Read This Podcast
Rebecca Makkai Is on the CaseRead Transcript
Rebecca Makkai is a master storyteller – her 2018 book, The Great Believers, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca switches genres with a literary crime story that takes in the #MeToo movement, the American justice system, race, sex, class and murder, all against the backdrop of a prestigious boarding school. This week, Michael sits down with Rebecca to discuss her latest novel, the perils of true crime, and why being surprised when reading a book is so much more satisfying than a jump scare in a movie.
The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai, 2011
The Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai, 2014
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai, 2018
I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai, 2023
The Stone of Laughter, Hoda Barakat, 1990
So Late in the Day, Claire Keegan, 2023
The In-Between, Christos Tsiolkas, 2023
You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books.
Guest: Rebecca Makkai
There was a time a few years ago when it felt like True Crime was really having a moment. All within about twelve months from late 2014 it felt like every conversation you had was about this new podcast Serial or Making a Murderer on Netflix, or that documentary The Jinx, where Robert Durst got caught in the bathroom confessing to a murder while he was still on mic. For amateur sleuths looking for escapism and vicarious thrills it was a golden age.
For many of us the appetite for true crime is something of a constant, even an insatiable one. As a genre, it’s a guilty pleasure, and one for which the emphasis is often on the ‘guilty’ part. Because, let’s face it, beyond the entertainment value it throws up a whole lot of complex questions:
Questions around structural power and its abuse. Around the stories that get privileged and the voices that get silenced. And maybe most of all, questions about the ethics of turning violence and tragedy into voyeuristic entertainment.
All of which make for rich ingredients in Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, which centres around the investigation of a murder by a personally implicated podcast host. A smart literary novel tackling a base storytelling indulgence? Mm, pure catnip.
I’m Michael Williams and this is Read This, a show about the books we love, and the stories behind them.
Rebecca Makkai, if you haven’t read her, is a celebrated American novelist, often on major award and literary bestseller lists. I cannot recommend highly enough her 2018 masterpiece The Great Believers. It’s about the AIDS epidemic and I don’t know a single person who has read it who is not a devoted fan.
In her latest novel, I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca switches genres with a literary crime novel that takes in the Me Too movement, the American justice system, race, sex, class and murder, all against the backdrop of a prestigious boarding school. Its main character is the deeply unreliable Bodie Kane: former student at the school, mother and host of a true crime podcast. Her return to the campus to teach podcast storytelling to a new generation of students is complicated by unfinished business – questions over a murder that occurred during her senior year. All the stuff of an excellent summer read, and all on the table when I got to talk to Rebecca Makkai.
MICHAEL: Are you – I mean, hard not to ask off the back of the latest book – are you a big podcast person?
REBECCA: Yeah, I mean, I think I am. I don't know how I ever got household work done before audiobooks and podcasts. I really don't. I have ADHD and just doing one thing only, like something menial...I can't….
MICHAEL: Did the diagnosis change writing for you?
REBECCA: Maybe a little because I have medication.
REBECCA: That certainly helps. And I think I'm just more forgiving and more aware. I don't think I'm writing any better or anything. But not trying to force myself to do things when it's not the right time and knowing that it's okay that I work in giant spurts instead of a little bit every day, that helps. Yeah, mental health, at least around it.
MICHAEL: I'm interested in creating a character like Bodie. You know, you talk about being more forgiving of yourself in the ways in which you approach a creative process. In Bodie, you've created a character, and I'm a writer who is in many ways loath to examine herself as she proceeds through the book.
REBECCA: So here's the thing, when I create a protagonist, I am not someone who starts with character and then figures out what they're going to get up to. I start with the scenario, and then I need to figure out who would be most susceptible to these circumstances, who would be the most vulnerable, the most changed. And so I wanted someone here who – a couple of, you know, different things, pulling her in different directions – one is, very put together and successful as an adult but had been really adrift as a teenager. So she steps foot – she's, you know, 40 – she steps foot back on the campus of her boarding school, and she's pulled between those two poles. And the other binary I had with her was on the one hand professionally, she has this podcast talking about Hollywood history, the Hollywood studio system, thinking about structures of power and abuse and marginalisation. And on the other hand, doesn't really want to look too closely at her own life. And definitely, like all of us, has just kind of swallowed certain narratives about who she is, where she came from, without really acknowledging the system she herself has been part of. And so, again, you know, I can pull her between those two extremes, that's the limbo that I'm going to have her in.
