Monday, 31 October 2011

Author Visit: Rebecca Makkai

I read 'The Borrower' earlier this month and completely fell in love with it. I had to get in touch with Rebecca and ask her to come along and talk to you all about it, and she said yes. Hurrah! So, here she is. Make yourselves comfortable.

All who reply to this post by the 15th November will have their names put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Rebecca's book. [Doesn't matter which part of the world you live in!]


Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose first novel, The Borrower, is an Indie Next pick and has garnered rave reviews in O Magazine, BookPage and Booklist among others. Her short fiction will appear in The Best American Short Stories this autumn for the fourth consecutive year, and appears regularly in journals like Tin House, Ploughshares, New England Review and Shenandoah. 

Hi Rebecca! Welcome to my blog. Make yourself at home. Have a biscuit, take a seat.

Hello! Delicious biscuit, by the way! [Why thank you]

Sum up 'The Borrower' for those who haven't got their hands on it yet.

A librarian inadvertently kidnaps a ten-year-old boy. Or, a ten-year-old boy blackmails a librarian into kidnapping him. Depends on your mood.

What sparked the idea for the book? A particular character, a storyline?

Ian, the boy in the book, has been enrolled by his mother in an anti-gay class because she fears he isn’t masculine enough. About ten years ago I found out that such classes exist, and that was the original spark for the novel.

What's your writing routine?

It mostly involves getting out of my house. I’ve got two toddlers, so escape is mandatory. Beyond that, I’m not very superstitious. I just sit and write. (I think a lot of writers try to tell a big story about routine as part of their mystique. I’ve even heard one writer claim she keeps a bowl of water on her desk, and when she sits to write she runs her hands through it to calm herself. I call that malarkey for several reasons, the most important being that no writer would ever in a million years put water next to her computer. Right?)

What was the most exciting part of the publishing process for you? Where were you when you found out the book deal was confirmed?

I was incredibly fortunate in that there were several editors bidding on my book, and I knew this ahead of time. The day it went to auction I was teaching (I teach elementary level at a Montessori school), and I sneakily checked my phone every hour or so to see what my agent had texted me. Then I just went back to triangles and verbs and whatever else we were doing that day. I think I’d have been ripping my hair out if I’d just been sitting around at home.

The most exciting thing, though, was probably back on the day I first signed with my agent. I knew she was good enough to sell the book, so that was the moment when I felt like it was all going to happen.

Have you come across parents like Ian's in real life [I know I have], and have you ever known a boy like Ian you wanted to save from their parents' oppression?

Although quite a few adult friends have told me about growing up in households like this, I’ve fortunately never had to encounter parents like that firsthand. I certainly wouldn’t react as fecklessly as Lucy does, but I also wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut.

Have you had any backlash from people or organisations such as Exodus International since the publication of your book?

No. Somehow I doubt that they’re big readers of contemporary literary fiction... There have been a few reviews on Amazon and the like (which, for the sake of sanity, I’ve long stopped looking at) where readers said things like “I’m not a bigot or anything, but I didn’t like the blatantly pro-gay agenda,” then gave it a low ranking. I don’t mind them not liking my book (I probably wouldn’t like theirs), but I wonder if they know how ridiculous and transparent those statements are.

Tell us about The Trevor Project.

I’ve linked to The Trevor Project on my website and elsewhere, and it’s an organization we can’t highlight enough. They’re a counselling and suicide-prevention lifeline for LGBTQ youth, and they were the first ones to do something like this on a major scale in the US. I’d always assumed it was named after someone we lost, but in fact Trevor is the character in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading another debut novel, The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, and it’s wonderful so far. I’m also picking my way through The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, about the periodic table.

What are you up to when you're not writing?

Teaching, being a mother, cooking, yoga, gardening. Most of the writers I know are drawn to things like cooking that are very tangible and finite. When you’ve been working for a year on something that’s just a computer file and a story in your head, and you don’t know if it will ever amount to anything or if you’ll even finish, it can be very therapeutic just to make some soup. It’s done in one evening, and you eat it, and there’s very little angst involved. And you can’t go back and revise it the next day.

Are you allowed to tell us about your second novel, The Happensack?

I’m allowed to, but I’ve been warned by other writers not to ruin it by talking too much. I’m saying the same thing to everyone, which is that it’s the story of a haunted family and a haunted house, told in reverse.

In The Borrower, you say that books save us. [That part made me cry, by the way.] I couldn't agree more. What books have saved you?

