Author Q&A: How Rebecca Makkai Blends Fiction and True Crime in Her Latest Novel ‘I Have Some Questions For You’

How reliable is our memory? When we examine the past now, what do we see? Bestselling author Rebecca Makkai tackles these questions in her latest novel, I Have Some Questions For You — available February 21, 2023, published by Viking Penguin. At its core, the story is about revisiting the past to distinguish truth over recollection. “That was important to me all throughout the writing — that this be a book about memory and its failures,” the author says.

The highly anticipated novel follows Makkai’s previous bestseller, The Great Believers (2018), which garnered a finalist position for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Makkai has also published several other full-length titles and has had multiple bylines featured in Tin House, Poets & Writers Magazine, Chicago Magazine and more. The Chicago-based writer has also received accolades including the ALA Carnegie Medal and the L.A. Times Book Prize. She currently serves on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University.

In the following Q&A, Makkai discusses her new book, her writing process, and the ways that personal, social and political issues influence her fiction.

Tell us about your new novel, which you’ve called a “literary feminist boarding school murder mystery,” and how you came up with this idea?

Rebecca Makkai: First of all, I should just say that when I settled on that title, I knew the tax I’d have to pay was that almost every interview would start with this joke. But I love it! I should keep a tally.

I Have Some Questions For You follows a forty-something film professor and podcaster named Bodie Kane, who’s invited to teach a two-week class on podcasting at the same New Hampshire boarding school she attended as a teenager. Being back on campus stirs up enough memories as it is, but then one of her students announces that her podcast topic will be the murder of Bodie’s one-time roommate, Thalia Keith, back in 1995. The student is convinced that the case needs reexamining, and that the man convicted—Omar Evans, the school’s athletic trainer—is innocent. At first Bodie isn’t exactly eager to revisit the past, but soon she begins to have her own questions about the case – what really happened, what she remembers and who else might be to blame.

In a strange twist of fate, I’ve lived most of my adult life on the campus of the boarding school I attended, so it was probably inevitable that, eventually, I’d write a campus novel. I met my husband in grad school; he had been teaching high school English on the East Coast, but I dragged him back to Chicago, and the place he ended up getting a job was my old high school. We planned to stay for three years but ended up raising our children here. There’s a door in my office that looks like a closet—but when you open it, you’re in a hallway of a dorm of 40 teenage girls. Living in the place where I went to high school brought back a lot of memories at first, but since I’ve been here almost 21 years now, those have been overwritten by many newer and stronger ones. Still, I’ve been fascinated by the sort of palimpsest of memories that happen in a place like this.

Writing I Have Some Questions For You, I was inspired by the idea of a place that’s simultaneously timeless and transitory. The physical space and traditions of a school might be ancient, but individual people filter through so quickly, spending the most formative years of their lives there and then moving on. There are many, many clichés in the way boarding schools are portrayed in novels and movies: every building is old, it’s always October, everyone dresses like it’s the 1950s and so on. I wanted to paint a more realistic picture, in part because it’s a more complex and interesting picture. I wanted an adult perspective and the richness of the long view,  of someone looking back from adulthood on their own adolescence, as Bodie does. And when a narrative looks backward rather than forward, the questions it asks fall into the realm of mystery. What already happened here? What did we miss? In this case, I decided to lean into a full murder mystery, but to write a novel more grounded in realism than in the tropes of genre.

I Have Some Questions For You centers on a true crime podcast about a cold case, a little bit like Serial. Can you talk about what interested you here, and why you wanted to write about this?

I have long been obsessed with true crime, and like so many others, I got hooked on Serial when it first aired. I was fascinated by the predicament of Asia McLean, a witness who had one key piece of information, but was assured that the case was solved. Years later, the producers had to convince her that what she’d seen when she was a teenager was of vital importance. I was also fascinated by the way this group of high school classmates had to keep looking back on one fateful day, and I started thinking about what would have happened if they didn’t mostly still live in the same place, making it much more difficult to reconvene. Boarding school graduates, for instance, would be unlikely to live in the same county where they went to school. My original vision for the book was a week with everyone trapped in the same hotel — kind of a hothouse version of what’s now the last third of the book.

More generally, though, the novel addresses, and exists within, a culture that’s having a true crime moment. There’s nothing new about that obsession — look at the way people followed murder trials in the 1920s, for instance — but the podcast is the medium du jour for those fixations, and podcasts allow for a conversational and therefore personal engagement with stories about unsolved, solved and wrongly solved murders. Serial absolutely started that, and got most of us to find the podcast icon on our phones for the first time. While I have some issues with the way they presented that case, we’re definitely living in the world that Serial built.