MICHAEL: And one of the particular tensions that functions there is a temporal one. I mean, her podcast is deliberately historical, you know, it's at one remove, but when we talk about historical crime, historical abuse, you know, we're perhaps talking 20 years earlier, we're talking about the difference between youth and adulthood. And it means that the lens for discussing those things is always… the distancing effect of time.
REBECCA: Yeah. It's also being able to look at something outside of yourself. It's so easy to recognise that. And it's that hindsight, you know, you can look at just about any historical event and know what the right choice for that leader to make, for that, you know, that person to make would have been. And it makes you feel so smart. It makes you feel so much smarter than everyone else who would have, you know, who came before you, but to be in the vicissitudes of the moment and to be yourself and to be confused and to be blinkered to what's around you, that's unfortunately the reality. And then when you're looking back just at the recent past, that's much closer to, you know, who you are now. It's not that black and white photo. You can't watch the documentary and the music scoring it tells you how you should feel, right – that this is the bad guy, this is the good guy.
MICHAEL: Of the many choices of narrative and voice in this book I want to ask about, probably the most acute is the use of the second person, and the way in which Bodie addresses an initially unnamed you for the way that she tells her story. And I think it has such an extraordinary kind of effect when it comes to the reader's complicity in the traditions of true crime. You as the reader implicated almost on every page. How deliberate was that?
REBECCA: Um, instinctual and then deliberate, I would say. It was something that came out, you know, in those early stages of writing, you get 50 pages in and it's just throwing spaghetti at the wall. You try many things, many of them don't work. And at the end of the first full chapter, I just kind of found myself suddenly turning this gaze outward and you feel that kind of frisson of like this works, this is doing something. And one of the things it is doing is implicating the reader in a way, right, you can't help but see that word: you, well, you know, you know, I'm not literally talking to you, but it still includes you. It does other things, too, you know, it allowed me to focus, how much is she explaining about this school and how much does she assume the listener of her story knows? It kind of allowed me to line things up.
MICHAEL: This book is genre adjacent in many ways. It takes some of its beats and some of its conventions from what we expect from a crime story. And so as a reader, we approach that with a certain set of expectations.
REBECCA: Right. There's something there to subvert.
MICHAEL: How much fun was that, deciding how much you were going to pick up the tropes of the genre and how much you were going to then subvert them?
REBECCA: Yeah, it was fun. So here's my, my take on it, is that: there are certain genres that are only genres, right? Like a vampire story is only a genre that's not a real thing. But there are other things like, say, a love story or a crime story, those are both genres and real things that happen all the time in real life, right? So writing a story about a crime, an unsolved crime, or in this case, a probably wrongly solved crime, does not necessarily mean that I'm working within that genre. Although I can say I'm not working in that genre, of course people have expectations, right? One decision I made early on was that I did not want to misrepresent the horrible intricacies and impossibility of the American justice system. I did not want, in other words, to tie things up neatly in a bow at the end. But I also did want the reader to know by the end of the book with pretty good certainty what had happened. So that, you know, narratively, at least the mystery is pretty much solved.
MICHAEL: Especially because most true crime podcasts, actually that's the trap they fall into, and so there was always a tension for me in reading your book of were you going to pull that rug? Were you going to leave us unfulfilled the way podcasts, apart from this one, inevitably do,.
REBECCA: I had the decision to make of, you know, to what extent is that going to be some intricate Agatha Christie type reveal and to what extent is it maybe terribly anticlimactic? To what extent is it the expected? So that was that was interesting to play with as well. I also, I will say I have a lot of wonderful friends who are full-on detective novelists,and having heard them talk about the way they craft a book, helped me a great deal. Things like just simply, you know, going in, knowing beat for beat, what happened the night, that was huge for me.
