“Every novel is a mystery,” said author Rebecca Makkai, on the phone from her home outside Chicago. “It’s a mystery about the future — what’s going to happen next — which is most books. Or maybe a mystery about the present: what’s really going on here, who am I really. Or maybe a mystery about the past: what already happened here, what I am looking at. That kind of mystery seemed to fit best with a story that was going to be fundamentally about someone looking back at their time at a boarding school.”
Makkai, whose 2018 novel, “The Great Believers,” won multiple awards including the ALA Carnegie Medal, is talking about her just-published new book: “I Have Some Questions for You,” in which a film professor and true-crime podcaster revisits the boarding school she attended as a teen — and reconsiders the tragic murder of a classmate 20 years ago, for which the wrong man may be sitting in prison.
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“I Have Some Questions for You” is an intoxicating read: an elegant dive into crime fiction; a timely meditation on fascination with true crime (and on whose stories get told); a woman’s poignant journey into her past, in which she finds that the years have changed the light that illuminates her life’s stories; an examination of what happens to friendships made while young and not yet formed. And although the novel is pure fiction, for Makkai it represented a journey into both her past and her present: She attended a Chicago-area boarding school as a day student, and now lives and raises her children on the grounds of that same school, where her husband is on the faculty.
Although Makkai was quick to say that she isn’t employed by the school and “it’s not like ‘The Facts of Life’ or anything like that,” she clearly took inspiration from the setting. “It’s a fascinating type of place, in the same way a college campus is,” Makkai said. “It’s a very old place, it’s very permanent, these buildings are ancient, but also it’s very transitory. These kids come through for only four years. Like a college, but you have kids who are even younger and rawer. Anyone can think about their high school self and how formative that time was, and when you juxtapose that with this place of great history and tradition, there’s something really interesting in the contrasts and those echoes.” And it’s just a useful place to set a novel: “It’s a hothouse environment, a closed cast of characters that lends itself well to a fiction plot.”
But the Granby School of “I Have Some Questions for You” is a long way from Chicago; it’s in rural New Hampshire. “That’s where most boarding schools are,” Makkai said; she also found the New England state more intriguing for plot purposes. “When you look at, for instance, the size of the endowment of any individual boarding school in the state of New Hampshire versus the finances of the state of New Hampshire itself, those schools have a lot of power within that state. So you think about the ways that might skew a police investigation, for instance — the power a headmaster would have, the power the board of trustees would have. That wouldn’t happen in Illinois or California or Manhattan.”
And, she noted, New Hampshire is a state that does not require recording of police interrogations, which “suggested certain possibilities in the plot.”
For her first foray into crime fiction, Makkai drew on her own longtime interest in true crime, which began with a story she grew up with: a “fascinating and gruesome unsolved murder from the 1920s,” in her own hometown of Lake Bluff, Illinois, in which a woman was found dead in the basement of her apartment building. “It’s a funny thing — it’s the local story,” she said, adding that her kids heard the story in grade school. It sparked something in her — “maybe a townwide obsession with true crime.” Always interested in crime podcasts, she began to craft a story of a murder mystery that would work in a boarding-school setting. “I didn’t want to write YA — I didn’t want to write from a teenager’s point of view,” she said. “I wanted it to be an adult looking back.”
A lifelong reader of boarding-school novels (she was distressed to note that one of her favorite childhood books, “Behind the Attic Wall” by Sylvia Cassedy, has gone out of print), Makkai said it’s interesting how books and movies tend to create an idealized view of boarding schools, where it’s always a picturesque autumn and the attractive boarders wear a lot of sweater vests. Modern boarding schools, she said, are more like “a small liberal arts college, just with younger kids.”
But she’s fine with the romanticization, “if it leads people to want to read a book about it, all the better.” Asked about boarding-school novels she’s loved as an adult, Makkai named “The Virgins” by Pamela Erens, which she described as “just beautifully written and unusual narration. I’m in love with it.”
And John Knowles’ 1950s novel “A Separate Peace,” which she called “The OG American boarding school novel,” was a favorite in high school and today. “It’s such a brilliant book,” she said. “It gets at some of the ways that, when you’re an adolescent, you think the whole world is contained in your immediate environment — that the charismatic people you know are the most important people in the world.”