Q&A: Rebecca Makkai on her new novel ‘I Have Some Questions for You’

“I would love for people to think about the systems that they’re part of without realizing it.”

Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai Photo © 2019 Brett Simison

Rebecca Makkai always knew she was going to write a boarding school novel. 

Now, she has. The author’s newest book, “I Have Some Questions for You,” which published Tuesday, is largely set on the campus of a fictional New Hampshire boarding school. 

Part-crime, part-campus novel, the story follows Bodie Kane, a film professor and podcaster, as she returns to the school where she was once a student and where her former roommate, Thalia, was murdered during their 1995 senior year. When she arrives on the campus decades after the crime to teach a course on podcasting, Kane finds herself drawn back into re-examining the case and questioning whether the school’s Black athletic trainer, Omar Evans, convicted and in prison for Thalia’s murder, was really responsible. 


As she delves into her own memories, scrutinizing the events surrounding her classmate’s death, she also begins questioning and reflecting on her own experiences on the campus and the image she had of herself as a student.

In the new book, Makkai, whose 2018 novel “The Great Believers” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, focuses her lens on a range of subjects, including the obsession with true crime, the fixation within that genre on white female victims, the spectrum of violence and harassment against women, and systemic racism, particularly within the criminal justice system. 

Below, Makkai shares what she hopes readers will think about after picking up the novel, what was challenging about working on the book, and why she was drawn to writing a boarding school novel.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Where did the seed for this story come from? How did you start thinking about it?

Rebecca Makkai: I always love that question, and it’s always the one I want authors to answer. And then my problem is always that there are so many seeds. It’s not one thing and I suddenly went, ‘Wait, I have an idea for a novel.’ 

But I will say that I was always going to write a boarding school novel. I live on the campus of the boarding school where my husband teaches, and it’s just a fascinating kind of community. And I always joke that I wasn’t going to write it till I was on my deathbed, so that nobody would think it was about them. I ended up making it so different from this school that hopefully nobody would possibly think it was. 


But I always have ideas in the back of my head, several competing novel ideas at any time. And things start to stick to those ideas. So just the idea of people needing to reconvene for a trial for something that happened a long time ago — that’s something that started to capture my imagination and started to stick to this idea of a boarding school novel. And once you get enough things all stuck together, it starts to snowball and that becomes the next novel you’re going to write. 

Why were you drawn to writing a boarding school novel? Can you speak more to that?

Like I said, I think it’s a really fascinating kind of community. I’m also really always frustrated with the ways that boarding schools are misrepresented in novels and movies and TV. There’s partly the romanticization of it, like it’s always October, the leaves are always changing, everyone’s wearing beautiful sweaters. And that’s not real. 

[Editor’s note: The Illinois boarding school that Makkai lives on the campus of and where her husband teaches is also the school she attended in the early 1990s.]

It’s also the way people get things wrong. People are imagining what they think boarding schools were like in the 1950s instead of what’s going on now. A good boarding school, just like a small liberal arts college, is doing a tremendous job with scholarships and getting kids ready for really rigorous colleges and kids who might not otherwise have had that experience at their local high school, depending on where they’re from, either internationally or nationally. 


And of course the thing about any school narrative is it’s really, really rare to read anything from the teacher point of view or the adult point of view. It’s always centered on the students, and you’re missing a whole, huge side of things if you do that. So I wanted to be able to write here kind of from both perspectives.

What made you decide to set the story in New Hampshire? 

That is a very common place for boarding schools to be. I live in Chicago; there are very few boarding schools in the Midwest. The one where I live is one of the only ones actually. So setting it in the Midwest would have been like I was writing about the school, which I absolutely wasn’t. 

So it was just a logical choice. 

How did your personal experiences related to boarding schools or going to graduate school in New England shape — or not — your approach to telling the story?

I do know New England really well. So in terms of the why it was set in New Hampshire, it’s kind of an obvious place, right? But I was able then to write with a lot of authority because I live in New England in the summers …

I don’t write autobiographically when I’m writing fiction.  So it’s a little hard to sort out, like, I’m a human, I’m on this planet. So of course everything comes from my experience. But I was trying very hard not to write about my own high school or my own high school experience. The only way that someone could find themselves in this book is if I bent so far over backwards that I accidentally came 360 degrees around to someone’s actual experience without knowing it. 


