As I sat in Washington Square Park reading, there were ghosts in the air, made evident to me by Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel, The Great Believers (Viking). Thirty years ago, this park, the center of a historically queer neighborhood, would have been filled with people who watched their friends die, awaiting their own diagnoses, while the national narrative trumpeted fear and “antipathy.” The Great Believers tells this story and explores what it means to find a way to live around fear and hatred (something we’ve become all too re-familiarized with today). In her deeply empathetic book, Makkai writes for those too young to remember, those who chose to ignore, and those who could never forget.
Nicolaia Rips While your novel explores a variety of relationships, the most endearing is the one between Yale, a queer museum director, and Nora, an aging artist’s model. Through them, you draw a parallel between 1920s bohemian Paris, and 1980s Chicago at the height of the AIDS crisis—both times of tremendous illness but also, and perhaps because of that, a time that fomented creativity, reflecting an appreciation for the preciousness of being. Why did you choose to thread these time periods together?
Rebecca Makkai That parallel is really the thing that started the book for me. We tend to think of the World War I generation as comprised of the writers who went to Paris after the war, but I was really interested in the visual artists who were there before, when it was still the age of the Art Academy. It’s analogous to when the AIDS generation came to cities like Chicago; young people coming alone to find each other, to find community. You had people coming from all over to Paris—you have Fujita coming from Japan, you have Modigliani coming from Italy, you have all these people coming together and forming chosen families in this pre-war artistic urban Mecca. Then suddenly World War I and influenza roll through and just decimate that generation.
After World War I, when people were sort of wandering around trying to figure out what to do, Gertrude Stein said to Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.” I was really interested in the people who against all odds are still with us, the people who lost everyone, the people who were prepared to die and didn’t, the people who survived and buried all of their friends. The people who had to pick up and move on.
NR The international art world is currently reviving Modigliani and Giacometti and the emaciated figures they painted. Do you think this reflects a renewed interest, consciously or unconsciously, in the AIDS crisis of the 80s?
RM I hadn’t thought about that. People keep telling me that everyone is interested in the AIDS crisis again. I don’t see it. I feel like people overestimate what’s coming out now—there’s just not enough. I don’t know if there’s something specifically conducive about this moment. We’re living under a really horrible political regime right now and I think that’s reflective for many people of other times when they were out in the streets, fighting for their lives, fighting for the lives of people they love. It’s been enough time though, we don’t need to let it sit for any longer, nothing more is going to come out of distance except loss. I like your theory though. I like the idea of subconscious interest. I’m writing about the AIDS crisis, but I happen to be focusing on people who were artists or arts adjacent, so the connection with artists like Modigliani and Giacometti may be more pronounced.
NR Or muses. The artist’s muse is often discounted as a frivolous role, not one fully involved in the creative process. Can you talk about the role of the muse?
RM That was actually the starting point of the book. I was in New York City and I passed by this woman who was incredibly striking, just dramatically beautiful and she struck me as a model. I started thinking about models as muses back in the time when women did not have the resources or support to be creating their own art.
Someone with artistic aspirations might not be able to channel those in a way that they could now, and what it would mean to take on the work of being amused by yourself as an art form. I decided I wanted to write about this woman, at the end of her life looking back on that time, what artwork she had left, and then I was just looking for who she would be in contact with at the end of her life in the 1980s. I really thought it was going to be about this woman. She’s certainly in the book. It’s just not her story. I was interested in the other ways that people participate in art besides being the artist.
I don’t think as a writer you should go in with answers, or even articulate your answers at the end. I think you should go in with questions. What does it mean to be a muse? What is the relationship between the subject of the work and the artist? Then write your way around those questions.
NR In your capacity as a professor at Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, do you teach about this aspect of author intent?
RM I call my students out on this all the time. When students go in saying, “I’m writing this in order to prove X” or “I’m writing this to show Y,” it’s just never going to work. They’re going to be twisting their characters and moving them in directions they don’t want to go in just to prove a point. A statement of “I want to push/show/prove X” is very different to me than “I want to explore how war creates loss that cannot be recovered.”
