Music for Wartime, Rebecca Makkai’s first story collection, demonstrates pluck and vivacity, as well as a mature, meticulous design. Readers of her recently published second novel, The Hundred-Year House, which moves in reverse chronological order, will recognize this blend of playful prose and innovative composition as Makkai’s signature style.
Music for Wartime’s seventeen stories do more than cohere; they interact. Careful readers will find themselves flipping back and forth, confirming the subtle conversations occurring between stories, and tracing the echoes of guilt, grief, courage, and faith. As a whole, the collection asks profound questions about the role of the survivor, the effects of war, the limitations of memory, and the power of storytelling. And these short works feature music, too: virtuosic violin solos, mournful Bach fugues, and the spirited Allegreto Pizzicato of Bartók’s fourth quartet, to name a few.
Makkai’s voice has a musical quality—low, bright, and quick, like a viola. I caught up with her during a lull between her book tours, and she spoke enthusiastically about her process and projects. Most of the year, she lives in Chicago at the boarding school where her husband teaches, but when I spoke with Makkai, she was in Vermont at her family’s small cabin on a lake. We talked about the musicality of story endings, overtly fictional nonfiction, and living life in a scrambled chronology.
Liz Wyckoff: I love how, in the acknowledgment section of this book, you mention an editor at Chronicle Books who read an early draft and suggested to you that the stories might coalesce around music and war. Why do you think you’re so drawn to those themes?
Rebecca Makkai: They ultimately intersect in this question, that is very important to me, of how we make beauty or make art in the midst of a brutal and conflicted world. My father was a refugee from the failed Hungarian revolution in 1956. And a lot of his family came over to the US in the decades following that, always having escaped. Sometimes they would live in our basement for a while. So, basically, I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs with a refugee camp in my basement.
And then, the music part. I did grow up studying music—not as seriously as everyone else in my family, but only because they were very serious musicians. My sister is a piano teacher; she went to Oberlin Conservatory for piano performance. My father could have been a concert pianist, but was a poet instead. My mother was an organist, but also a linguistics professor. I was surrounded by it. Also I was taken to concerts in the city and, much like in “The Worst You Ever Feel,” the second story in the collection, there were concerts in my home when I was a child. The Hungarian ex-pat community would gather there, as well as various other people like my parents’ colleagues.
The music part of it is also part of the way I think about writing—I think that writing is music. It’s very auditory to me; it’s all about sound. The relationship that poets have to sound, I think that fiction writers are supposed to have to sound as well. We don’t always, but I think we’re really supposed to. And then you think back to the Greek bards like Homer, who were probably, from what we know, singing their stories. I think there’s a tremendous connection there between writing and music.
LW: How does that thinking about writing as music manifest in your process? Do you read sentences out loud or do you listen to music when you write?
RM: I don’t listen to music when I write because it takes up way too much of my brain. For me, it’s like the same thing. I can’t write and listen to music at once. I guess there are people who can do it, but I really wonder about them—isn’t that taking up the part of your brain that’s supposed to be focused on lyricism in your writing?
I’ll often tap out rhythm on a table, especially when I’m ending something. The ending sentence of a book or a story, or the ending paragraph is where that musicality matters the most, the echoes that you leave in people’s ears. I will literally sit there tapping a sentence out with my knuckle on the table at Starbucks, making everyone around me wonder what I’m doing.
LW: So, you’ve published two novels and this collection is being marketed as fiction, but there are some legends in Music for Wartime that come from real stories in your family’s history. When you wrote those, did you feel like you were writing nonfiction?
RM: So basically, we’re talking about the three stories in the book that I’ve called legends and then the story “Suspension.”
Originally, [in “Suspension,”] I was doing a lot more making stuff up. There was a lot of fiction in the early drafts, and there still is quite a bit. But I did feel an obligation to stick to fact when I’m talking about history. That particular story is about my grandfather’s involvement in politics in Hungary in the ’30s. It was important to me to get it right, to whatever extent I could. A lot of that story is still very mysterious to me. I’m not entirely sure what happened. But it was important to be accurate.
