Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, “The Great Believers,” started as a much different book.
“I actually started with what’s now a subplot, which is the story about the 1920s Paris art world,” she said in a phone interview. “That was really going to be the book. It was going to be about a woman looking back at her life from the end of it, which I figured just mathematically couldn’t be any later than the 1980s, and in conversation with some kind of art guy who she was trying to convince that this artwork was real and was of her.”
It occurred to her, however, that she had a framework that would allow her to return to an important topic.
“Realizing I had an art guy in the ’80s, I realized it was an opportunity to write about the AIDS crisis, which is something I’ve written about before in short fiction and something I really wanted to write more about,” she said. “So that very quickly took over the book. Only later when I was about halfway through did I realize I needed to have the modern day in there as well, and I went back and wove those sections in.”
The final structure of the book entails two storylines — the one set in the 1980s and another set in 2015. The importance of a section set in the present (at the time she was composing the book) became clear during her research.
“In so much of my research as I was doing one-on-one interviews with survivors and with doctors and nurses who were in the thick of things back then, one of the things that really struck me was the psychological reality of that 30 year gap,” Makkai said. “In some cases you were handed a death sentence 30 years ago and here you still are. In other cases you lost your entire generation, your entire friend group when you were in your twenties and here you still are. That became one of the most compelling areas for me. As I wrote, as I thought about it, I knew that I wanted to bring my story into the modern day in some way.”
To do that, she took a minor character, Fiona, from the ’80s storyline and made her the protagonist of the parts of the book set in 2015.
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While all of this introduced a variety of technical challenges — though Makkai is quick to say those challenges are present in all fiction — her primary concerns were about crafting a story that honored and amplified the stories of those who lived through the period her novel reflects.
“It was a concern all along — as it should be. Writing across differences, especially when you’re writing about underrepresented, marginalized populations, it’s never forbidden, but if you’re going to do it you have to do it right,” she said.
Makkai did meticulous research and made sure members of the LGBTQ+ community were deeply involved in ensuring the accuracy, not just of the historical details, but of the tone and emotions on display. She believes “The Great Believers” amplifies rather than mutes the voices of those most directly affected by the AIDS epidemic.
Makkai’s career also has involved amplifying the voices of aspiring writers as an instructor — including at the University of Iowa.
“I was a visiting professor in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall of 2015. I taught a fiction workshop and I absolutely loved it,” she said.
Her various teaching experiences suggests that work ethic often trumps talent for writers.
“Fortunately, at Iowa I encountered a lot of students who had both. They had that talent and that work ethic. So I’m not surprised now to see several of them with book deals — first novels, first story collections coming out very soon — even of that small group I taught.”
Makkai is not a graduate of a program like Iowa’s, but she was delighted to learn having an MFA was not a requirement for teaching in the Workshop.
“It’s not a networky kind of club necessarily,” she said of the program. “This wasn’t about do you have the right degree and do you know the right people? It was about I like your writing and I’m going to hire you.”
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She credits Samantha Chang, director of the Workshop, with infusing the program with openness, energy, and diversity — both in terms of the writers’ backgrounds and their chosen styles.
“I understand where those old criticisms have come from about writers coming out of Iowa feeling like they needed to conform to a certain aesthetic,” she said. “But that’s old news. People need to get the message that that’s not the case anymore.”
With a new book in the world and a tour to complete, it might seem unlikely that Makkai is already looking toward her next project, but the fact is she has an abundance of ideas.
“I have three equally compelling ideas for my next novel. I think I know what my next three books are and I just have to decide in which order I’m going to write them. I think what I’m going to do this fall is try to write 20 or 30 pages into each of the three and then see what I want to continue. I feel like I’m on The Bachelorette or something,” she said with a laugh.
More seriously, Makkai is using the publication of “The Great Believers” as an opportunity to raise money for an AIDS charity. She encourages readers to post a photo of themselves with the book on any of the major social media platforms with the hashtag #TheGreatBelieversDonate. For each photo posted, she’s donated one dollar (up to $5,000) to Vital Bridges. Details can be found on her website.
This sort of campaign is important, she said, because it is all too easy to think the AIDS crisis is in the past. This isn’t so.
“This is an ongoing thing. There are 37 million people living with AIDS in the world right now — over 1 million in America,” she said. “Literally, this still is happening. It’s not parallel; it’s the same line.”
IF YOU GO
What: Rebecca Makkai will read from her new novel, “The Great Believers”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City