Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rebecca Makkai on her debut novel "The Borrower"

In her witty debut novel The Borrower(Viking, $26) Rebecca Makkai tells the story of Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian trapped in a dead-end job in Hannibal, Missouri, who inadvertently kidnaps one of her charges to save him from his religious zealot parents.

Ten-year-old Ian Drake is an eccentric and precocious lover of “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and Lucy’s favorite patron. Lucy finds out that Ian is being forced by his evangelical Christian mother into a homosexuality prevention program, headed by the ominous Pastor Bob. Ian runs away from home, hides in the library, and then forces the lethargic Lucy to take him on a bizarre road trip, where the two see Lucy’s Russian émigré father in Chicago, who wants her to deliver a mysterious shoebox to his mobbed-up friend in Pittsburgh. As the police hunt intensifies for the missing Ian, Lucy drives Ian north to Canada without a plan, but with moral qualms over taking the boy.

Makkai, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher, spoke by telephone with freelance writer Dylan Foley from her home in the Chicago suburbs.

Q. How did you develop Lucy?

A. A lot of her issues come from being a first-generation American. My own father escaped from Hungary during the 1956 revolution. That’s the one thing I had in common with Lucy, growing up in America and feeling privileged by that fact, but feeling in my genetics and in all the stories I’d been fed that I was prepared for a life of fight or flight. Lucy is sitting in a life that does not have the adventure she expected. She feels insignificant and hasn’t done anything important because she hasn’t had a major crisis yet. She subconsciously creates that crisis.

Q. How did the accidental kidnapping evolve in the book?

A. That’s what I started with. I heard about these [evangelical anti-gay programs] and I was infuriated by them. They are well organized and well funded, and they make it their mission to rescue people from homosexuality. I thought there was a story to be told. I wanted an outside figure in the child’s life. I went through different possibilities--could she be a neighbor, could she be a family friend? I finally realized I wanted her to be in possession of a space that Ian would see as a sanctuary. The relationship was between Lucy, Ian and the library. Nothing works in fiction unless there is a triangle. In order for it to be a story, Lucy had to do something rash.

Q. Do you think Lucy’s idealism could have disastrous consequences?

A. Lucy is not inculpable as the narrator. In the opening line, Lucy admits she may be the villain of the novel. She has a blindness in her rightness, and to the fact that Ian’s parents have a right to raise him as awfully as they are doing it. It would have been easy to make Ian’s parents monsters, but I didn’t. The moral complexity is what made it a story for me.

Q. How did Ian become the complex, often manipulative character he was in the novel?

A. When I talk to my gay friends about what their childhood was like, a lot of that was inspiration for Ian. My friends all knew, to a person, that they were different as children. For me, Ian became a really amazing child, someone in possession of great talents that were being squelched by his community and his parents. He started talking and became alive in a wonderful way. Ian became so real for me in the writing that I have to remember that he’s not real.

Q. What does Lucy gain from her perplexing road trip with Ian?

A. It’s Lucy’s coming of age story more than Ian’s. There is the fundamental change in her that she has realized that she can take action in her life.

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