The three legends are what I call “overtly fictional nonfiction.” So basically I’m going in there saying: This is a story I’ve heard about my family. I wasn’t there. I don’t know. I’m totally imagining this scene. But still the facts being given are accurate. The three legends were stories that I’ve been seriously writing and rewriting since high school. And in completely different ways—there are no words in common with the stories in this collection and what I wrote when I was fifteen. But the story of my grandmother applying face paint to these women so that they wouldn’t get raped and using stage make-up to make them look old, that’s a real story and I was told that as a child. And so I’ve tried to work it out.
LW: It’s an incredible story—of course you wanted to write about it!
RM: I know, wild, right? So I wrote the legends for the collection and I liked the way they turned out. And then Harper’s took the three legends together, but as nonfiction. We had submitted it to them as fiction, they knew that it was basically nonfiction, and they accepted it to be published as nonfiction, for a different section of their magazine. Which then meant that they sicced a fact-checker on me. I mean, I’m not saying that like he was rabid or something—he was lovely and incredibly helpful. But we had to go through every single thing to the point where he was calling my family members. My grandfather was blind in one eye and I mentioned that somewhere and the fact-checker, literally, was trying to fact-check which eye he was blind in.
So, that process also pushed some of the language, especially in the version that appeared in Harper’s, into more nonfictiony language. The writing went into specifics about things, like, Here’s what the second anti-Jewish laws did... And I was trying to tone that back again for the story collection and not be quite so literal. I think some of it stayed in there a little bit, but in a way that I’m happy with. It felt like the pieces had to pass through this sieve. Are they nonfictional enough to pass for nonfiction, at the same time that they really are fiction? So this is what got strained through on the other side. And at some point, I really am going to write a full book about my grandparents, which will be nonfiction. It’ll be about my traveling to Hungary and trying to figure out what I can learn about their lives. I don’t want to use the word memoir because it won’t be about me, really, but more of a personal investigation.
LW: Are you working on that now? Or is that a future project?
RM: Well, it’s hard because I don’t speak Hungarian. My father, three weeks ago, moved back to Hungary after 59 years in America. He repatriated and he’s back in Budapest. I’ve only been there once, when I was in college, and it was very brief. So I’m hoping to get over there and visit him, and maybe do some research. But it’s really daunting. I could be looking at years and years and years of research.
And then my grandmother was a novelist and she wrote 40 books and they’re all in Hungarian. Do I want part of that project to be me reading her books and trying to figure out who she was? If that’s part of it, getting her books translated is this overwhelming monolith sitting in my path. So I don’t know if it’s going to be a 30-year-long project, or what it is. But I need to get over it because I’m letting the size of it scare me off, and I need to just start.
LW: Well, those three legends based on your family history are spaced out in the collection and they really tie pieces together in a nice way, I think. Is it important to you that people read the book in order?
RM: Thank you for asking that—it really is, actually. I spent full days working out the order. Also, not just working out the order, but writing with the order in mind. I wrote “The Museum of the Dearly Departed” to be the last story in this collection. It refers back in certain ways to earlier stories. It absolutely refers back to the family legends.
It’s like listening to an album or something. If you listen to the entirety of Sgt. Pepper, you get a certain story from what the Beatles are doing with the album that goes beyond the individual songs. Or if you listen to all of Blood on the Tracks, you get this sort of narrative and a feeling of the whole that isn’t there if you just listen to one song or if you listen to it on scramble. So yeah, anyone who reads this interview before they read the story collection: please read it in order!
LW: Talking about “The Museum of the Dearly Departed,” a story that features so many interesting little objects, I wonder if you have any objects that are important to you or have anything to do with your writing life?
RM: That’s really interesting. Well, I started this when I first started working on The Borrower, my first book: I found all these books that I felt were touchstones for what I was working on. I was working a lot with Lolita and Huckleberry Finn and I put them on my desk because I really thought that I was going to use them. And then I ended up not opening them very much. They just sat there. And then I felt like I was going to do the same thing with The Hundred-Year House. I gathered together The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, all of these great haunted house stories, and then I didn’t look at them. I just put them on my desk.
So, that’s my process now. I have this book collection that’s just there [on my desk]. They’re books I’ve usually already read, so I know what’s in them, but I feel like their concepts are sort of seeping into the desk and up into my computer, like they’re affecting my book through osmosis.
