One of my favorite books last year was Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, where Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. Lucy, a rebel at heart beneath her librarian’s exterior, stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. The odd pair embarks on an improvised road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets and an inconvenient boyfriend thrown in their path. Along the way, Lucy struggles to make peace with her Russian immigrant father and his fugitive past, and is forced to use his shady connections to escape discovery.
I’m eagerly awaiting Rebecca’s next book, The Hundred-Year House, but couldn’t resist talking to her about her first novel. I loved Lucy’s drive and passion, and laughed along with Ian’s innocence. Listening to Rebecca’s motivations for writing The Borrower makes me want to read it again! I hope you enjoy her responses as much as I did.
I was just a few years out of college when I learned about “reparative therapy” — the religiously based programs that claim to turn gay people straight — and that these programs existed even for children. I was horrified, and I decided to pour all my outrage into a short story. I quickly realized that the topic was too big for something short — that big things had to happen, and this had to be a novel.
Of all the lists Ian made, which was your favorite, and why?
I have a soft spot for How to Run Like a Ten-Year Old Boy (really Lucy’s making the list, but in response to Ian’s actions) because I saw a ten-year old actually run like that the year I was revising the novel. He was shouting “jog!” with every step. And although this boy had nothing in common with Ian, I thought “That’s exactly how Ian would run.”
Are any of the books Lucy suggested to Ian a favorite of yours?
Almost all of them are. I taught elementary school for eleven years, and most of the books she recommends are my own favorites from that time. My absolute favorite children’s book — I think it’s one of the ones she stuffs in his backpack — is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.
Did you know how the book would end when you started writing it?
I knew he’d end up going home, but for a long time it stopped there. It was a terribly bleak ending. It was only in the editing process that I gave Lucy the chance to sneak him some reading lists for the future. I wanted something more hopeful, and I’m glad I finally landed there.
Well, the way I found out about the reparative therapy was by being acquainted with a nine-year old who’d been put in one of these programs. Whenever I mention that I always hasten to add that he wasn’t someone I taught — and in fact I barely knew him. But I knew this one thing about his life, and had no way to help. I knew quite a few gay adults whose families didn’t handle things ideally at first, and since I published the book I’ve met a few who were even in Exodus International, the largest of these organizations (recently dissolved, fortunately).
Who are your favorite authors?
That’s nearly impossible to answer. I do better with a narrower range, so I’ll just name some living North American female writers whose short stories fascinate me: Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Julie Otsuka, Amy Hempel, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, A. M. Homes. How’s that for partial and biased?
Rebecca Makkai’s first story, at the age of three, was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of her stuffed Smurf doll. Sadly, her fiction has never since reached such heights of experimentalism. Rebecca was born in 1978 and holds an MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and a BA from Washington and Lee University. Rebecca has two young daughters, a husband, and a serious Mad Men problem. She does not run marathons or do cartwheels, but she does know how to make marshmallows. She was an elementary Montessori teacher for twelve years before stopping to write full time. Learn more about Rebecca on her website, http://rebeccamakkai.com/