Music for Wartime (Viking) is Rebecca Makkai’s third published book and first story collection. It features all four of her Best American Short Story-endorsed pieces—each chosen consecutively, year after year, which has to be a record—in addition to other tales, alternately fabular or dizzy with emotionally precipitous modernity, and frequently both at once. The book showcases the boldness of her range and, ambition notwithstanding, a decided lightness of touch.
J.T. Price Let’s begin where the book ends—with acknowledgments. We live, it sometimes seems, in an age of them. Would you mind speaking to the relationship between acknowledgments and fiction, the latter of which, in theory, is all about estranging and appropriating and recapitulating the actual in a newly relevant light?
Rebecca Makkai I was just thinking about this recently, about how the “real” parts of a book—the acknowledgments, dedication, author photo—all serve to paint this picture of who the author is, of why this author would write these stories. I’m sure I’m not alone in my habit of flipping back to the author photo to reassess the author’s face halfway through a novel.
With this book, I was maybe more aware of all that, of the way I was framing myself, because I was also doing it inside the collection itself, playing with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. The three pieces subtitled “First Legend,” “Second Legend,” etc. are overtly about my own family—my Hungarian grandparents—but their purpose is to question the stories I was told about them as a child.
I know that for some authors, the acknowledgment is really just a list of names. I always want it to do more than that, to comment in some way on the book itself, on how the sausage got made. But at the same time, it’s posed. It’s not really the author; it’s a way of holding the book up to the light.
JTP More on bios: Like you, I attended the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Like you, I took a class—word is you may have taken two—with poet, novelist, and avid bird-watcher David Huddle. Since I’m in Vermont for the summer, I mentioned to David that this interview would be taking place and asked whether he might have a question for you. Being a Southern gentleman, he obliged, inquiring—and this is paraphrase: How has your family tree served your development as a writer, with your father being an eminent linguist and your grandmother an actress and novelist? Conveniently, this question receives overt treatment in Music for Wartime, as you just noted.
RM He is indeed a Southern Gentleman, one of the best. And a writer’s writer. When I find another writer who loves David Huddle, we tend to embrace on the spot.
I should point out that both my parents were linguistics professors, not just my father. They were in different areas of linguistics, though, and without getting technical, I can say that basically my father is more theoretical and my mother is more analytical. So maybe there were some helpful genes there. Honestly though, what’s far more important than that is that growing up I felt it was a legitimate career choice to be a writer. My mother still wanted me to major in literature, which I did, rather than writing. And I’m grateful for that. But I know a lot of writers—especially ones who grew up in first-generation households, like me—who felt tremendous pressure to do something more lucrative, and who even now have guilt about being artists.
The fact that I saw all these examples of people working with words for very little money, that my family understood what it was to be a writer—that mattered more than any gene pool.
JTP Drawing at least in part from your family’s history, nearly every story in Music For Wartime takes root from a tragic or even outright catastrophic event. These events, nevertheless, rarely take full possession of the narratives proper. What we get are glints and glimmers, fleeting moments where the submerged surfaces. For example, the reader follows a newly single, modern woman mothering a magically materialized Johann Bach (“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”) or an empathic boy peeking downstairs on the parlor violin performance by a Hungarian émigré recently released from political imprisonment (“The Worst You’ll Ever Feel”).
Is it right to think you have found a subtler approach to be the preferable one in addressing mass trauma in fiction—9/11 and WWII being the respective backdrops to the aforementioned?
RM I don’t always write this way, with a backdrop of catastrophe, but it became thematic to the book. The collection asks the question that’s right there in the title: What does it mean to be an artist, to try to make beauty, in a brutal world? That said, they aren’t all situated historically. A story like “Cross,” for instance, is just about a string quartet, and the only trauma in the background is maybe this one woman’s divorce.
JTP But even in that one the titular cross is there because somebody died, right off the side of the road. It’s a tragedy that remains mysterious, glimpsed in the story mostly in traces.
RM Yes, true. So, not a mass trauma, but an individual one. I think “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart” is another example of this; the main character is watching his friend tank, though it isn’t part of some historical narrative. For a story like “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” in which an English professor basically commits career suicide, the catastrophe is her own, not one she’s just affected by. Of course, every story is going to have some major conflict in it, or else it isn’t really a story.