I just need to be reminded of their presence. The book I’m working on now is partly about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago and it’s also about Paris and all these other things. So I have all these books about AIDS, and I spent some time reading them before I started writing, but now they’re just sitting there. And they’re just going to sit there in this stack until I finish writing the book.
LW: You consider endings to be really important. At a panel at AWP this year you mentioned that E. L. Doctorow quote about driving at night and followed it up by saying, “If you’re going to make it home with just your headlights, you still have you know where you live.” I loved that. It made me curious about how you work through the endings of your stories. Do you usually have an ending in mind that you’re writing toward?
RM: Yeah, I think that’s important. I also think it’s important not to land exactly where you thought you were going to.
The point I was making with that Doctorow quote is that, for me, it doesn’t work to go in absolutely blind and just keep writing and hoping that I land somewhere safely. I really need some sense of where a piece is going. I think about a gymnast doing a flip off the balance beam. I’ve never flipped off a balance beam in my life! But in my imagination, when gymnasts do that, they’re looking at a spot on the floor and aiming for it. They might not land there, but it’s better to aim somewhere than to just randomly jump off the balance beam, right? So, yeah.
I love talking about endings. I have this whole lecture on endings. It started out as a five-page handout and now it’s a forty-page packet. Every time I teach this class, I have to go and ask: “Do you mind Xeroxing this, basically, half-a-book that I’m going to hand out?” I think for me when stories fail, they almost always fail in their endings.
LW: Would you say that endings for novels feel as important to you? Or do you think the story ending is something sort of unique in that way?
RM: I think novel endings are absolutely important, but I think they come more naturally to a lot of people. If nothing else, with a novel, you’re wrapping up huge sections of plot. Conflict A is resolved and Conflict B is resolved and this little Conflict C is resolved. You have a lot of space to make it feel like an ending and to work stuff out. For a story, if you try to pinpoint where the ending starts, sometimes it starts in the last sentence because it didn’t feel like an ending until that last line. But within that [line], we somehow get there.
My favorite endings are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere. There’s an Alice Munro story in Dear Life called “Pride.” It’s about this man and woman who are kind of friends and they’ve had this conflict and suddenly they look out the window and there are baby skunks playing in this birdbath. That’s the end of the story. But it makes total sense. You didn’t think it was ending, but then you could see that the last page was approaching and then it’s like: Yeah, that’s completely the ending that the story needed—baby skunks playing in the birdbath. It works!
LW: I read The Hundred-Year House a couple months ago and was so impressed with the way you were able to structure the novel in reverse chronological order. You really end with the beginning when you structure something that way. What do you think a story or novel can gain from scrambling up a timeline like that?
RM: I love that type of thing. It plays to my own sense of fun—I think narration should be fun. You know, on a literal level, we experience life in lock-step: this happens and this happens and this happens. But on the mental level, we experience life in this completely scrambled chronology. We think about the past and think about the future. If you actually looked at the “timeline” of your day, you spend moments in 1992 and moments back in the present and moments thinking about yesterday. So writing things nonchronologically speaks to something about the way we think and the way we live, but it also lets us experience that more literally than we do in real life. I love playing around with that stuff. I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are very interactive. You can do the timeline and undo the timeline and redo the timeline.
LW: And that’s what we do as writers when we draft things, too. We try things out and then take them back and try something else.
RM: It’s totally true—that’s part of the fun of writing. I sometimes tell my students that their job is to be like minor, mischievous Olympian gods. They should come down and mess up people’s lives and trick them in certain ways. The job of the author is to come in and just make things complicated and mess things up, but then I also see that in the way that we’re telling a story to readers.
To mix my metaphors, I think that maybe when you’re dealing with readers, the role of the writer is like the role of the magician. And I don’t mean: to make wonderful, beautiful magic. I mean: to distract people away from noticing what they should be noticing. The art of misdirection. Pulling people’s attention one way so that they don’t expect what’s happening over on the other side of the stage. You can do that with things like chronology. You can hide things with chronology by skipping over something and then revealing it later. It just opens up a lot of possibilities.