Our lives aren’t movies, no matter how much we may dream of the cinematic pan out of a “happily ever after” conclusion. In real life, juries don’t reach a verdict within a 90-minute runtime, the killer doesn’t always face justice, and memories don’t play back clearly like a full scene. Oftentimes the truth is simply messy.
Following up on her Los Angeles Times Book Prize and ALA Carnegie Medal-winning novel The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You isn’t interested in giving you the crime novel you’ve come to expect from film, television, or true crime podcasts. The novel follows successful film professor and podcaster Bodie Kane, who finds herself drawn back to the case of a 1995 murder of her classmate, Thalia Keith, when she returns to teach at her old boarding school. As she interrogates her memories of Thalia and her own trauma she suffered as a student, Bodie increasingly suspects that the man convicted of the crime may in fact be innocent. But while this setup and writing bears the energy of a gripping crime novel, Makkai sets her sights even higher. I Have Some Questions for You offers an unflinching look at the failures of the American criminal justice system, the public’s obsession with stories of violence against women, and the #MeToo movement just to name a few.
I spoke with Rebecca about what sets the boarding school novel apart from other campus fiction, the participatory nature of modern true crime, and the benefit of letting our fiction be complicated and contradictory.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The boarding school novel might share some commonalities with fiction set at a high school or college campus, but I’d love to hear how you see it as distinct and what this setting provided for this story in particular.
The thing it would have in common with the college novel is people living together on this campus, isolated and in the woods. Also in common with the college novel is that it’s this place that’s been here forever, this very permanent thing, but this really transitory population. People are only here for four years and then they’re out. The difference though is that this is a really vulnerable, formative time. College is too, but high school is really the foundation of your adult self in so many ways. So it’s that combination, making it a really magical place that’s very mythologized. At the same time, it’s also about the “coming-of-age” time—though I’m not necessarily writing a coming-of-age novel. You can get one or the other of those in a high school or college novel, but the boarding school novel is both.
It’s also a very small section of the population that have experienced this firsthand, and either you want to read about it because you did experience that or you want to read about it because you didn’t experience that and you want to know more about what it’s like. It worked for me as a setting. I’m also tremendously frustrated by things that movies and books get wrong about boarding schools. They’re still treating it like it’s the 1950s, and that’s not what goes on anymore. There’s a little bit of “can I set the record straight,” because it’s not what you think it is.
Usually the campus or boarding school novel is closely associated with a “coming-of-age” narrative, but this book instead centers on looking back on those moments with the hindsight of adulthood. Can you talk about your decision to frame the book in a way that Bodie is returning to her own memories instead of simply flashing back to them?
I could have gone back and forth in time, but I’d just done that with The Great Believers and I really didn’t want to do that again. Partly you don’t want people to think that’s your only thing and also I just did it, I need a break. Another choice would have been significant memory sections. I’m really not a fan of so much fiction where someone is cooking their pasta and they have this full-fledged memory. You know, absolute chronological memory, I didn’t really want to do that either. I really wanted her to be trapped in the present trying to remember, doubting her memories, realizing how subjective they were and what she might have missed, and realizing that other people might have contradictory memories. We only get her point of view. We get other people’s point of view through dialogue, but never truly their point of view. And that’s real life. We’re trapped in the present and in our own point of view.
In addition to being a boarding school novel, I Have Some Questions for You is also a mystery and in the final third even a legal thriller at times. What elements of crime fiction did you find yourself leaning into or trying to work against as you wrote?
I don’t read that much crime fiction to be honest. But when I do, I love a mystery that is really going to surprise me. I love a sense of danger on the page. I really like Tana French. She’s never formulaic, it’s always something different. Those are detective stories, but she doesn’t have one detective character, and I’d guess the reason she’s done that is because the detective is at a breaking point in their own life. You’re not just getting a random case, but the case that broke them. This is the case that made this person, but it’s the case. And in a series, you can’t do that. Miss Marple can’t be broken 72 times and become this angry, vengeful person. I like something that’s less formulaic and more character driven.
