by Andrew DeCanniere
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with local author Rebecca Makkai regarding her wonderful new short story collection, Music for Wartime (Viking, 2015). Read on to see what she had to say about how the collection of short stories came about, some of the short stories that make up this eminently readable collection, her book recommendations and much more.
UR Chicago Magazine: To begin at the beginning as they say, as far as the form itself goes, it’s fair to say that it’s a little bit of a departure from The Hundred-Year House or the book that preceded it [The Borrower], so I was wondering what the inspiration for Music for Wartime was and how it came about.
Rebecca Makkai: I’ve been working on these stories for 13 years, so it’s not like I suddenly switched from novels to short stories, and it really isn’t as if I wrote them all at once with one inspiration. So, it’s really hard to talk about inspiration as a whole, because we’re talking about 17 different stories and at least 17 different inspirations over the course of my writing career. I’d say that I was really excited when I realized the ways that the collection could come together. Originally, I was looking at a pile of unrelated stories and then I settled on the theme of music and war. It’s really a question of how we create art or beauty or order in a chaotic world. A lot of the stories already fit that theme, but I was able to fill in the gaps with a few additional stories, which I felt addressed that issue from a different angle that hadn’t already been represented.
UR: Which kind of addresses another one of the questions I had. I was wondering whether the book — or, more specifically, the overall themes of music and war — evolved organically or whether it came out of this preconceived notion that this is what it would be about.
RM: The oldest story that went into the collection is one that I wrote in 2002. It wasn’t until about 2012 or so that I started to see what the collection would be, and then I came up with the title for the collection, along with that central question or theme of how we make order out of chaos. Those were themes that existed already in quite a few of the stories, and it wasn’t a stretch then to write more stories fitting that theme, because that’s something that I think is a deep concern of most of my work. Cross was a story that I wrote because I felt like I really needed a story about an actual, working musician in a collection that was so much about music and the arts. Both the first and last stories, and the three family legends that are sprinkled throughout, are stories that I wrote specifically for the collection, in order to give it more of a shape and highlight some of those themes.
UR: And one of the things that I like about it is that it does cover a pretty wide range of topics. One of the stories that I liked — in part because it is so timely, living in the age of reality television — is one that takes a look at the manufactured ‘reality’ of so-called ‘reality television.’
RM: Yeah. That was The November Story. I wrote it not at all for this book, but then I felt like it does fit the themes. It’s a very heavy story that it follows, and then suddenly we’re in the world of reality TV, but I actually think it definitely addresses the question of people making art in strange, artificial circumstances. The reality show in question is one I’ve made up, in which artists in all different disciplines are pitted against each other. Then, there’s that question of people editing art or entertainment into being. There’s this woman whose job is to get the contestants to say interesting things in these talking head interviews and then to edit them down into a story arc, trying to make order out of chaos. So, it’s not only the artists who are trying to make work in the middle of really unfair circumstances. The main character, too — a producer of the show — is trying to turn what is very strained reality into a story, into a plot line, and at the same time, she’s trying to do that to her own personal life, which doesn’t work at all.
UR: Yeah. It has to be such a strange position to be in. If you look at a sitcom, you know it has been scripted. Maybe it has been taken from somebody’s real life, but no one takes it as reality. This person’s job is to take things out of context and make something totally other than what it is out of that.
RM: Right. She’s trying to make it look as though these two people are falling in love, which they aren’t — at least not at first. She’s trying to get them to say things that are going to sound like they’re getting together. The ultimate irony is that they do get together, but off-camera and in a way that she’s not quite sure if she caused. So, I think it’s definitely a question we’re asking ourselves a lot as we look at what we’ve taken as reality TV for a few years now.
UR: And by the end of the story, you’re really left to wonder how much of the producers’ interference, or intervention, led to their actual relationship. Is that what caused them to come together, or is it something else?
RM: Right. That’s it. If nothing else, you know that, basically, the narrator is sort of trying to produce her own life. Her thinking like a producer at home has definitely caused things to happen that otherwise wouldn’t. It’s bringing about the demise of this relationship.
UR: There are a couple of others — several others, actually, but I’ll keep it to a select few — that I found to be of interest. For instance, there’s the one about the composer who pops out of a piano.
RM: Right. That one is called Couple of Lovers on a Red Background. It’s probably the most surreal story in the collection — although there are quite a few that play with reality in some way besides playing with reality TV. It’s very much a story about 9/11. It’s about this woman living in New York City right after 9/11, and she sort of loses it. Part of the story — at least according to her — is that Johann Sebastian Bach is suddenly living in her apartment with her and she’s having an affair with him. Whether she’s completely lost it or not — at least for the time we’re reading it — we’re meant to take the story at face value, and see what story she’s telling. It’s definitely a very different story about both music and war, and it’s one that I wrote before I had the idea for the collection’s themes, but I think that it may be one of the stories that most directly addresses both of those issues in a very different, bizarre way.
UR: Another story that stood out to me is the one that has to do with a Romanian violinist, who after many years spent in prison, has finally been released.