I was interested in the experience that we all have just of looking back with adult vision at our own adolescence. And my experience looking back is going to be really different than my character’s experience, but it’s still something I can tap into.

The novel deals a lot with tackling the tropes of true crime — can you talk about what you wanted to do in approaching that genre or what you wanted to draw readers’ attention to?

I Have Some Questions for You

I certainly don’t go in with an agenda; I go in with questions. So I can’t say I went in trying to draw readers’ attention to a certain thing because that feels a little like going in with a hypothesis or something. It simply was just what I wanted to write about. 

I am someone who has always been drawn to unsolved mysteries, historical crimes, certain cases in the news that capture my imagination. And obviously I’m not alone in that. 

There’s been a lot of renewed interest right now just because there’s been a change in medium, where podcasting has opened up a lot of those stories. But of course, this is something that humans have been obsessed with forever. You look at the way that newspapers covered murder trials in the 1920s, the lurid details. There’s nothing new, but there is sort of a proliferation of conversations around that. 

Sometimes, as I depict a little bit in the book, that’s a kind of creepy fascination. I have a character who is mostly on YouTube, but he really feels a personal ownership of this case where he actually does not know any of the people involved. 


But in other cases, there are chances for internet sleuthing and podcasting to draw attention to cases that really do need to be examined. Whether that’s because they’re about marginalized people who won’t be covered in the news or because the technology and forensics have changed and we can look at them now with a different lens, if we can just invest the resources into them. There has also been some tremendous innocence project work that’s happened online and in podcasts. 

So I am absolutely not going in thinking, ‘I want to show the readers x, y, and z.’ It’s just that this is what I’m obsessed with, so I want to write about it. 

One of the things that jumped out at me was that woven throughout the story, you capture the spectrum that exists of the violence and harassment girls and young women experience — and how mindsets about the permissibility of those things change as different characters remember the traumas they experienced with a new clarity about what happened to them. Can you talk about what was on your mind as you were writing about that spectrum, and what you were thinking as you had these characters reliving and reflecting on those moments?

There are in the book these litanies every once in a while that are about violence against women, and that’s different than the personal revelations, so maybe I’ll just talk about that first.  Basically, I was at an impasse in the writing where I wanted there to be some case in the news that would really affect Bodie, my main character, and knock her off balance in the way that news cases sometimes do. I think about how affected I was, and people in my life were, by the Christine Blasey Ford testimony for instance. It just colors all your experiences when that’s happening. 

I wanted there to be something like that, but there was no one real-life case that I wanted to spend all that time on and make somehow a centerpiece of the book. And I also didn’t want to invent some scandal in the news and have that pull people in this totally different direction, other than the case in my book. 


So the solution to all of that was to just decide that it was all these cases at once. It was all these different things. So the narrative contradicts itself when she’s watching the news and says ‘It’s the one with the senator,’ ‘No, it was the one with the high school athlete,’ ‘No, it was the one with the uncle,’ etcetera. And then as we go through, there are times when different characters are even talking about the cases, but they’re clearly all talking about different cases. 

That was my solution to this problem. But then the reason that worked for me and the reason that stuck is that I liked tapping into this sense of overwhelm and this idea that you just start thinking about all of these different cases, and it creates a very accurate feeling that this problem is everywhere. And you become aware of how unsafe you are. 

And of course that can be exaggerated because of the media, but it’s something that is true to life. That we start to feel this sense —  it can be with violence against women, but also of course with police brutality or with mass shootings — all of these cases just pile up in your head and some of them capture your imagination. Maybe because you relate to someone involved and other times it’s just the accumulation of them that gets to you. 

How did you balance both honing in on that broader look at the violence and harassment while also, at the same time, staying very grounded in the awareness that these cases can become “public property” and in the individual cost or impact of the crimes? 

