Words on Words: Interview with Rebecca Makkai

9 mins read
Rebecca Makkai

The peril of good intentions is something we are all familiar with. Rarely has it been explored with as much charm, wit and insight, as in Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful debut novel, The Borrower. The Borrower is the tale of Lucy Hull, a 26 year old willfully underachieving children’s librarian in the rural town of Hannibal. Lucy favorite patron, ten year old Ian, a voracious reader with unfortunate parents, lures her from her better judgment into a ten day road trip.

Kenny: It’s true that given the need for orderly shelves at bookstores and libraries many of us let ourselves go at home in the shelving department. I can tell you from personal experience that book shelves can contain quite as much disorder as a pile of books. Lucy’s giant piles of books are quite a concept though. Have you tried that out as a book housing method? It seems to me that the bottom dwellers would run a great risk of becoming second class citizens, stay at homes since the risk and effort involved in liberating them would be so high.

Rebecca: My husband and I actually do resort to stacks, at least on top of our bookshelves when the shelves get full. Also, because we have a rule that no book will be shelved until one or the other of us has read it, the unread books (I think of them sort of like the army reserves) are stacked under my bedside table. And on it, actually, and beside it. And since I’ve had kids and less time to read (but an unflagging urge to buy books) there are quite a few stacks under my bed now, too. I think there’s a sort of triumph in pulling out a book from the bottom. It makes the book seem a little more special, like it was worth this whole feat of acrobatic and architectural ingenuity just to get it loose.

I’m shocked, frankly, that Viking didn’t spring for putting a library pocket and a pink borrower card in The Borrower. That would have been a wonderful marketing ploy, not to mention accentuating the value of the physical book as a compliment to your moving tribute to borrower cards at the end of the book. Who is to blame for this miscarriage?

Rebecca: That would have been fabulous, and maybe there will be something like that for the paperback! I’m actually quite in love with the cover art we did find, how it ties together the elements of the library books and the road trip.

Kenny: The Borrower is such a great title, so apropos to many of the book’s themes and characters, even in little ways like Glenn’s inadvertant borrowing of the Mr. Clean Jingle. Was that the working title, and if not was it your choice?

Rebecca: It’s hard for me to believe now that it was not the working title. The original title was The Tin Man Symphony – which is interesting, I suppose, but a bit tangential to the book’s themes. I didn’t love it, and my agent didn’t love it, and we shot some names back and forth for a while. I was pretty desperate at one point, scrolling through the document on my computer, and my eye landed on the words “The Borrowers,” the name of the Mary Norton novel Lucy has been reading to her children before she leaves town. Of course I originally chose that book for the resonance of its name, but I hadn’t considered that I might use it myself in altered form. The longer I thought about it, the more connections I saw –down to Lucy’s borrowing of various literary forms – and I knew it could be called nothing else. I’ve had to deal with a lot of readers and interviewers putting an “S” on the end of the word, but it’s a small price to pay for a title I love.

Kenny: I notice that you are a longtime teacher, and presumably have a fair stock of experience with supervising relationships between children and books, however your depiction of library life is so authentic that one wonders whether you have any actual library experience?

Rebecca: I worked circulation a little bit in graduate school, but it was a completely different experience (and, to be honest, one I only signed on for because I was already writing The Borrower). The great fun of that job was the laser scanner. I miss it still. My feel for the library really comes from my own days as a young reader, heading to the children’s section after school and on Saturdays, hiding out for hours with a giant stack of books. Those memories are still so vivid for me that it wasn’t too great a stretch to extrapolate the adult side of the equation.

Kenny: With a ten year old as one of the protagonists, and a heaping backdrop of book lore and love, booksellers will naturally wonder if this will make a good crossover book for their Ians. Are bright children an intended audience for The Borrower?

Rebecca: I’ve been telling my own friends that their children could read it in middle school or high school. There is certainly some adult material – outside of the sexuality issues at the core of the novel’s conflict, there is also a modest helping of drinking, smoking and strong language – and I’m one of those people who thinks that kids should be kids for as long as possible. But for younger children who are already dealing with those issues because of who they are or because of what their family life is, a book that addresses them head-on can be their salvation. If I were a librarian and a boy just like Ian walked in to my library tomorrow? Yes, I’d probably slip him the book.

Kenny: Given Lucy’s wonderful, and dare we say more appropriate, last means of helping Ian it seems apropos to ask you the following question. Assuming that people are reading The Borrower in July, what should our readers read in August?

Rebecca: I firmly believe that in August you need something cold to read. Touch, the debut novel by Alexi Zentner, is set in a remote and snowy logging village in Ontario, and it will chill you to the bone in more ways than one. And if you’re brave enough, you can dust off Ordeal by Hunger, George R. Stewart’s classic account of the Donner Party. You might end up with nightmares, but I guarantee you won’t mind the summer heat anymore.

Thank you so much Rebecca!

Rebecca: No problem!

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