Rebecca Makkai Wishes More Novelists Would Write About People’s Jobs

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Rebecca Makkai Wishes More Novelists Would Write About People’s Jobs”:

What books are on your night stand?

Sadly, my night stand is where books go to die. When I’ve read 20 percent of a book and mean to finish it but get derailed, I keep it there as, I guess, a reminder of failure and mortality. There’s a story collection that’s been there 10 full years.

What’s the last great book you read?

I finally read “The Door,” by Magda Szabo, and it was stunning. It was the first book of a project I’m undertaking: I’m reading my way around the world with 84 books in translation, as a memorial to my late father — a poet and literary translator who died in 2020 at the age of 84. He was Hungarian, and so I started in Hungary and will end there too.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

One of the best things about this books-in-translation project is that I’m filling gaps I didn’t even know I had. I just finished the sixth book in my worldwide trek, “The Murderess,” a fabulous and disturbing novella by the Greek author Alexandros Papadiamantis from the early 1900s. He’s foundational to modern Greek literature, and I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of him before.

Describe your ideal reading experience.

I’d be tempted to say a tropical beach chair, but the truth is I have a hard time concentrating when I’m relaxing somewhere beautiful. I increasingly listen to audiobooks, at about 1.7x speed or higher. Walking along the Lake Michigan shore with a coffee in my hand and someone talking manically in my ears is just about perfect.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

It’s not that unknown, but everyone’s out here loving Jennifer Egan and somehow not reading “The Keep,” her best and weirdest novel. She gets away with things no one has any right to get away with; that’s my favorite kind of book.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Tom Stoppard is in my pantheon. I just saw “Leopoldstadt” on Broadway, and was equally moved and impressed. (Moved to the point of sobbing, impressed to the point of continued hero worship.) His “Arcadia” is my favorite play, and had a seismic impact on my writing.

I love poets whose work is at least a little bit narrative and often head-on political — Jericho Brown, Martín Espada, Patricia Smith, Natalie Diaz.

I believe Julie Otsuka is the most original fiction writer working right now in English.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I only avoid books that I fear might be too similar to my own. And then they never turn out to be anything like what I’m writing, after all. I do tend to read a lot for research, and right now that means nonfiction about the rise of the Nazis. I’m not sure what it’s doing to my mental health to step onto the elliptical and put in my AirPods for 35 minutes on Joseph Goebbels.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Certainly not the Goebbels bio.

“I Have Some Questions for You” is a mystery set at a boarding school. Are there crime novels and/or campus novels you especially admire?

I adore a good boarding school novel. I love “Skippy Dies,” by Paul Murray, in part because it shows both faculty life and student life. “The Virgins,” by Pamela Erens, is a brilliant and under-read fever dream of a novel. I was sad to reread “A Separate Peace” and discover that it didn’t measure up to what I remembered. I’m on a mission to remind the world that while Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” is genius, it’s about college, not boarding school. If you tell me it’s your favorite boarding school novel, I’ll make you eat the entire book.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

One time I sat next to Gabrielle Union on an airplane, and she was reading a book I’d recently finished. I said, “That’s so good,” and she said, “Uh-huh.” I figure we’re best friends now.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I wish I could hear more about the details and peculiarities of characters’ jobs. Not a generically boring office job, but something terribly specific that we don’t normally get to hear about. I want to enjoy a novel and at the same time learn everything about eel fishing or asbestos removal or typewriter repair. And once in a while I want to read about people who like their work, people whose work isn’t a grind holding them back from self-actualization.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The joy and tragedy of the passage of time. Which is almost always what I’m trying to write about.

Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?

I’ll devour anything by Tana French. It’s best on audio, so you can hear the nuances of various Irish accents. If I tried reading it to myself, every character would just sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

Who’s your favorite fictional detective? And the best villain?

Detective: Turtle Wexler from my favorite childhood book, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game,” is an absolutely perfect character — in her brilliance, her spite, her willingness to keep secrets in the end. Villain: Tom Ripley. I’m most interested in villains when we’re in their heads.

How do you organize your books?

My husband and I will only shelve a book once one of us has read it; until then it lives in stacks by the bed. Nonfiction is shelved in the bedroom. Fiction by living writers goes alphabetically by author in the living room, and fiction by dead writers goes in my office, more chronologically. When someone prolific passes away, it clears up a whole section of living room shelf. It’s a weird little funeral, marching an armload of books down the hall.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I love histories on specific, narrow subjects: “Salt,” by Mark Kurlansky, “Letter Perfect” (about typefaces and the letters of the alphabet), by David Sacks, “E=Mc2,” by David Bodanis. The only problem is that while I remember most novels in great detail, I retain little of what I read in nonfiction.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

When I was in college I witnessed a tragic death, and my father sent me Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” — a book about a Franciscan friar in Peru who sees a rope bridge collapse, killing five people, and then tries to learn about their lives. Wilder was so great at making sense of life and death, and that book healed me. It’s a shame that we only tend to remember Wilder for the most sentimental parts of his most sentimental play.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

Mostly, they’ve just gotten broader. I’d be quite embarrassed to tell you who my favorite author was when I was 21, though, as I find his work wildly sexist now. I encountered this person a few years ago in the greenroom at a literary festival, and managed not to say “I used to love your work.” Instead I asked him to pass me the salad tongs.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Vladimir Nabokov, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lois Lowry. We’ll be drinking Negronis.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Standing in an airport bookstore recently, I read the last page, and only the last page, of a, uh, highly anticipated new memoir. That was plenty.

What do you plan to read next?

The next three books in my trip around the world: “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” by Sabahattin Ali (Turkey); “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City,” by Khaled Khalifa (Syria); and “The Stone of Laughter,” by Hoda Barakat (Lebanon). Those last two, I asked the author Rabih Alameddine to pick for me, since I trust his deep knowledge of Arabic literature and his taste. I’m having a blast throwing myself to the fates.

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