I made the decision early on that I was going for genuine realism. And that’s everything from, ‘OK, I’m not going to have the leaves falling from the trees constantly at this boarding school,’ to ‘Let’s look honestly at what this means when a case captures the public imagination.’ What does that mean for the family? What does that mean for people who were peripherally involved as witnesses? And the flip side of so much of this true crime storytelling is that we love a true crime story where the ending is, ‘And they caught the right guy and he’s in prison, hurray, hurray.’ And that is just not always the case. I mean, obviously with solved cases we have a major problem in this country, and elsewhere, with wrongful incarceration. And I wanted to look at that side of things, too. 


It’s not just, ‘Oh here’s the one solution, it’s crystal clear.’ It’s also, ‘OK, so someone is put in prison — what if it’s the wrong guy?’ And also, what happens to someone in prison? And what happens to that person’s family? And how hard would it be to get a conviction overturned? And how are confessions obtained? All of those things. 

So I’m not participating in a discussion of crime. It’s not like — I’m not saying, ‘I’m going to wash my hands of all of this, this is too skeezy for me.’ I’m participating. 

Although, to be clear, what I’m writing is not true crime. It is fundamentally fictional crime. So I’m not doing that. But I basically wanted to do that with a lens of realism that would bring about a lot of questions and not give easy, satisfactory answers. 

Was there a most challenging part of putting together this story? 

This is, among other things, a story about how certain people’s narratives get prioritized and certain people’s narratives get sidelined, marginalized, not listened to. And in particular, we have the character Omar who is, we assume by the end of the book, wrongfully in prison. He’s a Black man, which you know, the realism of that is of course that wrongful incarceration disproportionately affects Black men

I did not set out to write the story of what it’s like to be incarcerated, and I would not be, in fact, the right person to write that story. So I was going to write the story of people who slowly realized that the main narrative you need to hear has not been heard. So the fundamental impossibility at the heart of this book was, how do I tell that story of people slowly coming out of their ignorance and slowly realizing what they’ve missed without the narrative itself replicating that silencing and that marginalization? 


Omar is off in prison; it’s not his story. But by then specifically not telling his story, is the book doing the exact thing that it is criticizing? In some ways — there’s a cosmic impossibility at the heart of every novel that you have to get past. And in some cases it’s just you partly have to make your peace with it. But the other thing is, I think, you have to write about it, not around it. You can’t avoid it. You actually have to address it. So I think the novel does that — I hope the novel does that, addressing whose story gets centered, whose story gets marginalized. 

Now that the novel’s done, is there something that you hope readers take away or think about as they’re reading? 

I was just talking about wrongful incarceration, and I do think that’s something that of course I would love for people to look into more after reading this, if it’s not something they already know a lot about. 

So you could look at this on two levels. I could say on the big issues level, yeah, gosh, I would love it if people looked into wrongful incarceration or what happens in states like New Hampshire where interrogations do not need to be recorded by law so you have no idea what happened in that interrogation room. All you have is the end product. And that’s bizarre and unconscionable, right? So there’s that. 

And then there’s the personal level. I think I would love for people to think about the systems that they’re part of without realizing it. Not a guilt trip, but we do need to be aware of the ways we’re part of, say, the American carceral system without necessarily thinking about that on a daily basis. 


For Bodie, she’s part of the institutions of whiteness without having given that too much thought. She’s also part of this institution of this boarding school and all of its privileges, even though she saw herself as fundamentally such an outsider. She’s still someone who was much more of an insider than she realized. 

And if readers come away, you know, probably more subconsciously — I don’t want to sit there and womp people on the head with it — but if people come away subconsciously with the feeling of maybe examining the ways that they’re maybe more of an insider than they thought. We all love to see ourselves as outsiders and in some ways, sure, probably everyone is on some level. But most of us are insiders to many things, even if it’s just being a native speaker of the language of the country [where] you live or being able-bodied or whatever those privileges are. Just to come away maybe thinking about those [privileges]. 

And maybe, also, just to cast an eye back on your own adolescence, your own high school experience and think about, on the one hand, what you put up with that you probably shouldn’t have. And then on the other, what you maybe took part in that you shouldn’t have.  

Brookline Booksmith is hosting a talk and book signing with Makkai about “I Have Some Questions for You” on Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

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