Zibby interviews award-winning author, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and repeat MDHTTRB guest Rebecca Makkai about I Have Some Questions For You, an enthralling and unputdownable literary murder mystery (and the April pick for Zibby’s Book Club!!) about a successful podcaster who returns to her idyllic New Hampshire boarding school to teach a class and winds up reliving her youth and her senior year roommate’s murder. Rebecca reveals the inspiration behind the book (hint: she currently lives in the same boarding school she attended as a teenager) and describes her unique mode of storytelling and unforgettable cast of characters. She also speaks openly about her own sexual assault and explains how that traumatic childhood experience led to themes of predation, misogyny, and incarceration in her book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rebecca. I’m so excited to have you back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time for I Have Some Questions for You; last time, The Great Believers. Welcome back.

Rebecca Makkai: Thank you. I’m so excited to talk to you again.

Zibby: As I was just saying, I love this book so much. I couldn’t wait to talk to you about it. You’re going to come to Zibby’s Book Club and talk to all the book club members about it, which I’m so excited about. Why don’t you start off by giving the little elevator pitch. What’s your book about, Rebecca?

Rebecca: The way I’ve been pitching it is it’s the literary feminist boarding school murder mystery that you didn’t know you needed. It is a lot of things. It sounds like a lot of things, and it is a lot of things. The basic story is, there’s a woman who returns to the boarding school where she was pretty unhappy as a teenager to teach a two-week class. While she’s there’s, some of her students start looking into, for a project, the murder of one of her classmates. There’s someone in prison for this murder that happened their senior year, but a lot of people on the internet think it’s the wrong guy. The students think it’s the wrong guy. Pretty soon, this woman, Bodie, is herself convinced that the wrong person is in prison. She’s revisiting her past, questioning things. It’s set mostly in 2018, so right after Me Too when a lot of us were casting an eye back, not necessarily on the biggest things that had happened to us in that realm, but on all the little things that added up. She’s looking back on a lot of those from her high school years and trying to figure out what actually happened.

Zibby: Then you take us through all the way to post-COVID. It’s almost like you end up on my doorstep. I feel like I’m back there. All of a sudden, it’s like, this happened.

Rebecca: I’m looking in your window right now.

Zibby: Exactly. I was trying to analyze what made this book just so great. This sounds obvious, but the writing of it is so amazing, and the plot and the way you interwove everything, but some of your sentences and just the way that you look at the world and describe things, which is probably why you’re a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The way you write is so different. Anywhere I pick — I dogeared a thousand pages. Let me try to read some examples of beautiful prose. They’re all really good, but now I’m finding all the parts that are quotes. There was one when you were driving in the car on the way. Here, I’ll just read this one. “Rita was a pinball, bounced from one spot to the next. I related. What had my childhood been but a constant ricochet from one place and one disaster to the next? But to be fair, that’s most childhoods. I have to resist the urge to self-mythologize, to paint my own journey as harder than anyone else’s just so I can give myself credit for getting out. I’m allowed to take that credit regardless, so declareth my shrink.” That’s not the one I was talking about. I want to read how you described the landscape when you were driving up, but I guess I won’t because I can’t find it. I’ll keep looking.

Rebecca: It’s a teaser. Now they have to read the book to find out.

Zibby: Now they have to read the book. Exactly. The point is, the way you describe things in the simplest terms used in a different way, it makes you think about something differently. It’s just really amazing.

Rebecca: Thanks. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Then of course, in this book, you intersperse the narrative with these little — I don’t even know how to describe them — interstitial questioning sections. Talk about that piece of it.

Rebecca: It’s a second-person book, not in the Choose Your Own Adventure sense. Not like, you walk into a room, which would’ve been fun, but not the book that I wrote. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler because we learn really early. The “you” of the book, it’s addressed to this music teacher at the school who was a big mentor to Bodie, the main character, way back, but she’s starting to realize might have known a lot more, been involved in the death of this student, who he might have been romantically involved with as well. There are places where she’s addressing him directly. There are other places where we really leave the narrative behind for a minute to do other things, like to talk about Rita Hayworth, which is what that passage was about, because she’s a film historian, or to talk about different ways that she can imagine the night of the crime having unfolded. We have these different theories and visions of what could’ve happened. There are a couple sections that are all just questions but are addressed to this guy.

