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Rebecca Makkai Tells Story Of Chicago AIDS Crisis In 'The Great Believers'

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Rebecca Makkai‘s new novel “The Great Believers” looks at how AIDS not only ravaged the gay community in Chicago in the 1980s and ’90s, but continued to impact lives decades later.

Makkai (@rebeccamakkai) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the book.

Videos of the ACT UP Chicago AIDS Protests

Interview Highlights

On the imperative of a story about Chicago

“I’m from Chicago, and before I even knew the direction the book was really going to take, I wanted to write a Chicago novel. But as I started my research, I was kind of horrified by how little there was out there about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in specific. Even looking at some of the big, noteworthy, nonfiction books about AIDS, Chicago’s not even in the index. And this is the third biggest city in America.”

On her research

“Part of my research was primary sources because there weren’t books out there. I was going into the library and looking at back issues of gay weeklies from the ’80s. But the other side of it was that I was seeking out people. And everyone I talked to, I asked them at the end, ‘Who should I talk to next?’ Until I was talking to doctors, nurses, survivors, of course, journalists, historians, lawyers, activists and eventually found people who’d been diagnosed with HIV quite early on and were still with us — often people who did not expect to be with us, so their perspective on things was really interesting to me.”

On the ACT UP protests

“I became certain that this scene, this protest, was going to be in some ways a culmination for my characters, especially for Yale, my main character, who’s a very timid person. I needed to get him to the point where he would join this protest and be out there in the street. At the same time, I’m rewriting history in many ways, because although I wanted to write very much about real events, I didn’t want to write about real people. For one thing, I reinvented the gay press scene in Chicago. I made different newspapers because I needed to have an editor. I couldn’t have it be that actual person. I also reinvented the ACT UP leaders, and I put some other people in there.

“But there is a point where my characters look up, and five men have come out onto the ledge outside a window of the county building right in downtown Chicago and take off their Oxford shirts to reveal ACT UP T-shirts. And they unfurl this banner that says ‘We demand equal health care now,’ and then, one by one, they’re violently dragged back into the building. This was something I was watching on YouTube. It’s something that I heard about from a lot of people firsthand. And towards the end of my research, I actually got to meet one of the surviving men who was out there on the ledge, this activist named Bill McMillan, who was diagnosed very early and is still with us. And, I felt like I was meeting people who’d stepped out of the Revolutionary War. I felt like, I’d been reading about these people, studying them as heroes, as war heroes in my mind, and one of them is sitting across from me now in a restaurant showing me his scrapbook.”

On the disease feeling like a judgment, and how that aspect felt for people

“I found myself, in many cases, sort of playing psychiatrist to the people I was talking to. I was often asking them questions like, ‘Why do you think you’re still here?’ And no one’s answer was ever medical. Everyone’s answer had something to do with God, luck, family, psychology, something like that. No one ever said, ‘Well, I’ve always had a really strong immune system.’ And I think it’s the kind of brutal randomness that makes you think in terms of fate and in terms of guilt, and the survivor’s guilt that anyone still alive with HIV is burdened with. I was hearing stories of people who, before the test, were certain that they had it, and never even had it. Then the people who had the virus and made their wills, said goodbye to everyone, got ready, and they’re still here. Then the people who didn’t make it, who I couldn’t interview, what might have gone through their mind, and at a time when so many people in the world were so eager to jump in and tell them it was their fault. And you’re talking about very vulnerable people in so many cases who are primed maybe, unfortunately to believe that.”

On conversation and concern about the line between alliance and appropriation in writing this book

“I’m a straight woman, and I’m writing about things I wasn’t there for. But I felt like to do this, I needed to answer two questions for myself. And the first was, ‘Can I do this well?’ That’s not for me to answer, but I felt like my answer to myself was, ‘I think I can do it well if I research enough.’ And the second question was, ‘Is this stealing a voice from anyone in this community who would want to publish this kind of narrative, or do I have the opportunity with this to amplify those voices?’ And, ultimately, my answer to that — the way publishing works, the more successful my book is, the more likely a publisher is to throw money behind a similar book in the future. And as I go around and talk about my book, I have the chance to recommend other narratives — first-person accounts, nonfiction books — as well as talking about the actual history of what happened. So there might be people who feel like they would not want a narrative coming from someone who wasn’t there, but for people who are interested in a fictional account, I’ve done my best.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Great Believers’

by Rebecca Makkai

Nothing Yale could find words for was worth saying.

Fiona told him to check out the upstairs when he got a chance. “It’s Versailles up there.”

Yale couldn’t find Charlie in the crowd. Despite exuding tremendous height, Charlie was only a bit taller than average—and Yale was always surprised in situations like this not to spot his crew-cut head, his neat beard, his droopy eyes, above everyone else.

But Julian Ames was beside him now, down from upstairs. He said, “We’ve been going since lunch! I’m sloshed!” It was five o’clock, the sky already inking itself out. He leaned against Yale and giggled. “We ransacked the bathrooms. He has nothing, or else he’s hiding it. Well, someone found some old poppers in the back of the fridge. But is there any point to poppers if you aren’t getting laid?”

“No. Jesus. Poppers?”

“I’m asking seriously!” Julian pulled himself straight. He had a lock of dark hair in front that Charlie maintained made him look like Superman. (“Or a unicorn,” Yale would add.) He brushed it out of his eyes and pouted. Julian was too perfect, if anything. He’d had a nose job when he left Atlanta—better for his acting career—and Yale wished he hadn’t. He’d have preferred an imperfect Julian.

“I’m answering seriously. There’s absolutely no point to doing poppers at a memorial.”

“But this isn’t a funeral, it’s a party. And it’s like—” Julian was close again, conspiratorial in his ear. “It’s like that Poe story, the Red Death one. There’s death out there, but we’re gonna have a fabulous time in here.”

