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This blog was featured on 07/02/2018
Rebecca Makkai on Her Inspiration, Research and Reader Interpretation
Written by
She Writes
July 2018
Written by
She Writes
July 2018

Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers, always writes her books with one thing in mind: how she can best portray her subject matter. Taking on difficult topics like the AIDS crisis, Makkai isn’t afraid to do the extensive amount of research that it takes to successfully tackle the tough subject.

From what inspires her writing, to her research process, and her advice to young writers, this interview compilation shines a light on the ways authors should be approaching their art and the ways in which they can create a believable and authentic story based on fact.

On Drawing Inspiration from Art

Many of Rebecca Makkai’s stories draw inspiration from other forms of art, often times making one of her characters an artist themselves. During a recent interview with The Millions, Makkai explained why she does this and how her inspirations help her craft her own work:

“I’m not exactly sure why I write about artists so much, except that I grew up around a lot of poets and musicians (not so much around visual artists) and I relate to the way they think. I think most people do, really—whether or not we’re artists, we’re all trying to find or make beauty in the world. It’s challenging, actually, to write about pieces of art that don’t exist and to describe them so that they seem real. But it’s a lot easier to describe them than to actually PAINT them. If I could be a painter or a musician, I would be. But it’s satisfying to write about pieces of art and pieces of music and almost imagine that I made them real.”

On Her Research Process

Makkai’s latest novel The Great Believers required her to do a lot of research on the Chicago AIDS crisis. While being interviewed by Chicago Review of Books, Rebecca explained how important research was to her book and what the process was like:

“I knew that if I was going to approach this [subject] at all, I had to get it right on several levels. I had to get it right emotionally, I had to make sure I wasn’t mis-stepping, and I had to be right on a granular detail level. I wanted someone who had lived through this in Chicago in the 80s to read it to not to be taken out of it by some little thing that made it apparent to them that it was fiction. So I went about my research in several ways. One of them was trying to research on paper and online. When people are writing the big books about the epidemic, it’s always coastal and it’s never about Chicago. I was expecting some big books of nonfiction that I could use as resources, and there just weren’t any.

“And I did a lot of in-person research. I started just by just reaching out on Facebook to my own friends asking if anyone knew anyone who knew anyone. ...I met with doctors, nurses, the art therapist from the Illinois Masonic AIDS unit, activists, journalists, lawyers, survivors, and just people who lived in Chicago in Boystown in the 80s and were gay and out. 

“But really in the end I was weirdly grateful that I hadn’t been able to find a ton of books because it forced me out into the world to do this research. If there’d been ample nonfiction accounts I might have felt I could stay home and just read those. I would have been missing a tremendous amount on the anecdote level and the detail level and on the emotional level. Just talking to people about friends they lost and hearing their stories made my writing a lot richer.”

The Key to Getting the Writing Done

During an interview with Shenandoah, Makkai opened up about how she gets the work done while managing two children and a life outside of her career:

“I have a three-year-old and a six-month-old, so right now, getting out of the house is an essential part of the creative process, since I find it helpful not to be climbed on while writing. I always start by rereading what I’ve already written, editing as I go, and by the time I get to the new part I’m already living in the world of the story, and I’m writing new paragraphs before I even realize it. Hemingway famously said that you should stop not when you’re stuck, but when you know exactly what you want to write the next time. I agree, but I’d add that if you’re a sleep-deprived mom, it’s also best to jot down a few notes about what exactly that is.”

The Importance of Reader Interpretation

Makkai knows that readers won’t always see the amount of planning and work that goes into a book and during an interview with The Millions, she explains what she’s afraid her readers won’t see or the things they’ll interpret differently:

“I mean, it’s completely inevitable that people will misunderstand or misinterpret some things. One of the wonderful things for me so far with this book, though, has been the early readers who have told me that they pictured a certain lost friend in a certain role. I have my own mental pictures of these guys, but if people are plugging in memories, pictures of real people, that makes me really happy. And I was writing, in some cases, about places I’d never been, bars that have long since closed—places I could imagine but couldn’t picture. And weirdly, some of my readers will be able to picture them in detail because they were there. I like that."

Makkai’s Advice to Young Writers

Rebecca Makkai was once a young writer who needed direction and during an interview with Shenandoah, she gave fellow writers a little advice to get them focused on their writing:

“My strongest advice for young fiction writers is to remember that above all, you’re telling a story. When you first start out, you can get so caught up in wanting to sound like a writer, and wanting to describe things beautifully, that you can forget no one is even going to listen to what you have to say unless you have a fascinating story to tell. Everything else – the schedule, the revisions, whatever rain dance you have to do before you sit down in your chair – is so individualized to the writer; but the story-telling part is essential and universal. And, weirdly, so easily neglected.”

It’s clear that Rebecca Makkai knows what she wants from her writing and the ways she wants her readers to interpret her work. Her writing process and discipline is what makes Makkai a strong writer as she continuously finds new ways to get the job done. For writers looking to improve their craft and better deal with the pressures of producing a well-researched and detailed book, Makkai’s writing expertise is a great place to draw your own inspiration from.

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