To name one: When I was six years old, my teacher read us The Twits by Roald Dahl. It’s one of his typically ridiculous stories, a really violent one in fact, but it was the first time I’d ever heard of a deeply dysfunctional family other than my own. That book meant so much to me that I copied the entire thing out by hand.


"This story - often fun, sometimes sad, always bookish - deals with big issues... Rebecca Makkai's literary debut will appeal to young adults and readers of adult literary fiction."--We Love This Book

"Ian is a little star. His many sayings and observations that he'll burst out with are endearing - and often funny. It's clear that Lucy is smitten by her favourite 'borrower.'"--The Bookbag

"Makkai takes several risks in her sharp, often witty text, replete with echoes of children's classics from 'Goodnight Moon' to 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz', as well as more ominous references to Lolita...the moving final chapters affirm the power of books to change people's lives even as they acknowledge the unbreakable bonds of home and family. Smart, literate and refreshingly unsentimental."--Kirkus

"Rarely is a first novel as smart and engaging and learned and funny and moving as 'The Borrower.'"--Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author of That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls

"The Borrower's out and out charm is heightened by its furious, righteous heart and conviction that books offer salvation and hope when life is messy and near-unbearable"--Marie Claire

The Borrower


  1. Ooh, stick me in the hat, please, Jen! It sounds excellent.

  2. Oh, this sounds beautiful.

  3. goodness, i had no idea that books were auctioned
    i like the notion of unrevisable soup...

  4. Sounds like a wonderful book. And an interesting interview too!

  5. What a wonderful opportunity! Please count me in.

  6. Sounds like a great read! Count me in too!

  7. Am I allowed to enter even though I live in Sweden? Because if I am, I would like to. :)

  8. Yep, doesn't matter where you live :)

  9. Please toss me in the barrel Jen...and even if I don't win I am putting this on my 'to read' list.

  10. I've heard great things about this book; please put my name in the hat.

  11. This has been on my 'To read when I have dealt with the already toppling-over pile' pile for a while... #goes to deal with the pile

  12. Hello from one of your newest Russian readers and admirers.
    The book seems really interesting and the interview already is (along with others).
    P.S. Sorry for the possible mistakes.

  13. Being a librarian, I'm intrigued; being a writer, I'm more intrigued. Thanks for the fine interview!

  14. Oh, this sounds fantastic! Count me in too, please!

  15. Great interview and the book sounds great, please put me in the hat too.

  16. I actually can't wait to read this book. Like actually.
    What a fab interview too; I think it might just be one of my favourites. I love the last answer: bless Rebecca, copying out the whole of 'The Twits' and YEAH for Mr. Dahl love!

  17. What a truly wonderful debut. I enjoyed the hidden (and not-so-hidden) literary references. Is that the UK cover of the book? Love the tagline: "She borrowed a child. He stole her."

    Also, I remember a girl I liked in 5th grade presented a book report on "The Borrowers". As it turns out, she was the first girl I ever French-kissed. Ah, youth.

  18. Good Morning Jen. Back in the hat I go!

  19. Wow I thought I was the only one who would copy out books by hand because they loved them so much. This books sounds really interesting. Pop me in the hat please, Jen :)

  20. Hi Jen, sounds like a good read. Great interview too. Put me in the hat!

  21. This books sounds absolutely amazing! Will definitely have to get a copy.

  22. This sounds like a fantastic book, and I'm very happy to hear that other people cook to take a break from writing, I've constantly got soup or cake, or both.....

  23. heard about this book in some of my librarian circles, looking forward to it!

  24. Lovely blog, please pop me in the hat too!:)

  25. This sounds like an amazing book. Hope to read it soon.

    BTW, I'm already closing in on my first 20,000 words in my first NaNoWriMo. In case you were wondering.

  26. Great interview! I've heard this book mentioned a lot but had no idea what it was about. It sounds very interesting. It's definitely on my ever growing To Read list!

  27. Delightful interview & excellent book!

  28. Ooh, am I in time to be added to the hat?
    I absolutely loved what you said about books saving us. Harry Potter saved me :-) specifically Chapter 34 of the Deathly Hallows!

    Great blog as always Jen :-)

  29. I've had this book on my wishlist since I first heard about it. Please to put me in the hat?

  30. The winner of this book was em_lysk, thanks to everyone who replied! x

  31. Stick me in the hat, Jen, thanks! Another wonderful and lively interview, and 'The Borrower' has been sitting firmly on my wishlist for a while now. I can feel an enormous book-buying binge coming on...

  32. Ellie - this draw has been and gone, love!x