filgate, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence.” I’m blurbing that one. I’m excited about the writers in it, like Carmen Maria Machado and Alexander Chee.
BOOKS: When do you read?
MAKKAI: At night in bed for 45 minutes or so and when I travel. I have also made my peace with audiobooks. I did that by listening to them at 1.25 speed. At normal speed, audio books are painfully slow, and my mind wanders. Listening to them a little faster feels like someone telling you a story urgently.
BOOKS: Did you grow up in a houseful of books?
MAKKAI: It went way beyond a houseful of books. Both my parents were linguistic professors, and my dad is a poet. For a while they ran an academic press out of our house. There were manuscripts around that needed copy editing. I am in awe of people who came to literature from nonliterary childhoods. I can’t claim that. It’s like I inherited the family plumbing business.
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