I’m never too interested in a really straightforward narrative. If I look back on my other three novels, The Great Believers was probably the most traditional narrative. Even so, it went back and forth between two time periods. The Borrower, my first book, it’s about a children’s librarian who accidentally kidnaps someone. There are short sections written in the style of different famous children’s books. There’s a section that’s written like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and a section that’s written like Goodnight Moon. I think it’s just me breaking things up, not wanting to get bored myself, not wanting to bore people. There are things that fiction can do that, say, film can’t, things that novels can do that a shorter narrative could have a hard time with. Delving into those other modes of telling without losing the main narrative can be really, really fun. It’s one of those things that I’m always — film has a lot going for it over books. You got the music. You get the close-ups. You’ve got Sean Penn’s face and whatever. The things that fiction can do in breaking that fourth wall or going down these roads, these flights of fancy, these other ways of telling can be really, really fun.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like you totally have this crime detective mentality. It must be you because your character does it. It has to come from somewhere. How you analyze even the dimensions and geometry of the falls and the wounds and what it would mean and taking the whole thing apart and how you have us literally in the pool in the cold, it’s just so immersive and awesome. Did you take a real place? Even the vantage point on the bike, all of this reenactment of the crime and the theorizing, how did you get to all that?

Rebecca: Let’s start with the fact that I live on campus at a boarding school. The cleaning crew just started vacuuming the hallway right out there.

Zibby: I can’t hear.

Rebecca: Okay, good. Zoom is good at that. I’ll take you on a quick tour of my office. This is my office. That’s the door to my apartment. That is the door to a dorm of forty teenage girls. My husband is the one who teaches here. I don’t. My daughter’s a freshman now, which is really cool.

Zibby: My daughter’s a freshman at boarding school now too. I wonder if she’s outside.

Rebecca: That would be amazing.

Zibby: I would’ve heard. I think I would’ve heard.

Rebecca: I’ve lived here for quite a while, quite a few years. Here’s what gets really weird. This is also the boarding school that I attended as a day student as a teenager before my husband taught here. I dragged him to Chicago. He was not my teacher. I have lived on campus at my high school, my boarding school, even though I was a day student, for a lot of my adult life. That said, I was always going to, at some point, write a boarding school novel. I just think they’re fascinating places. I was never going to write about this school, and I have not. One big difference is — I live near Chicago. It’s a lot of Midwestern kids, a lot of Chicago kids. It’s international too, but it’s a very Chicago kind of place. I made this a classic New Hampshire, in the woods, old boarding school. Really, I imagined the campus, a lot of fun drawing maps for myself. Actually, the marketing department at Penguin, they were like, “Can you send us a map?” I was like, “Yeah. It’s going to be really ugly.” I sent it to them. They’ve made this beautiful watercolor version that they’re going to put out there at some point. I’m so excited about it. He made it actually make sense and look pretty. It’s a lot of things in my head coming together at once. It’s partly, weirdly, the campus of Reed College in Oregon because I was teaching at a summer program there. That clicked. It’s partly other campuses I visited. It’s partly my imagination. Then there’s a tiny bit of this campus where I live, especially in just envisioning the scene of the crime. For people who haven’t read it yet, this young woman, Thalia, drowned in the campus pool in the middle of the night, but with severe injuries to her body. There’s a lot of questions about entrances and exits and access. Changed a bunch of stuff but was able to kind of take the basic footprint of a pool with a back door and a football field near and picture things a little bit better that way. That was a long answer to your question.

Zibby: I like long answers. That’s great. Makes my job here easier. No, I’m kidding. You also went into a lot of different people’s family interior lives. We have friends on campus who are a couple. Then we even have the mom of the alleged killer who’s been imprisoned. That was particularly heartbreaking, I thought, her whole storyline and the way she spoke about it. When you were going into all these different lives and letting us inside, essentially, was that the plan from the beginning? How did you structure the whole book from the outset? Did you know where it was going and how many lives would be affected? Did you just keep going and say, what would be behind this curtain? All that.

