Interview with Rebecca Makkai, author of Music for Wartime

28 Aug 2015

Tell us a little bit about your new release, Music for Wartime.

It’s a collection of 17 short stories — ranging in topic from reality TV to World War II to circus elephants to string quartets — all centered around the question of what it means to make art in difficult circumstances, to try to create order out of chaos.

Who is your favorite fictional character from literature?

I have strange taste in this; I love deeply unreliable narrators. One of the least reliable of all time is Charles Kinbote, in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. He claims to be a deposed king, but he might in fact be the murderer of the poet whose story he’s attempting to tell.

You now host a talk show (congrats). Who is your first guest?

I think Jon Stewart would be a prudent choice. He’s fascinating and brilliant, and he could take over when I got too nervous.

What’s your favorite short story from your book?

My favorite is the newest, a story called “Good St. Anthony Come Around” — the only one from the collection not to appear in a journal or online. It’s about the 1980s art world and the AIDS epidemic. I loved the era so much that I’m pursuing the subject in my next novel.

What’s on your writing desk?

A lot of junk, mostly. It’s hard for me to write at home, since I have small kids. I usually work at the library or a coffee shop. But I do usually keep two stacks of books there related to whatever I’m writing about. One stack is research, and I use that quite a bit, especially if I’m writing anything historical. The other stack is inspiration, novels or stories that I want mine to benefit from. I never touch that stack. It just sits there, and maybe if I’m lucky something seeps from it into the desk.

If you had an extra hour each day, how would you spend it?

Writing. That’s not to say that I love writing so much that I just can’t stop; I mean that between teaching and kids and promoting books, I often have no time to do my actual, main job.

You wouldn’t be caught dead, where?

A Tea Party pig roast.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I remember my first grade teacher telling me, in very harsh terms, that I needed to learn to see things from other people’s points of view. I wonder how formative that was. I mean, she said it very sharply. And now I spend my life writing from other people’s perspectives.

What’s your favorite line from Music for Wartime?

Good god. There’s really no way to answer that without sounding like an egomaniac, is there? It isn’t at all my favorite, but I’ll just give you a juicy one, the opening of “The Miracle Years of Little Fork”: “In the fourth week of the drought, at the third and final performance of the Roundabout Traveling Circus, the elephant keeled over dead.” (See? Dead elephants! This book is uplifting!)

Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?

No. The Guardian just ran a review calling my characters “attractive amoralists,” and I like that. I think mottos and quotes and philosophy are morals, of sorts — which is to say, you go into a situation already believing you know the answer, the lessons. And I think there’s nothing worse for a writer.

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Author Rebecca Makkai Photo credit: Philippe Matsas

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the new book Music for Wartime.

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