I was in seventh grade when the entire class pushed their desks to the other side of the room, screaming they needed to get away from me before I gave everyone AIDS. I tried to explain to my peers how AIDS was contracted, but they didn’t care: because my neighbor was diagnosed, they were convinced I harbored the disease. (And they didn’t even know that I touched my neighbor every chance I got, to prove to him, and myself, that I wasn’t scared, that I loved him.)
A year later, a classmate apologized and asked how my neighbor was doing. “He died,” I managed to say before completely falling apart.
In these moments the AIDS epidemic felt personal to me, but years passed, and people stopped talking about it. Rebecca Makkai’s new novel The Great Believers revisits this time period and the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Makkai weaves 1980s Chicago with contemporary Paris in a tender, compelling novel about loss, friendship, tragedy, and redemption. It’s a stunning tale that is harrowing yet funny, devastating yet hopeful.
I recently had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Makkai about her new novel, the AIDS crisis, and art. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
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As someone who lost someone to AIDS, I wondered if you too had a personal experience with losing someone to AIDS in the 80s or 90s?
I have a few friends who are HIV positive and my parents had some colleagues who died of AIDS, but it wasn’t anyone I knew personally; I just knew it was happening. I was born in 1978 so as a kid, it seemed like the biggest most important thing that had ever happened. I also think as kids we didn’t dismiss it as happening to those people over there. It felt much more immediate and I don’t think we had the prejudice going into our view of things that adults might have had. So there was that, but also by the time we got to high school in the nineties, all of our Sex Ed was about HIV. I think when I talk to people very close to my own age, even when they didn’t lose someone close to them, it makes a lot of sense that this would be something I’d be drawn to. Whereas for people quite a bit older or quite a bit younger they’re left wondering why I’d write about this, which is so odd to me. Why are we not all writing about this? This is a huge thing that’s happened in our lifetime.
I was born in 1979, so that makes sense.
Yeah, so you get it. The reaction I’m getting from people, especially with people much older who weren’t effected directly by the crisis, if I tell them what I’m publishing, they’re like, ‘Oh I remember that time,’ as if I’ve just reminded them about something they haven’t thought about in decades, which is probably the case. That’s shocking to me. And with people younger than me, they’re actually really interested in it, but they seem to know next to nothing about it. I didn’t really think about this awareness as generational when I went into writing it, but based on people’s reactions, there’s something really specific to the kids in the late 70s who grew up with this on TV. Like if you were home sick and you watched Donahue and that was on, it’s going to have a really big impact on you.
So where did the idea of the novel come from?
The novel actually started with the art subplot. I started off wanting to write about an artist’s model between the wars in Paris and that became less and less of the book. This person who was going to be a secondary character—this museum person to whom she was donating the sketches of herself—became more and more the center of the book. On the one hand, I didn’t set out to write this; but I was willing to listen to where the novel wanted to go and where the gravity of the book was.
I’m assuming a great deal of research went into this novel. What was the process like?
Yeah, I knew that if I was going to approach this at all, I had to get it right on several levels. I had to get it right emotionally, I had to make sure I wasn’t mis-stepping, and I had to be right on a granular detail level. I wanted someone who had lived through this in Chicago in the 80s to read it to not to be taken out of it by some little thing that made it apparent to them that it was fiction. So I went about my research in several ways. One of them was trying to research on paper and online. There’s quite a bit of direct personal account online. I also went to the Harold Washington Library and I read every back issue of The Windy City Times (a gay weekly paper) from 1985-1992. When people are writing the big books about the epidemic, it’s always coastal and it’s never about Chicago. I was expecting some big books of nonfiction that I could use as resources, and there just weren’t any. There are personal accounts, certainly, but I was sort of astonished by the dearth. That’s still a gap that needs to be filled.
And I did a lot of in person research. I started just by just reaching out on Facebook to my own friends asking if anyone knew anyone who knew anyone. At first I was just trying to find people who lived in Boystown in the 80s or people who had been deeply affected by AIDS in the 80s, and so I started off meeting with people who might have met one or two of those factors, circling closer and closer to people who actually had HIV in the 80s in Chicago, were out, et cetera. But I met with doctors, nurses, the art therapist from the Illinois Masonic AIDS unit, activists, journalists, lawyers, survivors, and just people who lived in Chicago in Boystown in the 80s and were gay and out. And so I have hours and hours of notes and audio recordings with these people. But really in the end I was weirdly grateful that I hadn’t been able to find a ton of books because it forced me out into the world to do this research. If there’d been ample nonfiction accounts I might have felt I could stay home and just read those. I would have been missing a tremendous amount on the anecdote level and the detail level and on the emotional level. Just talking to people about friends they lost and hearing their stories made my writing a lot richer.
The novel is certainly very rich. There are so many great characters in this novel that I don’t think I could pick one I liked best, but I wondered if you have a favorite or one you enjoyed writing the most?
Oh man. I can’t give too much away here, but I really like Julian actually. He’s that friend everyone has who’s kind of stupid but they love him anyway. Somehow he came really easily to me; he was someone who just sort of presented himself in scene. I was writing that initial memorial party scene and I didn’t know particularly that this was going to be a long term character, I just needed to write someone coming up and greeting Yale—and this guy emerged as a tremendous flirt and very silly and very fun and then became a really major part of the book—to the point that I thought for a while about making him the narrator of it. It would be Yale’s story but in the end would turn out to be narrated by Julian. I could also say that the main characters are my favorite. Your main characters are usually the ones that are closest to you—the closest to who I am, who have the most in common with me—but Julian was the most fun to write.
