“A Character’s Real Interiority is Often the Fuel.” Rebecca Makkai on Slowing Down to Build Momentum
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Rebecca Makkai is the guest. Her novel, I Have Some Questions for You, is available from Viking Books.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: There is some truth to the idea that when a book is really well plotted, the main plot and the subplots all work well together. I just want to know how you did it. Is this something that you are just naturally good at? Is it just something you’ve worked at. Are there specific things you’ve learned through your time, you know, in the trenches that helped you get to where you are now?
Rebecca Makkai: That’s a good question. I think it’s both. I tend to start with plot. I love plot. I’m easily bored. And so I have a very solid sense of when someone else might be bored and kind of, you know, do everything I can to to keep that from happening.
Brad Listi: Are you bored right now?
Rebecca Makkai: No.
Brad Listi: Good.
Rebecca Makkai: No. But, you know, just, you know, I have a hard time, you know, reading. And it’s like, well, you’re telling me about, you know, this person’s week or day, but why this day? Why this week? Why? Why? Of all the things in this person’s life that you could tell me about, Why are you telling me about this? And sometimes there’s not a very good answer for that. So I do think, you know, I am just naturally a plotted person, but I’ve also absolutely made a study of it, you know, everything from Aristotle’s Poetics, it’s all in there.
However, many thousand years ago, he has this kind of dig in there, and I am misquoting it. But then, of course, it’s translated anyway, where he’s like, you know, ‘many is the poet who can write a great line, but few can tell a good story.’ But it’s kind of more of a sick burn than that. And I remember just circling that and being like, it’s like you’ve been teaching undergrads, Oh my God. And, he gets into structure. I love talking structure with my students and I teach mostly graduate students or just adults, post-grad or on their own, and the craft part of plot is something that does not tend to get talked about nearly enough in writing education.
There was a while there were I think it was considered really cheesy to talk about like people felt like they were just, you know, Oh, no, that’s that’s for Danielle Steel. That’s not for you guys. It’s not for academia. I think there’s been enough pushback where students are actually really desperate to learn about plot because it matters hugely that more people are talking about architecture. Right? Not formula, certainly. But what are the elements of plot? What is momentum? What does that feel like? How do you achieve that?
Brad Listi: How do you?
Rebecca Makkai: I’ll say, you know, beyond obviously putting things at stake, always having some ball up in the air, making sure we know what a character wants or I always say wants, needs or fears, that is momentum. Counterintuitively, slowing down and giving us a character’s real interiority is often the fuel for that momentum. I think people are. I see a lot of students who are really afraid to slow down the the action, the scene, anything like that, because they think if they do that, they’re going to bore us. And certainly if they slowed it down to have someone stare out the window and look at the grass, they would.
But slowing down just beat by beat to let us know what someone’s thinking, to let us know what’s on the line and why, that’s gas in your tank. And did it take you 5 minutes to stop for gas? Yes. But are you going to get a lot farther that way rather than running out of fuel on the side of the road? Also yes. So I think so often people run out of momentum because they were too afraid to slow down earlier on, to let us know who someone is, and to really put emotional, and tangible real world, stakes on the table.
Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novel I Have Some Questions for You, available from Viking Books. Makkai’s last novel, The Great Believers, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; it was the winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, the Clark Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and it was chosen as one of the Ten Best Books of 2018 by The New York Times. Her other books are the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the collection Music for Wartime–four stories from which appeared in The Best American Short Stories. A 2022 Guggenheim Fellow, Rebecca is on the MFA faculties of the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe and Northwestern University, and is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago.