AIDS began to devastate America in the 1980s. While San Francisco and New York featured in most media coverage, Chicago was at the disease’s epicenter. Rebecca Makkai’s ambitious new novel follows a set of close friends hit by AIDS in our city, then considers the impact from Paris thirty years later. “The Great Believers” is centered on big-hearted, funny, poignant characters that have the reader rooting for their successes and weeping for their losses. It’s an epic that cements Makkai’s reputation as one of our significant writers. She is also a great connector, a generous literary citizen and a writer who is fierce about Chicago, as she explains here.
“The Great Believers” is a heavyweight, longer than your previous books and significant in content. At what point did you realize this would be an epic—both in magnitude of story and in cultural importance?
I’ve been joking that it’s a doorstop. Although I don’t want to scare anyone away from it—it’s under 500 pages, I swear, and very good for pressing leaves. This novel really found its own shape and that wasn’t something I wanted to fight. One thing that dictated the scope of the book was the trajectory of the HIV virus itself. A point of ignorance when I started writing was that I didn’t realize it would often take five years from infection to first symptoms, even back before there was good medication. Learning this changed the timeline of the novel, forced me to write about a much broader swath of time. We so often see the suddenness of AIDS depicted in art, but not its horrifying slowness. At the same time, I wanted this to be the story of a group of friends, not just one person. That tilted things toward the epic as well.
I was scared to write something this long, in part because I have a theory that long books by men are seen as big, important cultural touchstones—a kind of literary “manspreading”—while long books by women… well, there just aren’t as many. I did an experiment on my Facebook page where I asked people to name 400-plus page books from the past decade. People named the same women over and over (Donna Tartt and Meg Wolitzer) while meanwhile there were dozens of men named. I took that as a reason to write long, not a reason to avoid it. This is my fourth book and I wanted, unapologetically, to come out with a really big damn novel in every sense.
What do you want readers to take away from it?
It’s been gratifying when early readers have told me it made them cry, because I certainly cried a lot as I wrote it. I want people to love my characters as much as I do—but more importantly, to be hit by the history we’ve forgotten or never knew. I learned an enormous amount about the AIDS crisis through my research. While this book isn’t aiming to be a nonfiction account, I do want readers to come away knowing a lot more about it and infuriated by what they know. I should say, though, that it’s also a joyful book and my worldview is not bleak. It was important to me that my characters have a sense of humor.
Chicago readers will have different takeaways than others. We hear so much about how the epidemic affected New York and San Francisco, and quite little about how it hit our own city. It hit Chicago very hard, but at the same time, the grassroots responses here were some of the best in the country. The AIDS unit at Illinois Masonic Hospital became the model for compassionate AIDS care around the world and organizations like Open Hand delivered groceries and meals to patients’ homes. You’ll hear stories of bars that had slush funds so they could give out money to people who couldn’t pay rent. The Chicago chapter of ACT UP did amazing work, and once you know about the national protest against the American Medical Association and the insurance companies here in 1990, you’ll never walk through downtown the same way. Since I started writing this book, I’ve been tuned in to the ghosts all around us. I’d love for that to happen to other people, too.
What were the challenges and pleasures of writing it?
I love these characters more than any others I’ve written. This made the book much easier to write—I wanted to sit down with them every day—but also much more difficult, in that I had to let terrible things happen to them. There were also challenges in my research. I had assumed, Chicago being the third biggest city in America, that I could find many books and documentaries about the AIDS crisis here. It wasn’t the case. There are a few wonderful things out there and there were some great first-person accounts online, but there wasn’t nearly enough for me to just hide behind my desk and read about it. This was a blessing in disguise, though; it meant I had to get out and conduct one-on-one interviews with people who had lived through things. People were incredibly generous with their time, sharing personal and painful things. I talked to survivors, activists, doctors, nurses, journalists, an art therapist, lawyers… And this ended up being emotional research, not just factual research. It was one of the very best things about writing this book. I’m in awe of these people.
How long did it take? Tell me about the process of writing it.
It was about four years, all told. I initially conceived of this as the story of a woman trying to offload some valuable art from the 1920s and the gallery director who isn’t sure if her work is real. Because this woman was an artists’ model in the twenties, she couldn’t really live much past the 1980s, so I decided to set it then; and I figured, if there’s a gallery guy in the eighties, maybe AIDS will be a small theme in the book. It went from ninety-five percent art, five percent AIDS, to the opposite proportion. I’m not quite sure when or how that happened, but it was a matter of staying open to where the story wanted to go and letting myself find the story’s true gravity.
My actual writing process for this one was similar to that on my previous books—a lot of notes, a lot of second guessing, a lot of dropping my kids at school and then dashing to the coffee shop, but forgetting my earphones and trying to write with annoying Christmas music playing in the background—with one exception: When I got to the relevant parts of the novel, I took my laptop with me into Unit 371, the now-defunct AIDS unit at Masonic. It’s not used for much right now, mostly meeting rooms, and nap rooms for on-call doctors, so the lights were only halfway on and the whole place was empty and eerie. I’d heard so much about it, and several people had drawn me floor plans of the way the unit used to be, so I could picture what it had been like, where the lounge had been, where the art room was, where the Broadway posters had hung on the walls. I walked around it for a long time and then I sat on the bench in the hallway to write some of the novel’s last scenes.