Rebecca: I had it all in my head. Then I just typed.

Zibby: Or a general outline or something. I don’t know.

Rebecca: It changes a ton. The initial idea that I had, actually, I was really interested in the fact that when people need to reconvene for a trial, so like a retrial or a hearing for a retrial, which is what ends up happening in the book, the state has to put them up if they’re traveling in from over a certain distance. Very often, most people still live in the area where the crime occurred. If you had gone to a boarding school in the woods in New Hampshire, most people do not still live in the county in New Hampshire where this happened. With limited resources, they would all probably be staying in the same hotel. I thought that would be a fascinating book to write, kind of like The Big Chill, a bit like The Westing Game, which was my favorite book as a kid. That was the book that I thought I was going to write. When I first sat down and started to write, I was writing, okay, they’re back. It’s a retrial. They’re checking each other out. I was going to need to put in a lot of backstory. I’m working. I’m like, there’s so much backstory. How am I going to tell not only what happened, but then how they got to the point of having a retrial? I guess I better start with the recent past. I’ll have a little bit of that, and then I’ll get to the — what I originally thought was going to be sort of a prologue ended up being three quarters of the book, I want to say. Only in the last quarter do they actually get to this hotel as adults. They’re adults the whole book, but the hotel part. That was a surprise.

In terms of whose lives you go into, that was definitely a surprise. Omar, the guy who is in prison for the crime, he was giving me a lot of trouble because it was not, in the beginning, going to be a story about her going to the state prison and listening to this guy’s narrative. She, for a lot of the beginning of the book, still thinks he’s guilty, so why would she be doing that? How could I get his story in? I would not know how to write a story where I gave half of it to a guy who’s incarcerated in federal prison. I’m not the right person for that. I realized that there were ways in, for instance, a television interview with this guy’s mother, who, like a lot of people who, they’ve really worked through their narrative, they’ve talked about it a lot, is able to express really well in this interview, the ways that this has destroyed her family, having this young man taken away. That came later. It was something that clicked. I was like, yeah, this is the point of view that I need in order to see the thing that I can’t yet show us directly.

Zibby: So neat. Many times in the book, you kind of poke fun at how often people ask, what did you do with your kids? How are your kids doing? Who’s taking care of your kids because you’re here for two weeks teaching? Tell me about that.

Rebecca: Oh, my god. It’s something that, if you ask any woman with children who travels for work, there’s this constant, most often from other women — honestly, I do understand. Often from an older generation of women, when they say, “Who’s watching your kids while you’re here?” part of the underlying question is, “I would not have been able to do this amount of travel. How are you doing this amount of travel? What’s changed?” Other times, it’s just a conversation starter, but they’re not realizing the subtext of what they’re saying. Men do not get asked those questions. Men do not get asked, who’s watching your kids while you’re on book tour or while you’re here for a week? Honestly, for me personally — this does come from my own life as well as the lives of any woman who travels. It wears away at you after a while. As much as I’m like, “I’m on book tour. Shut up. Their father is watching them. It’s all good,” after a while, you start to internalize this guilt of, “Oh, my god, yes, I have left my children alone. They will be scarred,” that men would just not internalize because they’re not getting that constant pecking away. It was important to me, partly here, to write a book about someone who was a mother. That’s part of her identity, but this book is not about her being a mother. We never see her with her children. We only see her when she’s on the road away from them. She FaceTimes them a couple times, and that’s it. Acknowledging that question that other characters have of, “Where are your kids? Where are your kids?” it’s partly reality. It’s partly a little, if there are any readers or reviewers who were going to be like, “She’s a mother. We never see her mothering,” I’m like, here. We’re allowed to have this story. It’s okay.

Zibby: That’s really funny. Your answer to these questions before you can even get them, that’s awesome. Really awesome. You have another storyline that you don’t develop too much, but still her backstory. You have her kids, which don’t make an appearance — she is going through this, not bizarre, all divorces are bizarre, but just divorce in which she sometimes gets together with her husband, who lives next door. It’s a whole thing. They text. She’s kind of seeing someone else. I just thought it was so interesting how you wove all of that in, carried it through. It’s almost saying, you know, nobody has their life totally figured out. We’re all in this mix of — it just tied in so much to all the uncertainty and how she felt even as a kid in boarding school. She always didn’t feel quite on the straight and narrow, in a way.

