Sometimes an author creates such a vivid story that it stays with you long after you turn the last page. Rebecca Makkai achieves that with her latest novel The Great Believers. In this story she weaves together elements across nearly a century of time, from 1920s Paris to 1980s Chicago and back to Paris in 2015. We had an opportunity to chat with Rebecca about what inspired The Great Believers and how she approached writing such an ambitious novel.
Why did you choose the title The Great Believers for your novel?
It’s from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay called “My Generation.” I first encountered just the line “We were the great believers,” and was intrigued by the contrast between that and what Gertrude Stein had said to Hemingway (“You are all a lost generation.”) When I saw the full quote, which I use as an epigraph to the novel, I was even more struck by the question of what happens to the survivors of a decimated generation. My book is mostly about the AIDS generation in Chicago, and only a little about the Paris arts scene before and after WWI, but I like that the title helps tie them together.
When did you first start thinking about the parallels between the Lost Generation in the 1920s and the generation that suffered through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s?
Those parallels really started for me with character exploration. I knew that I wanted this old woman (Nora) at the end of her life looking back on her time in Paris, and I knew I wanted her in contact with an art guy (Yale) as she tried to donate sketches and paintings to his museum. It was really a matter of math, at first; she couldn’t have lived past the 1980s, so now I had an art guy in the 80s, and realized it was an opportunity to write more deeply about AIDS, something I’d written just a bit about before. In the early stages, as I searched for the connections between these two characters, I wrote a letter from Nora to Yale. It began with the words “You have to understand that everyone was dead.” I didn’t use that in the book—for one thing, it was a bit on-the-nose—but those parallels were the novel’s earliest backbone.
At one point in the novel, a character describes the AIDS crisis: “This is a war, it is. It’s like you’ve been in the trenches for seven years. And no one’s gonna understand that. No one’s gonna give you a Purple Heart.” To what extent do we, as a society, not understand the horrors of what AIDS victims, and their caregivers, went through?
I really do think of The Great Believers as a war novel. People were out there fighting in the streets and in the hospitals and in the courtrooms for their own lives, and for the lives of those they loved. There are plenty of people who have either been intimately involved with the AIDS fight or who have paid close attention to it, but we have a lot of people who are either too young to know about it all, or who were around but chose not to pay attention. If any of that last group picks up my book by mistake, I’ll be thrilled. We should be studying the AIDS crisis as closely as we study any American war, and for the same reasons—namely, to understand America as it was and is, and to prevent this from happening again.
Though we typically think of the AIDS crisis in New York or San Francisco, The Great Believersis set in Chicago. What made you decide to set your novel there?
I’ve lived my whole life in Chicago, and I just wanted to write about it. Besides, as an author, your instinct should often be to run screaming away from the First Thing People Would Expect—which, in this case, would certainly be San Franciso or New York. Having decided to set the book in Chicago, I was struck by how different Chicago’s story was from that of coastal cities. I was also alarmed by how little is out there in book or film form about the crisis in Chicago—or about any city, really, other than San Francisco and New York. It made the research I was conducting and the story I was telling feel that much more urgent to me.
Much of The Great Believers revolves around one of the protagonists, Yale Tishman, seeking to acquire a collection of art. Did you know much about the art world before writing this novel? What was your research process like?
I know a lot of visual artists, both from Chicago and from various artists’ residencies where I’ve stayed, and have always been interested in the buseness side of their lives. I knew next to nothing about museum acquisitions, though, and so I did send up a Facebook bat signal, asking for people to tag friends who might know anything about this world. I ended up with quite a few people to interview—ones who work for university museums, and ones specializing in art authentication. On the other side of things, I needed to research the Paris art world of the 1910s and 1920s—and that had to be done primarily through reading. I did way more research than I needed, in fact, as I initially thought the book would be much more about that time. I read hundreds of pages about Chaim Soutine, and he gets something like three sentences in the finished novel.
You’ve mentioned that the art portion of the novel came to you first. How did the novel eventually expand to include so many different elements, including cults, the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, and the roaring 20s? Was it difficult to weave the different parts of your story together?
Fiction should always be about more than one thing. When I’m talking to students who are stuck in their work, my advice is often to find other things they’re passionate about and introduce those into the mix. Tunnel vision never helped anyone’s novel. All those different elements were things I’d been wanting to write about. I’d tried writing a short story about a cult, and it didn’t quite work, but when I introduced Fiona’s 2015 storyline and needed something going on with her daughter, I brought in all the cult research. The terror attacks actually happened right as I was writing 2015 Paris, and I spent a long time debating whether I would put them in the book or move the 2015 sections to a different year; ultimately, I felt like this was in many ways a book about the chaotic intrusions of the world, and that the attacks fit thematically. I always try to let new things in as I write, if only the try them out—and as unwelcome as this addition was, it worked for me.
Like you mention in your novel, the battle against AIDS is still going on around the world. Can you tell us about your campaign The Great Believers Donate?
I’m eager to give back to the community that inspired The Great Believers, and know I can make the greatest impact with a local, grass roots organization. For every photo posted on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #TheGreatBelieversDonate, I’ll donate $1 to Vital Bridges, a Chicago food pantry for those living with HIV/AIDS. I have six independent bookstores matching my donations, so each photo helps a lot. We’re doing this through September 19th, and I’m hoping for a big push towards the end.
What have been some of your favorite books out this year?
There are so many that I’ll limit myself just to Chicago books. I adore Samuel Park’s The Caregiver, which he finished right before his terribly premature death last year. It’s a novel that faces mortality with tremendous courage and heart, and I hope it gets its due. I also love Kim Brooks’ Parenthood in the Age of Fear, which is part memoir and part sociological treatise; it’s a vital book, and will change your thinking about the way you parent and live. Frances de Pontes Peebles’ The Air You Breathe is a beautiful novel about friendship—and, like Park’s book, is set in Brazil. (It’s been a very Brazillian summer for me.) Finally, I haven’t read it yet, but if Abby Geni’s second novel, The Wildlands, is even half as good as her novel The Lightkeepers, we’re all in for an amazing read.
Rebecca Makkai is the author of The Borrower, The Hundred-Year House, which won the Novel of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, and Music for Wartime. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Harper's, and Tin House, among others. She lives outside Chicago with her husband and two daughters.