Shimming tale set in Chicago and Paris in the 1980s and 1920s about art, AIDS, loss, memory & so much more Rebecca Makkai on THE GREAT BELIEVERS

By Leslie Lindsay 

Rebecca Makkai talks about her thrumming new literary fiction that will enrapture you and transport you to 1985 Chicago at the height of the AIDS epidemic, then toss you back to Paris in the 1920s. Plus, memory, loss, character development, healthcare and more. Please join us. 

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Every now and then there is a book that makes my heart sing. I mean, really, really sing. And when THE GREAT BELIEVERS (June 19, 2018 Viking/Penguin RandomHouse) came along, I knew I needed to get my hands on it. And oh my gosh, I am so glad I did.  Seriously, this book is going to be big. I’ve been seeing it on all kinds of lists since this spring–best summer reading, best for book groups, and books set in Chicago, to name a few.

But it’s also a bit controversial. AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. LGBQTA+ issues. Art in France in the 1920s. But the writing! Oh, the writing! I can’t say enough about that.  It’s achingly gorgeous. You’ll read and be a bit blown away at the breadth of beauty and will step back and think, “I wish I wrote that.”

A bit on the plot: The year is 1985 and AIDS has claimed Yale Tishman’s friend Nico. As Yale’s career begins to flourish—many of his friends are dying. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister. Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. She finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways the AIDS catastrophe affected her life and her relationship with her only child. Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster. The two stories are compelling in their own right, but together, they are a masterpiece of fiction that feels entirely real.

Please join me in welcoming Rebecca Makkai to the author interview series. 

Leslie Lindsay: Rebecca, so honored! Can you tell us a bit about your research process behind learning about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago?

Rebecca Makkai: There wasn’t nearly as much about AIDS in Chicago in book or film form as you would think. Chicago was and is the third largest city in America, but most of what’s out there focuses on New York, San Francisco, and LA. This meant I needed to get out from behind my desk and do some leg work. I holed up in the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago and read every issue of the Windy City Times (Chicago’s biggest gay weekly) from 1985 to 1992. During the four years I worked on the novel, I interviewed people one-on-one, in coffee shops or in their homes: doctors, nurses, activists, lawyers, survivors, people with HIV, and people who had simply been young and gay in Chicago in the 80s. They were so incredibly generous with their time, and in the details and stories they shared. A few of them read the book for accuracy, too, after it was done; while the story is fiction, it was so important to me to get things right.

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Photo by Eugene Dorosh on Pexels.com

L.L.: One of your characters travels to Paris in search for her daughter who became entangled in a cult. What was your research process on that world? 

Rebecca Makkai: I wanted to write about cults after I accidentally went to a restaurant owned by a cult, which led to researching them afterward (I’d tell you which one, but cults are notoriously litigious, and make a lot of their money on lawsuits!). I based the Hosanna Collective, the group that Fiona’s daughter is tangled up in, on that cult, but also on others as it was important to me that it not be identifiable as any particular group. There are some incredibly scary cults out there, of course, but what was so frightening to me about the ones I modeled Hosanna on was how benign and rational it all seemed at first. From the outside, these people really just look like hippies.


“…sure to become a classic Chicago novel…a deft, harrowing novel that’s as beautiful as its cover.”

—Chicago Review of Books


L.L.: [You are] a cisgender heterosexual woman, why was [THE GREAT BELIEVERS] an important story for you to tell? How are you able to lift up the voices of the LGBTQA+ community?

Rebecca Makkai: I thought (and stressed) a lot about whether it was appropriate for me to tell a story about AIDS, and ultimately I felt I needed to satisfactorily answer two questions. 1) Could I do a good job, do this story justice? 2) Would this book detract from the narratives of those who lived through this crisis, or help readers discover those stories? The answer to No. 1 was that I could do it with relentless research, and I hope I’ve indeed done justice to the story. The answer to No. 2 was that my novel is much more likely, if it’s successful, to engender further discussion and writing about AIDS than to squelch it. The way commercial publishing works, a novel’s success means more presses will be willing to back a similar project in the future. I have opportunities now to point people toward both fictional and nonfictional accounts of the AIDS crisis.

