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Rebecca Makkai: The Short Form Interview

As much as we rant about shrinking attention span, we still crave immersion. Even TV series have been arcing, more and more, toward the epic.

Author of novel The Borrower and several short stories, four of which have been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories series.

The Interview

What was your introduction to short stories? Was there a particular realization that got you hooked?

Technically, my introduction came through children’s magazines like Cricket and Jack and Jill. I remember being about five and reading a magazine story in the present tense. I’d never seen anything like it before, and it made me very uncomfortable. Angry, really. I felt it broke the rules, because how could this person be writing everything down as fast as it happened? It took me years – and I mean until my late 20s – to embrace the present tense fully.

In high school and college I accepted the short story as my form simply because that’s what’s taught – no one assigns you to write a novel for extra credit in 11th grade English. So maybe it was a bit like the arranged marriage where a few years in, you look at the guy and suddenly fall for him. The moment of falling for me was a summer home from college, lying on my bed reading Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” It was the first O’Connor I’d read, and I all I knew about her was that she was a practicing Catholic. And I really thought the story was headed in that direction. Salvation, redemption. I ended feeling that she’d reached through the book and punched me in the gut. And then the throat. After which, of course, I was in love.

Unless there’s something essential to know (the guy has one eye, or he’s seven feet tall), all I really need is his name. Just tell me his name is George. Got it. I can totally picture George.

Your story “The Briefcase” is without time and location. What are your thoughts on the kind of information you’re tempted, and allowed, to withhold when writing short stories?

I don’t normally write like that, and in fact I’m usually a bit of a research nerd. But “The Briefcase” is a story about running away, about abandoning identity – so the willful anonymity served those themes. I often do enjoy withholding certain information on a smaller scale, though. I love unreliable narrators, and I love mental ellipses: those gaps writers leave, forcing the reader to make the connections. The obvious, and overstated, example there is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” – that moment we get of “Ohhh, I just figured it out!” There’s nothing worse than a writer working too hard to make sure you get the joke.

I will add that, especially in short fiction, I’m not big on physical descriptions of characters. They’re always either awkward (“she brushed her long, curly blond hair out of her eyes”) or straining toward the evocative (overuse of the phrase “her skin smelled of cinnamon”). They hardly ever tell us something important, and they assume a horrid lack of imagination on the part of the reader. Unless there’s something essential to know (the guy has one eye, or he’s seven feet tall), all I really need is his name. Just tell me his name is George. Got it. I can totally picture George.

Selling a collection of stories is about as easy as selling a collection of dead raccoons. And they’re worth the same amount of money.

Your novel The Borrower is out in the market and a story collection is coming up next. Have you noticed any differences in trying to sell a novel vs. a story collection? What's the difference in target audience?

You’re kidding, right? Selling a collection of stories is about as easy as selling a collection of dead raccoons. And they’re worth the same amount of money. Here’s how I’ve come to terms with it, though. Every year I watch the Oscars, and, along with everyone else, I ignore the short films part and get up to refill my drink. I know those short films are utter gems, each more perfect than a big, sloppy, feature-length endeavor could ever hope be. I know they’re important to the people in the industry, that they aren’t just a training ground for those wanting to make longer films. And yet, year after year, I find I haven’t heard of a single one of them. And I’ll probably never watch them. Because what I want, as a casual moviegoer, is two full hours of Woody Allen neurosis or Wes Anderson quirk. As much as we rant about everyone’s shrinking attention span, we still, as a species, crave immersion. Even TV series – even sitcoms – have been arcing, more and more, toward the epic. People do like to lose themselves in something long. As a general consumer, I completely understand that.

But as a reader, maybe an abnormal reader, I want both forms. And I want novellas, too, and poems, and prose poems, and all of literature’s other red-headed stepchildren. As a writer, I want to write short stories and also very, very long stories. And if the shorter ones are only for the “industry insiders” – the writers, the bloggers, the professors, the grad students – okay. They’re the best readers anyway.

You’ve said that you tackle writer’s block by moving on to a different project, and you’ve managed to work on your story collection and second novel simultaneously. Do you do most of your thinking while writing?

I do my thinking in the shower. But yes, it does keep me balanced to work on more than one thing. Or, really, to go back and forth between them in chunks. I’m sort of a serial adulterer in terms of my fiction. And each time I come back to a project, I appreciate it more for what it’s not: it’s not as convoluted as the other one, or it’s not as rough, or it’s not as silly. So I buy it flowers and take it out to dinner, and it’s all good.

Never underestimate Nabokov’s sadism.

You play a little bit with signs in your story “Cross.” As an admirer of Nabokov, what’s your take on “Signs and Symbols,” a story that’s left readers speculating for decades?

