Who owns the story of an already-solved murder? Who should have—or who gets to have—the power to reignite an investigation and reopen old wounds? In her novel “I Have Some Questions for You,” Rebecca Makkai explores these questions through Bodie Kane, a successful film professor and podcaster who’s forced to relive the mysterious circumstances and murder of her boarding-school roommate Thalia Keith. Bodie returns to their school, no longer a student, to teach a winter course and painful memories surface around how she and Thalia were treated by their teachers, peers and institutions; what they thought was normal or consensual; and the inescapable aftermath of trauma and loss. Set against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and the explosive rise of true crime as entertainment, the novel puts a mirror up to the present, questioning us as well as the characters on what we can accept and what is acceptable when confronted with violence against women and victims of injustice.
I learned about you from an “Electric Literature” piece where you wrote “I write best desperate, I write best heartbroken, I write best with my pulse throbbing in my neck. Even in the best of times, many of us read and write to confront the world,” and that’s the energy I felt as I was reading “I Have Some Questions for You.” Was that going on in between the lines?
Because you mention it, that piece was about how we’re always living in the midst of history and politics, and this book is of that time for me. I started thinking about it from 2016 to 2018, especially as women in particular began looking back on their pasts with new insights as a result of #MeToo. This is not an autobiographical novel, but I am revisiting my generation’s past, as many of us are, to process what’s happening in the world.
Over the course of the novel, the protagonist Bodie engages with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. What was it like to write so fully in the present as the present unfolded in such chilling ways?
Engaging with the modern world is an enormous privilege to me. My grandmother was a novelist in Hungary where she couldn’t publish her most political books because of the government’s hold in the 1950s. My parents had to smuggle her work out of the country, or she’d have to couch any political commentary deep in allegory, which is why it’s important that I write about the time I’m living in.
On another level, it did make copyedits interesting. Up until March 2022, I was revising sentences from “She smiled” to “She appeared to smile from under her mask,” and removing or putting on face masks on characters because things kept changing.
Bodie was fascinating: On the one hand, she’s dedicated her career to revealing the abuses against women in the film industry, but on the other, she’s so hard on herself despite her feminist stance. How do you develop these contradictory elements?
Real people contain contradictions and it’s a huge mistake not to incorporate that into characters, especially when you’re going to spend a lot of time with them in a novel. To get at these complexities, I sometimes ask my writing students to fill a whole page of paper with “I [blank] but I [blank].” For instance, “I’m pescatarian but I eat bacon” or “I care what people say but I’m constantly interrupting them.” In terms of feminism and challenging internalized misogyny, I think that’s the biggest “I [blank] but I [blank].” We see this with Bodie where she believes in body acceptance, but still counts calories.
I loved Bodie’s growth. From her high school years to her early forties, she’s behind the scenes as an assistant stage manager or a voice on a podcast, but she moves more front-and-center as the book progresses. How did you build this arc?
I knew the basic plot before I knew Bodie. I didn’t know her name or her job, if she was married or had kids, so I had to think about who would dig into a solved murder case and be fundamentally changed by it. This is going to sound psychotic, but I sometimes joke that once I figure out the plot, I reverse engineer its perfect victim. In this case, it wouldn’t be someone who is used to being the star of the show; it’d have to be someone who thinks she doesn’t have a part on stage, but slowly realizes she does and needs to get out of her comfort zone.
While this book investigates the true crime genre, it also complicates the coming-of-age novel. It’s not something that happens once in youth, but again and again.
I hope it’s true for everybody, but as an artist or an author, you’re completely reinventing yourself every couple of years. You take on a new topic so this constant coming-of-age is something I’ve continued to feel, but particularly for this book, Bodie is looking back on her adolescence where she first came of age while experiencing the most important episode of her adult life. Of course, that’s what you’re trying to do in a novel; you want to write about the most important thing that ever happened to the main character and how it changed who they are.
When Javier Marías was asked the purpose of literature, he referenced Faulkner, who said, “When you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but to see how much more darkness there is around.” I felt your book was doing something similar, where it’s not illuminating solutions around crime and consent per se, but rather, showing us how much we may not see, even about ourselves. What do you hope your work as a whole will accomplish?
There are different layers to this. As an author, I’d say I need to raise questions and complicate them. If I come up with a neat and tidy answer, then I’m not doing my job. But it also depends on how books are read: One way is a person reads something in isolation and thinks about how it might resonate with their own life, and another way includes people talking about what they read in a book club or online—and not just on whether they liked the author’s prose style, but to really bring up conversations on their different experiences. That is a huge part of how you hope a book will be read and discussed.
In your novel’s acknowledgements, you express your gratitude to independent bookstores. Do you have any local favorites?
There’s no way I could pick a few because I love them all dearly. However, I will say that other cities just don’t have indie bookstores, whereas so many of our neighborhoods do. We are so spoiled in Chicago and we can never take that for granted.
“I Have Some Questions for You”
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 448 pages, $23.99
In partnership with WBEZ and the bookshop Exile in Bookville, Rebecca Makkai’s Chicago launch for “I Have Some Questions for You” will be hosted at the Apollo Theater located at 2550 North Lincoln Avenue on Saturday, February 25, 6:30pm. Tickets and more here.