Chicago Author Spotlight: Rebecca Makkai

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 26, 2011 6:45PM

06_2011TheBorrower.jpg Rebecca Makkai’s first novel is a magical and adventurous journey of a 10-year-old boy and a young librarian running away together from their homes and lives. The Borrower is a fictional story of escape, and it also deals with the very heavy realities that LGBT teens and youth face when being persecuted for their sexuality.

Lucy, a children’s librarian in Hannibal, Mo, senses that Ian, a young and energetic library patron might be gay based on his personality and choice of books. It’s not an issue until Ian’s mother begins restricting what Ian can read. Ian seems to become sadder and quieter, and Lucy wonders how his parents are reacting to raising a child who could potentially be gay. When Ian hides away in the library and begs Lucy to take him on a road trip, she’s in a tough spot.

Should she play along with the game and take him away from his home, where she knows he’s unhappy? Or should she send him back to his parents where she knows his creativity and entire personality and sense of being will be smothered? What seems like the better option is also, unfortunately, considered kidnapping and also illegal.

Rebecca Makkai will be at the Lake Forest Book Store for an author luncheon on Wednesday, June 27. You can register via their website or by calling 847-234-4420. Meanwhile, check out what she had to say about the book and her work when we chatted with her last week.

Chicagoist: You’ve woven references to children’s literature all throughout The Borrower. How did you get to know these books well enough to incorporate them into your novel? And what are some qualities about children’s literature that you admire?

Rebecca Makkai: I spent the last 11 years teaching elementary school. So I’ve been reading to students for half an hour every single day. It’s something that’s fresh in my mind, and I’m much more familiar with this cannon of children’s literature on a daily basis than I was when I was twelve.

What I love about children’s literature is its directness. It’s not afraid to tell a story. So much of literature can get caught up in the language and imagery and forget to engage you, and writers of children’s literature know that if you do that, you’re going to lose the reader. When reading books out loud every day, I have to find the thread that engages children the most and stop there to keep them interested when I come back to read again next day.

In The Borrower, I was echoing was the language of children’s books, but the narrative is a nod to adventure books like The Wizard of Oz; the strange characters they meet along the way is intentionally referring to way that children’s books just grab you and take you on an adventure and don’t try to apologize along the way.

C: How do you hope this book can counteract gay teen bullying and suicide?

RM: For readers who may be younger and gay or questioning their sexuality, hopefully it’s another world they can encounter. There’s a little bit of escapist fantasy here, and hopefully they can get the sense of someone caring about them. Lucy’s fictional, but you can still get that sense of caring and hope from a fictional character.

I’m also interested in the reaction of adults who might not otherwise be terribly concerned with these children and young adults in this country right now. One of the things they’ve realized in the gay rights movement and civil rights movement is that once someone feels like they know someone who’s affected, they’re much more likely to support the movement. Maybe the character is fictional, but if the character is real enough to you, you do come away thinking that you that person. And the next time the issue comes up, you’re imagining someone you know.

C: Did you have the journey of Ian and Lucy planned out before you wrote the book?

RM: I knew where they would end. Vermont is a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. It used to be an independent nation, and it’s known as a liberal place, a place where Ian might have had an easier time than where he’s growing up.

I looked at it as this funny version of the Emerald City, and the fact that it’s the Green Mountain State certainly helps out with that. You know where you’re starting and you have to end at the Emerald City, and there has to be some interesting way to get there. It was this magical place, and they were somehow going to get there, and all their problems were going to be fixed. But of course, somehow they aren’t.

At the end, Lucy is like the Wizard of Oz... after all that he just turns out to be this humbug. At that point, Lucy’s own past and life became very much a part of the narrative. Although Ian does change along the way, but between Missouri and Vermont, most of the transformation happening is Lucy.

C: Escapism is huge in this book, both in physically removing oneself from one’s problems, and figuratively in the world of books. Can you talk more about that in The Borrower?

RM: It’s certainly not a realistic narrative. It’s very larger than life, where they’re out of the road having these wild adventures and Lucy knows it’s kind of a charmed journey they’re setting off on. But there’s this dreamlike fantasy to all of it that’s very much intended.

I’m not sure if readers will get this and I don’t need them to, but in my mind I have a double narrative: the side that’s told in the book, and also as if someone’s telling this story sitting at their desk, that this is her imagining what would have happened if she HAD done something. Maybe she’s really just fantasizing what she should have done, and maybe something really bad has happened to the child and now it’s too late.

C: What are you working on next and is there any Chicago in it?

RM: My second novel is set in the Northern suburbs where I live. It’s really cool driving through the town and literally driving through the location of my novel. I can look around and feel like I’m in it as I’m going about my daily life.

It is a story about a house, and it spans the entire 20th century. It’s not based on a specific house, but there was a house where I babysat out once or twice as I was growing up that had this amazing haunted feeling that I loved. That’s the house I’m picturing as I’m writing. It’s fortunate that I only babysat there twice, so it’s good that it’s a very vague memory!

I love places that have a history that you can feel. I love the idea of any place at all that you walk and you feel the decades of history that have evolved.