Also, one thing I don’t love not only in crime fiction but also the true crime that we consume is this sort of trust that this can be solved and solved correctly and the right person is going to end up in prison and it’s going to move fast. That is inaccurate and unhelpful. I wanted to write a realist novel. It’s a murder mystery and we know by the end who did it and why, but we’re actually going to get into how investigations work, how the carceral system works, how impossible it is to get a retrial, and the wrongful incarceration side of things and how it intersects with race. Let’s actually look at this not in a sensationalistic way. Basically the project of the book is to say, “You want to talk about the kind of case that tends to capture public imagination—the young, white, talented, beautiful, wealthy girl. You want to tell that story? Okay let’s actually tell that story.” Then we need to talk about legal procedure, police interrogation, and small state politics.
And I loved too that when I hit the final third of the book I found myself saying “oh, is this going to turn into a legal thriller,” but the novel forces you to really think about what it actually means to be a legal thriller and if that genre is even realistic at all.
No one who has ever sat in a courtroom believes that the law can be thrilling. It can be fascinating, but no one’s going to confess in court. That just doesn’t happen!
I feel like we could do a full interview just on the true crime aspect alone and the ways it may manipulate its audience or disserve its subjects. But I’d love to hear your thoughts particularly on the ways it prompts the audience to participate, but also really heavily invest themselves in the process.
I mean that can turn out really well or really badly, and it can be done really responsibly or really irresponsibly. There are times when you end up with people harassing suspects and families retraumatized, or you just end up using it for just entertainment and nothing’s going to come of this. And then there are podcasts or cases where people have come forward with things they know, or they’re highlighting cases about more marginalized people who aren’t going to get on Dateline. Then there are times when they’ve gotten people to submit familial DNA or identify Jane Does. There’s incredible stuff that gets done. So it’s really hard to say they’re all bad or all good. It’s like saying all journalism is all bad or all good. I wanted examples of both. I wanted things going both ways, even with this one case.
As Bodie digs into the case and interrogates her own memories around the death of Thalia, she also learns that her ex-partner Jerome is at the center of his own #MeToo scandal involving a past relationship that Bodie thinks was more toxic than inappropriate. For me, this created a really interesting layer of complication around public reckoning over past violence. How did you see these two threads coming together and informing one another?
You know thematically one of the questions the novel is asking is how accurate are our memories about trauma or things close to trauma, how accountable can people be for things they did a long time ago. I mean, if you murdered someone you’re accountable for the rest of your life versus “well, times have changed, and maybe I said something then that I wouldn’t say now.” That’s a different kind of accountability. There’s a spectrum, where she’s looking on one end where literally someone was murdered and adjacent to that there was probably a really predatory teacher. But then down that line is, well, what about the kid who used to harass her in the hallways? On the other end of it for her is this woman who is a performance artist who made this performance art piece about Bodie’s ex. And in Bodie’s read of this situation, it sounds like just a bad relationship.
And we’ve had real life conversations about these types of things. In the first wave of #MeToo it was like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, but then the Aziz Ansari thing happened and for a lot of people it was like “well, I believe every word you’re saying but I don’t think it’s a problem.” I want that full spectrum in there. And readers might look at the Jerome thing and be like “oh yeah, he’s terrible and deserves to be canceled,” but Bodie doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, I wanted the book to contradict itself. I don’t want it to come down and say “here we are, the point of the book is we need to go back and demand accountability for everyone” because there’s a lot of nuance and gray area. This is what fiction can do that Twitter can’t is to dig into that nuance.
That’s one of my favorite parts of the book is that you allow it to be complicated. But it requires a lot of trust in the reader. So, what do you view as the role of the novel: to just be messy, or to tie everything up neatly?
Well I think there are novels that want to tie everything up, there are novels that want to be easy, and that’s fine. It’s maybe for a different kind of reader or a reader in a different kind of mood. But when I read a novel I don’t want to be patted on the head and read a moral. I want a big mess that I can work my own way through. I want the kinds of things that people can debate in a book club, a class, or a conversation. There are always going to be people who read something in bad faith or quickly or carelessly and be like “I skimmed this all the way to page 50 and here are my thoughts” on Goodreads and for some reason this review has 200 likes. But when you’re writing, you’re aiming for really intelligent readers and most readers are really intelligent. You’re not trying to write something so esoteric that people can’t really find their way in. You’re really just trying to prompt the reader to think.
I Have Some Questions for You
By Rebecca Makkai
Published February 21, 2023
Michael Welch is the Editor-In-Chief for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.