This book is about a lot more than AIDS—it’s also about the Paris art world of the 1920s, cults, Chicago, memory, and loss. I do want people to come away knowing, thinking, or feeling more about AIDS than they have previously. I don’t want them to stop with my book—I want this to be the beginning of a lot more reading and conversation about what people remember from that time.

L.L.: Your characters in THE GREAT BELIEVERS feel like very real, dynamic people. What or who inspired your creation of these characters?

Rebecca Makkai: I’ve never based a character on a real person, but there are slivers of different real people (and huge chunks of myself) in every character I write. In THE GREAT BELIEVERS, some of those slivers came from the details that people shared with me about themselves or their friends back in the 80s, and some came from elsewhere. These characters ended up feeling real to me in a way that I’ve never quite experienced before in my previous novels or stories. In particular, my main character, Yale Tishman, is someone I keep thinking of like a friend I just lost. When I get good news about the novel, I wish I could tell him about it. That might make me sound unbalanced, but it was important to my process that I got to the point of thinking of him as a real person.


“…a striking, emotional journey through the 1980s AIDS crisis and its residual effects on the contemporary lives of survivors… Makkai creates a powerful, unforgettable meditation, not on death, but rather on the power and gift of life. This novel will undoubtedly touch the hearts and minds of readers.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred & Boxed)


L.L.: THE GREAT BELIEVERS weaves together two stories in two different cities. Both, in my opinion, are quite wonderful. Why did you choose Chicago and Paris as your settings? 

Rebecca Makkai: I grew up in Chicago and live here still, so it was much more interesting for me to explore what happened right here than to force myself to write about New York or San Francisco, which would have been more expected. Chicago is, in a way, the great love of my life. I’ll never get tired of it and I’ll never get tired of writing about it.

Oddly, the origin of my novel was something that’s now only a small part of it: the art scene in Paris between the two World Wars. I’ve always been fascinated by that time, and by the “École de Paris” set—the young artists who came to Paris from around the world—and although that shrunk to a subplot of the novel, something we hear stories about but don’t see firsthand, it’s still there and still important. The 2015 sections of THE GREAT BELIEVERS were actually a later addition to the story. I’d written about 150 pages thinking the book was just going to be about the 80s before I realized I needed to go back and forth in time. But when I thought about what would happen in those 2015 sections, it made sense for Paris to be the setting, echoing the scene we’ve heard about from the 1920s.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

L.L.: Why do you think it is important to contextualize the pervasive pain of the AIDS crisis in the modern day?

Rebecca Makkai: For one thing, that pain is still here. It’s tempting, in the US, to think of AIDS as something of the past, but globally there are 37 million people living with HIV.

Even if we are thinking of the late-80s / early-90s height of the US crisis, and the gay community it primarily impacted: people are still living in the shadow of those years, feeling those losses, and putting their lives back together. It was important to me to write not just about the 80s, but about the reach of the epidemic across decades.

L.L.:  Did you discover between the state of healthcare during the 1980s and now? Were there any parallels? 

Rebecca Makkai: Legislation of healthcare is still based on subconscious (or even conscious) prejudices about who deserves to live and who doesn’t. Just this December, Trump disbanded the HIV/AIDS Advisory Council, despite the fact that over a million Americans are still living with HIV. That’s not random; that’s coming straight from homophobia and racism, and the idea that those million lives are disposable. And when it’s not sexual orientation or race, it’s gender, poverty level, education. Certain individuals, some of whom are unfortunately in power, love to blame people for their own illnesses—you shouldn’t have drunk all that soda, you shouldn’t have had sex, you shouldn’t have lived in Flint. I think it’s a way they make themselves feel safer, like nothing bad will happen to them, and I think it’s also a way to sanction mass cruelty. In the 80s, the glee with which some politicians talked about gay men dying was barely contained; most politicians do a better job now of hiding their motivations, but they’re still there, festering. Nothing new under the sun.

L.L.: I love talking titles! Can you give us a glimpse into the significance of THE GREAT BELIEVERS? 