MICHAEL: It's one of my favourite things, if you read old interviews with Agatha Christie where she would obsess about the concept of playing fair with the reader, but one of the big things was more acutely articulated than in any known genre of writers interviews, this idea that there's a contract between the reader and the writer, and you can't have a twist that wasn't telegraphed in the right way. You can't shift things just for your own convenience, you have to play.
REBECCA: Right? Yeah. And that was interesting here, too. I think that I would say, you know, the elements of the story that ultimately allow both the protagonist to figure out what happened are ones that, you know, that are that are visible to the reader all along, but they're not necessarily the kind of thing that a clever reader could go, “Aha! The pearl necklace was really made out of graphite the whole time in that…”, you know, kind of Agatha Christie sort of thing where you could solve it. I think someone could have a theory, but I wasn't…as much as I was interested in making sure that those, you know, nothing came out of left field. I wasn't interested in that kind of the clues were right in front of us the whole time move simply because that feels a lot more like fiction and a lot less like real life. And ultimately, despite wanting a satisfying mystery, I really wanted a realist lens on an unsolved crime or a wrongly solved crime.
MICHAEL: One of the genre conventions that you play with expectation and then effectively pull the rug is Bodie never gets her day in court. You know, you have a character who is driven in part by an acute awareness of her relationship to story and the role that she plays in it. And in stories like this, we understand that leads to a confrontation with, you know, the perpetrator or it leads to a moment in court, and you deliberately rob her of that, I'm interested in why you made that choice.
REBECCA: There are two reasons. One is kind of exactly what you're saying, right? That subversion of, you know, like I did not want to build to this kind of predictable climax. The other one was entirely mundane, which is that, okay, having decided to take a realist lens to the legal system, representing an actual day in court would be the most tedious shit you have ever read in your life. It's not Perry Mason in there, right? Also, honestly in real life, this is a common thing that people are banned from the very proceedings that they were kind of integral to.
MICHAEL: I think I spent much of the book waiting for Bodie to stuff things up irreparably, that she's always kind of on the edge of that selfish choice, that bad choice, that slightly tone deaf choice.
MICHAEL: And it was with a sense of relief that she hadn't demonstrably made anything worse at least.
REBECCA: Yeah that's definitely not a given. There are trade offs for her, right? Early in the book, she really messes up her own life, her own career, which is then what allows her to dig more into the death of her high school roommate and something that she would not have allowed herself to do when she was holding on to her career, her husband, the public image that she previously had had. So I was able to give her some big pendulum swings. But it's interesting because, you know, we think about true crime media on the whole, and you think, well, does it do more harm than good? Does it do more good than harm? You never know. And there are so many cases where people get involved and really muck things up, make life miserable for suspects or victims or families, or trample over the crime scene. And then you have situations where that outside person looking at it solves the case or brings it to the public attention or highlights a marginalised victim. And you don't know, going in, which one you're going to be. And I wanted that feeling for Bodie. You don't know, is she, you know, going to actually save the day? Is she going to absolutely mess things up? Is it somewhere in between?
MICHAEL: Are you a consumer of true crime?
REBECCA: Yes. A very conflicted one. And this is a lot of what you know, led me to the book. You know, I think there are certain things that would feel just very icky to me. I'm not interested in serial killers. I'm not interested in blood and gore. But the unsolved mystery with a lot of details. You know, there's certain ones, whether it's podcasts or documentaries, you can spend, in this current age, you could spend all day, you know, researching a case. There are certain things that I get drawn into, and I think that's very common. We have more at our fingertips now for those deep dives than we used to, although I think it's just instinctual, certainly as old as humanity. You know, my not knowing what to make of my own interest and my not knowing what to make of the genre on the whole…when I'm conflicted about something like that, that tends to indicate to me that it would be a juicy topic.
