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Rebecca Makkai on her novel 'I Have Some Questions For You'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thalia Keith dies many times in Rebecca Makkai's latest novel. A high school senior takes a plunge into the school pool in the spring of 1995, bashes her head, and drowns. She's strangled and dumped into the pool. The killer is the school's athletic trainer, who was convicted in her death, or her boyfriend, who was never charged, or a teacher or one of her classmates or maybe even the book's narrator, Bodie Kane, who is now a 40-something podcaster who returns to Granby, the New Hampshire boarding school where they were both students, and finds interest in Thalia Keith's death rekindled. The novel is called "I Have Some Questions For You," and Rebecca Makkai joins us from just outside Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

REBECCA MAKKAI: Thank you.

SIMON: Bodie Kane, your central narrator, returns to Granby to teach a two-week course in podcasting. And I'll add a parenthetical - I guess that's what's happened to education these days; they're teaching courses in podcasting. Why does she suggest that her students in 2018 look into the murder of her one-time roommate?

MAKKAI: Right. So Thalia Keith was her roommate for just one year. They weren't particularly friends. And the following year, their senior year, she was murdered. And the case is solved. The guy is in prison. It's a subject of great interest on the internet, but it's done. But there's something that's bothering her about it, just subconsciously. A few videos resurfaced, for instance, of the musical performance - "Camelot" - that happened that same night. It's now up on YouTube, everyone looking at this not-terribly-great "Camelot" performance from 1995 and reading everything into it when they can see this girl who they know will be dead in a couple of hours. And there's something just eating away at Bodie, at the narrator. And so on a long list of possible podcast topics relating to the history of this boarding school, she puts the murder of Thalia Keith on that list and hands it to her students, not really knowing why she did it. But one of them picks up on it and starts to dig.

SIMON: It should be noted - in your novel - that over the years, questions have been raised about the conviction of Omar Evans, the school's athletic trainer who was Black, right?

MAKKAI: Right, as happens when there's a case that captures the public attention. You know, we know that there are certain true crime stories that just capture the public imagination and others that don't. And so there's been continued interest and then a bit of a Free Omar movement - right? - people looking at this investigation and realizing that something seems off about how quickly they convicted this one person and how few other suspects were ever even questioned.

SIMON: Your previous novel, "The Great Believers," a National Book Award finalist, so widely acclaimed. What brought you into this kind of story for your next novel?

MAKKAI: Right, they're very different. You know, "The Great Believers" was about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago. It was also very research-heavy in that regard, but, you know, a completely different story in most ways. My books are always concerned with the passage of time, the way memory works. And that's certainly the case here where we have someone looking back from 2018 and then from 2022 onto 1995 and questioning how well she understood things at the time, questioning how her memory has changed, questioning other people's memories, and looking at things with a new lens not only because she's older, but because we're living in a different era.

SIMON: Well, let me - 'cause one of the ways in which you bring a reader through the different lenses of time - and I want to get you to read a section. Thalia is a new student, and you have a section in here that highlights some of the routine ugliness and worse that teenage girls endured at Granby - and not just Granby - and still endure today.

MAKKAI: OK.

(Reading) A Thalia-specific bingo card started making the rounds of the boys' dorm bathrooms, a sheet on which they could initial squares that said things like touched outside clothes or under clothes above waist - W-A-S-T-E - this spelling error gleefully reported to me by Goeff Richler - or asked out of [expletive]. The only initials he believed, Goeff said, were the five guys who claimed to have already asked her in September to homecoming. But I saw what was happening - boys running up to Thalia and poking her arm so they could sign the outside-clothes square. Thalia laughed so confidently that she managed to own the joke, laughed so beautifully and so well that it was clear to anyone watching that these boys were her friends whether or not they'd ever spoken to her. She laughed like someone who'd known them for years, an oh-Marco-that's-how-you've-always-been laugh when - did she even know that was Marco Washington running up to stroke her hair?

SIMON: I mean, I read that section that you just read to us, and I remember thinking, Thalia had only one murderer, but many harassers.

MAKKAI: Yeah. And that's something that Bodie is dealing with not only in thinking about what happened to Thalia, but thinking about what happened to herself.

SIMON: Yeah.

MAKKAI: You know, #MeToo is a big part of this book. There's a subplot involving Bodie's husband, who's #MeToo-ed while she's in the middle of all this. It's something that was on my mind while I was writing. I started really plowing into the book in 2019. And something that fascinated me early on with #MeToo was the way that we weren't just talking about the really big, overt traumas that, for some of us, we'd already talked about. For some of us, those were being talked about for the first time. But we were also looking back on these little things, you know, the thousand little cuts of the harassment, the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, just the casual harassment that goes on in high school hallways and that, I think, feels different now looking back on the '90s than it felt at the time.

SIMON: Yeah. At one point, Bodie, teaching the podcast course, instructs some of her students, well, your premise has the conclusion. You've got to be open to your premise not being borne out by the investigation.

MAKKAI: Right.

SIMON: Is that something we sometimes overlook in these true crime stories?

MAKKAI: Oh, absolutely. You know, the most satisfying kind of story to tell has an ending, right? It has a conclusion. We know who did it. And that's the way those television shows love to end. It's the way a podcast loves to end. And the underbelly of that is something like wrongful incarceration. You watch enough "Law & Order," and you start to think that most cases are solved and that most cases are solved correctly. And neither of those two things is necessarily true.

SIMON: Do novels have to have clean endings that way?

MAKKAI: Absolutely not (laughter). And this is a book where if you read it, by the end, you'll know what happened. But not everything is tied up in a neat bow. My job is not to give answers. My job is to ask questions. My job is to, in fact, take the questions that I already have and to complicate those even for myself. I should be confusing myself greatly as I write. I should be banging my head on the wall. I shouldn't be coming in already knowing what I want to say.

SIMON: Rebecca Makkai's new novel, "I Have Some Questions For You." Thank you so much for being with us.

MAKKAI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.