Rebecca Makkai: The title is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that serves as one of the novel’s epigraphs:

“We were the great believers.
I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, an saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”

Fitzgerald is referring to the Lost Generation, and the quote struck me as so counterintuitive—we often think of that generation as so jaded and worldly. The parallels between that generation and the generation we lost in the 80s is something I explore in the novel. In particular, I was struck by the similarities between the way Paris was a refuge for so many misfit artists, and the role big American cities like Chicago have played for young LGBTQ people. The arts scene in Paris was interrupted by WWI and between the war and the influenza of 1918, a whole generation was decimated. I was particularly interested in those who regrouped in Paris after the war, who tried to recreate some of what had been lost. The lines we can draw between that time and the 80s are fascinating to me.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

L.L.: What are the main themes of the book? What do you want people to take away from reading THE GREAT BELIEVERS?

Rebecca Makkai: Ultimately, I do think THE GREAT BELIEVERS is a defiantly hopeful book—or at least that my characters are defiantly hopeful. That’s one of the meanings of the title, I think. As their lives fall apart, they also take on greater direction and conviction. We’re living in a difficult time, and life is hard enough to begin with, but I drew so much inspiration in the past few years from talking to survivors, listening to the stories of how they fought for their lives and for each other even when it seemed utterly hopeless. If my characters can do for readers just a fraction of what these people did for me, I’ll be satisfied.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to order a copy of THE GREAT BELIEVERS, please see: 

Order Links: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Makkai is the author of The Borrower, The Hundred Year-House, and Music for Wartime. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American FantasyHarper’sTin House, and Ploughshares, among others. She lives in Chicago and Vermont with her husband and two daughters.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:


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[Cover and author images courtesy of Viking/PenguinRandom House and used with permission.]

 

 

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WeekEND Reading: Leah DeCesare uses the Utensil Classification System (UCS) to find “Mr. Right,” plus how nostalgia bolsters health, college years, first jobs, and so much more in FORKS, KNIVES & SPOONS

By Leslie Lindsay 

Nostalgic, witty tale of college girlfriends and their search for Mr. Right in this debut from Leah DeCesare. 

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I tore through FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS mostly because DeCesare has such an easy, relatable writing style. It’s about love and growth, friendship, the murky place between childhood and adulthood, and ultimately: discovery.

Plus, the timing’s right for a pre-Valentine’s Day read.

Amy York is a freshman at Syracuse University. She’s been raised by a single dad who dishes out some timely advice the evening before taking her to college for the first time: there are three types of guys–forks, knives, and spoons. The ultimate goal is a steak knife. He calls this the Utensil Classification System (UCS). It’s lighthearted, but Amy takes it very seriously educating her roommate and other college friends about the UCS.

I was immediately thrust back in time to the last 1980s and early 1990s (when the story is set) and waxed nostalgic at the mention of Benetton sweaters, Swatch watches, Tretorns, George Michael, Aqua Net, Van Halen and so much more. DeCesare completely pegged the time period with complete accuracy.

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There were girls (and guys) of all kinds–those I remember well from my own college days–and her characterizations were spot-on. I wanted to know what happened to these folks and how it all tied up in the end (my predictions were right–and then I breathed a sigh of relief). I also really enjoyed the big, boisterous Italian family described in the second-half of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS.

So whip up a chocolate mousse, or call for some take out Chinese and settle in with me and Leah as we chat about FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS.

Leslie Lindsay: Leah, the Utensil Classification System (UCS) is so original, so different and I really appreciated it. What was your inspiration for it? Was it really your dad, or something else that triggered the idea? And can you give us a brief run-down of what each category represents?

Leah DeCesare: Thanks for reading and having me, Leslie. The inspiration for FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS does come from a real talk my father gave me before sending me off to college in 1988. I wrote the scene of Tom York telling his daughter, Amy, based on how I remember my dad telling me, one difference is my mom was with us too.

In brief, the forks are the arrogant, jerky guys (we all know the forks), the spoons are geeks (remember this was the 80s way before a “geek” was cool, think Revenge of the Nerds), and the knife category is the biggest, he told me, in the knives I could find a good guy, someone who may not be as confident yet around girls, but where I’d find a guy who cared about me.