One of the things that really resonated with me was the meditation on art and its enduring power. It also made me think about how you indirectly wrote about art in The Hundred Year House. Are you a secret art buff or is it something you gravitate toward writing about?
No, I’m not someone who knows a tremendous amount about art, but I really do love it. I love going to museums and galleries, but compared to people who really know about art, I know next to nothing, so it’s not so much about that as the fascination of the 1920s Paris art world and the modern world galleries and museums, I’m really interested in it. Because the book was originally really going to be about Nora and the Paris art world, I did a lot research that I never ended up using, so I was reading biographies of some of these artists and just books about the art scene around World War I. I read a whole biography of Kiki de Montparnasse. That stuff ended up disappearing completely. But I had a lot of fun studying it. And I’d say the Art Institute is something that’s always been very central to my experience in Chicago. I tend to think of myself as someone who doesn’t know much about art, but I suppose in contrast to most people in the country, I spend more time thinking about it than the average citizen.
When you were talking about how you were originally thinking it was going to be Nora’s story, it made me think about how the two timelines are so seamlessly woven. Did you come up with one before the other, or did you conceive them together?
Originally it was going to be letters about the 20s or Yale was just going to be hearing about it from Nora. As that became less and less of the book, it really was just about the 80s with just a little sprinkling of the art world in there. And I’d written about 150 pages of Yale’s story. But it felt a bit claustrophobic in terms of the narrative. And also I had my eye on the issue of appropriation and the question of whether this was an appropriate story for me to be telling. When it was just Yale’s story, it felt a little too much like ventriloquism, like I was coming in and trying to tell this story about this population that I did not belong to. I had a major crisis—a very helpful crisis—over this when I was staying at Yaddo. I was snowed in and just kind of panicking about it in this tiny little room. I sat there for two days freaking out, and ultimately realized that maybe just broadening the novel would help with that issue. If I wasn’t just trying to give Yale’s voice, but was writing a more polyphonic novel, it would be helpful.
So Fiona was already a character in there, who just like Julian had presented herself in scene. And I figured out that she could really carry the other half of the story in the present day. I went back and wrote her sections for the first half of the book, wove them in and rewrote Yale’s sections so they would fit. I have a writing group here in Chicago and I showed them the first six chapters without telling them Fiona had been a later addition, and just presented it—Yale, Fiona, Yale, Fiona—and I was afraid they were going to say it felt stuck on, but that didn’t come up at all. They thought the point of the whole novel was the passage of time, and that was a great sign to me that it was working. I went on from there writing them back and forth, but that weaving is hard because if you change something in one area, you have to change it in the other. Just making sure the chapters came up even was terrifying.
You started to talk about the line between ally-ship and appropriation, which I saw you mention in your acknowledgements. You have gay—or assumed gay—characters in your other novels, but were you even more conscious of those concerns this time around?
I think this time it was much more of a concern for me. It was a combination of the subject matter—which is very sensitive—and the fact that I was writing from Yale’s point of view, and on top of it, the fact that I was writing about a real place. I’m writing about Chicago in a specific year, a specific area, a specific group of people, and specific events, I’m telling stories that actually belong in many ways to the people who were there—so that definitely gave me pause in some healthy ways and ultimately it came down to two questions. First of all, could I do this well? That’s not for me to decide, but my answer to myself was I think I can do it well with the right amount of research. And the second question was will my publishing this book amplify or mute more direct accounts of this era and this epidemic. And ultimately, I’m satisfied that this will amplify those voices. It’s not a zero sum game where I’m taking all the book space out there. If I tour and if I do interviews, I’m in a position to talk about that era, but I’m also able to direct people to first-hand accounts and to art, fiction, movies, plays produced by people who have a direct experience to the AIDS crisis. And I made sure in my acknowledgments to recommend a whole lot of other things I think people should turn to next after my book.
I hate the assumption that a writer finishes one novel and immediately starts the next one, but alas, what’s next for you?
I’m writing the next novel in my head only at this point. There’s so much going on with the publication of this book and all the teaching that I do that I haven’t had time to sit down and write more than like 2,000 words of the next project, but I think I know what it is. I’ve been living in this world in my head as I drive, as I shower, as I brush my teeth—which is always a really good sign for me. If you take on a novel, it needs to be a country you’re willing to move to for a few years. I think it’s also really healthy for me as an artist to be able to move on from the world of The Great Believers, which I was living in very intensely for a long time, so to have some distance there before the book comes out in the world, and faces reviews, is really good.
The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai
Published June 19, 2018
Rebecca Makkai is the author of The Hundred Year-House, The Borrower, and Music for Wartime. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Fantasy, Harper’s, Tin House, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review and New England Review, among others. She lives outside Chicago with her husband and two daughters.
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.
As a 60 year-old survivor of HIV who lived through the 80s in NY and the 90s in LA, and who lost my gay brother to AIDS in 1991, I can tell you that Rebecca Makkai got it so right it blew me away. And even though I am a writer myself, going back there with a granular account of my own experience is so painful that I haven’t been able to manage it. However, mediated by Rebecca, I could identify with her characters to a degree that allowed me to live through it all again cathartically without actually scraping me raw.
I was absolutely certain she was Fiona. – certain not a 38 year old! That she captured how perfectly an urban (and urbane) gay man like Yale Tishman would have thought in that decade floored me. There was something spiritual and a little psychic going on. Brava, brava, brava.
Thank you for sharing, Mark. It’s a remarkable book and Rebecca Makkai is a remarkable writer (and person!)