Author Q&A: Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s short stories have been widely published in magazines and anthologies but never together until “Music for Wartime,” which came out last week.

The stories, several of them based on family legends, cover a lot of ground – World War II, reality TV, love, Johann Sebastian Bach – but have a common worldview in which humor and darkness easily co-exist.

Author of the novels “The Borrower” and “The Hundred-Year House,” Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont. She’ll be at Warwick’s July 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A: I grew up writing. It was very natural in my household. My father was a poet and his mother had been a novelist back in Hungary. I don’t think I really thought about it being my career until high school, which is still pretty early, but it was a while there of just assuming this was something everyone did all day long.

Q: What is it you get out of writing?

A: That’s a pretty complicated question. It’s my livelihood and it’s how I interact with many of my friends, who are writers, too. There’s a great social component to being a writer, to being an artist.

Even if all that were to go away – honestly, it’s how I amuse myself. It’s often more fun to me than watching a movie or even than reading. It’s not always entertainment, sometimes you’re sitting there worrying about commas, but it’s wonderfully fun. If you think about what you get out of reading a great book, that immersion and sense of fun, then imagine being in that world for four years and you’re in control of it.

Q: What do you like about the short story form?

A: You can do things that you can’t do in a novel. I have a story in there called “Suspension” where I’m taking the framework of this one photograph and then going forward and backward in time. I can maintain that for the length of the story, which is seven pages, but there’s no way you’d want to sit there and read 300 pages of that. I wouldn’t want to write 300 pages of that. It would be really irritating.

Also I think there’s a kind of perfection you can achieve in a short story, sort of one small gem, that is never going to happen with a novel. By definition, a novel is big and baggy, more like the world itself. A short story is self-contained. It can be neat and tidy, which is not to say that all art should be neat and tidy but this is and I like that about it even as I also love big, sloppy, baggy novels.

Q: Are there things you don’t like about doing short stories?

A: When I’ve taken time off from it and I try to get back into it again I’m suddenly struck with how incredibly difficult it is. I’ve likened it to trying to paint a picture on the head of a pin. A novel is like painting a mural, which is not any easier. It has its own challenges. If you’re close enough to paint a mural, you’re too close to see the whole thing.

With short stories, you can always see the whole, but it’s just so hard to get everything you want into that small form. Right now is one of those times when I haven’t sat down to work on a new short story in probably a little over a year so I’m terrified that when I get back to it it’s going to be like trying to remember my high school French.

Q: A lot of people do a short story collection first and then a novel. You were the opposite. How did it happen that way?

A: I had many short stories that were done, that had been published, that even had been widely anthologized. I was making my name through short stories and I just didn’t have a collection. I felt like I could have put one together, a pile of short stories, but a collection needs to be more than that. It needs to be more than the sum of its parts. I just didn’t see how that was going to happen at first.

Q: You probably spent some time trying to decide the order of the stories.

A: Absolutely. I was thinking about the way albums are put together, or were put together when people listened to whole albums. I was also thinking about the way a fashion show is put together. I’m not a big fashion person but I watch “Project Runway.” I had the voice of Tim Gunn in my head giving me this advice that has nothing to do with writing.

The idea of both of those is you lead with something very intriguing, and one thing needs to lead to the next, and you want to finish strong, but you also have to have a variety within a certain palette.

With an album, you have to think about the tempo of each song. Hopefully there’s nothing weak in this collection, but with an album you have to hide certain songs in the middle, the ones that maybe aren’t for everybody. The songs that are a little slower, a little stranger. I definitely put some of my stranger stories in the middle.

Q: You mentioned earlier about writing being fun for you, and that comes through in your work, even when the subject matter is dark. How do you find that balance between comedy and tragedy?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have a dark humor the way that some writers do who have disturbing, funny things that are happening. Dark humor can mean cruelty, people laughing because someone has been humiliated. That’s not what I’m doing.

What’s coming through, I hope, is my worldview, which is I find a lot of things disturbing and I find a lot of things funny. I remember, probably 10 years ago, I was trying to learn how to play tennis and I was in one of these fenced-in courts and I got really distracted. I couldn’t play tennis because I kept thinking about how this place could be used as a prison. In a post-apocalyptic situation, they could lock people in here. I got really, really disturbed. At the same time, it was kind of funny. The reason I’m sucking at tennis is because I’m obsessed with the chain-link fence. I had to laugh.

For better or worse, that’s the way I see the world. The times I’ve tried not to be funny it’s never worked, and the times I’m trying not to be dark and just be funny, that never works, either. As varied as my subject matter is, I think the worldview is pretty consistent: seeing darkness and seeing humor.

“Music for Wartime,” by Rebecca Makkai, Viking, 240 pages, $26.95

John Wilkens

John Wilkens

John Wilkens joined The San Diego Union-Tribune as a staff writer in February 1988. He writes profiles and general-interest features and does author interviews for the Books page. He's won numerous local, state and regional awards for news reporting, feature writing and investigative journalism. A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, he worked for the Santa Barbara News-Press for almost nine years before coming to San Diego.