CHICAGO — “The Great Believers,” the new novel by Rebecca Makkai, describes the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s and its impact on the gay community. Whereas the story of the disease in the United States tends to be a New York or San Francisco tragedy, here it is a “slow-motion tsunami from both coasts,” a pool of water collecting at Midwestern ankles that climbs so quietly many are surprised to find themselves drowning. The book begins in 1985 at a Lincoln Park memorial for a gay man whose family disowned him, only to reclaim him at the last moment, “insisting he die in the suburbs in an ill-equipped hospital with nice wallpaper”; it finds a city where initial survivors, not yet seeing the reach of AIDS, don’t know whether to host rowdy house parties in honor of the dead or somber, hands-folded funeral services. It visits Door County, Wis., and the Art Institute of Chicago; it finds a place for World War I Europe circa 1918 and the secluded nooks of Belmont Harbor circa 1982 (“a gay space hidden from the city but wide open to the vast expanse of Lake Michigan”). It ends in Paris, several decades and many victims later.
It navigates Michigan Avenue picket lines and missing daughters and cults and lost generations and victims and hospitals and the art world and how communities endure.
It is, in other words, a lot of book.
And though Makkai, a lifelong Chicagoan and ubiquitous presence on the arts scene, downplays this, “The Great Believers” is also, without a doubt, a swing for the literary fences, a vast, ambitious epic that brings the author, normally a blur, into tighter focus.
So, in early May, as buzz was building, Makkai was doing what an author with a new book does. She was appearing, appearing, appearing. To be fair, she does this all the time, even without a new book. She says yes a lot. Lately she has said it less; she recently started a private Facebook group with a select group of authors to discuss financial questions and the value of appearances. Still, on any given night, Makkai is appearing, speaking, visiting. She is seated in a big leather chair in the Wicker Park bookstore Volumes, across from Rebekah Frumkin, a Chicago writer whose own book, her debut, “The Comedown,” is an ambitious, generation-spanning epic set in Cleveland.
“I want to know,” Makkai says, dishy, “how’s it going?”
“Well, that Rebecca Makkai is asking me that question is maybe a sign I made it,” Frumkin says, and leans into Makkai and says: “I have been reading you for so long.”
Actually, it’s only been seven years since Makkai, a native of Lake Bluff, Ill., made her debut with “The Borrower,” a novel about a librarian who accidentally kidnaps a young boy. Yet in that time, she became the local writer who knows everyone and everyone knows — “Chicago’s connective tissue between literary entities,” said Jill Pollack, founder of StoryStudio, the Ravenswood-based writing program. The person who can get you that email, demystify finding an agent and perhaps even walk you through your first draft.
Ask Makkai about her ubiquity, and she replies, “It’s karmic for one thing,” then goes on a tangent and never returns to the second thing. “Anyone who writes for a living should look at Rebecca and take notes,” said Rebecca George, co-owner of Volumes. “She is like the ultimate literary citizen. Keeping your name in the world is important for a writer, but that’s not just why she does it. She loves it, and a lot of authors don’t. They think writing is the job. It’s a part, it’s a beginning. The job is the hustle — making things happen for yourself. Rebecca isn’t doing this for that. She does it for literary community. Still, the groundwork that she has set — it’s led to all the good things happening now.”
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Frumkin drew a small audience, even in her hometown — her parents, a few friends, a few others. As a first-time novelist, this is often the reality, and Makkai has been there. She tells Frumkin, generously, “Unless you’re No. 1 on Amazon, you never know how you’re doing.” She asks about Frumkin re-creating historical moments in her book that she didn’t experience, slipping in a mention of her own fears of appropriating history she didn’t live through. She does this without mentioning “Great Believers” by name. She’s subtle, never gratuitous. She does what she must. It’s a small cost of having her appear.
After 30 minutes, she says, “A very sweet undergrad once asked” her who she could take in a literary fistfight, so she really wants to know, who could Frumkin take down?
Jonathan Franzen, Frumkin says quickly, as if she were waiting to be asked, then she explains: “When he said he works without the internet, that just really bothered me.”
Makkai smiles and takes a furtive glance at the clock.
Makkai, 40, teaches in the MFA writing program at Northwestern University, and is artistic director at StoryStudio. She has two children and lives in a dorm at Lake Forest Academy, where her husband, Jonathan Freeman, teaches English and serves as assistant dean of students. “Rebecca doesn’t buy into this thing that a woman writer has to stay home or write less and not attend a writer’s retreats and all this and that,” said Gina Frangello, a Chicago novelist and close friend. “She gets things done in a way a male writer just assumes he could. But that said, (Makkai and Freeman) do have this amazing lifestyle.”
