Q and A with Rebecca Makkai, MUSIC FOR WARTIME
1. Your stories are often very funny. I'm thinking especially of "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship" and "The November Story." Some say that a writer has to be born with the ability to be funny, but I'm not sure I agree. Do you ever set out purposely to write a comic story or does the humor emerge as you progress?
I've realized along the way that when I think I'm being funny, I'm actually being dark and depressing, and if I set out to be totally serious, it ends up being funny. My aesthetic is an odd blend of humor and darkness, I think... Which isn't to say "dark humor." That's something else entirely, and in my mind it involves laughing when people fall down the stairs. I do think that I edit to be funny, or funnier, if the occasion warrants. There are ways to make a sentence funnier -- like saving the joke so it lands with the last word of the sentence, rather than earlier -- and I'll notice those opportunities on the sixth or seventh draft.
2. The first story of yours that I read was in The Best American Short Stories 2008, "The Worst You Ever Feel." I thought it was one of the best stories in the anthology. Did this inclusion change things for you as a writer? (I.e. was it easier to place new work, find agent, etc?)
I'd be curious what your own answer is, since you had a story in that same edition. I do think it made it easier to place work -- or at least to get my work read. But it had zero impact on the agent situation. I didn't have an agent then, and I thought I'd maybe hear from some. I'd heard stories of that happening. But it didn't happen for me, and it didn't happen the next year either, when I had another story selected. I went out on my own and queried my dream agent, and she took me on; and I'm sure that including those anthologies in my email had a lot to do with getting through the filter and getting read. More than one person has suggested to me that if I were a man and I'd had two stories in Best American, I'd have had agents swarming. It doesn't matter to me since I ended up with the agent I wanted, but I do wonder. And I'll never know.
3. "The November Story" is a sly and engrossing social critique of our reality TV-obsessed culture. What inspired this story?
Honestly, it came from my obsession with reality TV. I truly, unironically, enjoy talent-based reality competitions like Top Chef and Project Runway. I find it cathartic, at the end of a frustrating writing day, to watch someone cry about their own artistic failures. But I can't watch without an awareness of how those things are rigged, and I've always been fascinated with the talking head segments, the ones that look like people just unburdening themselves to the camera, when you know that really there's someone on the other side of that conversation asking questions. That unheard voice kept pestering me, and I wanted to write her story.
4. Along with Music for Wartime, you've written two excellent novels, The Borrowerand The Hundred-Year House. Did either of those novels begin as an idea for a short story? Or did you know they'd both be novels from the beginning?
The Hundred-Year House was a short story at first. It was totally unsuccessful, and it was about male anorexia (something that is nowhere in the finished novel). It works the other way, too; the story "Museum of the Dearly Departed," the last in my collection, is one I'd originally envisioned as a novel. It's not that it wouldn't have worked as one -- but I felt it was the story I needed to end the collection with.
5. Would you prefer to write and publish story collections instead of novels, all things being equal?
No, not at all. I love doing both. I hope to write both for the rest of my career, and I think that even in a vacuum with no readers and no publishing industry, I'd say the same.
6. I think I've heard you say that Alice Munro is one of your favorite writers. Who are some of the other writers you admire and have learned from?
When did you hear me say that? Alice Munro is a dried-up hack! Kidding, kidding. I adore her. Nabokov and the playwright Tom Stoppard are two other absolute all-time favorites. I'm also obsessed with the playwright Sarah Ruhl. I think that Julie Otsuka is the best and most underrated fiction writer working today. Early John Irving is my guilty pleasure. And I have a girl-crush on the poet Jane Hirschfield.