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L.L.: I was completely smitten with the time period. I was in college in the mid-late 1990s, so by then we had email (but no social media) and pagers (!) but there were still so many universals with the college experience: the painted cinder block walls in dorms, the formals, rush, all of that. How did you make the decision to set the novel in this time period and say, not today, in 2018?

Leah DeCesare: My oldest daughter started college this fall – an unintended life parallel as the story starts with young college freshmen women released – and during our college tour phase, the campuses and dorms and dining halls are all so much nicer and higher end than when we were in school. But, I decided to set the story in the same years I went to college, first, because I thought it would be easier for reference since I’d lived it, that turned out not to be true. It took a ton of research to get things right and accurate – how much did a CD player cost in 1990 anyway? Truthfully, I couldn’t write the same authentic college experience set today without hanging out and planting myself on college campuses, it was more genuine since it was what I had lived.

However, beyond those more technical reasons, I also love that setting the story in a different era highlights the messages of the book. The story is ultimately about friendship and believing in yourself – something that women of all ages need to hear, and hear loudly. The fact that this takes place in the late 80s/early 90s underscores similarities of the times and themes. There is still sexual assault (don’t we know it! #metoo) and excessive drinking; there is still the need to trust others and really connect with people (not behind screens), and there is still a fervent need for women to genuinely believe we can achieve anything, that we must value ourselves, that were are worth being loved, respected and so much more.

Leah DeCesare captured me on the very first line, ‘There are three types of guys: forks, knives and spoons.’ With imagination, highly relatable characters, and witty dialogue we are taken back to our youths – reevaluating and categorizing all of our crushes. A lovely story of friendship, love, and the amazing time between childhood and adulthood.
Dawn Lerman, bestselling author of My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes, New York Times Well Blog columnist

L.L.: Speaking of nostalgia, I just read about there’s a restorative power of nostalgia; it contributes to feelings of optimism, which is linked to improved mood, less pain, and other wellness outcomes like lowering blood pressure and improving GI function. Who knew? Can you expand on that? What did writing about this time period do for you?

Leah DeCesare: Wow! That’s great to hear and it makes sense to me. Books take us to other places and times and allow our minds and hearts to experience new things, to walk in another’s footsteps, to empathize, consider life from another point of view, and to stir self reflection.

Writing FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS definitely let me retrieve and relive old, happy memories. Writing pulled me deeply into thoughts and feelings of my college years, that playful time of youth, and life as a new adult in New York City. Tidbits and kernels of scenes were gleaned from real life memories and still make me smile. I love that time period, as well as that time of my life — though I’m happy where I am now and I’d never want to return.

I like that there’s science behind what we already sense, and I like that reading my book can help contribute to a reader’s wellbeing.

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L.L.:  Along those lines, I was thinking, ‘oh, this would be a great book for a younger girl as she navigates the complexities of late high school/college.’ And then I thought, ‘maybe not’ (due to some more mature themes). The time period made me think the story was for women in their late 30s-early 40s with the 1980s references. Who do you see as your ideal reader? And what genre would  you identify FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS?

Leah DeCesare: So, initially I was thinking the target reader would be women finishing college and entering their first post-college jobs, starting to settle into a career path and finding a partner to love. I also figured there would be interest from “women of a certain age” who had lived this pre-Internet world, so very different from life today. I had beta readers of both age groups and found that the younger women enjoyed the time period even without the nostalgia that older women experienced.

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In traveling and talking with readers about the book, I’ve found some wonderful things happening: mothers and daughters are bonding over the story, younger women tend to gravitate and to use UCS while older women savor the throw-back to earlier times, and there is a big population of women who are in their 40s/50s who appreciate both the nostalgia AND the UCS as they return to the dating world after divorce or loss of a spouse. It was unexpected, but there’s also been a high school readership. I had a woman get in touch with me last spring because she was buying a dozen books for her daughter and her daughter’s friends as a high school graduation gift.