Makkai says she relies on “a small army of babysitters,” often culled from the prep school. The family splits its time between the pristine campus and a small home in Vermont. After college, to be taken seriously, Makkai tried writing “gritty people-of-the-street stories” set in New York. But she had no history with New York. “Her people,” as she called them, were the North Shore academics she grew up around. Since her novels began arriving, each has been a dive into bookish homes of thoughtful artists, teachers and librarians, better versed in fine than pop arts.
Her parents were linguistic professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They ran a linguistics press and linguistics association out of their home; her childhood included a lot of academic conferences. Her mother was born in Iowa, her father is from Budapest. “I don’t think it’s controversial to say UIC didn’t pay that much, so we lived in a wealthy town but a modest house and I often felt embarrassed to have school friends over.” Her father arrived in 1957, a refugee of the failed Hungarian Revolution. His mother was celebrated Hungarian novelist Rozsa Ignacz, his father was Janos Makkai, a member of the Hungarian parliament who pushed to remove Jews before World War II; Makkai told Harper’s she grew up thinking of her grandfather as harmless, a hero who renounced Germany, but later learned the truth (she included him in her acclaimed story collection “Music for Wartime”).
“My parents would host a lot of visiting artists and musicians (from Hungary) and have concerts in the house,” she said. “We were the first stop for a lot of ex-pats who got out (of Hungary). They would call my father from O’Hare. We’d pick them up and take these poor jet-lagged people to the top of the Sears Tower, on a tour of Sheridan Road, then, for the finale, the produce section at Jewel-Osco!”
Makkai said she only ever wanted to be a writer.
She taught at Montessori schools for 12 years, working on novels and short stories on nights and vacations. One of the first stories she ever submitted was published in the influential literary journal The Iowa Review; her first major success was being included in the Best American Short Story series, for four straight years. To land an agent she searched online for Jonathan Safran Foer’s agent, figuring both had Eastern European influences and a touch of magic realism. Remarkably, Nicole Aragi, the powerful agent whose clients include Foer, Colson Whitehead, Chris Ware and Aleksandar Hemon, pulled her letter from a slush pile — i.e., a mound of unaffiliated submissions mailed in by strangers.
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“Her letter outlined ‘The Borrower,’ which sounded fascinating,” Aragi recalls. “Which moved it from a slush pile to a read-more pile, then to a read-the-whole-thing-and-make-frantic-notes pile. I signed her quickly after that, and it was a smart idea.” Aragi said “a lot of authors tend to level out, but I haven’t seen it yet with Rebecca.”
A few years later, Makkai followed with “The Hundred-Year House,” about a century in the life of a North Shore estate and former artist colony; then a year later, with “Music for Wartime,” a collection laced together by legends and tales pulled from family lore. Kathryn Court, her editor and publisher at Penguin (which releases Makkai’s books under the Viking imprint), describes a “quite demanding” writer from day one who tends to question her own instincts often, making alterations frequently, but “with a light touch on serious subjects. I see her as literary — though not with a capital, self-conscious L.”
Combine a relative effortlessness with a familiar, local presence, and as Amy Danzer, assistant director of the graduate programs at Northwestern, put it: “Haters gonna hate, especially if someone has that much going on and are doing it well. Rebecca knows this.” Indeed, Makkai refers to herself as “(expletive) annoying,” but bristles at “almost bitter comments from other writers about how fast I am — when I’m not.” Her first book took 10 years; “Music for Wartime,” her collection, took 14 years. The first two novels sold “only respectively well”; the collection led to excellent reviews and her position at Northwestern, but it also sold “a tenth as well as the first two books.”
Look, she says, sitting back, “when my first book came out I drove myself nuts being competitive. Like, physically ill. I often didn’t even know the writers I hated, who were just doing well. Today I’m not interested in the mystique around publishing or writing — or making it seem unobtainable. Now I’m the person who seems to be having success, and some of the writers I was jealous of have run into trouble. It goes up and down. The worst thing to wish a writer is instant success — they never realize how much of it is luck.”
Consider: “The Great Believers” — by all accounts, particularly glowing early reviews — is expected to be Makkai’s breakout moment. It’s become a mainstay of summer-reading lists; it’s already being name-checked as an award contender in the fall. Court, her editor, calls it a “huge leap ahead in Rebecca’s writing — those earlier books were wonderful but smaller in focus, narrower in characters and time frame, and what she accomplished here would be technically difficult for any writer to pull off, yet she makes it appear almost effortless.” It took Makkai four years of researching, interviewing, writing.
