Rebecca Makkai always knew she was going to write a boarding school novel. The writer has lived on the campus of the boarding school where her husband teaches for the last 20 years and has always been fascinated by the environment.
“But I used to joke that I’d write it on my deathbed or something,” she says over the phone. Rather, she dove in for her fourth book, “I Have Some Questions For You,” out now, which marks the follow-up to her finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, “The Great Believers.”
“I Have Some Questions For You” follows Bodie Kane, a successful podcaster in Los Angeles who returns to her New England boarding school to teach a two-week guest course. The return to campus brings back memories of the murder of Bodie’s roommate her senior year of high school, which was hastily pinned on the athletic department staffer but, as the book’s title suggests, questions remain about what actually happened that night.
Makkai promises that the boarding school she’s set her story in is nothing like the one she calls home.
“It’s not in any way based on where I live, but I was really interested in the idea of high school classmates having to come back together to revisit the past and figure out what happened years previously for something like a murder trial, and looking at that with a really changed lens of being older, times having changed,” she says. “There’s this mystery around [boarding schools]. In reality, it’s like a small liberal arts college, but for people a little younger — it’s not that magic. But I do think that to me, what’s evocative is this idea of a place that’s simultaneously really permanent and historic, and also really transitory.”
“The Great Believers,” her third book, was named as a finalist for the Pulitzer while Makkai was at an artist residency in the spring of 2019, where she was trying to work on what would become “I Have Some Questions For You.” She recalls learning the news and then wondering how on earth she was supposed to just go about her day.
“Now am I supposed to sit back down at my desk and work,” she remembers. “How is this going to happen?”
Had the pandemic not put a stop to her book tour for “The Great Believers,” Makkai says she might’ve never sat down to properly get to work on this fourth book. The fame that came from “Believers” gave her a newfound sense of confidence in her writing: it was the first time her books hadn’t been called “romps,” a term that seems to especially stick to women writers.
“As a woman, especially with my first couple of books, I was always really worried about being taken seriously. And of course I wasn’t always. My first two books, they were literary books, and they constantly got called ‘romps,’” she says. “‘The Great Believers’ really was taken seriously, and I think it freed me up where in this case I’m writing, I’m not writing YA, and it’s an adult point of view, but I am writing about adolescents, and that’s the kind of things that I might have worried previously would’ve led to people not taking me seriously. So it was nice to know that I had a little bit of cred built up, if that makes sense. That allowed me to write a first-person female narrative, which I hadn’t done since my first novel.”