As for genre, I don’t love the term chick-lit because it seems to devalue both the story/writing and the reader – as if it’s simple or fluff. I think of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS as book club fiction, women’s fiction. I like smart stories about women who grow, learn about themselves and change through the course of the story and that’s what I tried to deliver in FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS which is ultimately about women believing in themselves without tying their value to a man. I believe there are a lot of angles and substance, though the book is not heavy, that readers can ponder, evaluate, discuss, and apply to their own lives.

L.L.: I can remember feeling a bit like Amy in college…wondering if I’d ever get a ring. At the tail-end of college, I attended the first wedding of one of my friends and was such a dud at the reception. I didn’t even have a boyfriend and she was getting married! Is college the time to meet one’s spouse? Why do you think we feel that pressure?

Leah DeCesare: You ask the best questions! I’ve pondered this a lot. My parents met at the freshman welcome picnic in college and so on some level, I think I expected to meet my husband in college — I didn’t. I think the opportunity to meet a lot of options for spouses in college makes it a time ripe for meeting “the one.” I definitely wonder if younger women still feel any sense pressure or desire to find a spouse while in school. I wrote an article about this very topic if you’re interested:
Husband-Hunting on Campus.

L.L.:  I adored the big, boisterous Italian family. In that sense, it reminded me of some of Lisa Scottoline’s work. And made me super-hungry for a bowl of pasta. [Good thing we’re going to the Italian Village in downtown Chicago tonight.] And then I read your acknowledgements section and see that it’s peppered with plenty of Italian names. Something tells me you know this Italian family quite intimately?

Leah DeCesare: Ha – yes! My steak knife, I mean, my husband, is 100% Italian and I’m about half+ Italian. I absolutely modeled those scenes of Joey’s family after his family, perhaps amped up a little bit, then again, perhaps not! Those were some of my favorite scenes to write and are still some of my favorites in the book. Anyone who’s got some Italian in their family will relate to those loud, loving moments. They still make me laugh when I read them. p-300x336

L.L.: What do you still pine for from  your college days, even a little bit? What are you glad is over?

Leah DeCesare: It’s hard to believe how far removed I am from my college days. I guess if there’s something I miss, it’s the fun of constantly having people all around, of meeting new people and the spontaneity and the social spirit of school. I also love traveling and my semester abroad was one of the best times of my life.

I love learning and classes and reading, but I had three majors in college and always had a very full course load. I recall the stress of always, always, always, having something I should be doing except on Christmas and summer breaks, so I can say I don’t miss that! Though I guess I always have something I should be doing now, too, but it feels different.

L.L.: Leah, it’s been a pleasure. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Leah DeCesare: I’d love to just mention to your readers that if they like a book, please review it. Those little stars really, really matter to authors. So, on behalf of authors everywhere – THANK YOU!

L.L.: Thanks again and hope your steak knife treats you well this Valentine’s Day!

Leah DeCesare:  It has been such fun – your questions were thoughtful and fantastic!

For more information, to connect with with author via social media, or to purchase a copy of FORKS, KNIVES, SPOONS, please see:

Order Links:

leah decesare croppedABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Leah DeCesare’s childhood dream was to become an author though she never expected her first book to be about parenting. The Naked Parentingseries stemmed from her main gig as mother of three and she writes between car pools and laundry.

Forks, Knives, and Spoons is her debut novel. (SparkPress, April 2017).  Leah has also written articles for publication in The Huffington Post, the International Doula, The Key, and other online outlets and local publications.

Married for over 22 years, Leah’s current parenting adventures revolve around kids, tween and teenagers, creating the basis for her Mother’s Circle parenting blog, where she shares perspectives on parenting from pregnancy through teens.

Her pre-baby professional experience was in public relations and event planning and for the past fifteen years, her career has focused on birth, babies, and early parenting as a certified childbirth educator, a birth and postpartum doula.

She parents, writes and volunteers in Rhode Island.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of L. DeCesare and used with permission. All images retrieved 2.1.18. I ‘heart’ 1908s neon sign from, dining hall rendering from, mothers and daughters reading from, campus image from L. DeCesare’s article book cover with hearts from, ]