MICHAEL: I was going to say, is that kind of internal conflict typically a trigger for a novel for you?
REBECCA: Oh yeah. I never I never go to the novel because I know what I already think. That would be terribly boring.
MICHAEL: Find out through the writing.
REBECCA: Yeah! And I don't think that I necessarily land on anything, but I think the job of fiction is to complicate the questions we already have, not to come in with a thesis statement or to land on a conclusion.
When we return Rebecca shares how the real life stories of abuses of power affected the writing of her latest novel. We’ll be right back.
MICHAEL: One of the really powerful rhetorical refrains in the book is lists of people trying to work out which specific historical murder case Bodie is talking about or is invested in, and it's a roll call of abused and destroyed women, and it's a big clear concern of the book is the ways in which these stories are fetishised and rehearsed and told again and again and become almost interchangeable. Was it clear to you from the start that you wanted to link true crime journalism and the disclosures of the MeToo era into the one story? Or did that come later?
REBECCA: I started really working mentally on the book in 2018 and started typing in 2019, which are part of the same process for me. And that was, you know, as MeToo was getting rolling. And I, like everyone else, was looking back with a very different lens on big things, but also small things. Things you thought you had to laugh off, things about high school, university. I was trying to find ways to kind of destabilise Bodie. And I wanted there to be a big story in the news that was really making her wobbly. We'd just had these Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh hearings that, you know, we'd all just been watching for days and were so upset by and I wanted something like that. I did not want, though, to distract by talking about a real case. And I also didn't want to make up a case and then have the details of that distract from the main story. So I decided what I would do was just, she's going to refuse to tell us which one it is. She's going to insist that it's all of them at once. It's this one. No, it's this one. Actually, it was this one. And I wrote this list, a few chapters in where she's watching TV, and then I went, you can't just do something like that once. You have to do that throughout. So the lists change right? Sometimes it is other people saying wait was it this case sometimes she's saying you know here's a list of men who got away with it. But those lists…I did like the echo of that. I think very, very real mental phenomenon.
MICHAEL: One of the throughlines in the book is Bodie’s husband is accused of his own historical malfeasance. I choose the word malfeasance, because you do choose a story and an account that is coloured by subjectivity around questions of power, around questions of intent and obliviousness and all of that. And those things play out in ways that are much more complex, I think, than the ones where there's a clear villain, right?
REBECCA: Yeah. It was very important to me that I'm not just beating people over the head with, you know, look at all these different things that different men have done wrong. I think that one of the things about MeToo and my reading this in those early years of MeToo was for all of us that there were moments that, you might just kind of whisper it to a friend, but like, “That one went too far. This one is not on the same level. I don't I don't have a problem with that.” And I wanted a case like that. I needed that for balance. And I needed it to, you know, like I said, I'm just trying to complicate the questions I already have. I'm not trying to simplify anything here. So I'm going to go in and make the most complex version of this that I can. And I've been happy that my litmus test is that readers are split on it; largely split by age, that older readers are fine with what Jerome did and people under about 28 are, “I can't believe she defended this monster.” It's very interesting.
MICHAEL: It is. I do think the generational divide is a far more meaningful one than almost any other measure when it comes to appetite for those things.
You’ve said a couple of times you've commented on the need to keep yourself interested when you're writing. Can you identify where that interest most comes from? Is it surprise? Is it stretching yourself with something you haven't done before?
REBECCA: Yeah. I think surprise for me in two ways. One is the planned surprise where I know what's in store and I can't wait to surprise the reader with it. And then there's surprise for me as the writer where I find myself writing something and go, “Oh, I guess we could go over here.” I think often when writers get stuck, one reason can be that you simply don't have enough stuff in your book, you kind of started with a few ingredients and you kind of try and work with just those ingredients. It's like “you can go back to the store for more groceries at any time. You can put anything in here that you want.” So, you know, that's for me, like, I start with this book that's going to be about looking back on boarding school and then MeToo is happening and like, well, I'm really obsessed with this right now, let's throw that in.