It’s also a stumble, shaped into an opportunity.
As Makkai explained: “I set out to write a novel about a woman who is an artist’s model in Paris around World War I. And I messed up. The book was going to be correspondence between her and this art guy with a painting, and she’s trying to convince him it’s a painting of her. Then my husband said that story is called ‘Titanic.’ Still, I had figured the woman wouldn’t have lived past the ‘80s. AIDS was a subplot. Now AIDS was the focus. It’s all still there — I just landed far from where I started.”
That art guy became the main character, a curator named Yale tasked with landing a sizable art donation. And the plot now shifts in time between the Boystown neighborhood’s gay community in the 1980s and a few of its members decades later, in Paris in 2015. Makkai says she read every issue of the gay alt-newspaper Windy City Times published from 1985 to 1992; she interviewed activists, nurses, therapists, countless gay men who lived in Boystown in 1985, as well as Drs. David Moore and David Blatt, whose Unit 371 at Illinois Masonic Medical Center was the first dedicated AIDS ward in the nation and an early model of compassionate care for AIDS patients.
Owen Keehnen, a Chicago LGBT historian and bookseller at Unabridged Books who lived in Boystown in the 1980s and was interviewed by Makkai for the book (and read early drafts), recalls: “A neighborhood in panic, and years of people walking around with post-traumatic stress syndrome. AIDS decimated us. It came at you from so many directions it was smart for Rebecca to jump in time — 1985 was too claustrophobic to provide enough perspective.”
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Wading into years of research, Makkai’s initial reaction was shock at how little had been written about the history of the AIDS crisis in Chicago. “I was prepared to hear a lot about communities falling apart, but what I didn’t expect were the stories about the way people held together. As Yale learns about this in the book, I’m learning about it, too.”
Barbers gave free haircuts to patients.
Restaurants gave free meals.
Bars held slush funds in case any of their HIV-positive regulars had trouble paying the rent.
Justin Hayford, senior legal advocate at the Legal Council for Health Justice (formerly the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago), didn’t have much hope for “The Great Believers.” Makkai interviewed him, but “I was nervous to read it. It was close to home, and there were so many ways a person who was 7 years old in 1985 could screw it up. A lot of gay fiction doesn’t reflect the world I know. I had friends who had 100 of their friends die of AIDS in Chicago alone. That’s wartime stuff. Yet somehow she pulled it off. The political, the personal — I don’t know how she did it. Maybe it’s luck or talent — or both.”
The night after her bookstore appearance in Wicker Park, Makkai is appearing again, at StoryStudio in Ravenswood. It’s the second to last meeting of her “Novel in a Year” class, which is more about the practical considerations of writing a novel than actually finishing one. There are 12 students, from their 20s to their 50s, culled from an application pool of roughly five dozen; tuition for the class is about $2,100.
They sit on couches and chairs, huddled around a table overflowing with wine bottles and sleeves of crackers.
“So I want to know,” Makkai asks, “how is everyone doing?”
No, wait, they respond in unison, how are you doing?
Makkai smiles. “Life is crazy,” she says, “my inbox is crazy, but reviews are out and ... strong.” She has a sharp profile and pale skin that lends an aristocratic air, her voice is confiding and confident, and when the students congratulate the good buzz, she brushes past politely — they were asked to develop elevator pitches, to reduce the plots of their nascent books to a few brisk, engaging sentences.
“After all the children in the United States vanish,” one student begins, stopping an imaginary publishing executive, “a reluctant 17-year-old hero, inexplicably left behind ... “
For hours this continues.
The group pecks away at cliches and hackery until every pitch is presumably impossible to ignore. The goal, Makkai reminds, is to grab the cluttered minds of busy people. But what if you hate the book you’re writing, a student asks. And Makkai replies, casually, knowingly, “I don’t know one person working on a book who says it’s going fantastic.”
“I am currently reading the book that I wish I was actually writing,” another student says with great despair.
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Makkai nods sympathetically. She knows the feeling. She listens to their concerns, fields their questions, says, “Cool, cool, cool” and “Right, right, right” and “Good, good, good.” Should they tweet pitches to agents? Makkai cringes. Should they self-publish? She tells them to imagine every person they know who would buy their book, then cut that number in half — that’s how many books they will actually sell if they self-publish. She walks them through the slog, the anxiety, the responsibilities of a literary citizen.
Should I write short stories, a student asks.
“No,” Makkai says flatly, then softens. “I’m kidding. Yes, yes — write short stories. Do it all! Do everything you can. Say yes always ... said the most overcommitted person ever.”
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