Why Rebecca Makkai explores true crime in novel ‘I Have Some Questions for You’

Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, “I Have Some Questions for You,” takes place at a boarding school and involves the students and staff who live on its campus. It’s a setting that she knows well; the author of the acclaimed “The Great Believers” attended such an institution in the 1990s —and she didn’t stay away from it for too long.

Makkai’s husband, a teacher, ended up getting hired at Makkai’s alma mater, and the two make their home there.

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“It’s been an amazing place to live for the past 20 years,” Makkai says in a phone interview from Illinois. “It’s this strange little enclave. You live with all these other faculty and you know them really well. It’s fantastic.”

Makkai’s own boarding school experience stands in contrast to Bodie Kane, the narrator of “I Have Some Questions for You.” A podcaster and sometime UCLA film professor, Bodie is a graduate of the Granby boarding school in New Hampshire; her time at the institution was marked by the murder of Thalia Keith, Bodie’s former roommate, their senior year.

An athletic trainer at the school was convicted in Thalia’s slaying, but in the years since, the murder has become a cause célèbre, with self-styled detectives on the Internet raising doubts about the man’s guilt. When Bodie is invited back to her alma mater to teach two short-term classes — one on film studies, one on podcasting — she finds herself drawn back into the case.

“I was always going to end up writing a boarding school novel at some point, and I used to joke that I wouldn’t do it until like 2045 or something,” Makkai explains. “But it was always going to happen, just because it’s such a fascinating setting.”

It’s also a setting that books and movies frequently get wrong, she says. Her own boarding school bears little resemblance to the ones that appear in pop culture: Think tweedy professors teaching a student body exclusively consisting of well-heeled, White legacy students with trust funds and Roman numerals after their names.

“There’s this weird romanticization, where it’s always October, the leaves are always turning, everything’s gothic,” she says. “That completely misrepresents the modern experience, which is tons of international kids, really diverse. And that’s just not what people want it to be. People want it to be this very old-fashioned, ‘Dead Poets Society’ thing, and that’s not what’s going on now.”

In the novel, the boarding school element of Thalia’s murder is part of what makes it so appealing to the true-crime shows that have featured the incident, leading to its infamy on the Internet — and to one of Bodie’s students at Granby deciding to make a podcast about it. Makkai is herself a fan of the true-crime podcasts that have been having their moment since “Serial” debuted in 2014.

“Like a lot of people, I have certain cases that just completely capture my imagination, especially unsolved ones, where I just want to learn everything I possibly can,” she says. “Of course, what I have written isn’t true crime; it’s fictional crime. But it is definitely examining the true crime world because there’s this case that has become almost public property with YouTubers and podcasters and Internet sleuths stepping in and trying to take over.”

True crime, as a genre, is nothing new, of course; it’s been around for centuries. But the podcast format has caused it to skyrocket in popularity. Makkai, who grew up watching true-crime television shows like “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Dateline NBC,” has some thoughts about why that might be.

“One thing that I like [about podcasts] is that you don’t get the visuals,” she says. “[Television shows] used to do the reenactments, and they were so cheesy. And you’re not looking at anything that can really tell you anything, because it’s not the real scene. The podcast spares us from that. It lets you use your own visual imagination. You can always go and look up actual photos as you’re listening. I do that sometimes. ‘What did this guy look like? Let me see a map of this place.’ You can find that when you need to, thanks to the magic of the Internet, but you’re not sitting there staring at some actor who’s doing this for the Screen Actors Guild health insurance.”

Makkai’s novel also tackles the #MeToo movement, as Bodie begins to realize that the way she and the other young women at her school in the ‘90s were treated wasn’t acceptable, despite the “Boys will be boys” attitude that prevailed at the time.

“I started writing the book in 2019,” Makkai says. “A lot of what was going on then with #MeToo was this invitation to look back and to acknowledge the things that you did have a problem with at the time, but that you didn’t feel like you had any right to complain about. I certainly was looking back in a different way, thinking, ‘You know, maybe it was not my problem for not having a sense of humor when this guy was [exposing himself] in the senior lounge. Maybe me not being chill enough was not the issue.’”

“I Have Some Questions for You” is essentially a book about memory, as Bodie, prodded by questions from her podcasting student, tries to recall the day that she learned Thalia had been murdered, and what happened before and after. Makkai points out that the actual experience of memory is never as cut-and-dried as it seems in the movies.

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“I was really interested in not playing into the inherent lie of a lot of fiction and a lot of film, in which someone looks back and has a completely clear, absolutely chronological memory. That is absolutely not the way memory works. I’m happy to suspend my disbelief in a film when the screen goes wavy, and we know we’re in someone’s memory, ‘Wayne’s World’-style,” Makkai says, imitating the fluttering-harp sound effect used to accompany a movie flashback. (“You’re not going to be able to put that in print,” she says with a laugh.)

“I really wanted to represent memory and its failures in this book,” she says. “I’ve gotten questions a bunch of times about people by people who call Bodie an unreliable narrator. And I disagree. I think she’s one of the most reliable narrators you’re ever going to read, because she’s honest about what she can’t remember, versus all these people who are pretending they can remember with total chronological clarity. They’re lying to you. She’s not.”

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