Thematically, there are some familiar threads seen in your other work—art figures from the past, social striving, family dysfunction. Why do you come back to these?
I think if I had a really good shrink, I could answer that, but I don’t have any shrink at all… This lack of shrink is probably a grievous miscalculation on my part, but it does allow me to put all this stuff into my writing. As things are, I can only say that those are the things I’m excited to write about, the things that set my neurons firing.
“The Great Believers” made me cry. Did you find it emotionally taxing? How did you deal with that?
Yes, I think that if I hadn’t cried myself, I’d know I was doing something wrong. The writing was taxing, but of course it was the research that really tore me up. In some cases I was sitting there crying with people who were telling me about things they hadn’t talked about in thirty years. Ultimately, though, I had the perfect outlet for all of my sadness and anger and mourning—namely, writing it all into my book. It was an incredibly satisfying use for all those emotions.
How did it change between drafts?
The biggest thing is that I wrote about 150 pages into my first draft thinking it would only be set in the 1980s and only from Yale’s point of view. But then two things happened. One was that it began to feel quite claustrophobic and the other was that his friend Fiona started insisting to me that she was a main character as well. I wrote a scene where she comforts Yale at a party and I realized she was someone Yale adored, so I started to adore her too. I went back and wove her sections into the existing draft. She’s there in the 1980s, but now we’re also following her around in 2015 as she finally comes to terms with everything that happened when she was young.
Which characters were you particularly attached to? Did you know who was going to die at the outset?
I did not know, although early on there was a certain character who I knew would survive, against all odds, and I was able to write with that in mind. I’m particularly attached to Yale Tishman, my main character, to the point where I can still occasionally feel him beside me like a physical presence. I always thought other writers were nuts when they talked like that, but I get it now.
In the 1980s we had a president who didn’t lift a finger for AIDS and let a lot of people die in the process. ACT UP forced the issue. Now we have another administration that seems hell-bent on rolling back progress. What should we have learned already? What should we be paying attention to?
We should be listening to all the men and women who’ve fought these fights before and know so much about survival and health care and what it means to throw yourself against the machine. So much of what we know about direct action comes from ACT UP; they were passionate and fearless and often very funny, actually, in their tactics.
Right between Christmas and New Year last year, Trump fired all the remaining members of the HIV/AIDS Advisory Council. This is at a time when 1.1 million Americans are still living with HIV. Globally, there are thirty-seven million people living with HIV, and over a million dying of AIDS each year—and meanwhile, although lord knows what’s in the budget they actually passed, Trump was proposing cutting one billion dollars in AIDS spending globally, a cut that the Global Fund estimates will result in at least a million preventable deaths. It’s tempting, in the United States, to think of AIDS in the past tense, but it’s far from over. It’s astonishing to me how many people have learned I was writing about AIDS and without even knowing I was writing about the 1980s, said “Oh, I remember that time!” The broader issue, here, is politicians and voters who decide that certain humans are worthier of healthcare than others. Of course I’m not just talking about AIDS; this affects every aspect of healthcare. It’s not just about sexual orientation, but race and gender and economic status and geography and education. Conspiracy theorists were so scared that Obamacare would somehow include “death panels,” and I wanted to scream at these people that we already have them for real, we’ve had them all along. There are people out there deciding who lives and who dies, and they are not good people.
Tell me about your development as a writer. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
I think this was the book that taught me the depths of my own empathy as a writer. I liked my characters before, but I don’t know that I loved them. That might have been a weakness of my earlier work. I hope this is something I can take with me into my next project, even if it’s very different.
You are a crucial literary citizen in Chicago, as well as a writer. Not all writers participate in our city’s literary community. Why is it important to you?
I’m a genuine extrovert (I get energy from other people, like some kind of social vampire) and I suppose that’s unusual for a writer. I started out not knowing anyone, so I’m still reveling in the number of writers I get to hang out with now. I wrote my first book in total isolation, living in the suburbs and teaching elementary school. I only knew a few other writers and none of them lived here. Somehow, in seven years it’s gone from that to me being the person people will come to when they need someone else’s email address, because surely, I’ll have it. I love that. I love being a connector, bringing people together. I love bringing writers to Chicago, too, to visit or to stay. I truly believe this is the best city in the country, right now, in which to be a writer—we’re absolutely spoiled for literary events and resources, but we don’t have all the fuss of New York—and I will proselytize to anyone who’ll listen.
Tell me about the things you are doing in Chicago—StoryStudio, The Conversation… what do they add to the city in your view?
We’re doing so much at StoryStudio right now—we’ve just gone nonprofit, we’re expanding our programming broadly, especially our advanced programming, we’re putting on public events, we’re bringing visiting writers to town, and we’re launching a festival this September. I love the students there, and the variety of experiences they bring—they’re all different ages, all different backgrounds, different jobs, different styles of writing—and it’s so important to me that we have a nonacademic focal point for writing and literary events in the city. The Conversation is another way for us to bring amazing writers to Chicago and to engage in conversations that aren’t just about art, but about politics, as well—something we were all craving right after the election and are still in desperate need of. I love doing things to support our thriving indie bookstore scene here and support other authors in the process. Getting to read another writer’s novel and then be in conversation with them at a bookstore to celebrate their launch, and going out afterwards—that’s basically my idea of a perfect evening.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.