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BOOKS Rebecca Makkai on 'The Great Believers,'Chicago, Paris and AIDS
by Owen Keehnen
2018-06-20

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More than half of The Great Believers takes place in Chicago during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

As someone without first hand experience of the disease or the place, author Rebecca Makkai threw herself into research, conducting dozens of extended interviews and reading enormous amounts of reportage from the era. The effort paid off. The resulting novel does an amazing job of capturing that crucial period in Chicago LGBT history.

In the book, Makkai juxtaposes a compelling and emotional mid-1980s AIDS drama with alternating chapters set in contemporary Paris. The result is an expansive view, not only of the epidemic, but of the recurrent themes of devotion, loss, honoring the past, and carrying on.

This interviewer was fortunate enough to be one of the many folks Makkai interviewed in her research, and I was also an early reader of the book, primarily offering advice and some commentary on the era.

With The Great Believers, Makkai has crafted a multi-layered, smart, and gripping read that puts Chicago's gay community during those grim years front and center in the telling.

Windy City Times: What was the seed of The Great Believers? What was your spark of inspiration?

Rebecca Makkai: I originally planned to write a book about a woman who'd been an artist's model in 1920s Paris, and the art collector who was trying to figure out if the sketches she had of herself were authentic. She couldn't have lived much past the '80s, and so I decided to set it then, figuring that if I was writing about the art world in the '80s, AIDS would need to be at least a small presence in the book.

Things changed so much in the early stages of drafts, though. Soon my art collector became the development director for a museum at Northwestern University, and his storyline took over the book. That artist's model is still around, but she's only about 5 percent of the final story. Part of that shift in gravity had to do with my following the story where it wanted to go, and part of it had to do with my research. The more I read about AIDS in Chicago, the more I wanted to write about it. Realizing that Chicago's AIDS story is vastly underrepresented ( in contrast to New York's or San Francisco's, for instance ) made it all feel even more urgent.

WCT: What prompted you to alternate between Chicago in the 1980s and Paris in 2015?

RM: I'd written around 150 pages just about my main protagonist, Yale, when I realized the book felt a little claustrophobic, and that I was limited to what he knew in the moment. His friend Fiona had been a fairly minor character up to that point, but one I liked a lot, and so I went back in and wove in her present-day perspective. That opened up so much for me. It felt right to make this novel broader, to show the long fallout of this disease and of the horrible ( and occasionally wonderful ) ways we handled it. It let me show not just the splash of the rock, but the ripples in the pond.

WCT: Were you hesitant to write about AIDS and gay men from an outside perspective?

RM: Very much. It helped me to get Fiona's perspective in there, helped me feel like I wasn't only trying to write from this point of view that I had no real right to. But still, I asked myself constantly if this was okay, if this was going to work, and ultimately it came down to two things for me. First, I wanted to know that I could do it well. It's not up to me to say whether I did, but I'll say I was enormously helped by my research, and the generosity of people ( like you! ) who sat down to talk to me about those years. I talked to doctors, nurses, activists, lawyers, therapists, journalists, historians and survivors—and those conversations made my work a lot stronger.

I also holed up in the Harold Washington Library and read every word of every issue of Windy City Times from 1985 to 1992. Second, I needed to know that writing this book wouldn't supplant any personal accounts, but could amplify them. I'm getting a lot of opportunities now, as I promote this book, to talk about direct, personal accounts, like M.K. Czerwiec's Taking Turns, a graphic memoir about her time as a nurse on Unit 371 at Masonic, and historical/journalistic writing, like yours, and art from the time, like Doug Ischar's Marginal Waters photographic series about the Belmont Rocks. Plus, publishing is not a zero-sum game. If my book is successful, it will make publishers much more likely, not less, to publish the next thing about HIV/AIDS.

WCT: You do a great job of capturing the peak AIDS years in Chicago and putting the reader right in the middle of it all, while also making the disease part of something larger. I think that expanded view would be very tough for someone who lived through the epidemic.

RM: I don't know if it's true that someone who'd lived through it couldn't attain enough detachment to see the broader picture, but it probably did help me that I was seeing the forest first, and then the trees. Part of what helped me contextualize those peak AIDS years was the broad historical sweep of the novel. We're there in the 80s, but we're also looking back on it from 2015—and also Nora, the artist's model who's at the end of her life in the '80s, makes comparisons between Yale's generation and the Lost Generation of Paris artists, the generation decimated by both war and influenza.