RM: Yeah. So, The Worst You Ever Feel is the second story in the collection, but it’s really the first full-length one. The story that preceded it is maybe a couple hundred words, and I placed it in an early position in the collection intentionally, to really address, head-on, those questions of what it mans to be an artist in a time of war. We’re dealing with this violinist who has been in jail for years and years in Ceausescu’s Romania. This is the late 1980s. He’s gotten out of jail, and he has traveled to America and is giving his first concert in this private home. Our narrator is this young boy who is watching him, but the violinist has lost a finger in all of this. It was sort of a punishment by some of Ceausescu’s goons, and he’ll never fully have his skill back, but people are there to listen to him. He has practiced in his prison cell by making makeshift violins out of pieces of wood and strings from his uniform and things like that, whenever he could. It was very much inspired by a story my father used to tell me. I can’t think of his name right now, but it was a real story of a pianist in Hungary who was jailed for many years. They would smash his fingers, and he would practice playing the piano on the wall of his prison cell. When he was released, he was able to get back into performance fairly quickly, and I always thought that was just an amazing story. I think that’s maybe the most literal manifestation within the collection of this question of music and war. In so many of the other stories, it’s not really music. In many cases, the war is not literal. It may be an internal battle or it’s reality TV, as we said, but, in this case, as well as in the case of Couple of Lovers on a Red Background, I think I am dealing with it very directly. As we said, Couple of Lovers is a very surreal story, and this is a literal story. It’s meant to be taken as the real world. I felt like it was important to lead with it early on to establish some of the thematic resonances of the rest of the collection.
UR: And you definitely see how being a violinist is this important part of his identity, even in this extreme situation, even through his time in prison. He makes these pretend violins over and over. Even when one is taken away, he makes another.
RM: That’s it. He’s a violinist. There’s no self without that art. It would be impossible for him to not do that. In one way or another, in the stories that really deal with artists and musicians, I’m showing art as being really core to who that person is — which I think is true-to-life. I think that people who are writers or dancers or musicians or painters or whatever they are, they’re just incapable of not thinking that way, of not being that way.
UR: And it’s a good thing that, in spite of all he went through, they weren’t able to take that part of his identity away.
RM: Right. It’s a a sad story in many ways. He’s a broken man and he has lost his partner and lost his life. There was a lot of tragedy surrounding not only his arrest, but the things that happened in World War II, prior to his arrest. However, I think it’s ultimately really a triumphant story, if we just look at that figure of the violinist. He’s been able to return to his music, even if it’s now sort of diminished.
UR: Then there’s another story, Exposition, in which you have this kind of one-sided, heavily redacted transcript. You get the feeling that something is being hidden, but you’re not exactly sure what.
RM: It’s an interrogation, and the only person we hear speak is someone who is being interrogated. He has fulfilled the orders given to him, which were to execute this pianist who was giving a concert, but they feel he didn’t do it well enough. They think he sat there and listened to the music for too long. He didn’t take it upon himself to kill anyone else who’d heard the music. It’s a bit of a surreal story in many ways, maybe a little bit surreal in the vain of Kafka. All we get is this side of the conversation, so it’s not entirely clear what’s going on until a little further in. There are sections that are blacked out. In this case, it’s very strategic, places where whatever he said is something that the officials transcribing this interrogation wouldn’t want read in the future.
UR: Yeah. You definitely get the sense that something is being kept from us.
RM: Right. Particularly with the things that are blacked out, what’s implied is that there are things that would be sort of insulting to the government in some way, or some of it is key information, like the names of his fellow assassins. Sometimes it’s things about the music itself. The implication is that the government wants to hide what the music was, because they’re fearful of the effect it will have on people, basically.
UR: It seems like this sort of situation where they don’t want to implicate or incriminate themselves. Therefore, it’s important for them to maintain the narrative that this person is the guilty party.
UR: Last time we spoke, I asked you a bit about your influences, so I thought that this time I would take a bit of a different route. I don’t know what you’ve been reading lately, but I was wondering whether you have any recommendations.
RM: Sure. I just finished A Life in Men by Gina Frangello, who is another wonderful Chicago author. I just adored that. It’s one of the few books in recent years that I can remember that made me cry — like full-on cry. Of course, I was sitting in a restaurant when this happened, so it was totally embarrassing, but I really recommend that to anyone who wants a good, deep novel. I really also loved Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis this summer. It just came out in paperback. The story is about a girl growing up in 1970s New York City with a famous jazz musician father, and all of the hell he puts her through. I also really love to recommend audiobooks whenever I can, because I think that for a lot of people that’s one way they can fit in reading, and I really loved The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. She’s a great author. I need to read more of her. Not all audiobooks work for me, but I think that the audiobook — which is particularly well done — added a lot to my experience of the book.
Rebecca Makkai’s work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Ploughshares, and has been read on NPR’s Selected Shorts and This American Life. She is the author of two novels: The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, and an O, The Oprah Magazine selection; and The Hundred-Year House, which won the Chicago Writers Association’s Book of the Year Award and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Bookpage, PopSugar, Chicago Reader, and more. The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont.
For additional information, visit www.rebeccamakkai.com. You can also find Rebecca on Twitter @rebeccamakkai or www.twitter.com/rebeccamakkai and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RebeccaMakkai.
At press time, upcoming appearances in the Chicago area include:
August 11, 2015: Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville, 7:00 PM - 8:00 PM
August 12, 2015: Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Ave., Highland Park, 10:30 AM - 11:30 AM
August 13, 2015: Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago, 7:30 PM - 8:30 PM
September 10, 2015: Northbrook Public Library, 1201 Cedar Ln., Northbrook, 7:00 PM - 8:00 PM
October 10, 2015: Open Books, 651 W. Lake St., Chicago, 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
For additional information, including events that are scheduled to take place outside of the Chicagoland area, please visit the author’s Events page, online at www.rebeccamakkai.com/events.
This interview originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.