But you’re definitely onto something with your question. The broader the trauma, the more it tends to be peripheral to my characters’ own actual struggles. I do think this is really how most of us experience the world. There are catastrophes like 9/11, and—presuming we weren’t actually in the buildings, that we weren’t firefighters—its role was mostly as a horrifying backdrop to our everyday lives. We still went to work the next morning, but it had shaken us and changed us profoundly. So I don’t think I’m doing it to avoid a certain kind of story, or to make some kind of statement on craft, but because it feels right. We all live in the midst of history, but we’re preoccupied with the personal.
JTP Your stories are smart and in no way ponderous. In a way, the stories seem monuments to transience, a means of slyly satirizing the ponderous.
For example, by poking fun at the conceptual mind-games a character might play to order or control her world, like the reality-TV producer in “The November Story.” Or in the passage from “The Briefcase,” where a cook living under the stolen identity of a disappeared physics professor brainstorms a loopy argument for why it’s true that the sun travels around the earth:
If the earth moved, all it would take for a man to travel its circumference would be a strong balloon. Rise twenty feet above, and wait for the earth to turn under you; you would be home again in a day. But this was not true, and a man could not escape his spot on the earth but to run along the surface. Ergo, the earth was still. Ergo, the sun was the moving body of the two.
I find that passage’s comic wrongness—of which the character himself is well-aware—to satirize the (typically male) tendency toward bulk and involution in literary fiction, e.g. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace.
As a reader, do you find bulk to be the enemy of enjoyable fiction?
RM Well, yes, sometimes. Or at least, for me, when the author sacrifices plot on the altar of ideas, I’m out. I remember a conversation I was having (with, yes, some men) a few years ago, and one of them was going on and on about Infinite Jest. I’m sure I’d probably find a lot to enjoy if I read that book, but the way this guy was talking about it completely turned me off. “He’s meditating on X, and then he’s satirizing Y, and then he’s dissecting Z.” And as much as I’m in favor of satire and dissection and meditation, the Novel of Ideas that forgets to tell a story holds very little appeal for me. Granted, this maybe isn’t true of Wallace at all, being that this guy was not the best Wallace ambassador.
JTP You are, as Wallace was, a child of academics raised in Illinois. He was deeply into linguistics, even wrote an essay about dictionaries and modern usage. Is there not some sort of Midwestern covenant where you are morally obligated to read the masterworks of those who grew up within four hours of you?
RM Ha. Since that would include the entire city of Chicago, for all its literary history, I’m going with no. I have read him, I should say, but just the essays. I should probably hold my tongue about those, so I don’t get emails from DFW fanatics.
Getting back to the issue—and ducking for cover—I’ll just say that people love to underrate plot, because it makes them sound like they’re beyond it, like plot is best left to Danielle Steele. But Aristotle had it right when he said that crafting plot is harder than building characters or beautiful sentences. And that it matters more, in the end. We remember Hamlet, for instance, first for its plot—the tragedy and irony and twists—and then for its meaning, its subtler messages.
JTP Are you funny IRL? Based on your regular contributions to the Ploughshares blog, my suspicion is yes.
Were you funny before you began seriously writing fiction, and did you become funnier the more time you spent writing fiction?
RM Well, I’m funny looking…
Really, I taught myself how to be funny in writing. I had the job in college of writing the back-page humor column for a campus paper, and I literally went home on break and found every humor book in my house—Dave Barry, whatever—and studied out sentence structure.
JTP That’s not very funny.
RM Isn’t that horribly clinical? But really, it’s what standup comics do, albeit in a less nerdy manner, by trying out different phrasings every night, editing and editing and editing.
I don’t trust any writer who takes himself seriously. It’s all kind of ridiculous. Our job is to write about humans, and humans are funny. I mean, we’re primates. Come on.
JTP Okay, what’s the least funny aspect of the writing life?
RM I don’t feel like my inbox is very funny right now. And it’s hard to see the humor in a negative review, or in the usually bleak financials of writing.
JTP Rumor is you have recently taken a position at a certain prominent MFA program while also being one of the increasingly rare, prominent fiction writers without an MFA degree. How do you address the question of whether or not an aspiring writer ought to pursue an MFA?