A lot of true crime podcasts bother to examine their own fixations; the hosts might talk at length about the psychology of being drawn to true crime. That’s something Dateline, for instance, has never done. And so the podcasts have been victims of their own introspection, in a way. They’ve started these conversations, and then, as we become more aware of the ways our fascinations can be problematic, they take that heat.

This is all to say, it’s complicated. And therefore, to me, worth writing about.

Like your last novel The Great Believers, this book fuses the personal and the political, this time by examining the experience of being a young woman in the 1990s through the prism of today’s #MeToo culture. Could you speak to these themes — misogyny and the range of abuse women face — and why you wrote about them?

To me these feel less like themes, and more like the water we’re swimming in. It’s hard to look back with any clarity on the past and not find yourself astonished by the things we used to put up with. For me, the big revelation of #MeToo wasn’t that so many women have experienced outright sexual violence. It was the way people were calling out the forms of daily harassment that I’d always been deeply bothered by, but not having examined them in a long time, assumed were my problem. When you’re 15 and someone harasses you, your instinct is to think it’s your fault for being the kind of person someone would pick on, or that it’s your fault for not finding it funny.

The first part of I Have Some Questions For You is set in 2018, in a moment when the conversation was less about “cancel culture” and more about people looking back, perhaps for the first time, on experiences they’d repressed or never spoken about. Of course that’s exactly what led to public exposure for many abusers, and some oversteps and endless debate about where the line between the two lies. Bodie is caught right between those two forces — as readers will see.

The book also wrestles with wrongful incarceration and how our criminal justice system has failed many in our society, especially Black men. Can you tell us about the genesis of this part of the story?

I wanted to write about a case that was badly investigated and wrongly solved, and realism sent me in this direction. When the police rush to solve a crime, the result is — so terribly often — the wrongful incarceration of a Black man.

This is the ugly flipside of the true crime obsession, and of American justice in general. The story viewers want to hear — the story Law & Order serves up again and again — is that the police get their guy, the right guy, his guilt is proven in court and he’s locked away for a very long time and can never hurt anyone again. Even if you set aside the fact that about 50% of homicides in the US go unsolved — of the half that do get “solved,” so many are solved only in the sense that someone is now in prison and the police can claim a higher solve rate. And for so many reasons of bias, convenience, blatant racism, subconscious racism and economics, Black men are vastly more likely to experience false arrests and wrongful conviction, with devastating effects on their lives and families. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 53% of recent exonerees in the US are Black, around four times their proportion of the US population. That’s only exonerations, of course; the actual number of false convictions is something we can never know.

Each of your books is distinct from the others in structure, tone and scope. What’s it like to work in such different genres and styles? Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to try next?

The best part of my job is that I get to write about whatever I want, and to change lanes whenever I want. The way I see it, why would I write about the same thing as last time? Why would I write the same way as last time? I absolutely understand and admire writers who do, but my ADHD absolutely won’t let me do that.

I do think I have some themes that are common to most of my work. I tend to write about artists and academics, and I write a lot about memory and the passage of time. Or at least I hope people see those as themes, rather than ruts — let’s call them themes.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

Of course I hope people stay up all night to finish it, and I also hope it might invite readers to cast an eye back on their own teenage years and think about the accuracy of their own memories, and the wobbly foundations upon which we build our adult selves. Writing the novel certainly did that for me; it felt like four years of therapy dedicated just to working through my own feelings about adolescence and high school. I hope that, like me, this novel sends you back to your high school yearbooks. You’ll absolutely love the haircuts. But you’ll also start remembering things — both good and bad — that you haven’t thought of in years, things you laughed off or ignored or didn’t appreciate at the time.

I think this is fundamentally a novel about the institutions we’re unwittingly part of, and our responsibility to interrogate and change, or dismantle or rebuild those institutions. Despite feeling fundamentally like an outsider at Granby, Bodie was a part of that institution and everything it represented and did. She’s also part of a culture of misogyny, even as a woman. She’s part of the institution of whiteness. And she’s part of America and its deeply flawed justice system. Being a part of something bigger than you doesn’t mean that you created that thing or bear all the guilt for everything it does — but, especially when that institution privileges you and your existence, it does mean that you ought to examine it and, at least as a first step, not simply take it as the way things have to be.

I say often that my job as an author is not to answer the big questions, but to take those questions and complicate them further. Above all, that’s what I tried to do with this book, and perhaps that’s why the word “questions” ended up in the title. I like reading books that unsettle me, that disturb my thinking in some way. I like writing them, too.

More details on Makkai’s previous and upcoming work and purchasing options can be found on the Rebecca Makkai website. Or visit the Penguin Random House website for more specifics on I Have Some Questions For You.

Editor’s Note: This interview provided by Penguin Random House has been edited for length and clarity.

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