For an author, a critically acclaimed, bestselling book can be a hard act to follow. For prominent Chicago-area writer Rebecca Makkai, the way forward was a seemingly ubiquitous genre: the murder mystery.
While her new book has a whodunit at its heart, Makkai is quick to say it’s about much more.
I Have Some Questions for You (Penguin Random House), out Tuesday, grapples with a plethora of themes that feel familiar today: violence against women, wrongful incarceration, cancel culture, the #MeToo movement and why certain murders capture the public attention more than others.
“Any novel is going to have many different points of origin,” said Makkai, whose previous novel The Great Believers landed on the short lists for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Writing a novel with many sources of inspiration “is the way it should be.”The setting of her latest book is The Granby School, a boarding school in New Hampshire that is a nod to Makkai’s own background: She lives on the campus of the boarding school where her husband teaches.
The story is written from the perspective of film professor and podcaster Bodie Kane, a graduate of Granby who returns as an adult to teach classes on film and podcasting.
Kane assigns the students in one of her classes to produce two episodes of an original podcast. Things get personal when two of the students partner up to investigate the death of Thalia Keith, who was Bodie’s roommate at the school in the 1990s.
The murder of Keith, who was white, was blamed on Granby’s athletic trainer Omar Evans, who is Black, and Evans was sentenced to prison. As the new investigation unravels, the group begins to think the wrong person is in prison.
Makkai says she went into her writing of the novel already interested in the issue of wrongful incarceration. But through her research, she discovered more about what those who are wrongfully convicted experience. For example, Makkai described how prisoners sometimes only get one meal per day during hearings because of scheduling.
That particular situation gets incorporated into the plot of I Have Some Questions for You, but Makkai did not set out to write a didactic novel.
“It was not me going, ‘I’m going to write a book that proves there’s so much wrongful incarceration,’ ” she said.
Mysteries and crime stories have long fascinated 44-year-old Makkai.
“I grew up on Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted and Dateline,” she said.
She started writing I Have Some Questions for You in 2019, when the #MeToo movement was front of mind, giving way to some of the book’s other themes.
“I really wanted someone to be looking back on the past with great urgency, trying to make sense of their own adolescence,” Makkai said. “The death of a classmate is certainly an occasion for something like that.”
Similar to how the student podcasters — and true crime podcasters in real life — sift through information and interview people close to a traumatic event, Kane reexamines her memories of her time at Granby.
As she does so, Kane begins to realize some of what she saw or heard when she was a student was not as harmless as it seemed back then, such as a close, but not overt, relationship between a student and teacher.
When it comes to inspiration, Makkai said she was interested in newspaper coverage of 1920s murder trials, which she described as “the most gossipy, sensationalist stuff you can imagine.”
Makkai also admitted a fondness for true crime podcasts, and counted Undisclosed as well as the work by cold case detective Paul Holes among her sources of inspiration.
“I’m by far the most interested in podcasts where something is happening,” Makkai said. “It’s not just entertainment, which can get you into really murky moral territory, but that someone’s doing this for a reason,” such as helping release a wrongly accused person from prison.
And of course, there’s Serial, the investigative weekly series that ignited the true crime podcast craze when it came out in 2014, reaching about 1 million downloads per episode just four weeks into the first season. Eight years after it debuted, the man at the center of the investigation, Adnan Syed, was released from prison.
The age of the internet and social media has given true crime sleuths a powerful platform for citizen investigations. Some of those cases, such as that of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, a young white woman who disappeared in 2021 while on a cross-country trip with her fiance, have gained striking prominence.
But such publicity also raises questions about whether Petito’s race and age played a role in how much attention her case got.
Makkai said her research led her to do “lots of thinking about how certain [murder cases] capture the public imagination and what that might do to the families of everyone involved.”
The style of I Have Some Questions for You may feel different from Makkai’s last book The Great Believers, which addressed the AIDS crisis as it unfolded in Chicago in the 1980s. But what the two novels have in common is a look into the social problems of the past and present — and if the similarities end there, Makkai seems OK with that.
“With every one of them, people have said, ‘Oh, this is such a departure from your last book,’ which is fun because that’s how I want to write,” she said. “I get easily bored.”
If you go: Makkai will discuss I Have Some Questions for You at a WBEZ event at the Apollo Theater (2550 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago) on Feb. 25. Admission is $12 to $20.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.