RM Yep, I’m visiting faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop this fall, and I’m pretty thrilled. And I teach in a couple other MFA programs as well—Northwestern and Sierra Nevada College.
I would tell anyone who can afford an MFA—in terms of time, mobility, debt—to do it. But there absolutely needs to be a place in the writing world for people who didn’t come up through this system. We need writers who didn’t finish high school, for that matter. And writers who went to medical school instead. And writers from countries where they don’t have MFA programs. And some of them ought to be teaching other writers if they want to.
I get told that I teach “differently.” I’m never sure what this means, but I think basically I’m saying stuff and doing stuff that my students haven’t heard repeated in other classes. Or maybe it just means I talk funny.
JTP Is there anything you learned from hearing stories of your Hungarian grandmother [the actress and novelist] that affects how you teach or understand fiction? I’m picturing writing workshop exercises that somehow fuse the performing and writing pursuits.
RM Like having students make masks out of papier-mâché, then dance out their characters’ feelings? Doesn’t everyone do that?
Seriously, I really don’t know that much about my grandmother. Probably fifteen or twenty stories, and really none of them are about her acting career, as that mostly happened before my father was born.
I will say, though, that I learned a huge amount from acting myself in high school and college, as well as from a contemporary American theater course I took in graduate school with Oskar Eustis, who’s now the director of the Public Theater in New York. It’s a lot easier to understand structure—scene structure, particularly—in the theater than on the page, and the lessons translate easily. The advice I always give to any aspiring writer who’s young enough and game is to get into acting. You’re going to be living inside a story, night after night. You’ll come out having learned more than you could have picked up in three writing workshops.
JTP What was the process like as you went back to assemble Music For Wartime from the great many stories—more than are contained in this volume—that you have had the good fortune to publish over the years? Did you find yourself rereading yourself? Did you make any discoveries with the passage of time?
RM Oh good god, you have to do a lot more than reread yourself. There was a lot of rewriting, and then there are the many, many layers of the editing process, and then, of course, you’re condemned to read the same passages again in public for months.
I think that what I discovered, more than anything, were my themes. Sometimes these were alarming—like I’d used the word “detritus” in three different stories, and had to edit two of those out, and what the hell is up with that? But mostly they were interesting. I hadn’t realized how many of my stories dealt with deception, for instance.
Short stories have a lot in common with dreams. They’re both these cryptic tales we tell ourselves, and maybe we’ll never be entirely sure what they mean. Sometimes I need readers and reviewers to tell me what my stories are about. Some of it starts to come clear over time, though, and in looking back over these stories, I loved the process of figuring out what I was obsessed with five or seven years ago. (Detritus, mostly. But other things too.)
JTP In addition to music and trauma, the inherent tension—even the anxiety—that lies between the artist “on stage” and those who receive the artist’s work recurs in story after story. Frequently it is a matter of characters finding themselves hurtled toward the center of attention, as in “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart.”
This is an interesting concern for a fiction writer since writing fiction—as opposed to the work of a musician or actress, or even some of our more obliging visual artists—happens in seclusion, which complicates the line between performer and audience, as the writer in the act of creating fiction is essentially inhabiting both of those roles. Maybe that is more of an observation inspired by your work than a question, but it would be great to hear your thoughts.
RM The frustrating thing about this, for a fiction writer, is that we can’t edit and adjust based on audience reaction. I’ve been to plays where the playwright was literally sitting underneath the seats with her laptop, editing the script based on the evening’s performance. But the upside of it, for me, is that I’m not tempted to back down or edit as a result of what people respond to. It’s maybe a purer form of storytelling that way. I’m always doing this thing where I’ll post something on Facebook, and if it doesn’t get any likes in twenty minutes I’ll take it down because I’ll figure it was stupid. Or if I’m being misunderstood, I’ll go back and edit the status. Obviously, I’m a neurotic mess.
JTP I know what you mean, I’ve done it myself. For some reason that line from the end of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” just popped into my head: “Many people must have it.”
RM I’m really glad that this can’t happen for fiction. I can’t change my book because someone in Detroit didn’t like a certain character.
So audience is a little less tangible for us than for other artists. I’ve never seen someone reading my book in public. If that ever does happen, I’ll either die of embarrassment or get arrested for trying to kiss the person.