Lake Forest Author and Pulitzer Prize Finalist Shares Insights on New Novel
By Judy Carmack Bross “My favorite characters are the agents of chaos -- those who show up to upset the scene,” said Lake Forest author Rebecca Makkai whose characters in I Have Some Questions for You, released in February, should propel her to the top of the best-seller lists. Named the most anticipated book of 2023 from NPR to Elle magazine, I Have Some Questions For You proves why Makkai is Chicago’s preeminent author. Part boarding school drama and part forensic mystery, it is altogether different from The Great Believers, her extraordinary book about AIDS in Chicago, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Like her brilliant author counterpart Amor Towles, she might choose totally different plots but with equally captivating results.
“In many ways, every book is a mystery,” says Lake Forest author Rebecca Makkai.
“I imagine that it will be shelved with fiction, not mystery. I guess you could call it a literary feminist boarding school mystery,” Makkai told us recently, “I like that it doesn’t leave the reader hanging. I wanted to write a satisfying mystery which people could discuss and debate. “In many ways, every book is a mystery,” Makkai added. “The author asks where will the surprises come, and then the reader says I should have seen it coming.”
You drink in beautiful sentences and sensational similes as you tune out the world and watch the book unfold. As the podcaster protagonist Bodie Kane, rides in a cab to Granby, the mythical New Hampshire boarding school where she spent an angst-filled four years, she tells the cab driver: “I didn’t explain that I had gone to Granby, that I knew the roads I was traveling like an old song.”
Bodie has been invited to Granby to teach a class and finds herself drawn back into the murder of her former roommate Thalia Keith in 1995 during the spring of their senior year. Details of the death are still Internet and podcast fodder and many feel that an athletic trainer, imprisoned close by, was wrongly accused. As Bodie is drawn back into the murder and other suspects are considered, Makkai uses not only her ability to write beautiful sentences but also “ the structural stuff” and even a hand-drawn map of the campus to pull it together. “Lots of people can write beautiful sentences and better than mine,” Makkai said. “When you are working on the structure you are really pulling your hair out. It is like when a child brings you a Lego toy and says that the piece won’t fit. You find you have to go back about 12 pieces to see where the mistake was really made.”
Of particular importance was the timeline of the night in question. The murder occurs following a student musical and some students retreat to mattresses in the woods for what high schoolers have done always.
“My publisher asked if I had made a map of Granby as I wrote and yes I did,” Makkai said. “I think they are maybe including it for special events.
“Mythical Granby can be claustrophobic even though is in the woods in the middle of nowhere, far away from any cities,” she said. “When you see TV shows about boarding schools it is always in autumn, with all the leaves in color, and all the architecture is Gothic. Granby is a mix of architecture spread far out, and it all occurs in cold winter months, thawing into muddy days. The ambience is stronger and stranger.”
Granby in no way resembles Lake Forest Academy, attended by Makkai as a day student in the 1990s. The high schoolers have different stories to tell than her classmates she assures.
We asked Makkai for writing tips.
“If you are writing without the intention of getting your work published, you should have fun. Check yourself into a hotel, just write and have a blast,” she said. “If you do want to be published you have to be a serious student of the craft. You also need to find a community; writing can be a very lonely thing.”
For Makkai, The Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest has been the community and where she first started writing I Have Some Questions for You.
“It was great to go to breakfast and see what everyone else is up to, that they are all going through the same pains,” she said.
Makkai’s The Great Believers was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and received the LA Book Prize and the ALA Carnegie Medal. She has published short stories and short fiction as well.
Currently teaching a novel writing course to thesis students at Northwestern University, Makkai is on the MFA faculties of both Northwestern and Sierra Nevada College. She is also artistic director of StoryStudio Chicago which offers both online and in person presentations by “every great author in Chicago,” Makkai says. This story was first published in Classic Chicago magazine.