MICHAEL: When was the last time, as a reader, you were most excited by that thing of surprise where it held your attention and rewarded it.
REBECCA: I'm reading a Lebanese novel right now called The Stone of Laughter by Hoda Barakat. It's from, I think, 1990. It's interesting because it's a book that really it's not that not a lot happens – it's about civil war in Lebanon – but there's not a ton of plot. This young guy’s just kind of wandering around. The surprise comes in these yrical passages where it's almost like a three page poem, and so you're kind of lulled into, “Okay, I know what's happening in this world there aren’t going to be any great surprises in this world.” But then she surprises you with the narrative shift and that it's not like your jaw drops and you throw the book across the room. But you go, “Oh, my God, what's happening here? What's she doing? How long can she sustain this? What is this?”
MICHAEL: That feeling of being rewarded for paying attention?. That so much of entertainment that we consume you can do with the second screen on in the background or, you know, like it's a background engagement and a great book is everything.
REBECCA: Oh, yeah. The collaboration between reader and writer with the book, you know, you're doing 50% of the work as the reader. And so when I can surprise you, or when a writer can surprise me within my own imagination right, like, I'm the one picturing this stuff. And then the surprise comes. It's so much richer than a jump scare in a movie where it's something just kind of done to you.
MICHAEL: One of the things I so love about you as a novelist is the sheer breadth and eclecticism of the things that draw you in to deciding that it's time for a new book and you will have me weeping with The Great Believers and then kind of frantically turning pages into the middle of the night. What is it? What's that spark? Is it the same every time, that moment where you’re like there is a novel I have to write here or is it different?
REBECCA: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, they all are very different. I would get way too bored, you know, retreading the same ground. Usually what it is, is sort of if you watch raindrops on a window pane and certain ones start to join together, right? And then they become heavier and then that's the one that falls faster, that's what happens. Usually I have multiple competing ideas floating around, things I want to write about ideas for novels, stories. And when they start to come together, that's when I, I really feel like, okay, now we're going. Now we have something. The test for me is when I go to yoga and you're lying there in savasana and you're supposed to clear your mind – and of course, my mind is never clear – but if I am in this very Zen-like state and my mind is relatively clear, and then the thing that I'm thinking about when everything else is gone is the novel. I have revelations about it. I'm just in this blissful state of thinking about the novel. It's been the backdrop this whole time. When I clear away the “what do I have to do later?” That's really the sign for me. Like I am fully living in this world now. This is really the you know, this is this is the dream I'm in. This is my reality.
Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel, I Have Some Questions for You is out now.
Before we go – I wanted to tell you what I’ve been reading this week…
I feel like everyone I know got obsessed with Claire Keegan when she brought out her perfect gut punch of a book Small Things Like These last year. She has a new book out now, it is just a short story but it is equally beautiful and powerful. It’s called So Late in the Day and it is 64 pages of genius.
And since we spoke to him a few weeks ago Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel has hit the shelves. It’s called The In-Between, and it is the super tender love story of two men in their late fifties, and I adored it. I think it might just be his best book yet. Read it, and then listen back to him on episode six of this show.
In fact, listen back to all of them. Catch any episodes you’ve missed. Set up your own ranking system for your favourites and make a blog about it. Listen for secret mysteries and hidden conspiracy theories in episodes. Or don’t do any of that. Just share it with the book lovers in your life. That’ll do.
You can find all the books we mentioned in this episode at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room, apple.co/readthis. There’s a link in our show notes.
Next week on Read This – we head down to Hobart to speak with Richard Flanagan about his latest Question 7, and he shares how he overcame fear to write his most personal work yet:
I was always fearful as a writer. I never felt a reader owed me anything. You know, if they've opened the book, you have to give them every reason to get just to the bottom of the first page. But I didn't feel fear this time. There were things I wanted to write. And to write them in a way that would matter to the reader. They had to be as truthful as possible and to be as truthful as possible I had to find a very simple and clear language.
Read This is produced and edited by Clara Ames.
Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso.
Thanks for listening. See you next week.