Ah, that story. And here I’m afraid I might lose people who haven’t read it, so let me just say: “Signs and Symbols” is very short. Go read it. Then come back here. 

Strange that I wasn’t thinking of it, consciously, when I wrote “Cross,” although what’s always appealed to me about “Signs and Symbols” is the way the son’s illness exaggerates some of my own tendencies (and maybe they’re writerly tendencies, or maybe just human tendencies) to read pattern into the world, which of course always makes us bend a bit toward solipsism – and that’s also what led me to write “Cross.”

Nabokov’s ending is puzzling indeed, but I think he’s playing a trick on us all. We, like the parents in the story, would like to consider ourselves separate from the kind of mind that reads meaning into all things. And then these signs and symbols begin piling up for them, as they do for us. The phone rings that last time, and we jump to one of two conclusions: it’s the girl calling back, which is a symbol of something, of the emptiness of the world or the loss of human connection; or this call is different from the first two, and the son is dead. Either way, we’ve just taken a normal thing, a ringing phone, and forced meaning on it. He’s tricked us. Never underestimate Nabokov’s sadism.

And at the same time, I think he’s calling out fiction itself.  What are we doing as readers, and writers, if we don’t assign meaning – ominous or illuminating – to everyday objects? That’s the trade we’re in. And he denudes and mocks that trade, at the same exact moment that he completes one of its masterpieces. Motherfucker.


Recommended by Rebecca Makkai

The Apple Tree

The Widow Etcheverrigaray took great pride in the splendid apple tree that grew on the boundary of her property, just beyond the plot of leeks that every year were the best in all the village; and her neighbor and lifelong rival, Madam Utuburu, drew no less gratification from the magnificent apple tree near the patch of piments that made her the envy of all growers of that sharp little green pepper. Unfortunately for the tranquility of our village, we are not speaking of two trees here but of one: a tree that grew exactly on the boundary between the two old women's land and was, by both law and tradition, their shared property. It was inevitable that the apples from this tree should lead to dispute, for such has been the melancholy role of that disruptive fruit since the Garden of Eden.

We read it in Hot Night in the City.

Originally published in The Antioch Review: Vol. 58, Issue 2.

The Overcoat


They offered the mother her choice of three names, Mokiya, Sossiya, or that the child should be called after the martyr Khozdazat. “No,” said the good woman, “all those names are poor.” In order to please her they opened the calendar to another place; three more names appeared, Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy. “This is a judgment,” said the old woman. “What names! I truly never heard the like. Varada or Varukh might have been borne, but not Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!” They turned to another page and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy. “Now I see,” said the old woman, “that it is plainly fate. And since such is the case, it will be better to name him after his father. His father's name was Akakiy, so let his son's be Akakiy too.” In this manner he became Akakiy Akakievitch. They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.

To the Measures Fall

In one of the Wentworth biographies, you come across a photograph of a note to Wentworth from Sir Winston himself. The letter’s signature vaguely resembles the inked scrawl that you’ve never paid attention to, on the inside front cover of your copy, underneath the pencilled price that now fills you with shame. The signature in the reproduced note reads “Winnie.” The drooping, obscured squiggle in your copy looks more like “Hump-hump Clunluch.”

You are insane, of course. Hallucinating from over-research. There is no way on any likely earth that a book belonging to one of the century’s most famous personages could end up in a junk shop in the Cotswolds. Winston, Churchill, Nobel Laureate in Literature, wasn’t about to write his name in his bloody books. If found, please return to House of Commons, London.

The Story of Mats Israelson

Anders had learned to deal with his wife’s sarcasm by means of pedantry, by answering her questions as if they meant no more than the words they contained. This tended to annoy her further, but for him it was a necessary protection.

“They seem like a nice couple,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“You like everybody.”

“No, my love, I do not think that that is true.” He meant, for instance, that at the present moment he did not like her.

“You are more discriminating about logs than about members of the human race.”

“Logs, my love, are very different from one another.”

The City in the Light of Moths

“Wow,” she said. “Play it again, Wes.” 

After he did, she pulled up her own shirt to reveal hers, not animation but black and white on the center of her back, her family’s farm somewhere off in the country done as a home movie, retrochromed to look older than it was, her grandfather holding up a fish, languorous cattle in a field. It was tasteful, and the bump of her spine, jutting in the middle and stretching the screen in odd places, only added to the charm. It made his feel like an amateur sketch. Everyone had heard the stories about tattoos jarred into motion in the act of lovemaking, the lover helpless to turn them off, and he wanted this, now, to be the case for them, and, reaching out to caress the bump, could see her tattoo refract onto his fingers, felt himself connect to her then, something that could still happen, then.

We read it in Understories.

Originally published in Conjunctions:55 Urban Arias.

Story available for free online.