Rebecca: She’s definitely a human character. She’s flawed and not sure of herself and makes mistakes, puts her foot in her mouth very much a few times, is constantly unsure of, am I getting overinvolved in this case, or was the whole problem to begin with that I wasn’t involved and I should’ve been because I actually knew stuff? Where’s that line? My job as an author is to complicate issues. It’s not to simplify them. It’s not to pretend there’s an answer. It’s to take an issue that’s already complex and mess it up more. What about this? What if this happened? Even as she’s looking back on her own adolescence with a modern eye, a Me Too kind of eye, someone online is trying to Me Too her husband, her soon-to-be ex, in a way that she really doesn’t agree with. She’s looking at the story and going, wait, I don’t see what the problem is. That complexity and that contradiction or paradox was important for me in part because that’s real. The conversations, especially that women have had in real life, not online, about looking back or about, “This guy got Me Too’d, but this one, I don’t see what he did wrong. Everyone knew he was a jerk, but does he need to not ever get published again?” it’s messy. The version that we’re going to be public about is, either we’re going to shut up or going to say a very black-and-white type thing rather than the three-hour conversation that you’d actually have in real life with glasses of wine with your friends about, yeah, but… You know. It’s the job, I think, of fiction to get in there and to look at that gray area. It’s hard in public discourse to find that gray area. Fiction is one of the places where we can find it.

Zibby: I love that. I love how you said that the job of the author is to complicate things. That’s such a good way to look at a story.

Rebecca: I was crocheting the other night. This is what I always do because I have ADHD and I’m very impatient. The skein of yarn was getting tangled. Rather than work it out, I just yanked it. Now it’s more. All I can do is get in there and try to do this, but it makes it worse. Then I cut something. Then I tie it. I think it’s going to get better, but it gets worse. I was like, this is actually how I write. With fiction, there’s a purpose to that. With my yarn, it’s just a disaster. Why do I not take the time to sort this out first? Oh, my god.

Zibby: It may seem like that in your head, but the way it comes across is not messy and muddled.

Rebecca: Thanks. It’s purposefully messy. I never want to confuse anyone. I never want to bore. I never want to confuse. I’ll bend over backwards to make sure those don’t happen. I don’t want to write a messy narrative in that sense, but I want to dig into the mess of human life, human psychology, the gray area.

Zibby: Take me back a little. How did you get into writing? Where did you grow up? I know you went to the boarding school. Who did you read? How did you become this? How did you get to here?

Rebecca: My parents were both linguistics professors, which was an interesting childhood. Both of them spoke a lot of languages, traveled a lot. Grew up going to a lot of linguistics conferences in the summer on various empty college campuses. I was the only kid. They were both teaching at a public university in Chicago. There’s nothing fancy about this. The privilege was educational and linguistic rather than — we’re not living in some gorgeous house next to the Harvard campus or something. I was not an only child, but my only sibling is ten years older than me. I was, in many ways, essentially, an only child with parents in their forties when I was born and no neighbor kids. I was just reading a lot and playing with those — remember the Little People? I played with Little People.

Zibby: Little People, yeah.

Rebecca: They all sit in the school bus or whatever.

Zibby: We had a boat in my bathtub. We had this little boat, little captain hat.

Rebecca: So there are plastic ones.

Zibby: Yeah, the plastic ones.

Rebecca: Then I had my sister’s old wooden ones too. They wouldn’t get along. There were race wars between the wooden people and the plastic people. I just spent a lot of time alone reading, thinking. Lois Lowry was my favorite childhood author.

Zibby: I just interviewed her.

Rebecca: No way!

Zibby: Yes.

Rebecca: Oh, my god, I’m so jealous.

Zibby: I know. I was like, what? She has a new book out? Yes, I’m interviewing her.