“Julian.” Yale drained the Cuba libre and spat an ice chip back into the glass. “That is not the point. That’s not how the story ends.”

“I was never one to finish my homework.”

Julian put his chin on Yale’s shoulder—a thing he was prone to do, one that always made Yale worry Charlie would glance over right then. Yale had spent the past four years reassuring Charlie he wouldn’t run off with someone like Julian, or like Teddy Naples, who was now leaning out precariously over the railing, his feet off the ground, calling to a friend below. (Teddy was so small that someone could probably catch him if he fell, but still, Yale cringed, looked away.) There was no reason for Charlie’s insecurity, beyond both men’s looks and flirtatiousness. Beyond the fact that Charlie would never feel secure. Yale had been the one to propose monogamy to begin with, but Charlie was the one who dwelt on its possible unraveling. And he’d picked the two most beautiful men in Chicago to affix his anxieties to. Yale shrugged Julian off his shoulder, and Julian smiled dopily and wandered away.

The room had loudened, the sound bouncing off the stories above, more people flooding in. Two very pretty, very young men circulated with trays of little quiches and stuffed mushrooms and deviled eggs.

Yale wondered why the food wasn’t Cuban, too, to match the drinks, but Richard probably had just one plan for every party: Open the doors, open the bar, boys with quiche.

In any case, this was infinitely better than that strange and dishonest vigil last night. The church had smelled nicely of incense, but otherwise there was little about it Nico would have liked. “He wouldn’t be caught dead here,” Charlie had said, and then he’d heard himself and tried to laugh. The parents had carefully invited Nico’s lover to the vigil, saying it was “an appropriate time for friends to pay respect.” Meaning, don’t come today to the actual mass. Meaning, don’t really even show up for the vigil, but aren’t we generous? But Terrence had gone last night, and so had eight friends. Mostly to surround Terrence, and to support Fiona, who, it turned out, had convinced her parents to issue the invitation; she’d told them that if Nico’s friends weren’t invited, she’d stand up during the service and say so. Still, plenty of friends had bowed out. Asher Glass had claimed his body would revolt at setting foot in a Catholic church. (“I’d start yelling about rubbers. Swear to God.”)

The eight of them sat shoulder to shoulder in the back, a phalanx of suits around Terrence. It would have been nice if Terrence could have blended in anonymously, but they weren’t even seated yet when Yale heard an older woman pointing him out to her husband: “That one. The black gentleman with the glasses.” As if there were another black guy in this church, one with perfect vision. That woman wasn’t the only one who kept glancing back throughout the service to observe, anthropologically, when and if this gay black specimen might start weeping.

Yale held Charlie’s hand low down—not as a statement, but because Charlie was so allergic to churches. “I see kneelers and hymnals,” he said, “and five tons of Anglican guilt lands on my neck.” So, far below anyone else’s sightline, Yale had rubbed his wide thumb over Charlie’s bony one.

Family members told stories only about Nico as a child, as if he’d died in adolescence. There was one good one, told by Nico’s stoic and ashen father: Fiona, when she was seven, had wanted twenty cents to buy a handful of Swedish Fish candy from the bin on the counter of the convenience store. Their father pointed out that she’d already spent her allowance. Fiona had started to cry. And Nico, who was eleven, sat down in the middle of the aisle and, for five minutes, twisted and yanked at his barely loose molar until it came out. It bled—and their father, an orthodontist, was alarmed at the jagged root still attached. But Nico pocketed the tooth and said, “The Tooth Fairy’s bringing a quarter tonight, right?” In front of Fiona, Dr. Marcus couldn’t say no. “So can you give me a loan?”

The crowd laughed at this, and Dr. Marcus barely needed to explain that Nico gave the money straight to his sister, that it was another year before the permanent tooth grew in.

Yale looked now for Terrence. It took a minute, but there he was, sitting halfway up the stairs, too surrounded for Yale to chat with him yet. Instead, Yale took one of the mini quiches off a passing tray and slipped it to him through the balusters. “You look stuck!” Yale said, and Terrence put the quiche in his mouth, held his hand out again, said, “Keep ’em coming!”

Fiona had wanted to trick her parents, to exchange Nico’s ashes with fireplace ones and give the real ones to Terrence. It was hard to tell if she was serious. But Terrence wasn’t getting any ashes, and he wasn’t getting anything else either, besides Nico’s cat, which he’d taken when Nico first went into the hospital. The family had made it clear that when they began dismantling Nico’s apartment tomorrow, Terrence would be excluded. Nico had left no will. His illness had been sudden, immediately debilitating—first a few days of what had seemed like just shingles, but then, a month later, moon-high fevers and dementia.

Terrence had been an eighth-grade math teacher until this summer, when Nico needed him around the clock and Terrence learned he was infected himself. And how would Terrence get through the fall, the winter, with no Nico, no job? It wasn’t just a financial question. He loved teaching, loved those kids.

Terrence had some of the vague early symptoms, some weight loss, but nothing serious yet, not enough to go on disability. He’d taken the test after Nico got sick—whether out of solidarity or just to know, Yale wasn’t sure. It wasn’t as if there were some magic pill. Yale and Charlie had, just on principle, been among the first to get tested that spring. Charlie’s paper had been advocating for testing, education, safe sex, and Charlie felt he had to put his money where his mouth was. But on top of that, Yale had just wanted to get it over with. Not knowing, he figured, was bad for his health in and of itself. The clinics weren’t giving the test yet, but Dr. Vincent was. Yale and Charlie opened a bottle of champagne when they got the good results. It was a somber toast; they didn’t even finish the bottle.

From THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Makkai Freeman.

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