Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novels “The Hundred-Year House,” “The Borrower,” and story collection “Music for Wartime.” Her last novel, “The Great Believers,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among its other honors. Her latest is “I Have Some Questions for You,” which she discussed with Michael Schaub, and here she answers the Book Pages Q&A.
Q. What are you reading now?
I’m doing this thing where I’m reading my way around the world, reading 84 books in translation. It’s a memorial for my father who died in 2020. He was a poet and also a literary translator. He lived to be 84, so I decided I’m going to read 84 books. I’m six books in, and the one I’m about to start is a Turkish novel called “Madonna in a Fur Coat” by Sabahattin Ali.
I started in Hungary, because my dad was Hungarian, and I went through a little bit of Europe. My last book was Greek. I’m going to read this Turkish book, and then I’m going to do Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and then down the east coast of Africa. I’m putting it out on social media, and then I’m writing about each of them in my Substack. I’ve had people reading with me, which is really fun. It’s just going to be this long adventure.
Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?
When I was a child, I was obsessed with a Little Golden Book about Farmer Brown, called “A Day on the Farm” by Nancy Fielding Hulick. I just wanted to climb inside it, I loved it so much.
Q. Is there a book that you’re nervous to read?
My Hungarian grandmother was a novelist. She wrote about 40 books; they’re all in Hungarian. And my Hungarian is decent for an American, but rudimentary; I could not sit down and read a novel in Hungarian. I need to work with someone to translate for me, so that I can actually read a couple of these. But I’m scared. She died when I was a baby, and she’s the person who, out of anyone in my family, I probably have the most in common with, but I really don’t know her. I want to read her books, but there’s just a lot of pressure on them to mean something to me in some way.
Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?
It’s hard to beat something like “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple. It’s so distinct, right? It’s perfect for the book and so memorable. [Ed. note: Find out more about the cover and its designer, Keith Hayes, here.]
Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?
All of the above. My parents were linguistics professors, so it’s not like I grew up in some book-impoverished household. I can’t claim that I was rescued from a life of illiteracy. But I went to a wonderful Montessori school as a kid where we were read to every day for a half hour or so. My first-grade teacher would read us all these Roald Dahl books, which were just like crack for a first grader. I probably would’ve been a reader regardless, but being read to every day for all of grade school was absolutely enormous.
Q. If you could ask your readers something, what would it be?
This is going to sound weirdly vain, but it’s not. I genuinely would want to ask, “How on earth did you hear about me?” It still blows my mind when someone will talk about my books on social media, or they’ll come to a reading and I’m like, “But I don’t know you, so how did you hear about this? You’re not my cousin.” I’ve been blessed with incredible media coverage, but it still blows my mind. I still have that curiosity of like, “Was it a book club? Did you see it somewhere? How did you find this book?”
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What’s next on ‘Bookish’
The next free Bookish event is March 17 at 5 p.m. with guests including Chef Ronnie Woo and more talking books with host Sandra Tsing Loh. Also, if you missed it (or want to relive the action), you can watch our Noteworthy episode featuring our celebration of 10 Southern California writers who published memorable books in 2022.