Rebecca: All I need is her to adopt me. I want to live with her for a year. It’s not too much to ask. She was my favorite author. Then The Westing Game I mentioned earlier, by Ellen Raskin, was my favorite book. Different on the author and the book. At a certain point, was just always writing. I would write puppet shows and make my friends be in them. I’d write plays at school. I’d write stories. Then by about eighth grade, realized that this was something I was getting really positive feedback for. Then by about nineth grade, abandoned my other career aspirations. I think the last other one was historian, which I would not say I’m not doing, especially with something like The Great Believers, which took a huge amount of historical research. From that point on, I was just hellbent on being a writer and was lucky. I was a scholarship kid at this school, incredibly fortunate, and incredibly fortunate to have great English teachers. After college, I taught Montessori elementary school for twelve years to support myself — it was really, really fun — while I was writing my first novel and a bunch of my first short stories. Since then, have been publishing. I still teach, but now I teach grad students and adults.

Zibby: Wow. I’m glad your backstory is not as devastating as the main character’s backstory in the book with all the trauma and tragedy and all of that.

Rebecca: There’s plenty I’m leaving out. It was not a stable childhood, actually. I will say there was a lot of upheaval. There was some bad trauma stuff, but I managed to get a great education. That is perhaps one reason that I’m really willing to revisit education in this book. Adolescence isn’t easy for anyone, but you might have gotten some incredible things out of that time that made you who you are.

Zibby: I know we’re almost out of time, but now you touched on bad trauma stuff. Is there anything you want to talk about?

Rebecca: I’m pretty open. People can see — I have an essay that was in The New Yorker online right after the Brock Turner verdict, the Stanford swimmer thing. When I was sixteen, I put someone in prison for childhood sexual abuse. I wrote this essay. It was about victim impact statements. It’s interesting. I actually have a different view on victim impact statements since I wrote that piece just from having learned more about the ways that people can be advantaged or disadvantaged in those by their educational background, by how well they write, by all kinds of things that I sort of took for granted, especially as a teenager. What I was reacting to was Chanel Miller — now her name is out there because she’s written a wonderful book. She was a spectacular writer. Her victim impact statement went public in that Brock Turner case and was overwhelmingly beautiful. Beautiful is the wrong word. It was beautiful writing about a terrible thing. As I explore in this book, as I explore looking back on predation, on looking at the carceral system, looking at what it means to speak out against someone, that is all very personal stuff for me. It is, in its details, very, very far removed from anything that I went through. There are certainly reasons why that’s something that I’m drawn to revisit in fiction. My parents got divorced when I was ten. Then my father moved to Asia. My mother was not in a great place. My sister, who was ten years older, was gone. It’s a total exaggeration because my mom was fantastic. She did everything she could. This sense that Bodie in this book has of being on her own a little prematurely was definitely me exaggerating but also working some stuff out, if that makes sense.

Zibby: I’m really sorry that I did not know that. I’m going to go back now and read the essay. It actually gives me a whole different understanding and context to the book. I’m glad, at least for people listening, if they haven’t read the book yet, they can go with that as a backstory. Not that it should inform everything, but just that little added context. I’m sorry for all of that.

Rebecca: It’s one of those experiences that make you who you are. Also, you look back and go, oh, my god, I did that when I was sixteen. I’m very proud of myself for that. Not that people who are unable or unwilling to do that should not be proud of themselves. I look back and go, oh, my god, what the hell? I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do that at other ages in my life. Somehow at sixteen, I was able to. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all to go into a book with a sense of the author’s biography in your head as long as you know that what you’re reading is fiction. Certainly as a writer, most of the living writers that I read are people I know. I might know them really well or I might know them a little bit. Sometimes it’s a memoir. You’re like, whoa, really? Even when it’s fiction, you read it in a different way when you know the author. I think that because of podcasts like this, more people can have that experience, not of literally knowing someone, but feeling like you understand where the art comes from in a way that maybe some theoretical literary person would be like, no, no, you can’t consider biography. I think it makes it a lot more fun.

Zibby: I agree. Me too. Rebecca, thank you. This was wonderful. I love chatting with you. Again, I just absolutely loved the book. I’m so impressed. I have so much respect.

Rebecca: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thanks. Have a great day. Thank you for your time. I’ll see you at book club.



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