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In her new novel, Rebecca Makkai has some questions for you

Author Rebecca Makkai, a white woman with brown hair and a blue shirt, stands in front of green leaves.
Brett Simison
Penguin Random House
Author Rebecca Makkai at her lake cottage in Leicester, Vermont.

It all starts out as a tragic, but familiar story: A white teenage girl is murdered. A Black man is sent to prison. A curious podcaster returns to the scene to investigate.

This is the basis of Rebecca Makkai's new novel, though the book is anything but predictable. The story, set at a New Hampshire boarding school, demands its readers ask difficult questions of themselves: Who gets to tell what stories? What does it mean to be unbiased — or, for that matter, innocent? What does true justice look like?

Makkia's previous novel, The Great Believers, won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She spoke with host Mikaela Lefrak about her new novel, I Have Some Questions for You, and how experiences living at a boarding school shaped the work.

Our guest is:

  • Rebecca Makkai, author of I Have Some Questions for You

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: Describe your connection to Vermont for us.

Rebecca Makkai: I'm a part time Vermonter. I've spent every summer there since 1999. I got my graduate degree from Middlebury, and now we have a house in Leicester off Rt. 7. I teach a little bit at Middlebury in the summer, and my kids have grown up spending June through August there.

Lefrak: Let's talk about this new book, which is set at a fictional boarding school, Granby, in New Hampshire. Paint a picture of the setting for us?

Makkai: This is one of those classic New Hampshire boarding schools — it's been there since the 1800s. Of course, it's completely fictional. I know the boarding school world very well — I live on campus at a boarding school here in Chicago where my husband teaches, and I get frustrated when they're depicted in movies and it's always October, the leaves are always changing, and everyone's always wearing sweaters. This is a much more realistic school — the kids wear jeans, it's co-ed, it's diverse. At the same time, we're looking back on the 1990s, and it's a time when there were a lot of things swept under the rug.

Lefrak: I want to hear more about Bodie, your narrator. She's a podcaster who went to this boarding school and now lives in LA. She comes back to the school to teach a two-week course on podcasting, and, and she ends up urging one of her students to reinvestigate a murder — or maybe nudging is the better word?

Makkai: It's tricky, because in some ways the student found the case on her own. And Bodie is kind of terrified that if the student goes poking around in this case, well, she feels like, "I wasn't even friends with these kids. This was the popular crowd that this happened to. I wasn't part of that. What will they think of me?" Even though she's in her 40s.

But also, she really wants to know what happens. Early in the book, she believes that the right person is in prison for the murder of this young woman in 1995. But she still can't picture what happened. It doesn't make sense to her, and for good reason. She really wants someone other than herself to go dig and figure it out.

Lefrak: I'm also curious to hear why you were interested in writing, in part, about murder podcasts and some of the tropes that come with them. Are you a fan?

Makkai: Well, I mean, like so many people, I'm a conflicted fan. I'm a sucker for a good story like the Murdaugh murder trials in South Carolina. I'll watch anything related to it. And then you think, well, is this just turning people's grief into entertainment? And sometimes the answer is, yes, it's icky. Other times, some good comes out of it. The book doesn't come down on one side or the other. All I know is that it's something so many of us are drawn to, for reasons that sometimes we can't really explain. And it's a messy, murky area to explore in a novel.

Lefrak: I saw in the book's acknowledgements section that you named some of the characters after real people who won a contest of sorts that you set up. Some of them ended up playing bigger roles in the book than you expected. Can you tell us about that?

Makkai: Yeah, this was so fun. Basically, it was to support independent bookstores. I think it was actually Amazon Prime Day one summer, and I said, I want to do something for indies, and if you order a book from Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury and show me the receipt, I will name a character after you if you want.

I promised that they would be very minor characters. And for the most part they were. But certain ones grew and grew and grew because the name was so evocative, or I just mentioned one thing and it turned into something else. For a couple people I had to get back in touch with them and say, hey, here's what the character is, do you want me to change the name? And no one did, everyone was cool with it. But I had a lot of fun with it. Names have a lot of power. They suggest a lot, if nothing else.

Broadcast love on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.