NR It’s about having a more intimate relationship with the story rather than forcing it into submission.
RM That’s it. It’s about being willing to go in and prove yourself wrong, being willing to write something that shocks yourself or pokes fun at what you used to believe. If you go in too assured, too determined to write a certain outcome, you’re not leaving room for your own discoveries, and if you are not surprised by your own discoveries, if you’re not surprised as you are writing, there’s zero chance that the reader will be and they’re going to feel manipulated.
NR You write about the trauma inflicted by the AIDS crisis. Were you looking to explore the question of trauma?
RM I would say that most writing is about trauma. I think you could look at basically any book and say, “Yeah, that’s traumatic.” You can look at Agatha Christie and go, “Someone gets murdered—that’s traumatic.”
Actually, reinvention is much more thematic to my work than trauma. I’m interested in rebirth, and I don’t mean that in an inspiring or religious way. But The Borrower is about someone who runs away from home and essentially starts a new life. In The 100-Year House I have a lot of characters who managed to completely snow everyone and start over.
That’s what I’m really talking about here with regards to that thirty-year gap between the 1980s and 2015: how people have changed, how they disappeared into each other’s lives, how people live in aftermath, how you go on with a continuing life that you never expected to have. That’s what’s really appealing to me. I do think that comes from knowing a tremendous number of Hungarian immigrants and refugees as a child who had a life in one country and left everything behind to completely start a new life.
NR One of your most poignant quotations about the AIDS crisis is: “There had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy.” Are there lessons to be learned from your exploration of the intentional inaction of the 80s?
RM People actively knew what was happening and chose not to care. It was entirely a matter of the population that was stricken with it. Look at how much money the government poured into Legionnaires disease in the 70s and how quickly they did it. That affected fewer people, but they were white, they had military services and it was happening in New England. They poured so much money into it so fast and, you look at the contrast between that and how long it took for Reagan to even acknowledge AIDS. Most people count about six years between the first New York Times article coming out and the time that Reagan actually uses the word AIDS in public at a press conference.
NR In the U.S., a disproportionate amount of young men of color are infected with AIDS.
RM Exactly. People keep asking about the parallels with modern healthcare—it’s not a parallel, it’s literally still happening. We still have over a million people in the U.S. living with HIV. It’s still the eighth leading cause of death for Americans between ages 25 and 34. I think that shocks a lot of people because we’re back, in some ways, to the ignorance that we started with. We’re back to people not thinking about it and not knowing about it and not caring. How the fuck has that happened? At the end of last year, very quietly between Christmas and the New Year, Trump fired all the remaining members of the HIV/AIDS advisory council and then pulled out a billion dollars in global spending on HIV/AIDS, which is something that the global fund is estimating will result in around a million preventable deaths. For some reason, as a country, we’ve gotten back to a place where this is not making headline news. I will acknowledge that with the medication we now have available HIV is not always death sentence. But there are so many ongoing health issues with all the people who have been living with HIV since the 80s and the 90s and now we have this burgeoning field of geriatric AIDS care.
NR You’re using The Great Believers to inspire people to donate money to a variety of organizations.
RM I certainly needed to be giving back in some way to the community that inspired the book. I also felt giving back to a grassroots organization in Chicago could make a lot more difference than if I was putting a drop in the bucket of a really big organization. Vital Bridges, for example, grew out of an organization called Open Hand. At the beginning the organization would deliver meals and groceries to homes. Now it is basically a mini grocery store for people with HIV/AIDS. Every time someone posts a photo of the book or buys the book on Kindle, until September 19th, I’ll donate a dollar. I also have six independent bookstores matching my donations.
We’re at a point in time where, if we’re not going to process the AIDS crisis now, it’s going to be too late. We are about 30 years on, we still have survivors with us. We don’t have a ton of time to waste if we’re going to record these stories. If we’re going to be learning the lessons of history as we should be we’re running out of time. Regardless of whether we feel inspired to talk about AIDS right now, we fucking have to. We can’t wait for the moment. We’re running out of time, we have to talk about this now.