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'Great Believers' author talks early AIDS crisis at Howard Brown event
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2019-01-21

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AIDS affected many, including a budding young author home sick from school who was watching a Donahue episode featuring Larry Kramer.

"I was 7 years old at the time the book starts," Rebecca Makkai said of her novel The Great Believers, which follows two Chicagoans ( one gay, one straight ) through the AIDS crisis and its aftermath. Last Wednesday, Makkai discussed the book in front of a packed room at Howard Brown Health Center's Rogers Park location, in conversation with CEO David Ernesto Munar. "The AIDS crisis was a backdrop of my childhood and as I talk to the people exactly my age, they feel the same way."

For Makkai, a straight and married mother of two, the issue of appropriation—being "a ventriloquist" for gay men—was a prevalent concern. To ensure an accurate and sensitive portrayal, she began research but quickly discovered that local accounts of the AIDS crisis were few and far between.

"The main thing that [the lack of information] did was get me out from behind my desk earlier than usual," Makkai said. She turned to this publication: "I read every back issue of the Windy City Times from '85 to '92, and fell in love with certain columnists, not wanting to know what happened to them, though sometimes I eventually found out."

Makkai also struck gold in the used book section of the Gerber/Hart library. "Even pornographic books from the 1980s were very, very helpful!" she said, laughing. Her best find, however, cost only 15 cents. "I found a 1987 guide to living with HIV from Johns Hopkins University," Makkai said. This provided the exact type of information her characters would have had, and thus became Makkai's "only reference" for the disease itself. "If it's not in the book, it doesn't exist [for my characters]."

She also conducted personal interviews with a wide range of survivors. "I interviewed one person, asked who the next three people [I should interview] were and so on, and asked that person to vouch for me," Makkai said. "I needed emotional research, textual research: getting in the mind of someone with survivor's guilt [and] someone who was handed a death sentence 30 years ago and they're still here."

Along with newspapers and used books, these interviews were crucial in capturing The Great Believers' environment and time period. "The job of a writer is always imaginative empathy," Makkai said. "Can I leap into the person's life and know what their emotion and reaction could be?

"With this book, I could not just have empathized my way there. It [was] so important to have these conversations."

Makkai's informed empathy paid off: The Great Believers received a positive review in The New York Times and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Last July, Makkai appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers to discuss the novel. In December, actress Amy Poehler's production company optioned The Great Believers for a limited television series with two stipulations: the story stays in Chicago, and Makkai has creative input.

Besides the glamorous accolades, the book is resonating on a personal level. "I want to say thank you," said former Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim during the event's question-and-answer session. "A lot of people try to get this right, and I think you did."

A particularly rewarding moment for Makkai occurred on multiple occasions at book signings. "The times an older gay man asked me to inscribe the book to a younger gay friend," she said, "[were] amazing to me."

The Great Believers is available online and whenever books are sold.


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