WCT: The art theme was very compelling for me, that notion of what art survives vs. the lost potential for art.

RM: While it's of course not just art that's lost when someone dies young, I find art to be a good stand-in for all the beauty and good and mess and life that someone might have created if they'd lived longer. And when we're dealing with the gay population of a major city, we're often dealing with the literal art world ( and the theater world, and the writing world, and dance, etc., etc. ) There was amazing visual art and theater and literature that came out of, and in response to, the AIDS epidemic—one of my favorite visual pieces is Felix Gonzalez-Torres's "Untitled ( Portrait of Ross in LA )" at the Art Institute, a piece in which a mound of candy starts at 175 pounds and is gradually depleted to nothing as visitors take candies away—and I think a lot of that art is still emerging. But so much of it was lost. An unimaginable amount.

WCT: In writing the book, how important was educating the reader about AIDS history and Chicago LGBT history?

RM: I was learning so much as I researched and wrote, and I wanted, at times to be simultaneously writing a novel and a huge book of nonfiction. I'm not particularly equipped to write nonfiction, and so I hope someone else writes the 500-page history of AIDS in Chicago, but I did try to get as much into the book as I could. On the one hand, this book is for the people who lived through it all, who might take something from seeing their own lives represented on the page, but at the same time it's for the people who knew nothing about this time. Either because they weren't born yet, or because they didn't understand it when it was happening.

One of the great, strange joys of publishing a novel is hearing about the people who stumbled unwittingly into your books in a book club—and I'd love to imagine some North Shore lady who voted for Reagan back in the day to get swept up in the book and realize, not only what was really going on back then, but the alarming parallels to our modern health care situation, to the ways our government and our insurance companies still treat marginalized people. I'd love for her to stare into her book club wine and have a really good think.

WCT: I like that image. I was so drawn to the characters in this book. What was your method for creating them? Did you see them first, hear their voices, give them life with a defining action? Are some based on real people?

RM: No, aside from Harold Washington, who makes a very brief cameo, no one in the book is modeled on a real person. There are certainly some types, though; Asher Glass, my lawyer/activist character, was inspired by people like Peter Staley and Chicago's Paul Adams and Danny Sotomayor—but since those aren't/weren't people I know personally, I was able to just gather a general vibe on them from various stories I heard and read, and infuse Asher with some of their energy and tactics.

I'm not someone who thinks a lot about character before I write; I need to sort of "meet" them in action on the page. And then certain characters will interest me more than others. Fiona was like that. I don't want to make it sound like some kind of mystical process, although I suppose writing is a lot like dreaming. But I was writing the book's first scene, a memorial party, and this drunk young woman just sort of came up and enveloped Yale, and I loved her. She came to me fully formed, even if I didn't know yet how important she'd be.

WCT: As someone who read an earlier draft of the novel and then the finished book, I was really impressed with how it went from being good to being great. How did you know it was "done?"

RM: Well I don't necessarily know that—even now. Really, part of that finishing process is letting it out of your hands and letting other people see it. It's partly that they have suggestions, that they can hold up a mirror to what you've done—and it's partly just that letting it go helps you see it more clearly. It's kind of like how you'll find the typo the instant after you hit "send" on a really important email. Letting it go out into the world and then bringing it back in for a few more rounds of revision, you have, finally, a pretty good sense of what it looks like, and what might be off balance.

WCT: Tell me about the title.

RM: It's taken from my novel's epigraph, which comes, in turn, from a posthumous F. Scott Fitzgerald essay called "My Generation." He was writing about the Lost Generation, and when I first came across that quote, I was taken aback because I'd always thought of those displaced artists as being so jaded, so worldly. It was wild to me to reimagine them as chasing something quixotic, holding onto hope in the midst of chaos. I found the title when I was very, very early in the writing, and afterwards, I found myself writing toward that title. It could have been an enormously bleak book, but I had put this defiantly optimistic title on it, and so I had to keep asking myself what it meant in relation to my story—what my characters believed in, against all odds.


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