Seven Questions for Rebecca Makkai

In Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today we welcome Rebecca Makkai to the blog. Her story “The Way You Hold Your Knife” first appeared in Ecotone and is now also in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

What books are open on your desk right now?

I don’t read at my desk (I sit here enough as it is) so nothing’s open right now except the New Yorker, and only because I was messaging a friend to add to our ongoing conversation about the way the New Yorker is so unflattering in its physical descriptions of its subjects. Seriously, don’t ever give a quote to them or they’ll say you look like an angry rabbit with crooked teeth.

Where did the idea for “The Way You Hold Your Knife,” your story in Astoria to Zion, come from?

I was still teaching an elementary Montessori class at the time, and two of my students had chosen to do a report on bogs, which quickly turned into a report on bog mummies. Then I remembered a college professor telling a story about her grad school roommate, an archeology student who didn’t want to be buried in a grave but left somewhere unusual so she could give someone “the joy of discovery.” I put those together—along with some scandalous rumors from my undergraduate days—and had the makings of a really strange story.

If you could change one thing about a classic work of literature, what would it be?

It’s not a classic in the strictest sense, but I wish I could take Jennifer Egan’s The Keep and give it a better cover. It might be my favorite contemporary novel, and it has a somber cover that doesn’t do enough to hint at the fun and narrative trickery inside.


What emerging author or first book are you most excited about?

Pamela Erens’s The Virgins isn’t technically her debut, but I think it has announced her voice in an unignorable way. You should read it immediately.

Name a book you bought for its cover.

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell. I’m halfway through, and it hasn’t disappointed.

What was your inspiration for The Borrower?

The Borrower is, in part, about a young boy whose parents have enrolled him in anti-gay therapy. And this was the initial inspiration for the book—my learning that these programs existed, and for children as young as nine. Out of that grew this whole crazy story about a boy who runs away and kidnaps his favorite librarian. Somewhere along the way, it got to be about the Russian mafia and a troupe of actors and a bunch of other stuff too. I never quite understand how these things grow. I think they work a lot like dreams.


Lightning round

Typing or longhand? typing

Silence or music? silence

Morning or night? morning

E-reader or print? print

Vowel or consonant? Oh, I thought that said “croissant” at first. Now I’m just disappointed.

Train or plane? train

Bookmark or dog-ear? dog-ear

Cake or pie? wine

Mountains or sea? sea

Dog or cat? dog

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, a Booklist top ten debut, an Indie Next pick, an O, The Oprah Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, and has been featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the Midwest, Best New Fantasy, and several college literature textbooks. Her stories appear in Harper’s, Tin House, Ploughshares, and New England Review, and on public radio’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. She teaches at Lake Forest College, StoryStudio Chicago, and Sierra Nevada College.