Bustle Book Club
Rebecca Makkai Jumps Into The “Messy Tar Pit” Of True Crime
The I Have Some Questions For You author set out to write “the world’s worst high school reunion” and ended up with a very different novel.
Rebecca Makkai never knows where her books are going to take her. Her 2014 novel, The Hundred-Year House, started as a short story about male anorexia and eventually transformed into an almost entirely different tale about an old estate (and the family secrets it hides) that unfolds backwards across the 20th century. For her follow-up, 2017’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Great Believers, Makkai’s interest in a 1920s arts scene led her to a moving historical epic that jumps between AIDS-stricken Chicago and modern-day Paris.
Her just-released fourth novel, I Have Some Questions For You, also began as something else: a hot-house novel in which boarding school classmates inadvertently reunite as a murder case from their teen years heads toward a retrial. “I wanted the world’s worst high school reunion,” Makkai says. “But after a few weeks of writing, I realized there was going to be too much backstory. So I was like, ‘I’ll just back up a bit and have 20 pages where we get filled in.’ And that turned into most of the book.”
Though it doesn’t span continents or as many decades as some of her other work, I Have Some Questions For You is no less ambitious, exploring the media’s true-crime obsession, the #MeToo movement, and the way the internet has both helped and hindered quests for accountability. In the book, successful film-history podcaster Bodie Kane returns to teach a podcasting class at her alma mater and finds herself, alongside some of her students, drawn to revisit the murder of her classmate Thalia Keith. As she looks back at the events of her junior year and begins to question men from her past, her ex-partner, Jermone, also becomes the target of a Twitter pile-on that Bodie believes is overblown. It’s a thorny juxtaposition, intentionally so.
“My job is to contract myself within a book, my job is to complicate things,” Makkai says. “I have no patience for black-and-white thinking. The gray area is something that the novel [format] does really well. We read novels for the gray area. We do not read them for a quick, easy moral statement that makes that person feel self-righteous, which is what we do get on Twitter.”
For Makkai, debates around true-crime media’s explosive popularity — Is it exploitative or empowering? Does it challenge power structures in society, or reinforce them? — were part of the appeal. (As Bodie says of Thalia’s case early on, “It was the one where she was young enough and white enough and pretty enough and rich enough that people paid attention.”) “I’m just not interested in any point of view that’s like, ‘All true-crime media is bad, or all true-crime media is good,’” Makkai says. “There’s really good stuff out there. There’s really bad stuff out there. And that’s my job [to depict that] in the book. It’s also why I’m going to be drawn to a subject to begin with: I found a messy tar pit to muck around in for a while.”
Below, Makkai reflects on being mistaken for her protagonists, her Zillow habits, and how she handles real-world parallels to her books.
On writing an unconventional mystery:
There are certain things that have ended up in their own genres. So murder mysteries for some reason are a genre, whereas novels about AIDS [like The Great Believers] are not a genre, right? I'm still writing in the same basic style, but because in this case I get into a topic that does have a shelf in the bookstore, it's kind of funny. On the upside, it could really expand my audience because there are people who like reading mysteries, and they might come to my book that way when they wouldn’t have come to it as literary fiction. The downside would be if people are looking for a really traditional murder mystery. People aren’t just going to jump from Agatha Christie over here and get what they expect and be happy.
On her strange search histories:
I can’t say my experience of writing this book replicated someone’s experience of falling down a true-crime rabbit hole. But you do research all kinds of stuff about what happens to drowned bodies and blood splatter. It’s not the healthiest kind of Googling, necessarily, but it’s important for the book. And then there were a couple of cases where I just really went down the rabbit hole, not because I was so obsessed with the case, but because I wanted to see everything that people had done online: What weird Facebook pages have people made? What theories do people have? In what way have they harassed suspects, people of interest who are not in prison?
On being conflated with her protagonists:
Anytime it's a first-person narrator, especially if there is any demographic similarity, people are going to assume. I think people assume it more for women, and they assume it more for writers of color. It’s very subconscious, this idea of, “Well, you can’t possibly have imagined all this, this must be you.” I got that a lot with my first novel, [2011’s The Borrower], which was the last time I had written in first person. It’s about a librarian who kidnaps a child. To be clear, this is definitely not my real life or how I feel about anything! And yet people — sometimes in a complimentary way — would say, “I feel like I’m talking to the character now that I’m meeting you!” And then in other cases, people would not give me the benefit of the doubt, like, “She doesn’t understand that this is a bad thing to do, to kidnap a child.” I actually do understand — I’m not the character!
On parallels to real-life cases:
I get ticked off anytime people will blithely say, “This was clearly inspired by this.” I had that with my second novel: “This character was clearly inspired by this poet.” I was like, “I've never heard of him! I don't know what you're talking about.” So I find it a little irritating when people are like, “This book was clearly inspired by Serial.” No, it wasn't. I was significantly more interested in a podcast called Undisclosed, which really followed up and went way deeper on that particular case and really got stuff out there. But that's one of many cases that has captured my interest. There's always going to be something [in the headlines] — like Gabby Petito. There was a lot of conversation around that case in particular: Why are we always fixating on white female, young, pretty victims? And that obviously is something that's a topic of the book as well.
On her love of Zillow:
I’m just really into houses, old houses especially. Part of it is we live in a boarding school dorm [where my husband teaches] that we have no control over. We did not choose this apartment. It’s free, and it’s lovely. And we have a place in the summer, a little cabin. But there’s part of me that wishes, “Wait, no, I want a big old house that’s haunted and got weird stuff in it!” I like browsing and daydreaming like, “Oh my God, if I ever made Stephen King money, I could buy this house!” But then I find weird stuff too. Sometimes I go looking for it. If you just search, “What’s a house in my price range in whatever city?” you’re going to find normal stuff. But if you go in like, “Show me houses built between 1800 and 1900 sorted by most expensive to least,” you start getting interesting stuff. There’s some batsh*t stuff that I’ve found. And then you start Googling who owns it and you’re like, “Oh my God, this person is a criminal!”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.